Interned in Crystal City, Texas on my 9th Birthday: A Deep Dark Secret
The Texas Story Project.
My parents immigrated to the US from different areas of Germany. They met in Chicago and married. Two years later, I was born. First they lived in an attic flat on Lincoln Street, then bought a tiny house on Mozart Street. This they sold some years later to buy an old Victorian summer home in Lake Bluff. After work, my father, with my mother as helper, worked on restoring, updating, and winterizing the home.
On Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1942, my mother and I were standing in the living room, watching my father come home from work. We watched him get out of the car, walk to the house and up the stairs of the front porch. Three men got out of a car parked on the street and walk quickly to catch up with my father on the porch. They talked for a moment and my father showed them something and then all of them walked to our front door.
My mother would recall that she thought my father had shown the men his driver’s license, and she thought perhaps there was an accident, because the local Chief of Police was one of the three men. She opened the door in a friendly way and invited them in.
The first man who came in was tall. He pointed toward the living room fireplace and said to my mother, “Now, you sit over there! You have nothing to say! And you keep the kid quiet!” My mother said nothing; she did as she was told. I said nothing. My father and the Chief of Police sat opposite us.
The two men said they were from the FBI and they were going to search our house. They searched through absolutely everything. They left no item unexamined. Now and then they would put something on the dining room table.
Then the FBI agents came downstairs, and the tall man said, “Where are the guns?” My parents never had had any guns. The FBI men talked to each other about possibly tearing out the new tile in the bathroom to see if guns were hidden behind the tile, and then they decided not to. The tall FBI man then asked my father, “OK, where is the music?” My father said, “What music?” The FBI man said, “The music! The music! Don’t you sing?” My father answered, “I don’t have music. I don’t sing.” At that time my father did not know that “sing” was slang for “squealing” on other people. They picked up the few items from the dining room table, which included my mother’s address book, and took my father into custody. The FBI men would not tell my mother where they were taking him or where she could find out. The FBI had come at 4:30 pm. They left at 8:30.
My father was taken to the Old Post Office in Chicago. He said they walked up the back stairs instead of taking the elevator. He was placed in detention and taken to 4800 S. Ellis Ave.
My mother found out where he was being held and we began to visit him. The visit was short, but it was an all-day trip for us. Then my father was told he would have a hearing on March 12. He was not allowed to have a lawyer for the hearing, but one person could come. My mother, who came, was not allowed into the room. At the hearing, he was asked questions, but there were no charges, and no accuser. Then after a Saturday visit I came down with Scarlet Fever. In those days that meant that everyone in the house was quarantined for three weeks, which kept us from visiting my father.
On May 22, 1942 my father was sent from detention at Ellis Ave. in Chicago to internment in Sparta, Wisconsin at Camp McCoy. We could no longer visit him. On June 17, 1942 a group of Camp McCoy internees, including my father were moved to an internment camp in Stringtown, Oklahoma, a former prison. On May 9, 1943 my father and other internees were moved to Camp Lincoln in Bismarck, N.D.
In June 1943, my mother signed a form that allowed us to become “Voluntary Internees.” After a year and a half of separation, our family could be reunited in a new “Family Camp” in Crystal City, Texas. Then on an October day, seventy-five years ago, my mother and I walked out the front door of our home in Lake Bluff, Illinois. My mother locked the front door, dropped the keys into her purse and we walked to the North Shore train station. She carried only her purse, I carried nothing.
The next thing I remember is standing in a big semi-dark room – it was a waiting room of the big old Illinois Central RR Train Station located on 13th Street near Lake Michigan. My mother and I were part of a group of women and children standing in the room. It was quiet. Then one women said loudly, “The men are coming.” Instinctively, I looked toward the windows. I saw faces of strangers outside peering in at us, shading their eyes to see better. The men, internees from Camp Lincoln in Bismarck, did not come into our waiting room, and on the train to Crystal City, women and children were in separate cars from the men.
I have happy memories of Crystal City. After a year and a half of separation, our family was reunited. After we arrived my father said, “I have to go to the camp office, do you want to come along?” We walked down the road together and I felt so happy walking with my father again. The land I saw was so colorful and tropical, and it was hot. For a time, my father had the job of checking the amount of cookstove kerosene in every barrel all over the camp. I would sometimes walk with him through the German area, the Japanese area, and along one fence where I would see the desert outside, with beautiful cactus and scraggily trees with few leaves, and what we called “dagger plants” on sandy soil. I longed to go out there for a walk.
The camp was multi-cultural: German, Japanese, and Italian “Enemy Aliens” from the US and families of German and Japanese ancestry from South and Central America that the US had spirited out of their countries and brought to the US for internment. Many families in Crystal City were repatriated, that is, traded one-for-one to the enemy country for Americans that the US government wanted to bring back to the United States. Neutral countries facilitated the exchanges.
In the summer of 1945, my father was called to the camp office. We were to be released from internment. My father said that “we should put this behind us after we leave,” and “not talk about it after we leave,” and “not let it ruin the rest of our lives.” Some people have said that internees had to sign an agreement not to talk about internment after leaving.
On July 23, 1945, we left Crystal City. The government had given my parents train tickets to Chicago and $50. And, my father was also put on parole! My parents still owned a house, but all the accumulated property taxes were borrowed against it, and had to be paid. A year later my parents sold our home and we moved to another suburb.
My father did not talk about internment after leaving. My mother would talk about this with me. She would always begin, “It was Washington’s Birthday, when they picked up your father ...” My mother told me that we should never tell anyone we were interned, “They will not believe that we were innocent. They believe that in America no one gets locked up unless they have committed a crime.” I kept this “deep dark secret” for decades.
On the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor which was broadcast on TV, I heard the President apologize to the Japanese internees. On the news I also heard about a Freedom of Information Act. I felt that we should send a request to find out why this happened to our family. The answer came back twice that there were no files on us. After I retired, I went to the National Archives and searched for information, which did exist.
The US government has acknowledged and apologized for the internment of Japanese, and Italians during World War II, but German internment is kept “a deep dark secret.”
Posted November 13, 2018