The Lost Story of German Latin Americans Interned During WW2
After Pearl Harbor, the US state department strong-armed Latin American allies like Costa Rica into dispossessing, and often deporting, German immigrants.
With the Statue of Liberty looming overhead, an 11-year-old boy named Jurgen sat huddled in his coat, alongside his family and few pieces of luggage, as a cold wind blew off the Hudson River.
Ellis Island is best known as the former gateway for millions of immigrants entering the US, but in the winter of 1944, the boy – Jurgen – and his family were about to be deported to Germany.
“We were processed on Ellis Island as illegal immigrants,” said Jurgen, now 82. “In reality, we were kidnapped by the US government.”
Jurgen and his family were among thousands of Latin Americans of German origin who were rounded up by their respective governments on orders from the US following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.
They were detained in accordance with a little-known US state department program. The Special War Problems Division would orchestrate the detention of more than 4,000 Latin Americans from Germany, Japan and Italy in internment camps in Texas and elsewhere, as well as localized detention centers in Latin America.
In all, 15 Latin American countries would deport residents and citizens of German ancestry to detention centers in the United States, often without legal recourse, according to a statement from the National Archives.
The internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps has been recognized by the US Congress, but the story of Latin Americans with origins in axis countries has been largely lost to history.
As the 73rd anniversary of the US entry into the second world war approaches, fewer and fewer people remain who experienced firsthand the Immigration and Naturalization Service internment camps in the US.
The second world war arrived swiftly for Jurgen’s family and other Germans living in Costa Rica. Less than a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Jurgen’s father was arrested by Costa Rican police on 2 January 1942.
By the late 1930s,the FBI had begun to identify possible Nazi sympathizers, fearing Axis forces would establish a foothold in Latin America. In the case of Costa Rica, the US Embassy in San José submitted a list of names to be deported to the government, a move acknowledged in a State Department memo dated 15 November 1943.
Larger countries like Mexico, Chile and Argentina resisted the demand to deport their citizens, but that was not an option for the small Central American nation. In 1942, the US state department announced that it would boycott all Costa Rican products from German-owned companies. Coffee accounted for more than half of the country’s exports between 1938 and 1945 – and the coffee business was dominated by German firms, according to Gertrud Peters, an economic historian at the National University of Costa Rica.
Unable to ship goods to Germany because of the allied blockade, Costa Rica – among many other Latin American nations – was forced to comply.
Two weeks after Jurgen’s father was detained, a letter arrived from the police informing his family that he had been deported to the US, where he was being held in the country’s largest internment camp, in Crystal City, Texas.
The dusty Texas town could not have been more different from the mild climate and green mountains of San José.
The 500-acre internment camp, which at its peak would house nearly 3,400 detainees, was still largely under construction when Jurgen arrived in late 1943.
“The camp was built on an old spinach field,” Jurgen said. “There was a statue of Popeye in the town.” The statue still stands in Crystal City today.
After rain the unpaved roads would become thick with mud, and Jurgen and the other children took to walking to the latrines on short stilts to protect their shoes.
Jurgen said that the camp provided all the basics for his family, including simple accommodation in three-unit row houses, communal latrines and food. His father, a businessman, found work laying asphalt for the camp’s roads and, briefly, plucking feathers off turkeys.
Jurgen and his younger brother cut beet greens with a knife to earn $1 an hour, which the family could use to order goods from the Montgomery Ward Catalog. The family was already saving up to buy coats for the next leg of their journey back to Germany.
Besides keeping axis nationals from supposedly impeding the US war effort at home, Crystal City served an important role for the US abroad: providing the country with a grab-bag of prisoners who could be traded for Americans held by the Third Reich.
Faced with the prospect of spending the remaining years of the war in detention, Jurgen’s family volunteered for deportation.
The family traveled by train to Ellis Island before they boarded a Red Cross ship and sailed back to Europe. Allied and Russian forces were beginning to close in on Germany. As Jurgen and his family filed off the boat in Lisbon, a line of American prisoners waited to board, bound back to the United States.
Jurgen’s family eventually returned to Costa Rica in 1948. They were able to recover their properties, but the same could not be said for many German families, whose businesses and land were seized by the government and sold to pay down the national debt and subsidize populist land reforms.
After years in war-torn Germany, what they found in Costa Rica was yet more conflict: following a disputed election in 1948, the country fell into a brief civil war. That war brought about the rise of President José Figueres, the leader who abolished Costa Rica’s army in 1948. The following year, Costa Rica declared its political neutrality.