Saturday, November 17, 2012

Arndt Peltner: German Internment Camps

THE ATLANTIC TIMES (a monthly newsletter from Germany) 

 The following article is from our May 2007 issue.

Unforgettable Injustice During World War II, the U.S. government detained Americans whose roots derived from "enemy countries." Now, former German detainees are about to get an apology, too - By Arndt Peltner

"When the war broke out, all men had to register with the military and I still have my card; I was number 1120. They asked me, why I didn't want to fight against Germany. I said, my brother is still there, my mother is still there, I still have all my relatives over there." - Max Ebel

Max Ebel, 88, was born in Speyer, Germany. He left home in May 1937 after being threatened and beaten because he refused to join the Hitler Youth. His father, Max Ebel Sr., a naturalized American citizen who emigrated in 1929 after divorcing his mother, urged him to come live with him. The young boy agreed and arrived in New York City on May 28, 1937, after 10 days at sea.

His father had settled in Boston as a cabinet-maker and Ebel started to work for him. He was enjoying his new life in the big city to the fullest. However, when the war in Europe began, things started to change for German nationals living in the U.S. Even though every foreigner living in America had to register in 1940, these measures were really intended for Germans, the Japanese and the Italians.

Immigrants were able to lead normal lives until 1941. They didn't know that FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover, already had plans on his desk to intern German, Japanese and Italian natives he deemed dangerous.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the shocked American public called for revenge. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the U.S. Congress, calling the attack an act of war. Roosevelt declared war on Japan.

Immediately, the president issued presidential proclamations requiring all Japanese, Germans and Italians to register, deeming them "enemy aliens" and restricting their travel and personal property rights.

The president invoked the Alien Enemies Act of 1798 specifying that citizens of enemy nations can be "apprehended, restrained, secured and removed" due to a declared war or an attempted or threatened invasion of the U.S.

The FBI pulled out its internment plan. Thousands of German, Japanese and Italian nationals, especially in the coastal cities, were arrested overnight, despite the fact that Germany and the U.S. did not declare war on each other until Dec. 11.

They were held in police stations, military barracks, any place available. The Department of Justice (DOJ), working with the War Department, established extensive restricted zones in coastal areas from which thousands of "enemy aliens" had to move.

In February 1942, the president issued the well-known Executive Order 9066 which led to more than 100,000 West Coast Japanese and Japanese-Americans being relocated and placed in War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps. The DOJ and the U.S. Army established a system of internment camps across the U.S. to hold enemy alien internees and some of their families, including American-born children.

Later, over 6,000 German and Japanese natives were picked up in 18 Latin American countries and they, too, were interned. At least 2,600 Germans and their families were used for prisoner exchange with Germany, a reason some allege for the internment of thousands.

Ebel and his father were arrested in September 1942. An American citizen, Max Ebel Sr. could not be interned but officials sought to exclude him from coastal areas.

After a lengthy court battle, the military finally withdrew its' order concerning Max Ebel Sr. His son was not so lucky. Still a German citizen, he became one of 11,000 Germans living in the Americas who were arrested and interned, far from their homes during World War II.

Ebel spent four months in a Boston detention facility, during which time he had a brief hearing. The U.S. Attorney and FBI agents presented their "evidence." He was not allowed to question the proceedings or have counsel. Ebel was then sent to Ellis Island (ironically used for internment longer than any other facility during WWII), followed by military camps in Maryland and Tennessee before arriving by train in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Fort Lincoln was the final destination for many interned Germans. Over the winter, desperate to escape barbed wire, he worked on the cold North Dakota plains for the local railroad. Later, still an internee, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He flunked his physical, was granted a rehearing and on parole until November 1945. The rehearing board, recommending release, appeared mystified as to why he had ever been interned.

Not bitterly but emotionally, Ebel describes his two-year incarceration as an injustice. Fort Lincoln "is hell," he wrote in a little diary he kept during his internment. Like other interns, he hadn't been a Nazi or a spy. He came to the U.S. to find a new home, freedom and peace.

A troubling aspect for Ebel was that he never knew why he was arrested and, later, why he was released. Even while becoming a U.S. citizen in the early 1950s, government officials noted his internment but never gave him access to his files.

Ebel's story is only one of many similar injustices during the war years. Born in the United States, Arthur Jacobs is a bitter man today over what happened to him and his family. The FBI deemed his father, Lambert Dietrich Jacobs, dangerous simply because he was German. In 1944, they arrested not only him but also his entire family and sent them to a camp in Crystal City, Texas, about 100 miles south of San Antonio.

Father and son were surprised to find German and Japanese citizens from Latin America there as well. The internment didn't end with the capitulation of Germany and Japan. President Harry Truman required a review of the cases of those still interned in anticipation of their deportation. Hundreds of Germans were held at Ellis Island, many fighting deportation until 1948.

Like thousands of Germans used for exchanges before them, the deportees were sent to Germany, a country that was no longer their home. For Jacobs and others like him, it never had been a home, yet he and other U.S. citizens were sent to Germany, along with their families where they faced unimaginably harsh conditions.

When Karen Ebel learned of the two-year internment of her father, she wondered what he had done and why he never talked about those years. Slowly he opened up, telling his daughter about the events that had changed his life.

The lawyer, decided to fight for her father's rights and seek justice. While the injustices committed against Japanese and Italians have been recognized, those committed against German Americans and those living in Latin America have not.

Yet in 1988, with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, President Ronald Reagan apologized to and compensated only the thousands of Japanese-Americans who were interned in DOJ and WRA camps.

In 1999, the U.S. settled a class action lawsuit granting $5,000 and a presidential apology to Japanese citizens living in Latin America.

In 2000, the Wartime Violations of Italian American Civil Liberties Act recognized the government's wrongful denial of Italian American civil liberties.

Congress passed a $38 million bill in 2006 to preserve all facilities where Japanese were held, facilities which the National Park Service has already deemed national historic landmarks.

In August 2001, the Wartime Treatment Study Act was finally introduced. It would create an independent commission to investigate the internment of German Americans and those living in Latin America, among others, during World War II. The bill, repeatedly blocked by an anonymous Republican senator, was reintroduced in February. On April 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended approval.

Karen Ebel, who recently formed the German American Internee Coalition to represent former German internees and their families, hopes this time it will pass. "Passage is long overdue," she says. "Too many have died without government acknowledgment of their suffering. Those remaining have waited long enough. There is much to be learned from their stories as we weigh freedom and security concerns today."

Ebel sits in the kitchen of his daughter's home in New Hampshire, his voice breaking. "I have been so happy that Karen is doing this," he says. "It's emotional...this happened and the recognition from America has to be made. I don't talk much about it but it's there in the back of my head. I want to forget but I can't."

- Arndt Peltner is a freelance correspondent and producer at Radio Goethe in San Francisco. 

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