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Kids hear of wartime spent behind barbed wire


CRARYVILLE–German American Eberhard Fuhr spoke to 110 eighth graders at Taconic Hills School Monday, December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, about his internment during World War II.

Many Americans know that Japanese civilians and Japanese American citizens living in this country were rounded up and forced to live in government camps after Japanese aircraft attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, HI. But less well known is fate of German immigrants, who were also incarcerated during this time. They have not received any of the compensation money recently given by the U.S. government to Japanese Americans.

“Were any of you born somewhere else?” Mr. Fuhr asked his audience. Hardly a hand went up.

Mr. Fuhr, who lives in Palatine, Ill., and is the grandfather of Taconic Hills eighth grader Julia Skoda, was born in Germany and came to America with his parents at the age of three. That was more than a decade before the outbreak of the war, but he spent the war years, 1941-45, with his family behind a 12-foot-high prison fence. Some 11,000 of his countrymen and a large number of people from Central and South America were also interned.

“Pearl Harbor changed the world,” said Mr. Fuhr. “It was like the attack on the World Trade Center.”  About the same number of people died that Sunday morning as were killed September 11, and the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor caused the US to enter World War II. At the time Mr. Fuhr was a senior at a Cincinnati high school, and a letter man on the football and baseball teams.

In the 1940’s, he explained, “aliens,” those born outside the United States who were over 12 years old, were asked by our government to register and get special ID cards, called internal passports. First the government restricted the places aliens could live, then it began to arrest people, including his parents. Children either went along or were sent to orphanages. Some children weren’t told where their parents were taken and were left to fend for themselves.

After his parents’ arrest, Mr. Fuhr lived alone in his family’s house and continued going to school. He supported himself with a paper route. Then one day he was taken out of class and arrested by two gun wielding FBI agents, who had a warrant signed by Francis Biddle, the attorney general of the United States, the man responsible for creating our country’s internment program.

Mr. Fuhr and his brother were held for a time at what he describes as a medieval style prison in Ohio, with, for example, buckets instead of toilets. They were called Nazis by prison guards and prison inmates. At their hearings they were denied the right to legal counsel because, they were told, it was “easier for the government.” The pro-forma hearings described as “only a courtesy” by the attorney general, involved hours of interrogation about anonymous tips authorities said they had received from classmates and neighbors.

Then they were taken to their family’s house one last time to collect clothes. “That was the last time we saw it. It was looted, damaged and later torn down during the war,” said Mr. Fuhr. Understandably, the family was unable to make mortgage payments while interned. All the family’s belongings including irreplaceable photographs and mementos were lost.

Next, the boys were taken to Chicago in shackles. Though interned in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, when he turned 18 Mr. Fuhr was required to register for the draft. Later the boys were reunited with their parents at a family internment camp in Crystal City, Texas, and there they enjoyed somewhat more freedom of movement around the camp plus a sense of community.

Families lived together in small houses, where they did their own cooking. They used bath houses provided for blocks of houses and endured desert temperatures that rose as high as 110 degrees.

The inmates built an irrigation pond that doubled as a swimming pool, which provided some relief from the heat. Many young people met spouses in the camp and started families. His brother married a Brazilian woman. Mr. Fuhr, too, found his wife at the camp.

Camp schools for Germans, Japanese and others were “not as good as those outside the camp,” but medical care was adequate and 250 babies were born during his stay there.

Mr. Fuhr said the international environment engendered a high level of communication across ethnic lines, without troubling racial tensions, a situation he found stimulating. The Germans formed sports teams and competed against the Japanese. Although never a good student before internment, he vowed at the time that he would make something of himself once he got out. The photos he showed of groups of smiling young people taken at the camp resemble similar photos in other yearbooks from the era. The youths appear healthy and happy.

Mr. Fuhr worked on the ice crew and learned to drive the truck used to deliver ice to the family units for refrigeration.

To their surprise, the German internees were not released after America emerged victorious at the end of the war, even though many Japanese were allowed to leave. President Truman considered them to be dangerous criminals and they were taken to Ellis Island to await deportation. Only after Senator William Langer argued a definitive legal case in 1947 did they regain their freedom, having been deprived of their civil rights and having lost everything they had at the start of the war.

Though his parents returned to Cincinnati, Mr. Fuhr and his wife remained in New York City, where he sold pesticide door to door in Harlem. He went to college while his wife supported him, later earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin, and had a successful business career. He became a US citizen in 1955, after having to go through a waiting period just like new immigrants.

Taconic Hills Social Studies teacher Nancy Byrne reminded her students of Nelson Mandela’s 27 years behind bars in South Africa, during which he told himself daily that he was the captain of his fate, in charge of his destiny. “That’s what you did,” she told Mr. Fuhr.

Mr. Fuhr was interviewed by C-Span for a program on internment that aired October 13 and is available from the cable TV service as a DVD. More information and photos can be found at .

Although he vowed he would never go back to Ellis Island, where his family languished in a kind of purgatory after the war, Mr. Fuhr did return there last week to speak to many internees, including a few friends from the camp.

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