From the March 2008 issue: An Immigrant’s Plea to a Powerful Man
The plight of Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens interned in the 1940s is well known. But German and Italian immigrants in the United States also faced possible internment, relocation, travel restrictions, and property confiscation during World War II. On December 31, 1942, a German immigrant named Theodor Graber typed the following letter to the only man he thought could save him and his family from what he considered to be unwarranted persecution by the FBI:
Honorable Franklin D. Roosevelt
President of the United States of America
Dear Mr. President:
I know that you Mr. President are very busy in a time like this with the most important task for the country; the winning of the war. But I really do not know any other way than write to you as the last resort in this case. So I beg your Pardon and I hope you still spare a few minutes and read this letter and may help me and my family.
I am a German Alien (Enemy alien now) 29 years old and came in Nov. 1935 in this country. In February 1939 I married in Westfield N.J. the former Emmy Rehm, 23 years of age, who came Nov. 1937 in this country from her native Germany. We both resided in the USA continually since our entry. We came here with the intention to make a better living and later on become U.S. Citizens.
In May 1937 I took out my first papers here in Elizabeth N.J. But since this country became involved in the second World-war about a year ago, the situation for us as German Aliens became tougher. Me and the wife complied with all the new laws and regulations. We did not miss any registrations.
We have 3 children now: (all boys) Werner is 3, Gunther is 11/2 years and Theodor jr. is 4 weeks old.
Since March 1937 I work as a Toolmaker in The International Nickle Co. Research Laboratory Bayonne, N.J. Before that I worked as a Toolmaker in the Garwood N.J. Plant of the Aluminum Co. of America. As to my knowledge my present employer has Government or defence contracts that I am working on.
We always did our duty and had never trouble with the law or anybody. We never were arrested in our life until we came in contact with the F.B.I.…
On April 10th this year a F.B.I. Agent or rather a local detective visited me in my working place in Bayonne N.J. It was noontime and I was questioned for about 1/2 hour in the directors office. Questions about my personality, my financial status, the names and addresses of mine and the wifes closest relatives in Germany. Other questions were, if I would argue with people about the war, what I never do. At the end the inspector told me: do not worry about anything you have on excellent record here with the Co.
Later on I learned that this trouble came from my former landlord where I lived for about 11/2 years in Bayonne. They immigrated in this country from Poland or Ukraine and after the German troops marched into these countrys, the land-lord and his wife got different feelings toward us….
Now on Sept. 9th 1942 6:30 pm. Came one F.B.I. and two policeman and searched our apartment. I had no contraband in my possecion.
I belong to German sick and death benefit society and a German Singing Society here in Elizabeth N.J.
Well the F.B.I. Agents came back again on Sept. 24th 1942 9:30 pm and arrested me and the wife and wanted to take us to the police headquarters. I wanted to know the reasons for that, but they could not give me any others than for being an enemy alien. I told the agents that I have two little children, which we could not leave all alone. Therefore we did not have to go to jail in the night time, but the next morning we went to police headquaerter, to get fingerprinted and our pictures taken. We were released under parole in custody of the F.B.I.
Well my wife was about 5 months pregnant with her 3rd baby and she received quite a shock that time and she did not feel well ever since.
The F.B.I. agent told us we will get a hearing before a Alien-Hearing Board in Newark N.J. but instead we had first on Oct. 16th 1942 to go to Ellis-Island Immigrations Headquarter. There we had to fill out a 26 page Questionaire about our personall history and had to sign a statement that we would like to choose in case we would get interned for the duration of the war.
I am sorry Mr. President, but neither me nor the wife did come into this country with any intention of any kind to sabotage or work against the government…. Mr. President, if I would be a man like the F.B.I fears, I can assure you I would not be here in this country, I would be on the other side and fight. And I would not work on defence work either….
And Mr. President, every criminal or gangster has a right to court or hear the decision of the Hearing-Board. Are not we as human beings entitled to know the decision of the Hearing-Board in our case?
All we did get as a answer was: you can go home now.
My wife…came home from these Hearings every time sick to death from all the excitements. And all this was not beneficial to my wife, who was in a pregnant condition. She did feel sick mostly times since the F.B.I. came around first in the night to arrest us.
So on Dec. 2nd in the morning my wife started to get real pains. She was home all alone with the 2 children. She called up her doctor who fortunately had time enough to run around in the neighborhood and look for somebody to take care of the 2 children until I came home. Between 5 and 6 pm the wife gave birth to a premature Baby-Boy which is a cripple and probably will be a cripple for the rest of his life, if he survifes. The baby has an open space in his backbone and is half lame….
Now the wife and I were get slowly over that shock. Then on Saturday Dec. 26th the day after christmas in the morning came the F.B.I. again and told my wife: you pack up your things and get ready to go to Ellis-Island to wait there with the other bunch to go to camp. We are going down to Bayonne and get your husband. But when they learned of the new born baby and his condition, they told us they come back in two weeks and see if the Baby is allright to travel. If not, they check up in two more weeks and continiue that.
Mr. President, we know everybody has to carry a burden in these days, but do we have all that trouble all the time? And why take me away from my job when the country needs all skilled labor and I am willing to help?
And furthermore these continiuos excitements will soon drive me and my family crazy.
The first aim this country fights for in this war is to preserve humanity and christianity, I believe in these ideals too.
Mr. President, my 3 children are born here and I feel that they should at least have the right to grow up free and enjoy having a father and mother with them.
Mr. President, I hope and wish you have time enough to read this letter and study our case and I am sure that you will help us….Please make the coming year more happier for us. We will always remember it and remain very thankfully
and respectfully yours
Theodor Graber and family
There was no response from the White House. The following month the Graber family was taken to a detention facility on Ellis Island originally used to quarantine immigrants. Several weeks later, the Grabers were sent by train to a former women’s prison in Seagoville, Texas. In June 1944, they were transported to another internment camp in Crystal City, twenty miles from the Mexican border. Worried about his youngest son’s health, and exhausted by his family’s experiences, Theodor Graber accepted the government’s offer to ship him and his family to Germany, where they could live with relatives. After the war, the two eldest sons, Werner and Gunther, chose to return to the United States when they each turned eighteen. Theo and Emmy stayed in Germany with little Teddy, who died in 1948 at the age of six.