The Voester Family Story
As told by Kurt Voester (son)
Being a German “enemy alien” at the beginning of WW II was not a desirable position to be in. Here is the story of what happened to a San Francisco family in which the immigrant German parents were long time residents but not citizens of the United States.
Alfred Wilhelm Friedrich Voester was born in 1892 in Goeppingen, Germany, while Julie Emilie Sommer was born in 1896 in Unterweissach, Germany. They met on a group hike sometime around 1920 and about 1921 they got engaged to be married. Alfred’s father, Christian Voester, had a painting business and Alfred was employed there. Inflation was rampant in Germany and by the end of the month there was never enough money to pay Alfred fully after the other employees had been paid. Christian passed this off with the comment, “You’ll inherit the business someday.” However, without funds Alfred could not marry. In order to escape the inflation, his brother, Eberhardt, who was also a painter, had emigrated to San Francisco in 1923. He wrote to Alfred that there was work to be had in the City by the Bay and a living wage could be earned. What an opportunity, but there was no money for a ticket to the USA. Julie’s father, Heinrich Sommer, was a probate attorney in the civil service who offered two tickets to America as a wedding gift if that were Julie’s wish. The engaged couple were happy to accept and were married on August 19, 1924. Within a week they said their sad good-byes and were on a ship to New York from where they made their way westward aboard a train and settled in San Francisco.
Alfred found work as a painter, Julie, as a domestic and they settled into married life in a rented apartment. In July 1925, Julie was born; in August, 1928, Kurt (the author of this story) and in July, 1931, Erich made his appearance.
My parents were hard working immigrants who were living the American dream. They learned to speak English, became accustomed to American ways and by 1929 were able to purchase their own home. However, they clung to their German heritage: our church was a German one, our family doctor was German as was our plumber, our electrician and most of our friends. My parents joined two or three German social and fraternal clubs and we attended many of their picnics in Marin County and the Christmas parties every year. These clubs were non political in nature. German language newspapers written and printed in the United States arrived regularly in the mail. German was the language of the family and was the first one that I and my siblings learned.
As early as June of 1940, Congress had passed the Alien Registration Act. Aliens of all nationalities, but especially Germans, had to comply. They were fingerprinted, questioned about their history, occupations and organizational memberships. This act gave the FBI the authority to compile lists and issue warrants for the arrest of any suspicious persons for questioning. With the outbreak of WW II my parents, who had never been naturalized, became “enemy aliens”. Disaster loomed, but we were unaware that both my father and my mother must have been classified as dangerous enemy aliens by the FBI. (FBI memo re: Voester: apprehension of German Aliens)
It was Friday, February 13, 1942, when the doorbell rang as our family was eating dinner. I was 13 years old at the time. My father answered it and came back into the kitchen accompanied by two strangers and a San Francisco uniformed policeman. The strangers had not identified themselves by showing their badges or identification cards. One of them asked where the back door was, unlocked it and let a man who had been in our back yard into the house. We were then told that the men were FBI agents; one a senior agent who was in charge and the other two of a lesser rank. The man who had been in the back yard was there to prevent anyone from trying to leave the house by that route. The agent in charge said that they were going to search the house for any contraband items even though they had no search warrant. Short wave radios, signaling devices and weapons were to have been turned in to the police at the outbreak of the war. The agents made a thorough search but I don’t remember that they found nor confiscated anything. After the search they announced that they were arresting my father and we children pleaded that they not lead him away in handcuffs. They didn’t, but a feeling of terror pervaded the family.
My mother had suddenly become a single mom with the breadwinner removed and she had to hold the family together in an environment that had become politically hostile and socially unfriendly. Neighbors had been interviewed by the FBI about my parents’ political beliefs and “war hysteria” was rampant. It seemed that many people equated statements about the lack of loyalty of “enemy aliens” with patriotism.
Some days after my father’s arrest we found out that he had been taken to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Station for Northern California located at 801 Silver Avenue in San Francisco where my mother could visit him. Perhaps children were not excluded but I don’t remember going there. The cook was paid a flat rate by the government for each detainee per day. Evidently there was little supervision because the rations were so small that all detainees were constantly hungry and were losing weight. Those who had visitors welcomed the food packages that were brought in; the others benefited from the supplementary food provided by charities and all shared.
The regular INS Station had been located on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and was often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West. However, there was a large fire at the station in 1940 which destroyed three buildings and the station was moved to Silver Avenue. The arrests of civilian “enemy aliens” from Northern California soon filled the Silver Avenue facility to capacity. Sharp Park Detention Station (later referred to as Camp Sharp Park) was then opened in March, 1942 by the INS with an eventual capacity of 1,200 and housed German, Italian and Japanese detainees on a temporary basis. My father was moved there shortly after it had opened. Camp Sharp Park was closed in 1946.
Early on the morning of Friday, March 13, 1942, just one month after my father had been arrested three FBI agents, without a policeman, appeared at our house. When the door was opened they pushed their way in without showing any identification although they must have said that they were from the FBI. Unlike the senior agent who had arrested my father and had been polite and gentle, this senior agent was extremely rude and hostile. His assistants appeared to be inexperienced and uncertain of what they were doing. They searched the house, again without a warrant, while the senior agent questioned my mother. At one point in the interrogation she chuckled and the agent barked at her, “This is no laughing matter!” His rudeness continued and when I came to my mother’s defense the agent became so upset he sent me to my room and ordered me to stay there. I went but didn’t stay.
The Iron Cross, which my father had won for his military duty with the German army during World War I, was found in one of his dresser drawers. The senior agent took it and threw it onto the table with the remark, “I wouldn’t give a damn for that.”
One of the assistants found my sister’s table radio which had the word “kilocycles” on the tuning dial. He was absolutely convinced that this was a prohibited short wave radio. Trying to explain to him that kilocycles were units of frequency was futile. The radio was to be confiscated until the senior agent recognized that the radio received only the regular broadcast band.
When I was sent to my second story bedroom it had not yet been searched. I remembered that my toy soldiers included a set of SS troops with Swastika armbands and a standard bearer with the Swastika flag. The area below my bedroom window had already been searched so with a piece of rope or string that I happened to have I carefully lowered the two boxes of soldiers. They were never discovered and taken away.
The agents confiscated a number of items, none of which were contraband for enemy aliens and all of which must have been seen during the first search a month earlier. Among these were my father’s army medals, all stamps from his stamp collection that had Hitler’s visage on them and a toy telescope that I had (they claimed we could watch shipping in the Golden Gate and report to enemy agents). This list is incomplete but I am relying on memory only. No receipt was given but all consficated items were returned after the war was over.
It seemed apparent during the FBI visit that my mother was to be arrested and taken away. However, at the end of the visit she was allowed to remain at home. Had she been taken away social services would have had three more minor children as their wards.
When the agents left in mid morning they told us children to report to school. Coming late, the first stop at the elementary school for my brother and me was the principal’s office. The FBI must have interviewed the principal because she greeted us with the defensive remark, ”Well, I had to tell them the truth.” I did not know what “the truth” referred to, but alarm bells were suddenly going off in my head. My sister’s class had been given an assignment to write an essay entitled “My Hero”. Having visited Germany in 1934, Julie, with the endorsement of my parents, chose to write about Hitler. This turned out to have been a black mark against our family when the FBI interviewed our teachers and the principal. I assumed that “My Hero” must be what “the truth” referred to. We were to discover that there was even more.
The behavior of the principal and teachers at this time bordered on being unfriendly, even hostile. I was graduating in June but my brother had three more years before entering high school. My mother was able to enroll him in a parochial school without having to pay the tuition and where he was treated like any other student.
Detainees were given hearings without benefit of due process. The Board consisted of about five individuals who didn’t introduce themselves when the detainee was brought before them. One of the board members was from the office of the U.S. Attorney. Having an attorney to assist the detainee was out of the question and no formal charges were made. Charges had to be gleaned from the many questions they posed to the detainee, and in our case, also the spouse and children, all of whom were questioned without the others being present. Each of us three children was asked whether we had ever refused to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag. Two of us, coincidentally, replied that, “No indeed, I rather enjoy the exercise.” (Refusing to pledge must have been another part of “the truth”!) My father was accused of having received “official” mail from the German government. Later he figured out that this was the death notice of a family member in Germany where such death notices were routinely sent by the government to close relatives. He was also questioned about his (or my mother’s) statement that the U.S. Government should pay attention to Charles Lindburg’s “America First” movement. This movement called for the government to provide more social services to its depression weary poor rather than to spend funds in a “Lend-Lease” program to bolster the British military forces who at that time were fighting the Germans. He was further questioned as to whether he had ever destroyed documents by burning them in the backyard. (We lived in a house with three fireplaces and a trash burner in our kitchen stove.) The hearing came to a close and subsequently my father was shipped to Camp Sharp Park, California, located about 12 miles south of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast. Sharp Park currently is a part of Pacifica, California. The Hearing Board had the authority to release, parole or intern the detainee.
An arrest memorandum from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to Special Agent Edward J. Ennis dated August 8, 1942 listed the reason for my father’s arrest as espionage. Espionage? ESPIONAGE! What an outrage! My father had NO TIME for espionage! Five days a week he would get up, eat breakfast, walk to the streetcar and go to work. In the evening the streetcar would drop him off several blocks from home, and it was always a happy moment to see him turn the corner and greet me with a big smile. After scrubbing his hands with “SCAT”, a soap paste containing grains of sand, to remove the last of the paint on his hands, he would join us to eat dinner. After dinner we would gather in our dining (family) room and there was no espionage going on. Weekends were consumed with shopping, house repairs, church and family outings. Again, there was no time for spy activities. So how did this charge arise? It is very possible that a neighbor being interviewed by the FBI and suffering from war hysteria made up spy stories about my father. (Voester FBI memo)
At that time enemy aliens were under travel restrictions that allowed them to be no further than five miles from their homes and there was a nightly curfew from 8 PM until 6 AM. My mother obtained special permission to travel to Sharp Park to visit my father. On Wednesdays she would get on a streetcar and then take a bus to Sharp Park. On Sundays the entire family would drive to Camp Sharp Park to visit. Since gasoline was severely rationed we had to budget for this trip. We would arrive in the morning, visit, go back out to the car for lunch while the visiting room was closed for the lunch break and return to the visitation area for the afternoon visit. This, at least, kept us all in touch with each other.
My father started slowly gaining weight from lack of regular exercise even though he had volunteered to do the painting around the camp. He was granted free access as he had to paint the fence and buildings on the outside as well as on the inside. Despite sufficient food and the painting to occupy his mind he started to slide downhill emotionally as the Board had not yet rendered a decision. After about six months at Camp Sharp Park the camp commander thought that my father might slip over the edge and asked the authorities to hurry their decision. It came down: internment. Not the hoped for decision, but at least the uncertainty had been removed. Orders were sent to move him to Fort Lincoln, ND, a freezing camp in the winter and one where visitations from us would have been impossible. At some point the Camp Sharp Park Superintendent realized that once my father had gone there would be no one to do the camp painting. He sent a telegram to Washington, D.C. to request that the transfer be reversed. During my father’s changeover from a bus to a ferry boat in San Francisco on his way to North Dakota the answering telegram arrived and he was assigned to Camp Sharp Park on an “until we release you” basis.
Camp Sharp Park was not a military camp but one administered by the INS. It housed German, Italian and Japanese nationals. All seemed to get along very well. The weather was cool with wind and fog on many days, but generally mild and quite comfortable. There was an occasional escape attempt with one, I believe, being successful. The escapee, we were told, had made his way into Canada.
There was a time when my father and a guard were on some errand to San Francisco and the guard offered to break the rules and allow him a short visit with his family in his own home to celebrate his 50th birthday. What a joy! Even though the visit was short it was a real treat for all.
Erich, my brother, joined my father at Camp Sharp Park for the summer of 1943 as a “volunteer internee”. This was by no means a routine situation. My father had petitioned the camp superintendent and permission was granted. Erich slept with the other internees in the barracks, ate with them in the dining hall, all behind a 12 foot fence. He and my father considered the visit to be quite successful.
My father was kept at Camp Sharp Park until his parole on January 21, 1944; a detention just shy of two years.
Support for the family during this difficult time came from a number of sources. After graduating from high school my sister began to work for Metropolitan Life and, to her great credit, gave every pay check to my mother. I went to school under what was known as the 4/4 plan: four hours of school followed by four hours of work. My pay check from the sausage factory was meager but also helped with the income. That provided the cash that the family needed. Bread was donated by a neighborhood bakery, while milk, delivered to the house, was provided by a charity. A second charity gave us groceries which were also brought to the house once or twice a week. One of these charities held an annual meeting where all the recipients were introduced to the membership and were expected to stand up and express their gratitude publicly. Germans are proud people and my mother came home absolutely humiliated.
My parents were devout Lutherans and attended church on a regular basis. My father sang in the choir and was on some church board. When the church treasurer was discovered to be embezzling funds my father took over as treasurer, a voluntary task he did until his arrest. After the FBI had come to arrest my mother, the Pastor of Saint Matthews Church arrived at our house and we expected a supportive, pastoral visit that might have included some prayers. Instead, we were informed that neither the Pastor nor any church member would be able to visit us in the future, since the church was German and since our house was probably under surveillance. Any visit could cast suspicion on the church. We were shocked!
Some German/American friends of ours were members of a German Methodist Church on Page Street. One day that Pastor arrived for a pastoral visit even though he had never met our family. He ministered to us just as we had expected the Lutheran pastor to do. We prayed together in our living room and he became our pastor. Sunday services were skipped because that was visitation day to see my father in the internment camp but we became involved in some of the other activities of the church.
After the war and as late as 1947 former and present internees were deported to Germany without recourse to due process. It appears that our family was listed for deportation but when interviewing neighbors, the FBI came across one who strongly argued that we were loyal Americans and that enough mistreatment by the US Government had already befallen us. We three children, being citizens by birthright, would have been allowed to reenter the US without too much difficulty. As citizens we could have brought our parents into the US but that might not have been such a simple matter.
Upon his release my father was, psychologically, not quite whole. Today, I believe, we would refer to his condition as some sort of traumatic stress syndrome. Returning to freedom, a normal family life and employment waiting for him, he slowly improved and was back to his old self in about three years. He lived in good health and died just shy of 100 years. My mother, on the other hand, had become embittered and was unable to let go of these feelings for about 20 years. The last years of her life were spent happily and she died at age 88.
Executive orders were issued on December 8, 1941 under the Alien Enemies Act of 1918 which was based on the 1798 Alien and Sedition Laws that had been aimed at the British and passed during the Revolutionary War that essentially stripped enemy aliens of any constitutional rights. Due process was denied thousands of German, Italian and Japanese nationals. This, in turn, meant that American born children, citizens by birthright, were negatively impacted; indirectly stripped of their constitutional rights to due process. In hindsight it is not difficult to see that some behaviors my parents exhibited may have caused suspicion among neighbors and the FBI that they might be Nazi sympathizers. They spoke only German at home even when our playmates were present and would call to us in German when we were at play in the street. They subscribed to German language newspapers, although printed in the USA. They were members of a German Lutheran church. Our house guests were all German Americans. They belonged to some German social groups that were supposed to be non political; but, in fact, I remember once standing on the stage at one function and giving the Nazi salute. I wore short pants to school as the boys in Germany did. My first pair of long pants at the start of sixth grade was a pair of black cords. My mother frequently told us that she cherished German tradition and considered our house a German cultural island in San Francisco. My parents’ names were obviously already on a list that J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI had created before the war started using the Alien Registration Act.
Once our family life had returned to being stable and normal, the subject of internment was not discussed; it was simply too difficult. The pain resulting from the injustice, from the separation, from the financial stress, from the loss of church, the loss of friends, from the humility at having to accept charity was better left sleeping. However, our lives would forever be affected by this experience. Our government has never acknowledged what happened to almost 11,000 German American internees and I am hopeful that by telling my story, by speaking out, I can help Congress move closer to the day when such acknowledgment is made. I wish all internees and their family members would speak out so that our government would formally acknowledge what happened while those affected are still alive to witness it.
For their help in producing this narrative I am indebted to my wife, Barbara, my sister, Julie Spengler, and to Karen Ebel, President, German American Internee Coalition.