Remember the Internees
The Texas Story Project.
When people usually think about Texas, they think about things like cowboys, barbeque, and the Alamo. But last week I learned about a forgotten chapter of WWII in Texas.
I learned that during the war thousands of people, including children, from across the United States and Latin America were forced to live in internment camps in Texas. Surrounded by barbed wire fences, these camps completely isolated the internees from the rest of the country. There were three internment camps in Texas: Kenedy, Seagoville, and Crystal City. By 1944, Crystal City held 3,000 internees. Many of these people were later deported to Germany to be exchanged for prisoners of war, despite being Americans themselves.
We met some former Texas internees when they came to the "75th Anniversary of German American Internment and Deportations during WWII" event held at Manhattan College. This event enabled us to meet a few of the internees who were deported to Germany and their descendants. One man I talked to, named Herbert Scherer, told me about his research to track down and interview the other internees who were deported from Crystal City, Texas, to Germany. He said that after his mother died, he wanted to learn more about his family’s past and to spread the untold story of the internees. In his investigations, Herbert even learned some dark truths about his family’s past. In the memoirs from Herbert’s father, Stephan Scherer, we learn about the hardships he faced during his two years at Camp Kenedy. As a boy, Stephan dreamed of coming to America, but reality didn’t agree with his dreams when he was forced (along with others) to get on a barred train and was stripped of his freedom. While at the camps, the authorities would send out patrols to do roll calls twice a day. At first it was twice at night, then later changed to once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Stephan also recounts the time that a hurricane struck the camp and the authorities left the internees to repair their damaged homes themselves. Because of the misery he faced in Camp Kenedy, Stephan developed a strong hatred for America, which also lead him to become a German supporter. When Herbert discovered that his father was at one time a Nazi sympathizer, he told his family and some of them had a difficult time accepting the truth. After listening to his story, I asked him, "When you complete your research, how do you plan on sharing this untold story?" Herbert told me that when his research was completed, he plans on publishing a book.
I also met another internee named Edward Kreye, and he told me about what it was like in the internment camp. To my surprise, he told me that Crystal City was actually quite nice. Since Edward was only a child, he did not notice the hardships and humiliations that adults like Stephan resented. Edward recalls that the internees were treated nicely, they had good food, and even saw movies in the community hall. Even when the internees were being transported from Crystal City to Germany, Edward said that they received excellent treatment. Edward told me how when the boat stopped at Spain and Portugal, they were welcomed and treated almost like celebrities. Edward said that things didn’t start looking down until they reached Germany. He said that when they got to Germany, the Allies had already bombed most of it to the ground. Edward also mentioned that when a bomb hit the house next door, he and his family started living in their bunker instead. He also talked about how different it felt living in America than Nazi Germany, and then under Russian rule when the Russians occupied East Germany.
75 years ago, a train traveled from Texas to New York harbor with hundreds of internees, including Stephan Scherer and Edward Kreye. This week, they returned to tell New Yorkers this forgotten history of Texas and New York. Overall, I thought this was an incredible experience to meet these people and to listen to their moving stories. I’ve always been fascinated with World War II, so I loved learning about these unsung stories of the war. And I hope the people of Texas never forget the German-American internees they held at Crystal City.
Alfonse Calato is a sophomore History Major at Manhattan College. His focus lies in the World War II Era, and he hopes to do further research on this topic.
Posted February 20, 2019