Recently I wrote a column about tolerance toward those of different beliefs whether it’s at Ground Zero in New York City or in our own hometowns. In the column I also made the statement that we didn’t deport Germans during WWII. Thanks to two readers, Art Jacobs of Tempe and Eberhard Fuhr in the suburbs of Chicago, who were both interred in the 1940s, I now realize I made a mistake.
Jacobs, who has always been an American citizen, and of German descent, was interred at the age of 12 with his German-born parents and American brother, Lambert, named for their father. In November of 1944 on a Friday afternoon they came to Art’s father’s place of work and took him to Ellis Island. Lambert, who was here legally, was allowed no phone calls and for an entire weekend his wife, Art’s mother, Paula, had to wonder if her husband was still alive.
“We lived in a third story flat in Brooklyn and she sat up there in the window with a pillow, crying for three days watching for him to come home. I was 11 and I wondered what was wrong. My father even told them, ‘Mrs. Jacobs is home with two growing boys with only two dollars and needs help.’ On Monday, they finally told her where he was,” said Art.
In February of 1945 as the war was winding down in Europe, Art’s mother had enough and sold everything but what they could carry and went to Ellis Island to join her husband. They took in the entire family and separated the women from the men and boys. In June of that year Truman signed an order that all those interred were to be deported, without discernment or consideration that there were American citizens among them.
They were eventually shipped to Bremen, Germany where they were put in box cars with no heat or facilities and shipped like cattle to Ludwigsburg where the family was again separated.
The boys were put in Hohenasperg Prison, along with their father, and threatened by the guards with hanging if they weren’t good. After seven days they were released and after six weeks their father was able to join them. Eventually, they would return to the States and Art would even retire from the U.S. Air Force as an officer.
This is how we chose to treat American citizens and their parents who were in America legally and had followed every order to the letter. There was no due process, no lawyers allowed to see any of the people being held and no evidence gathered beyond the suspicion of ties. That’s all it often took.
Eberhard was a teenager sitting in Spanish class at Woodward High School in Cincinnati, Ohio when the FBI showed up to arrest him. He had played on the school’s football and baseball team and lettered three times but because he was born in Germany, and here legally, none of that was going to matter. His entire family was arrested and held at various locations for five years until 1947.
Two years beyond the end of the war.
He was six months shy of graduating and popular at school but when he received his yearbook while still interred he found his picture expunged. It was like everyone was trying to forget they had ever existed.
“I was 17 and was taken to the Hamilton County workhouse, a three-tier prison,” said Eberhard, “The bed hung from the wall like a bad movie with a galvanized bucket in the corner. The next day we were taken for a hearing but no one had a lawyer. We weren’t allowed to have lawyers. They said it would make things easier. Easier for them.”
His younger brother, Gerhard, who was born in Cincinnati and at 12 was an American citizen, was given the choice of an orphanage, because their parents had been arrested, or interment. He chose interment and spent the entire length of his teenage years behind bars without any kind of due process.
It has been easy for us as a country at times to use fear of what might happen as a justification for bad and sometimes cruel behavior. In just my lifetime I’ve seen it happen to Civil Rights workers in the South trying to get people registered to vote, to the first victims of the disease, AIDS, and now to those who practice the Moslem faith. In each instance there have fortunately been those among us who, even at the risk to their own safety, have kept speaking up on behalf of what our founding fathers believed in first. The right to have beliefs different from my neighbors without getting their permission first.
“We have to enforce the Constitution,” said Eberhard, “for the Right to Assembly and the Right to Free Speech for everyone.”
We have to listen to our better selves and not give in to a fear that says we can ever pick and choose who can lawfully congregate and what they can say to each other. Otherwise, we lose our most precious commodity, which is the freedom we offer to each other on a daily basis.
Martha Randolph Kerr is an author (her latest book is “A Place to Call Home”) and can be reached at Martha@caglecartoons.com or on the web at www.MarthaRandolph