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The Train to Crystal City review- German Families Locked Up in WW2

The Train to Crystal City review- German Families Locked Up in WW2

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I recently read about Democratic Representative from Texas Joaquin Castros Congressional Bill: The Wartime Violation of German American Civil Liberties Act of 2022. Like many American school children, I learned about the Internment of thousands of Japanese who lived in the US, but my teachers never told us about the over 11,000 German Americans locked up at the same time.

So, I responded the way I always do when I want to understand more about history… I headed to the bookstore.

Jan Jarboe Russel’s “Train to Crystal City” takes an in-depth examination of the government’s policies regarding Japanese, Italian, and German “enemy aliens” after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Crystal City itself rose from a migrant worker camp in south Texas. After being refitted and enlarged, entire families found themselves living in cottages and huts on the 300 acre property. Including, the American born children. The camp, which stayed open from 1942 until 1948, wasn’t just a place to “house” people, Crystal city was considered a holding place for individuals while waiting to be traded for POWs and other Americans behind “enemy lines”.

(note- Because of the nature of my website, I will refer primarily to Germans and German Americans. I am fully aware that Japanese Nationals and Italian Nationals were also housed in Crystal City, as well as other internment camps. It is not my intention to belittle their experience. The book Train to Crystal City devotes equal time to German and Japanese internees and includes stories resulting from interviews with German and Japanese internees.)

The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War IIThe Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War IIThe Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

The Train to Crystal City

On February 19, 1942, American President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 allowing the Department of State’s Special War Problems division to round up “enemy aliens” and incarcerate them in internment camps. A paranoia or fear spread through the United States that these German (or Japanese or Italian) citizens would side with their birth country, and spy for the enemy.

The logistical impossibility of rounding up hundreds of thousands of Germans in America meant only certain non-citizens were chosen. Unapologetic members of the Nazi Party got flagged. Others were taken because of arrests in their past. But some men ended up in custody because a neighbor made a complaint (too much Blasskapelle Musik seemed suspicious), still others over paperwork glitches.

Whatever the reason, once taken into custody, their families were left without a support system in a climate where being “German” was problematic. The wives left behind often lost their job because they were under suspicion once the husband had been arrested. No work meant an inability to pay rent or mortgages and no financial support for children. What to do?

Crystal City was opened to house whole families.

Women agreed go into custody in exchange for being reunited with their husbands. Oh, and one other small detail, by agreeing to be housed all together, they also agreed to repatriation to Germany (Japan/Italy). Even the America born children, who were American citizens. (Note- This obviously smashes the definition of repatriation to pieces… repatriation means a return to the country you were born into. Basically, this policy meant kicking American kids out of their country).

Another chapter my childhood history book left out? The rounding up of German and Japanese nationals in Latin America. People then brought to AMERICA and locked up at Crystal City. The American government feared that German and Japanese families in Peru, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama could cause trouble for the United States.  They convinced those governments to turn them over. These families, some of whom spoke neither English, German, nor even Japanese… ended up in Texas.

Life behind the Stacheldrat (Barbed Wire)

Life behind the fences at Crystal City was hot (up to 120°F), there were snakes and scorpions, fences surrounded them, and morning roll call stunk, but they were all together.  Each hut had a kitchen, so they could eat their mother’s food with their father at the table. This detail made all the difference for many of the kids and teens.

Jan Russell interviewed a few people who were teenagers when they were rounded up. Kids who were used to American freedoms, schools, movie theaters suddenly uprooted from their suburban lives. Teens who saw themselves as Americans first… and German or Japanese second. (This is where the book really hit home for me. I would have been that kid… and American growing up in a German household in the United States. Between worlds, and suddenly an enemy)

To be fair, the camp managers attempted to keep lives as normal as possible. A camp store sold German and Japanese foods. A massive swimming pool helped keep people cool. Three high schools were established, the largest stuck with an American curriculum. A German and a Japanese school prepared the kids for their new lives overseas with language and customs classes.

The camp showed movies (but no newsreels), newspapers weren’t allowed, and correspondence was limited and censored. Internees never knew which way the war was going (in fact, until some people arrived on Japanese or German soil, they were convinced the war was going the other way).

Repatriation

Internees at Crystal City found themselves caught up in an international exchange program. German and American officials negotiated, wrote lists, revised the lists, and finally exchanged American prisoners locked up in Germany for internees from Crystal City. German American families who lived for years in the US, children and teens with American citizenship, ended up on boats heading to Europe, and repatriated into a war zone. In the later years of the war food scarcity and more mouths to feed meant families weren’t welcomed with open arms. Understandably suspicious locals distrusted English-speaking arrivals. (Many of the American born kids actually returned to the US after the war).

Crystal City remained open until 1948, three years after the war ended.

On February 24, 1983 the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that Executive Order 9066 “was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it—detention, ending detention and ending exclusion—were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership.” And in 1988, Japanese Internees and their families received $20,000 in reparations and a formal apology by President Reagan.

German-American families still wait.

German American Internee Coalition

The German American Internee Coalition (“GAIC”) was formed in 2005 by and for German American and Latin American citizens and legal residents who were interned by the United States during World War II. Their primary goal is educating the public about the US internment policies during WW2, but they also collect stories from former internees and their children. Learn more about the GAIC, and find out what you can do to help here-> German American Internee Coalition

Support the Wartime Violation of German American Civil Liberties Act of 2022

Help The German-American Heritage Foundation of the USA in their support for U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democratic Congressman from Texas, to spread awareness for a new Congressional Bill: the Wartime Violation of German American Civil Liberties Act of 2022. Click here to find out more, and how you can add your support.

You can also read more about Crystal City here–> Texas Crystal City History

Order The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell here.

The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War IIThe Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War IIThe Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

 

Comment(4)

  1. Wow! I had no idea. I need to read this book. Could this be a reason my FIL’s father finally legally changed his name from Falcone to Williams?

  2. Was a truly interesting and educational book. I recommend it to anyone interested in WWII!

  3. During WWI in New Zealand my father, little sister and parents were to be sent to an internment camp for Germans. My great grandfather was German and my grandfather and his siblings all spoke German as did my father. Luckily the new Zealand government changed their minds about internment in the First World War. When WWII arrived my father didn’t let anyone know he spoke German and would say that his family had come from Austria. Our surname was decidedly German and my great grandfather was born in Hanover but due to anti German feelings my father hid all this as best as he could. Even in the 1950’s and 1960’s in New Zealand when I was growing up there was still intense anti German feeling.

    1. I didn’t realize that. Thank you for sharing a bit of your family’s history. It’s horrible how long fear and hate last.

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