A Mother Interned, A Family Left Behind

Gertrude Anna Schneider, an interned German immigrant
Paul Schneider, an excluded naturalized German America citizen

As told to eldest daughter, Vilma Schneider Ralston in March 1983

Paul and Gertrude Schneider 1946

Paul and Gertrude Schneider 1946

Gertrude Anna Schneider, began life in Backnang, Germany (near Stuttgart) on September 25, 1908….first child of Johann and Luise Grokenberger. Her first five years were spent in the area in which, amazingly, she remembers her paternal grandparents, the river than ran near the town, and the greeting amongst the villagers of Gruss Gott!

Especially does she remember that one evening, in looking at the moon, her grandfather told her “Someday, Traudl, man will walk on the moon”. She never forgot his words. The unsettledness of the times encouraged her parents to consider emigration to Canada. The posters offered opportunities that were not available in Germany at the time, which was a time of unease, of unemployment, etc. When Gertrude was 5 yrs old, and with now a little brother, Adolph, the family headed to Canada along with many other emigrants. Gertrude recalled riding in open wagons loaded with other families as they headed west toward Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; there were many days on the road, but there also was a sense of adventure which kept most of them hopeful. Finally, they arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, and were taken in hand by other German immigrants who had arrived some time before. In the l0 years they were there, Johann’s journeyman bricklaying gave him all the employment he needed to provide for his growing family. Some of what Johann built is still standing today, including the hospital. While there, he and Luise helped to build and attend a local Lutheran church, which is, also, still standing. By now, the family consisted of six children who attended German school to keep up their original language in a land where English is the national language.. The cold, harsh winters finally made the family realize that they should consider relocating to Southern California; friends told them that work was plentiful and the climate ‘friendly’.

Father Johann left for Los Angeles in 1923, found employment and a house to rent, called for his family to come, which they did after an eventful train trip all the way from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The family now settled into their new country, and soon the 7th child made his appearance, and the family was complete. Gertrude attended night school to learn proper English and also attended beauty college…eventually working as a hairdresser, even to fixing the hair of the starlets in Hollywood.

At a German picnic, she met Paul Schneider, born in Hamburg, Germany. He had been a merchant seaman with German and Swedish shipping companies. He left his ship in Southern California and after marrying Gertrude, decided on the profession of interior decorator. Two daughters were born to them, Vilma in 1928 and Verona in 1930. The Depression was in full swing, but frugal Germans as they were, including Gertrude’s parents, they endured those years by raising their own food and meat on a few acres. “Oma” Grokenberger fed many at her table with the fruits of her labor. In 1939, Paul and Gertrude attended the Deutsche Haus in Los Angeles, enjoying picnics in the summer, all the ‘fests’ in spring and fall. Their youth were taught crafts by Gertrude and continuation of their German lessons plus the festivities of the Maypole and other activities. Though the war came along and the ensuing story of Gertrude and Paul’s tribulations followed, there was always the fond memories of the German festivities before the war, a bright light in a world that was darkening.

On December 7, 1941, about 7:30 pm, three men came to our home and asked for me. They showed me their badges and informed me that they were FBI agents. They searched the house, but found only a box of personal letters from family members living in Germany. Among the items was a postcard from Paul’s sister, living in Stuttgart, Germany, on which was a picture of Hitler. I was then instructed to get my coat since they were taking me with them.

I was put into the back seat of the car with one of the men who carried the box of personal letters. He asked me why I hadn’t become a citizen. I told him that my folks were citizens, my husband was a citizen and that I had two American-born children. I had gone to school here and had worked here before I was married. I felt like an American and just hadn’t begun the application for the citizenship papers themselves. We went to German cultural doings in the LA area and while my husband was a member of the German Haus, I was not. I realize now that all German-American clubs were considered “subversive” since our Government had been negative toward German people for many years.

My “ride” ended at what must have been the police station. It was a big building where I was taken into the basement area. I was put into a room where one man sat and was left with him. He said very little to me. He had me sit under a bright light which got hot and uncomfortable after awhile. I asked to use the restroom and he called a matron to take me there. She wouldn’t allow me to close the door, though. I tried to for privacy. I was returned to the small room and was made to sit there until 2 am. The man there went through the box of personal letters and I thought that he certainly would return them to me but he didn’t.

Now I was taken to a waiting car where there were men I knew from the German Club, two of them. I wondered why I was being put in with these men since they were officers of the German Haus. Reporters took our pictures and we were on the front page of the newspaper the next morning, I was told. (My picture was even in a detective magazine some time later.) This time the two men and I were taken to the County Jail where we were fingerprinted and photographed. I was taken to a matron’s office. She grabbed my arm and hissed “You dirty Nazi spy!” I told her I was NOT a spy. I told her that I had two children home alone, waiting for me. Again she grabbed my arm and pushed me into a chair and kept me there for a short time. Then she called in another matron, told me to take a shower and gave me blue prison garb to wear. I don’t know what happened to my clothes. Now I was put into a cell with another woman. My “cellmate” asked me if I was German. I said I was. She told me her name was Mrs.D. She said that her husband was in business as an ornamental ironworker and when I mentioned that one of my brothers had worked for them, immediately she remembered him. Then we heard a muffled call from the next cell and a woman asked in German whether we were German, too. We told her we were. She was Mrs. B, she said. Now the matrons told us to be quiet!

On the 3rd day, all of the German women were taken to Terminal Island in San Pedro. Mrs. B and Mrs. D were with me and also a fourth lady named Paula H. When we were finally allowed to read a newspaper, I remember reading that Hitler “assumed” that America was at war with Germany since a German ship had been torpedoed. What upset us German women was that we had been arrested on the day of Pearl Harbor, before America was even at war with Germany and even before the Japanese were arrested and sent to camps.

The Terminal Island detention center now began to fill up with Japanese families, but they kept them apart from us, in a bigger room where cots were put up for them. More German women were also beginning to be brought in. The head man of the Immigration Office told my parents that this situation reminded him of the First World War. He said that the British were showing the Americans how to go about interning people; that the British “were running the show.”

The food was very bad there. I refused to eat any of it and so did the other women. For instance, one morning we were served a thin cabbage soup with cabbageworms floating around in it! After about a week, one of the German businessmen we knew heard our plight and sent sausages and lunchmeats from his shop. Paula H’s brother was a baker and sent us baked goods. So between the two of them we were eating much better, God bless them.

Finally, after what seemed like many days, we were allowed visits by our families. Even though we were under surveillance during each visit, my husband and I managed to slip each other notes. We never took time to think about the punishment I might receive if I was caught. Through this way, my husband got to know all the things that were happening to me.

On CHRISTMAS EVE, 1941, we were again subjected to photographing and fingerprinting. For the next 3 months, we kept our spirits up with doing handwork, letter writing, etc. Then on GOOD FRIDAY, 1942, they put us through another photographing/fingerprinting session. It never failed that they used our Christmas holidays for this sort of thing. Now I was given a 10-minute hearing, and my husband, Paul, also was questioned. Five men were in the courtroom and a judge named Silverstein. I never knew the results of this hearing. Soon thereafter I was awakened during the night by a matron who asked if I had any luggage, and I said no, of course not. The other ladies didn’t either for how could we, when we were taken out our homes with just the clothes we had on? Some of us thought that maybe we were going home, but when we were put aboard a train, we realized that something else was in store for us. Once on the train, we were told that we would be in Seagoville, Texas, within a few days, and confined in a women’s prison there. Paula H and Mrs. D didn’t go with us. The Ds hired a lawyer and she was released. She also urged me to hire such a lawyer, but we had no money. The train car we were in had “FP” on the side (“Federal Prisoners) and when people in the train stations stared at use, we told them we were Friendly People. Among our group now were Germans from San Francisco. Japanese internees were kept separate, in other cars.

When we arrived in Seagoville, many other German internees were there already from all over the US. It was a huge prison and the director was Mr. O’Rourke. I am thankful that he was such a nice man and for all the months that followed, he was as good to us as he was allowed to be. He told me once that if it was up to him, he would throw open the gates and let us all go home.

We each had a small room with a lavatory and we did our own cooking and cleaning up in the cafeteria. Every night at 10 pm our doors were locked. In time, we were finally permitted to group together for visiting in one of the rooms at the end of the hall. We were allowed to take walks within the designated areas only, and, of course, there was a searchlight from the tower that operated at night.

After a month in Seagoville, more Japanese began to arrive, only now these were families. Again they were kept away from us. The prison had a small commissary where we purchased necessities. Later, we were allowed to display our handwork there. And at that time, we were allowed to mingle a little with the Japanese.

One night I was looking out my 2nd floor window where I could see the daily trains go by, and I noticed that a train had come in at an unusual time. I saw about 25-30 people getting off. On our walk the next day, Mrs. B and Mrs. Von F and I walked by the building where we thought they might have put the new prisoners. On the 3rd floor of the building, some of them were looking down at us, windows opened. Without being noticed, heads straight, we told these people that we were interned German mothers. One of the men said that we should ask for an interview with him. Mrs. Von F was a lawyer and our spokesman. She requested an interview and Mr. O’Rourke granted it. This man, we soon learned was an attaché with the German Embassy in Brazil and had mistakenly been parted from the other members of the Diplomatic Corp who were being returned to Germany on the Swedish liner, the Gripsholm. This man had his family with him, as well. He wanted each of our stories in brief detail, which we wrote up for him. He microfilmed them with a camera he had. This happened in August 1942. As soon as it was discovered that a mistake had been made with this attaché, he was removed from the Seagoville prison and sent east.

About a month later, the newspapers carried a story that Germany was now going to begin interning Americans in France, head for head, for every German mother being held in internment camps in the US. This told us that Americans in France were not being mistreated by German Occupation Forces. We felt that, obviously, our stories had reached the German government.

Verona, Paul and Vilma Schneider 1942. Photo sent to Gertrude. It was examined by the censors before delivery and stamped “Detained Alien Enemy Mail Examined – US I & NS”

Verona, Paul and Vilma Schneider 1942. Photo sent to Gertrude. It was examined by the censors before delivery and stamped “Detained Alien Enemy Mail Examined – US I & NS”

In late summer, 1942, Paul came with the girls to visit me. I recall that when we visited, the person sitting in as supervisor would finally get up and leave, telling us that we deserved some privacy. That made our visits much nicer.

My husband, Paul, now tried to give up his citizenship so that we could be repatriated to Germany. One way or another, we had to be a family again. The judge denied this request, saying that he could not allow American-born children to be sent abroad, and that what was happening to Paul was not prosecution, but persecution. But those in charge of our government were not through with my husband yet, as he was to find out.

In October 1942, another hearing was to be held in Los Angeles, but I could not be there. The girls attended that hearing and were questioned by several men about activities at German clubs. Before the end of the year, I was told that I would be released, but I wasn’t told when. That Christmas at Seagoville turned out to be a memorable one and that helped a lot. The German government had sent two huge boxes to us for Christmas and also, Mr. O’Rourke allowed us to have a traditional German meal on Christmas Day. After dinner, the boxes were opened. In the first box, out came a tree decorated with walnuts and cookies and glitter…just a beautiful, decorated tree and something none of us had seen before. The other box contained individual German Stollen, and cakes and cookies of all kinds. It was sad to be away from our loved ones, but the little celebration there is a happy memory for me even today.

On January 12, 1943, I was given my release. I was one of the first ones to go. Mr. O’Rourke gave me $5 out of his wallet for food on the train ride home. A matron was to be with me all the way. As I left the prison grounds, my German friends gathered around me to sing a farewell song in German. The $5 didn’t last long and when the matron noticed that I wasn’t eating she offered me a few dollars so that I could at least get a cup of coffee till we got to LA. The train arrived in LA on January 14, 1943. Paul and my girls were waiting for me. It was a very happy day. I had been imprisoned for 2 years.

But that is not the end of the story. While I was interned those years, my husband was being persecuted in another way. He had to sell our home because our bank assets were frozen by the Federal Reserve Bank. When my husband wanted money for rent or food, he had to request it by listing just exactly what he would use it for, and then had to account for every dime he spent. When he tried to work, he was hounded from one job to another because the boss or owner would be called on the telephone and ordered to fire my husband. “Let Paul go” seemed to be the gist of each call. On one job with Allis-Chalmers, where he was well-liked and thought he would finally be left alone, his boss one day asked him why calls to him ordered Paul’s firing. Paul told him he was a citizen, I was not and that I was in an internment camp in Texas. His boss refused to fire my husband, but within days, the boss was called again and told that if he didn’t fire Paul, his business would “suffer.” The boss wrote up a letter of commendation for my husband and told him how he regretted having to do this to him. This happened to Paul time and again while I was imprisoned.

Even after my release, Paul was hounded out of a job. We had moved to Shasta County and he found work with Pacific Gas & Electric. After only two months, the boss asked Paul “Are you an American citizen?” My husband said yes. The boss told him “I’ve got orders to lay you off, but I’ll be damned if I do!” He told Paul that he owed his life to German doctors during WWI, when he was wounded and thanks to them he was still here.

Within two weeks, we found out what else was in store for us. One afternoon, I saw a car parked down by the highway in front of our home. My husband saw it, too, when he came home from work. Nothing happened that day, but the next day, that same car was again parked there. Two men and a woman were in the car. I decided to walk down and talk to them. They said they were looking for a coffee shop! I told them they were welcome to come into our home and have a cup of coffee since they admitted they wanted to see Paul. So they came into the house, had a cup of coffee and were fairly friendly. However, when Paul came in, they became sober and very stern. They informed my husband that they were sent from the War Relocation Board in San Francisco, and that he, Paul, was to have a hearing there regarding relocation. We were told that the entire Pacific Coast was off limits to us. We were so sick and tired of the persecution and hounding of the past months, and knowing that we would HAVE to move, no matter if we had a “hearing” or not, we decided to leave voluntarily. We had friends in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and felt that maybe there they would leave us alone. We were required to pay our own expenses for that trip and were given just barely enough gas stamps to get us there. (Related Laws)

Paul had to state what day we would leave, and on that day, a government car pulled up into our driveway and waited for us to leave. They followed us all day, but toward late afternoon, Paul managed to take a road that they must not have known about and we lost them. Somehow we didn’t feel bad about that! The next morning, as we approached Reno, we met the government car coming the other way, obviously looking for us. Paul gave them a big grin and pointed to them that they were going the wrong way! They turned around and followed us into Reno, where my husband stopped and got out of the car to talk to them. Believe it or not, the people apologized for having to do this.

Vilma, Verona, Gertrude, Paul and young friend 1943 Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Vilma, Verona, Gertrude, Paul and young friend 1943 Oshkosh, Wisconsin

We finally arrived in Oshkosh and rented a small house on School Street. My husband got a job with a painting contractor, Ed Rehbein. I had to report to a “sponsor” each month, a Mr. Klemmerle. After over a year there, we wrote to the War Relocation Board that I was expecting another child. We asked that we be allowed to return to California because I wanted our child to be born there. Before we received and answer, Paul’s boss was contacted by FBI agents who had come to Oshkosh to force Mr. Rehbein to fire him. The boss asked Paul if he’d like to see this agent who was operating out of the local police station. My husband said “Hell, no!” Then he decided to write a letter to this agent in which he said, “only a rattlesnake would attack from the back when a man is trying to earn a living for his family.” He told the agent also that we lived only 1 block from the police station and if he’d been any kind of a man, he’d have come in person instead of sneaking around behind our backs. I was sick with fear of retribution and worried that my husband would be fired for sure. Mr. Rehbein was kind enough to keep my husband on the payroll.

My sponsor knew of my wish to have our 3rd child born in California, so he arranged a meeting for Paul and local authorities plus the FBI agents. My husband was greeted by a room full of men, some of them in military uniforms. They questioned him over and over again on various subjects and while he never told me what he answered them, he must have convinced them that we weren’t “dangerous.” Within weeks, we received notice that we could return to California. This time, they offered $300 for expenses.

It was a wonderful day when we arrived back in California, even though we’d had lots of car trouble on the trip back. My husband found work and our 3rd daughter was born in Redding, so my wish had come true.