Will’s War…and Will’s Play.
The Texas Story Project.
18 Texas Rangers bashed in every window and door and crashed the lamps to the floor while Will Bergfeld was playing the violin one night in 1917. Arrested on charges of treason, Bergfeld faced hanging if found guilty. Indeed, street vendors were already hawking souvenir gallows outside the courtroom in morbid anticipation of executing this German American as Texans mobilized for war against Germany.
Bergfeld's arrest in 1917 marked the beginning of a saga that shaped the lives of his descendants for the subsequent century. His wife and two young daughters attended every day of his six-week trial, hearing the hate and living the fear. In 2001, his granddaughter, Janice, published a novel about his trial. 100 years after Bergfeld's arrest, his great-great grandson, Will Windle, wrote a play based on that novel as a Christmas gift for his grandmother Janice. In 2018, on the eve of the centennial of the armistice of World War I, Seguin, Texas, Bergfeld's birthplace, hosts the world premiere of "Will's War," with Will Windle playing the role of his great-great grandfather.
Staging Will's play is also a family affair. Beyond his own contributions as playwright and actor, Windle enjoys the support of parents, grandparents, and even his great-grandmother. His mother, Mary Jane, is prop master for the performances. His father, Wayne, helped build the set. His grandmother, novelist Janice Woods Windle, oversees outreach and helped midwife early drafts of the play. Janice's husband, Wayne, a trial lawyer, vetted both the novel and the play for courtroom judiciousness and authenticity. Will Bergfeld's daughter, Virginia Bergfeld Woods, starred in a promotional film attesting to the historical validity of Will's play. Soon to be 105 years old, Virginia's memory of smashing glass stifling violin music remains vivid, along with her recollection of the trial's tense ambience. In short, this Texas story animates generation after generation of Will's family to divulge this hidden history.
Will's story ranges broadly in space as well as in time. The saga that begins in the south Texas town of Seguin where Will Bergfeld was born, ventures thence to small-town north Texas where he was living when accused, and climaxes in his fraught trial in Abilene. Post-trial life includes vignettes of Bergfeld's happy times along the Guadalupe River in the Hill Country with his granddaughter, to El Paso where his daughter and granddaughter now live, until finally his story circles back to his birthplace to be performed at the new Seguin High School Performing Arts Center. The play itself harks back to the people and places of Seguin, Texas. When not rehearsing, Windle tours Seguin with the cast to point out relevant sites, including where Will Bergfeld's father's pharmacy once stood. From the pharmacist to playwright, this family saga traces Texas geography as well as its history.
Bergfled was just one of many Texans of German-American heritage who suffered suspicion during times of war. Texans targeted its German-American population in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. During the Civil War, a group of Hill Country German Americans loyal to the Union were hanged by Confederates as they fled seeking sanctuary in Mexico. During World War I, German Americans on San Antonio's city council renamed "Wilhelm street" to "Pershing Avenue" in a bid to prove loyalty and resist the rising anti-German sentiment. During World War II, German Americans, including children, were interned in detention camps for "enemy aliens" throughout Texas. The camps of greatest renown were in Crystal City, Seagoville, and Kenedy, but temporary detention sites abounded including those in Houston, El Paso, and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
What happened in 1917 and throughout the Great War in Texas and the United States? Local "Councils of Defense" compiled lists of their neighbors whom they suspected of disloyalty. Business rivalries and other subjective criteria often influenced these proceedings. Local enforcement varied. Bergfeld's name ended up on the "Alphabetical List of Subjects of the Teutonic Order." He had attracted suspicion not only because of his German heritage but because he opposed conscription and because he had been organizing farmers and workers. Other Americans had likewise organized labor and opposed conscription, including Quakers. Bergfeld had established a cooperative to help farmers sell their goods directly to consumers in hopes of cutting out the middleman. He had bought dynamite to help farmers blast wells to survive the drought. Prosecutors interpreted his possession of dynamite as evidence against him. Armed with the new Espionage Act of 1917, they could now criminalize free speech, including that of Bergfeld and the 51 others accused with him. The play is based on nearly 3,000 pages of their cases drawn from Department of Justice archives. The round-ups occurred far beyond rural Texas. Windle's grandmother says that 5,000 were arrested in New York alone on a single weekend during World War I on the basis of their German surnames.
Yet, it was a powerful Texas-duo serving on President Wilson's cabinet who crafted this most radical curtailment of First Amendment rights in US history thus far. Wilson's Attorney General, Thomas Watts Gregory—a UT law graduate and 8-year regent-- helped draft, lobby for, and enact the Espionage and Sedition Acts which compromised constitutional guarantees and caught Will Bergfeld in its net. The other leading Texan in Wilson's cabinet responsible for laws designed to punish civilian dissenters was, ironically, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, grandson of the Edward Burleson of Texas Republic fame. Certainly, dissenters of Will Bergfeld's humble stature faced powerful cadres. To help viewers appreciate the forces playing out during the trial, Will's play features a screen built around the audience to show actual photographs of World War I so as to immerse the audience in the battlefields and home front. Figuring foremost are the people who were born, reared, and died in Seguin, Texas.
Will's play tells the story of Will's War. Thanks to the tight family ties linking Will Bergfeld to Will Windle, as well as the many friends--from the Appalachians to Los Angeles--who supported their storytelling, one family's story can reach public audiences, and we all can learn this complex history of Texas.
Teresa Van Hoy has found her place-in-the-world. It is right here in the heart of Texas, teaching history to students at St. Mary’s University and sharing their research far beyond the classroom. In fact, her students have appeared in a newspaper in France because they helped a village find the descendants of the American fighter pilot who crashed while on a mission to liberate them. The villagers had been honoring his memory for 70 years, hoping one day to return his green silk parachute to his family. Thanks to St. Mary’s Public History students, they did! For Prof. Van Hoy, the classroom works like a fulcrum—the point from which the world can be moved.
Posted August 28, 2018