We have all read about the mass relocation of about 120,000 Japanese from the west coast shortly after Pearl Harbor to various camps in the interior and about 10,000 to internment camps. However little is known about the selective internment of about 12,000 German and a number of Italians who were also considered dangerous enemy aliens. In an atmosphere of hostilities, fear and racism many were denied their basic constitutional rights which is quite similar to our present situation regarding Muslims or people from the Middle East after 9/11.
One of the major reasons for our internment program was to have people available to exchange for American civilians interned by Japan and Germany. Many of our citizens worked and lived abroad and found themselves in internment camps. A good number of exchanges took place during the war involving thousands of internees arranged by the International Red Cross.
My parents were not citizens and father enjoyed listening to German music in our apartment in the Bronx, NY. He also subscribed to a German magazine and we were members of a German social club. All it took was a complaint from neighbors to the FBI that they thought he was a Nazi and the hunt was on. Our apartment was searched and there were a number of interviews and then hearings with the result that he was branded a dangerous enemy alien. When asked if he would fight against Germany, he replied he would fight against Japan. They replied, that is not the question. My father was 35 years old at that time, working as a waiter in a first class restaurant, married with three children ages 8, 7 and 3, all born in NYC.
Processing and hearings took time and while he was interned at Ellis Island, mother took us on a train ride to Washington, DC to see the President at the White House. Mom was going to tell FDR her husband was not a Nazi and should be released. Mom was quite determined and had a lot of spunk. Needless to say Mom didn’t get to see the President but was advised to voluntarily join [her husband].
We did that after storing all our furniture with a good friend and neighbor. That’s how we ended up interned on Ellis Island for three months before being shipped to Crystal City Texas in July of 1943 with a group of other German families on a train ride lasting three days.
Crystal City is a small town about 110 miles SE of San Antonio and close to the Mexican border. It is spinach country and their claim to fame was to consider the town the Spinach Capital of the World and had a large 10-foot statue of Popeye the Sailor in the town square. That was my first image of Crystal City. The Camp was converted from a migrant labor housing facility to an Internment Camp. Ten-foot barbed wire fences were erected with high towers for armed guards in each corner and at the center of the perimeter fence. Over 500 additional units were constructed to house the detainees as well as schools, a hospital, maintenance facilities, mess halls, post office and other units to make it a self contained city patrolled by INS guards.
About 200 acres enclosed the camp plus an additional 300 acres of surrounding farmland outside the fence worked by the detainees under guard. Every man in the camp had a job and was required to work for which he was paid about 10 cents an hour. Special plastic coins of various denominations were the currency used in the camp which was rationed to families depending on their size. Ice and milk was delivered daily to both loosely divided sections of the camp by German and Japanese rotating crews. Meals were prepared in separate mess halls for those Germans and Japanese aliens not living in units having kitchens, and they were the majority.
Butchers, bakers, barbers, clerks, teachers-English, German and Japanese for the three schools in the camp as well as internee nurses and doctors. Parents determined which school or two schools their children would attend. Classes were generally held in the morning because of the heat. A volunteer fire department with one truck staffed by internees provided security for this hazard. The hospital was run by a US Public Health Officer and head nurse and also staffed by 5 detainee doctors, two of whom were Japanese women. Detainee nurses aides were also trained and served well.
More than 250 babies were born in this hospital, all US citizens. However their birth certificates read from the Texas Department of Health, Zavala County, Precinct #3, Alien Internment Camp, Crystal City, Texas. My sister Christa was born in this hospital on September 23, 1944. So, we would later be released as a family of six. (Christa Schmitz’s Birth Certificate) In March of 1945 I had a double hernia operation due to playground mishaps. Medical and dental treatment was obviously free of charge and very good.
A large irrigation tank used to provide water to adjacent farms had a seepage problem and turned the area into a swamp. A 100-yard diameter swimming pool was constructed at this site at a cost of $2,500 for material. The detainees provided Labor and the pool became the main recreation activity for most of the year. It was completed in late 1943 and staffed by qualified detainee lifeguards. This is where my sister and I learned to swim and soon passed the test to be permitted in the 12-foot deep end with the two diving boards. For us kids, as well as most parents, the pool was the best thing since sliced bread. Water was pumped into the pool daily and discharged to irrigate the adjacent farms.
Recreation for adults and teenagers was available in sports. Teams and leagues were formed for softball, basketball, soccer, ping- pong, tennis, judo, and others. The Germans would play against the Japanese teams in all sports and those games drew the most spectators. Separate Japanese and German recreation areas showed outdoor movies once a week but you had to bring your own chair from home. They also had a Café serving snacks, sodas and beer, which were rationed. The adults were periodically issued cigarette and beer ration coupons. Our Dad worked there for 10 cents an hour.
For us kids, and there were at one time about 1,600 minor children in the camp, total detainee population about 3,600, it was a huge playpen. There was very little vehicular traffic for parents to worry about having their children run over. No fear of getting lost thanks to the fence. The most popular song in the camp in both areas, that we all soon learned, was, “Don’t Fence Me In.” Language was not a problem as we all could fall back on English. We did not play war games instinctively realizing not to go there. We all soon learned why we were behind a fence and some never gave it a thought. So we played Cowboys and Indians, which was a safer alternative since we saw more western movies.
My father initially wanted to be repatriated to Germany after being interned, to be exchange in one of the trades for Americans in Germany. Fortunately we were never put on the earlier lists and Mom, after removing us from the list, convinced Dad that it would be foolish to return to a defeated war torn country unable to feed ourselves. Sanity prevailed and Dad removed himself from the list.
In July of 1946, three years after our arrival, we were released from internment in Crystal City and driven to the train in San Antonio for our trip back to NYC. We were warned not to talk about our internment experience to anyone. We returned to life in New York as though it never happened and tried to resume a normal existence.
We returned to NYC and were met by a welfare agency representative, probably set up by INS, who found hotel accommodations for us in downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks away from the Empire State Building. I thought it was great riding the elevators up & down and having the Elevator Operator say Hi & Bye to you. (Remember the operators expertly bringing the CAR to a perfect stop on the floor using their “power slide controller? This was before automated push buttons put them out of a job).
I stayed with a “Tante Elsa Scholz” my mother’s girlfriend of my mother from her hometown in Germany, Leobschuetz, in Schlesier. They were superintendents of a six story apartment building off 200th Street & Webster Ave. in the Bronx. That was to get me out of the cramped quarters of the hotel room in Manhattan. I had a great time and was always playing baseball that summer with the neighborhood kids in a park only a block away. The kids even called me “Schulsie”, thinking I was Tante Elsa’s son-who indeed had a son, Donald, about 8 years older than me. He did let me use his baseball glove warning me not to lose it.
Papa had to find a job as well as an apartment since it was very crowded in those two hotel rooms. The war was over and the returning troops were starting their own families in their own apartments. Demand greatly exceeded supply but we were able to get a five room apartment laid out “Railroad Flat” style in a small six family apartment house. Oh yes, one bathroom, just a toilet, in the hall between the two apartments on each floor. To get this apartment we had to become the “Supers”, cleaning and caring for the building, collecting the monthly rent, (we lived rent free) and keeping the coal furnace going to supply hot water & steam heat in the winter.
Papa found a good job as a waiter in Luechows Restaurant on 14th Street while contemplating what the INS was going to do.
My parents tried the political route by “contributing” one thousand dollars ($1,000) in 1948 to a politician to sponsor a Bill for the 81st Congress, Senate Bill S.658. ” A BILL For the relief of Adolf Max Schmitz” to cancel the outstanding warrant of deportation. He will be considered to have been lawfully admitted the US on 18 September 1928.
Papa was able to save money on the side & surprised us with the fact that he had saved over a thousand dollars & we would have enough money for a down payment on a townhouse in the upper Bronx. That’s MOVING ON UPTOWN from 154th Street to 238th Street off White Plains Road.
We moved in January, 1949 from the lower Bronx to the upper Bronx. Mama found the time to write to the President concerning the deportation of Papa. The INS responded. They noted the Private Bill, S-658 was in the works in the current Congress and chose not to act pending resolution of the Bill.
I guess the INS lost interest in Papa or his case just fell through the cracks for a while. We wanted Papa to gain legal entry to the States. We children went about our business which was to get an education. Louise & I graduated from high school; Bill and Christa were enrolled in Elementary School and life went on. The NY Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society had taken our case almost from the day we got off the train from Crystal City and were still trying to prevent Papa’s deportation. (See 23 January 1956 letter. Mama had also become a US Citizen in the early fifties. Mama, Louise, Bill & Christa sailed to Germany for a very long vacation with the Holland American lines. Papa and I stayed home to work, he as a waiter & I ran Mama’s Candy Store/Luncheonette by myself. I had planned to attend Concordia Jr. College in Bronxville, NY, just north on White Plains Road and was promised the profits for the summer after all the bills were paid. Great experience that slave labor working for your family.
The wheels of the INS and Department of Justice were turning and we received a letter dated 13 June 1956 advising Papa he could get an immigrant visa to enter the US. (Letter of July 11, 1957). A following letter of 16 July scheduled Papa for an interview for reexamination for his immigrant visa. Papa was to appear at the US Consulate in Montreal Canada on 13 September 1957, [according to a] letter from the Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society of 27 August 1957. The result being that Mama, Papa and my brother Bill took a very long car ride from NYC to Canada. Papa was finally able to enter the US as a legal immigrant-almost 30 years from the time he first set foot on US soil. (All Five Letters)
Papa was asked by some officials if he was going to apply for citizenship papers; and his polite reply was that he really didn’t need them now.
All photographs and documents courtesy of the Schmitz Family Collection
(John Schmitz was interviewed about his family’s experiences, at the Institute of Texas Culture, University of Texas San Antonio, in 2007.)