- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006


It was a peculiar detention camp, where those outside the barbed-wire fence often envied those inside. It was set up in the southern Texas desert during World War II to hold suspected spies and enemies of state. Yet, the suspects were housed in neat family cottages with garden plots and given adequate food and clothing as the locals scraped by on meager wartime rations. In the summer, inmates could splash in a spacious swimming pool.

“These Germans were really nice people, and we got along real fine,” said Leo F. Sturm, 85, who worked in the camp as a dental technician.

Weeds have pushed their way through concrete slabs that used to form the bottom of the pool, submerging them in a ragged patchwork of brown and green.

The camp is vanishing now, probably to the delight of its former operators from two wartime Democratic administrations.

But the camp remains in the memories of those it used to house: thousands of people of German descent rounded up and brought here from all over the Western Hemisphere with the apparent purpose of trading them for Americans caught in German-occupied Europe. Many had non-German spouses; their children were often U.S. citizens.

The administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman wanted numbers, former detainees said, because each person sent to Germany meant one American coming out of it. U.S. officials scoured Latin America to come up with “exchange material.”

More than 60 years later, the State Department declined to comment on the wartime exchanges. “In order to comment on it, I would have to research the entire history of World War II and find out if in fact that’s the case,” said department spokeswoman Nancy Beck. “I am not in the position to do that for you.”

A bill sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, to mandate a government study of the issue passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in November but was anonymously put on hold by another senator.

In a leafy San Antonio neighborhood, there is a home where the Crystal City camp never fades from memory.

“We were brought there from Costa Rica first by ship and then by train in 1942,” recalled Irma Gehrmann, who at 98 still prefers her native Spanish. “It was like an oven in the summer.”

She was the daughter of a prominent lawyer and was married to Franc Kurt Gehrmann, a German-born accountant, who had immigrated to Costa Rica after World War I, long before Adolf Hitler came to power.

Under pressure from the U.S. Embassy, Mrs. Gehrmann said, Costa Rican police grabbed the couple and their four children and delivered them to a Texas-bound U.S. barge. They stayed in the Crystal City camp — whose wartime population fluctuated from 3,000 to 3,200 — for about a year before they were told they would be sent to Germany as part of an exchange program.

“My heart sank,” Mrs. Gehrmann recalled. “I told them I did not want to go. I said: ‘Germany? Why Germany? I have nothing to do with Germany. My maiden name was Gutierrez.’ And they said: ‘Lady, your husband and children are going. Do you really want to stay?’ I felt I really had no choice.”

They were brought to Rosenheim, in Bavaria, and left to fend for themselves under almost daily Allied bombings. Her 8-year-old daughter, Liliana, was immediately immersed in a Nazi indoctrination course and had to memorize passages from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

At least 4,050 Latin Americans of German descent, former detainees say, were similarly plucked from their countries and shipped to U.S. internment camps like the one in Crystal City. Hundreds eventually made the trip to Germany on the chartered Swedish passenger ship Gripsholm, which would make a total of six Atlantic crossings, delivering “exchange material” to war-ravaged Europe.

Unloaded in Marseilles, in the south of France, the captives would continue their journey by train to Bregenz, Switzerland, where they would be transferred to a train headed for Germany. The emptied train would be filled with Americans and make its way back to the waiting Gripsholm, which would return them to the United States.

On Jan. 7, 1945, the Swedish ship sailed from Jersey City, N.J., with as many as 102 persons of German descent and members of their families rounded up in Mexico, according to a State Department report about the event.

Few former Crystal City internees think any serious security risk assessment was behind either their forced imprisonment or the exchanges. All the U.S. government wanted, many say, was somebody with a German-sounding last name.

A secret memorandum written on Dec. 12, 1942, by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall contains instructions on how to handle Latin Americans of German descent — and a telling admission: “These interned nationals are to be used for exchange with interned American civilian nationals.”

But there apparently were not enough Latin Americans of German origin to satisfy the needs of the program. So, hundreds of U.S. residents of German ancestry and members of their families, many of them U.S. citizens, found themselves on the way to the Third Reich as well.

Bernard Levermann, a retiree living in Euless, a community between Dallas and Fort Worth, ended up on the Gripsholm in early 1945, when he was about 4, after spending two years in Crystal City with his German-born parents.

They eventually found themselves in the German port city of Bremerhaven, with Allied bombs raining down. “It’s a strange feeling when you sit down there and your own people are bombing you,” Mr. Levermann said with a laugh.

Similar memories still haunt Lothar Eiserloh, 70. Born in the United States, he spent two years in the Crystal City camp and was sent to Germany with his parents in January 1945, when he was 9.

His father, a civil engineer from Cleveland, was arrested by the Gestapo near Frankfurt a week after the family’s arrival, accused of being “an American spy” and not freed until U.S. troops arrived that spring, Mr. Eiserloh said.

“I guess governments do strange things in wartime,” he says. “But I am certain they sent us to Crystal City for the sole purpose of exchanging for somebody they wanted.”

The survivors say they seek no monetary compensation from the U.S. government for their wartime treatment, but they desire some official recognition.

“The country has already given me everything I need, and at this stage of my life, I don’t want any more,” said Mr. Levermann, 65. “But I don’t want something like this to ever happen to other children.”



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