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  • Gary Toyn

Biden’s Day of Remembrance Forgets German Internees

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

Guards use horses to patrol the perimeter or Crystal City Internment Camp, 1944

President Biden declared February 19, 2022, as a Day of Remembrance of Japanese American Incarceration during World War II.

But the President isn’t the first to ignore another large group of American citizens who, likewise during World War II, were stripped of their rights, and sent to what victims call “concentration camps” throughout the Southwest. Many of these Americans lost their life’s savings and were deported against their will.

I’m talking about an estimated 11,000 ethnic German and German-American citizens.

Why didn’t we learn this in history class?

I fancy myself as a bit of a student of World War II history. I have researcher credentials at the National Archives. I’ve visited many of the WWII battlefields of Europe, and most of the American war cemeteries there. I’ve interviewed countless WWII veterans, read a ton of books and articles on the subject. And oh yeah, I also wrote a biography about a WWII Medal of Honor recipient from the battle of Iwo Jima.

So as I was researching my recent novel, I was stunned to learn this significant, yet little known story about WWII.

President Biden’s declaration recognizes that roughly 110,000 people of Japanese descent were mistreated and interned at the hands of the U.S. Government. It was all in response to Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, authorizing “the removal of any or all people from military areas as deemed necessary or desirable.” But due to racism and stereotyping more than any exigent security risk, it all led to the shameful treatment of the Japanese Issei (first generation born in Japan and immigrated to the USA) and Nisei (second generation Japanese born in America). They were stripped of their rights and sent to relocation camps throughout the western United States.

This shameful episode in our history festered for decades. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 authorizing an official government apology, and $20,000 cash payment for each living Japanese internee. It was not only reparations but an attempt to compensate these people for their hardship. It was also aimed at holding the government accountable for its unconstitutional actions.

But although $1.6 billion was spent in reparations ($3.5 billion in today’s dollars) this group of nearly 11,000 ethnic Germans and otherwise naturalized German-American citizens who were similarly sent to remote internment camps, forced to live behind razor wire and face gun-toting guards. They too, suffered just like the Japanese.

Why have never heard about the German-American internees?

The more I studied German internment, the more shocked I was that I had never heard about it before. As I peeled away the scope of the government abuse and aggressive attempts to cover it up. I felt compelled to dig deeper.

The true story of Mathias and Johanna Eiserloh.

One of the stories that caught my attention was the tragic story of the Eiserloh family. Mathias and Johanna were born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1922. They built a home in Ohio, and in 1929, went to Germany to visit their families. After returning to America, they joined a German social club. It was not a political club, but it was focused on German food and connecting with others who shared a language and culture.

Two days after Pearl Harbor, Mathias was arrested at his work, his assets frozen, and he was questioned about his membership in the German club and about his trip to Germany. His wife and children knew little about his whereabouts, but soon the news spread about his arrest. Johanna was confronted by their friends and neighbors, many of who treated them with “astonishing coldness.” One of their neighbors spat “they don’t arrest people for no reason.” Suddenly their family was physically separated, but Johanna and her children became political Pariahs. All without due process or constitutionally supported justification.

A family photo in 1942-43 was sent to Matthias during his internment away from his family.

After two years of confinement in various internment camps, Mathias was finally reunited with his wife and three children at the Crystal City Internment Camp, in Crystal City Texas. This family camp allowed wives and children to “volunteer” to join their husbands behind the wire.

The massive Crystal City Internment Camp, Crystal City, Texas. Circa 1944

Later, the Eiserlohs were informed they were being deported back to Germany against their will. The government confiscated their home and property, leaving them penniless. They were shipped to the East Coast, put on a Swedish ship, and sent to Lisbon, Portugal. There they were put on a train and sent to the German border. There, Swiss guards conducted a one-for-one swap where these Ethnic Germans were swapped for American diplomats, businessmen, missionaries, and other prisoners being held by the Nazis.

The Swedish Ship "MS Gripsholm," was used to transport German internees repatriated against their will back to Nazi Germany.

Just weeks after arriving in war-torn Germany, the SS burst into the Eiserloh's home, and Mathias was beaten severely in full view of his terrified wife and children. The Gestapo arrested Mathias, and he was interrogated and detained, accused of being an undercover spy for the advancing U.S. Army. Johanna again had no idea as to his whereabouts. After months of hearing nothing, she assumed her husband was dead. It wasn't until many months after the war that she finally heard from Mathias. The occupying U.S. Army discovered him in an abandoned in a prison, and rescued him.

The Matthias and Johanna Eiserloh family in 1944, was taken at Crystal City Internment Camp.

How was the German experience different than the Japanese?

The biggest difference relates to the government’s plan to convince Latin-American countries to send their German ex-pats to America. In the end, over 4,000 Germans– most of them Spanish-speaking–were interned in American camps. These ethnic Germans from Latin America were then combined with all the other German-Americans. Many were forced to repatriate back to Nazi Germany, becoming pawns in this one-for-one prisoner exchange with the Nazis.

For those not sent back to Germany, many remained locked up, some were held against their will until 1948, almost three years after the end of hostilities in Europe.

After the war, many German-Americans in Europe applied to return to the USA but were denied entry unless they signed an oath of secrecy, promising they would not talk about what the government did to them, what they suffered, or the property they lost. If they did, they were threatened with instant re-arrest and permanent expulsion. Imagine the risk they faced if they agreed to these terms of secrecy. In fact, many of them kept their secret until they died, fearing the government would again freeze their bank accounts, and seize their home and property.

The oath of secrecy was among the biggest reasons I hadn’t learned about this whole German American internment episode in school. The government also suppressed most of the official documents regarding how they treated German (and Italian) Americans. It took the power of the Freedom of Information act to release incriminating documents. Now there’s incontrovertible evidence that these German-Americans were victims of systemic government abuse.

What is most troubling, however, are the concerted efforts made by Congress and by Japanese-American citizen groups who worked to block all attempts at recognizing and compensating German internees. While Japanese internees have received billions in reparations, not one German American has received an apology or a single dime of compensation. Even though the Germans endured the same, unconstitutional denial of their rights as the Japanese, their injustice remains mostly forgotten and ignored.

Seven decades after these events first occurred, most victims have long since passed. It seems the government is simply waiting for the problem to simply die and go away.

If you’re interested in learning more about German-American internees, I invite you to read the stories of many living children who are still alive and have amazing stories to tell. You can also visit any one of the following websites to verify my story and learn more about this episode for yourself.

I would also highly recommend this New York Times bestselling book by Jan Jarboe Russell: The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

I’m not German and have no German blood in my veins, so I have no personal or cultural bone to pick.

But I am a proud American who believes in this country’s greatness and divine origins. I don’t believe in sugar-coating, obfuscating, or sweeping under the rug any unflattering episode in our nation’s history. Exposing these stories is the best way to keep us from repeating them.

Although discomfiting to learn, these events can teach us a lot about things like the dangers of unchecked government power. Or about the dangers of legislating by fear or mob rule.

In the end, such stories should redouble our commitment to fighting against ideologues who want to use government power to pick winners and losers.

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