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Trade Off: Exchanging German-Americans for POWs in WWII

By Jan Jarboe Russel
12/21/2016 • American History Magazine

Eleven-year-old Ingrid Eiserloh’s world changed forever on January 8, 1942, one month and one day after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the catalyst for America’s entry into World War II. Even in tiny Strongsville, Ohio, where Ingrid lived, the unbearable news of Japan’s crippling strike rolled of newspaper drums and hummed across radio signals. Air raid sirens shrieked 15 miles away in downtown Cleveland.

Within a few hours after the first bombs were dropped, FBI agents arrested hundreds of Japanese Americans. But they also targeted those with ties to other Axis powers. Fourteen days after Pearl Harbor, the FBI held 1,430 Japanese, 1,153 Germans and 215 Italians in the continental United States and Hawaii. During the course of the war, the U.S. government would intern 31,275 enemy aliens: 16,849 Japanese, 10,905 Germans, 3,278 Italians, 52 Hungarians, 5 Bulgarians, 25 Romanians and 161 more people listed as “other.”

One of those “enemy aliens” was Ingrid’s father, Mathias Eiserloh. Mathias and his wife, Johanna, had immigrated from Germany 17 years before and eventually settled in Strongsville to raise Ingrid, her 6-year-old brother, Lothar, and 1-year-old sister, Ensi. A structural engineer, Mathias earned $60 a week working for the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in Cleveland. He was in charge of constructing lime plants for the glass manufacturer’s chemical division. His large hands carried a scent of sour chemicals that Ingrid did not find unpleasant; the smell meant her father was with her.

German immigrants to the United States had long been subjects of suspicion. In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly ordered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to investigate not only suspected members of the Nazi movement but anyone who might pose a security risk in the event of war. Hoover instituted a sweeping surveillance program that proved much more far-reaching than his commander in chief had in mind. He amassed a team of agents from coast to coast who wrote daily reports of real and imagined subversive activities, wiretapped suspects and developed extensive dossiers built on the word of anonymous informants.

In Strongsville, half of Ingrid’s neighbors had either been born in Germany, like her parents, or were second-generation Germans, born in America, like Ingrid and her siblings. With the news of arrests of Germans, a worried hush fell over the neighborhood. Mathias and his German friends stopped meeting at the local beer hall. They stopped speaking German in public. Agents came to town to interview their non-German neighbors.

What the Eiserlohs did not know, but is made plain in declassified FBI files, was that those neighbors had fingered Mathias as a potential German spy. According to one FBI record, a woman reported that Mathias had a large cistern in his basement that could be used as a secret room or “filled with quicklime used to dispose of dead bodies in the event of war.” The local chief of police told the FBI there was “no indication that the subject was building a secret room,” much less a containment system for dead bodies. Te cistern was, in fact, used to collect extra water for the family. Nonetheless it became part of a dossier against Mathias.

On the cold morning of January 8, Ingrid and Lothar were at school; Ensi was quiet in her crib. Two FBI agents pulled up to the Eiserloh house in large black cars. They were dressed in dark suits and hats, like characters in a movie. Both carried guns. Mathias gave his permission for the agents to search the premises, but they didn’t need it. They had an authorized search warrant, signed by the attorney general of the United States, Francis Biddle.

Over the next few hours, the agents moved from room to room, looking for dynamite, shortwave radios, cameras and any other suspicious items. They confiscated letters and photographs from relatives in Germany. Paintings of German landscapes were taken from the wall. They examined bank records from the Cleveland Trust Company and noted the amount of money in Eiserloh’s account, a mere $700.

Finally, the agents handcuffed Mathias and placed him in what they called “custodial detention,” which meant that he could be held in prison indefinitely. The word “arrest” was not used. No one read Mathias Eiserloh his rights, because as a legal resident alien from Germany, an ally of Japan and Italy in the war against the United States, Eiserloh had none under U.S. laws. He was not allowed a lawyer. No charges were filed, and he would never be convicted of any crime. Yet from that moment on, Eiserloh was officially branded a “dangerous enemy alien.”

 

Over the next few weeks neighbors spoke to Johanna through cracked doors, if they talked to her at all. No one believed an innocent man could be jailed in America, much less held without charges. The coldness of her neighbors astonished her. She believed her husband was innocent, and she believed in the integrity of American justice.

In her first formal effort to defend Mathias, Johanna typed a letter to Attorney General Biddle. “My husband has too much character to be un-American,” she said. “I am sure that the agents who have taken many things from our home that were dear to me have seen nothing there indicating that anyone in our family sought to, and could or would, engage in activities against the interest of the United States, because none of us ever entertained such thoughts.”

But someone else thought they had. On January 14, 1942, six days after his arrest, Mathias had been taken from his jail cell in Cleveland to appear before an alien hearing board, made up of local citizens, for less than 15 minutes. He was asked about the “evidence” against him that had been sent to Hoover. Most of the accusations came from an anonymous fellow employee at the plate glass company who charged that Mathias was “pro-Nazi.” Mathias’ brother-in-law, an American citizen and veteran of World War I, spoke on Mathias’ behalf, and initially the board recommended parole, but Hoover refused to give up. Two more reports were filed against Mathias. When the board reconvened on January 31, without Mathias present, it recommended his internment. Meanwhile, Mathias maintained his innocence. “I am completely loyal to the United States,” he insisted. “My children are citizens of the United States. I only want to make a good and decent life for them.”

On February 11, Hoover wrote to Edward J. Ennis, director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, informing him that Eiserloh should be interned. The following day Biddle issued orders from Washington that made Eiserloh an official prisoner of war and interned him with other detainees at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. He was an enemy by virtue of his German citizenship, and the FBI viewed him as a security threat.

Within months of Mathias’ arrest, the Eiserloh family was destitute. Johanna had to sell the house in Strongsville and move to Mathias’ sister’s house in Cleveland. Johanna wrote to Ennis and asked what charges her husband was being held on. “If you believe in justice and fair play to three American children, such as you may have yourself, you will have your men check our circumstances and my husband’s case and send him back where he belongs—to his family and to his job, where they will be glad to have him back and where all of us will be an asset, not a liability, to America,” Johanna pleaded.

“We realize that the internment of your husband, or any other alien enemy, is a hardship on the entire family,” Ennis responded, “but this is not to be considered as important a feature as the protection of the peace and protection of the United States. If we were to consider these hardships in times such as these, the security of our country would be greatly imperiled.”

What Ennis did not disclose was that domestic security wasn’t the only motivation for the incarceration of foreign-born immigrants from Axis countries. He was also charged with gathering a pool of enemy aliens for the Justice Department to leverage in negotiations with Berlin and Tokyo for exchanging American prisoners of war, and he justified the policy of arrest and internment without trial by means of this ruthless but necessary cost-benefit analysis.

Mathias eventually learned that there was one camp where families of POWs could be reunited in exchange for agreeing to repatriate to Germany. It was a difficult choice. He would be offering not only himself and Johanna but also their three American-born children as ransom for Americans being held in Germany. He would be giving up on his commitment to making a life for all of them in America. Who knew what the conditions would be inside Germany? The Nazis were likely to view the Eiserloh family as enemy Americans, while the Americans already saw them as German enemies. Still, Mathias felt he had little choice. “By the law of all humanity and the sake of my family,” he requested of Ennis, “please have my wife and children sent into a family camp to be interned together with me at the earliest possible date.” Tat camp was in Crystal City, Texas.

As an enemy alien Mathias’ official status at Crystal City was “involuntary.” The Justice Department described the family’s internment as “voluntary.” Johanna understood that although she and her children would enter the camp of their own free will, they would not be free to leave at will. Once inside the barbed wire fence, they too would be prisoners. They would live under constant surveillance by armed guards. Their mail would be censored. They would be subject to daily inspections. Still, Johanna felt there was no other way to sustain herself and her children and concluded it was better for the family to be together in a prison camp than separated.

“I am not in favor of Hitler or Nazism,” Johanna wrote in her petition for repatriation. “I am a democrat like my father. I consider myself a full-fledged American. I really don’t consider myself a German. I have applied for repatriation because I want to get my husband out of camp. I can’t go on this way.”

 

Thirteen-year-old Ingrid Eiserloh, her mother, brother and sister boarded a train in Cleveland. Ingrid wore a cotton pinafore, a white cotton shirt and a pair of scuffed Mary Janes. Pinned to her collar was a family identification card. Trough the trainload of German mothers and their American-born children walked armed guards, plain-clothes agents of the INS, with long-barreled rifles and handguns on their hips. When the train came to a stop two days later, on July 10, 1943, the Eiserlohs climbed down the metal steps into the blazing heat of San Antonio, Texas. There was no shade in sight. Mathias and six other German prisoners had been transported by Army bus to San Antonio to meet the train. Ingrid ran to Mathias, arms wide open and feet flying. He was thinner, but he stood square-shouldered and smiled at her. “He’s alive!” Ingrid said. “Gee, he looks good.” Johanna and all three children encircled him. Ingrid cried when her father hugged her.

The reunited families boarded the bus for the 120-mile drive to Crystal City. Mathias looked at Johanna and the children as if he could not believe his eyes. Ensi had been a baby in a crib when he left Strongsville. Now she walked on her own. Lothar was much taller and Ingrid looked like a teenager. Johanna was thinner than he’d ever seen her. At first, conversation was awkward, but as the miles passed, they settled into the fact that they were together again. Within an hour everyone was talking at once—in English and in German.

The small town of Crystal City was a contrast to Cleveland and San Antonio. Ingrid saw wood-planked sidewalks in front of a hardware store and a small building labeled “City Hall.” In front of it was a statue of Popeye, erected by local spinach growers in 1937 in honor of their biggest cash crop. Men walked the street in cowboy boots and wore 10- gallon hats. There were signs in English and Spanish: bar and cantina, store and tienda. To Ingrid, Crystal City seemed more like a Western movie set than a real town.

By the time the Eiserlohs arrived at the camp, 400 Germans and 145 Japanese lived there. Ingrid saw warehouses and a row of neat wooden shacks, some surrounded by flowerbeds planted by the internees. An American flag few inside the barbed wire fence. “I remember looking up at the guard towers and seeing the men holding machine guns,” Lothar later recalled. “It was all so confusing.”

Camp commander Joseph L. O’Rourke made a brief welcome speech. His voice was friendly but firm. He explained that over the next few days they would learn the rules and procedures. For now, he said, the important thing was to settle in. The Eiserlohs were taken to temporary barracks with communal toilets and showers. Pajamas, socks, underwear and a change of clothing for the next day had been provided by workers from the commissary. All the children were taken to the camp hospital to be vaccinated against whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus. A doctor in a stiff white coat explained the hazards of daily life in Crystal City. He suggested the children stay indoors during the hottest parts of the day. When they were outside, he warned them to watch for rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders, tarantulas and even mountain lions. In Ohio, Ingrid had never even heard of a scorpion. She would soon see the first of many. Still, as she fell asleep that night on a narrow cot, she was content to once again be under the same roof with her family.

 

Daily life in Crystal City was highly regimented. Every morning the American flag was raised, and the night guards relinquished their posts to the day guards. Censors fluent in German and Japanese read incoming mail and cut out portions that related in any way to the war. Internees were allowed to write only two letters and one postcard per week. These, too, were censored. Comic books were confiscated for fear that they contained coded messages. A small police force patrolled the camp. At the front gate, vehicles were searched upon entry and exit. Te penalty for attempting escape was death, and for the duration of the camp’s existence—December 12, 1942, until February 27, 1948—no one ever risked it.

The Eiserlohs lived in “C Section” of the 290-acre camp in a coveted 500-square-foot bungalow with an inside toilet, a kitchen and one bedroom. Others lived in duplexes, triplexes and tar-papered Quonset huts with communal toilets and showers. All of the quarters had heaters, kerosene ranges and portable ovens and square-shaped iceboxes. Every aspect of daily life—the amount of food, allotted living space, payment for work—was prescribed by the Third Geneva Convention and monitored by the International Red Cross. Internees farmed the fields, constructed buildings and worked as schoolteachers, barbers, beauticians, nurses and doctors in the camp. They were paid 10 cents an hour up to a maximum of $4 a week. No one went hungry in Crystal City. Many camp employees, residents of the town, had civilian ration cards that limited the amount of meat, sugar and coffee they could buy. They complained that internees enjoyed a better life inside the fence than they had outside it. Commander O’Rourke wrote that he felt “squeezed” between the demands of internees and those of the employees who believed that “anything received by the internees was too good and too much.”

Every morning Ingrid woke to the smell of freshly made, dark German bread. Bottles of milk were delivered to her door in the morning and the ice truck arrived in the afternoon. Mathias worked on the design and construction of a 250-footwide circular pool that served as an irrigation reservoir for the farm crops and a swimming pool, which became a gathering place for both German and Japanese internees. Tree types of schools were established for the children—American, Japanese and German—and each provided an elementary, junior high and high school education. The American school was fully accredited by the Texas Board of Education, staffed by state-certified teachers and classes were taught in English. In the Japanese and German schools, internees taught students in their native languages. Johanna pressed for Ingrid and Lothar to be enrolled in the American school, since they were born in America and primarily spoke English. But Mathias argued that since they were to be repatriated to Germany, the children needed to become fluent in German.

His argument prevailed and on September 7, 1943, when the German school opened in a four-room facility, Lothar reported to fourth grade and Ingrid to seventh. The school was structured on the strict German model, far more rigid than the schools Ingrid and Lothar had attended in Ohio. The children struggled to think and speak in German and to prepare for the inevitable: the loss of their homeland.

 

January 2, 1945, was a cold day in Crystal City. The trees beyond the fence line were bare. Early in the morning Ingrid and 428 German nationals, American-born children like her and a large contingent of German families from Latin America gathered in the camp dining hall for a hearty breakfast of eggs, fried sausage and warm tortillas. Ingrid glanced at her white lapel tag, which branded her with a new government identity. No longer was she a “voluntary internee.” Now she was an official “repatriate”—an equally ironic label for an American teenager bound for war-torn Germany with her family. The group would sail from New York on the Swedish liner Gripsholm and be traded for American prisoners of war and civilians. The January 1945 exchange was the sixth and last of the trans-Atlantic exchanges. By then, a total of 2,361 Americans caught behind enemy lines in Europe had been returned from Germany and Italy in exchange for 4,500 Germans and 124 Italians who had been interned in U.S. camps.

Johanna was nine months pregnant with her fourth child, but Dr. Robert Martin, a camp physician, signed a medical release certifying that she was fit to travel by train to New York and by boat to Germany. Before leaving Crystal City, Mathias and Johanna, like the other adult internees, signed an oath of allegiance by which they promised never to disclose details of their internment or the exchange. Mathias signed a second oath not to perform military service in Germany. For the rest of their lives, Mathias and Johanna kept silent, partly because they feared government reprisals and partly out of shame for their internment.

All day and well into the night, FBI agents supervised the departure of the contingent from Crystal City. Armed border patrol agents were stationed in each train car. No communication between cars was allowed. Newspapers were not allowed. The shades were kept pulled down.

As the train barreled east toward the Mississippi River, Johanna went into labor and, attended by Dr. Martin and a nurse, gave birth to a boy. Mathias named his second son Guenther. His birth certificate would list New Orleans as his place of birth. According to Ingrid, Dr. Martin tried to convince Mathias to have Guenther placed for adoption.

“Don’t take this infant into a war zone,” Martin said. “He might not survive.”

“I understand the risk,” Mathias said, “but I have to keep my family together.”

In fact, Mathias did not understand the risk. In Crystal City war news was censored and rumors were rampant. Most who left the camp did not realize that Germany was losing the war. Indeed, most believed, without evidence, that Germany would prevail. Mathias followed the glimmer of hope that he would find work there and live as a free man with his family. It would be better, he was sure, than life behind the barbed wire fence.

Shortly before midnight on January 7, all of the repatriates—a total of 183 German prisoners of war and 856 civilians from internment camps around the country—were on board the ship. Twenty-two years before, Mathias and Johanna had arrived in New York to start their lives in America. From the deck, Mathias again saw the illuminated Statue of Liberty, the symbol of the promise of his youth. That seemed a long time ago. Now, he and his family were leaving the United States, sent by their adopted country across the Atlantic—into war.

EPILOGUE: Life in postwar Germany was harrowing for the Eiserlohs. Ingrid and Lothar returned to the United States, under the guardianship of Mathias’ sister, in 1947. Re-entry visas for the rest of the family were denied until 1955. “By then, my father was a broken man,” recalled Lothar, who today divides his time between California and Hawaii. Mathias died in 1960. Johanna became a U.S. citizen in 1961, but she found it a bitter pill to swallow when she read newspaper articles about the Japanese internment with no mention of the Germans who were also interned. “It made her feel invisible,” said Ensi, who lives in California. Johanna died in 1997. Guenther was killed in a car accident in 1968. On December 7, 2013—72 years to the day after the attack that ignited the war—Ingrid died in a Honolulu hospital, not far from Pearl Harbor. Congress approved reparations for Japanese-American internees in 1988. Bills to study the wartime treatment of European internees have all stalled.

 

© 2015 by Jan Jarboe Russell. From the forthcoming book The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, by Jan Jarboe Russell, to be published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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