Heidi Gurcke Donald was 2-1/2 years old when her German-born father and American-born mother were placed on the American Black list in Costa Rica. Werner Gurcke was falsely labeled as one of Costa Rica’s most dangerous enemy aliens and an adversary of the United States. Shortly thereafter, Starr, Heidi’s mother, was labeled “dangerous to the safety of the United Nations” too. Just a short while later, Werner, Starr, and their 2 girls were ripped from their home. They were shipped to San Pedro, Ca., where they were charged with illegal entry. Their visa and passport had been taken from them when they were still in Costa Rica.
Most Americans are aware of the fact that over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were illegally detained during World World II, as the notorious nature of violations against them is well documented. Less documented, however, are the Germans-Americans who also suffered illegal searches, seizures, relocations, harassments, interrogations, family separations, scapegoating, deportations and repatriations. They are the forgotten internees, the ones lost in the government bureaucracy. These are the people that to this day have not been acknowledged by the US government for crimes committed against them.
On December 17, 1944, Public Proclamation No. 21 declared that Japanese-Americans would be allowed to return to their homes beginning on January 2, 1945. Despite the proclamation releasing interned Japanese-Americans, the last German-American internee was not released until 1947. Unlike the Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and the Italian-Americans who were subject to a similar fate, German internees have never received an apology or reparations.
Eberhard Fuhr was another child of the internment. His parents were interned months before he and his brother Julius were arrested. He was seventeen years old when the FBI came to Woodward High School in Cincinnati, Ohio and pulled him out of class. The children were taken by train down to a family internment camp in Crystal City, TX where they met up with their parents. The entire Fuhr family was interned for the duration of the war. In fact, they were forced to tear down the camp they had been interned at and then were held at Ellis Island until September 1947, 2 years after the war had ended.
Perhaps, one of the more inspiring stories of the internees is that of Elizabeth Suzy Lechner Kvammen. Suzy and her sister Lori were interned with their mother and father in 1944. Their father, Karl Lechner, was taken from their home in Chicago in 1943. He originally was taken to the men’s camp in North Dakota. Suzy’s mother, Eleanor, wanted to join her husband with her two daughters. The government relocated him to the family camp in Crystal City, Texas, where they could be together. As part of the exchange program, they were repatriated to Germany in December of 1944. Their ship, the Gripsholm, landed in Marseille, France, and they were escorted by American soldiers by train to Karl’s village in Bavaria. Suzy remembers, “We were placed on trains and packed in there like cordwood. There wasn’t room for everyone.” They struggled in their village in war-torn Germany. Suzy maintains, “My mother was motivated by the love of her family and wanted to keep the family together.” She also adds, “My mother saw how hard it was for a single woman to live while her husband was interned. And this is something that was very difficult in those days. My mother came to America indentured with nothing but her suitcases, ends up in Germany with nothing but her suitcases, her only belongings; and eventually came back to the US with her children. This woman had to restart her life three times. Now, I tell you, that takes a lot of courage.”
International research historian Richard Santos had this to say about the treatment of German-American Internees by the US government in the subsequent decades since they were released: “It makes me angry that the internment of the other aliens, the members of the Axis powers, like the Italians, the Bulgarians, the Romanians, the Czechoslovakians – they’re not recorded. And they’re not reported in the history books.” He continues, “In our textbooks, we mention only the Japanese-Americans and we give the impression that they were all from California, which, again, is incorrect. The U.S. government went to great lengths to get both Japanese and Germans from the Latin American countries and bring them here for internment in the U.S. So to me as a historian, I want to set the record straight. And I’ve been at this now for 10 years trying to get people to understand what happened here, and that it was an injustice to intern U.S. born citizens just because their father or mother had been born in Germany or Japan. But these were U.S. citizens who were being interned.”
I began researching the internment of German and Italian Americans for my thesis paper a few years ago. The more I traveled and spoke to the children of internees, the more I became determined to tell their story. A comprehensive federal review of the German and Italian American experience has never been done. On August 3, 2001, Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) introduced the European Americans and Refugees Wartime Treatment Study Act in the US Senate, joined by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman. The legislation was introduced for the fourth time on March 10, 2009. To this day, the legislation sits still untouched on.
As we reflect on the 68th anniversary of the Japanese-Internees release, let’s not forget the thousands of German-Americans and German aliens that were also interned.