The Miami Herald
Nov. 08, 2002

Kendall man revisiting boyhood at WWII Texas internment camp


  In 1943, John Schmitz's German-born father told the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he wouldn't fight against the Germans. He was branded a ''dangerous enemy alien'' to the United States and put into an internment camp.

  The Alien Family Internment Camp in Crystal City, Texas, was the only camp that housed entire families -- giving them the chance to avoid separation -- in the United States. During the war, nearly 1,000 Germans and about a dozen Italians lived there, along with 2,300 Japanese.

  This weekend, Schmitz, of Kendall, will return to the camp for a reunion of the internees -- the first time the group has met since the end of World War II.

  ''I knew which side of the barbed wire I was on,'' Schmitz, now 66, said of his childhood, adding that he wants to attend the reunion to understand that experience as an adult.

  Schmitz was just 7 when his family entered the camp in 1943. It would be three years before his father was allowed to leave the high-security compound.


  The rest of his family was allowed to come and go, but only under tight security measures. The Immigration and Naturalization Service warned the internees not to talk about where they had been.

  During World War II, some 3,000 German and 300 Italian citizens living in the United States and Latin America were held in camps throughout the United States. More than 120,000 Japanese, regardless of their citizenship, were also incarcerated.

  ''The Japanese were a convenient scapegoat,'' said Dr. Stephen Fox, a former history professor from California State University at Humboldt. ``They were a smaller group [in the United States], they were more easily identifiable, and they were morally isolated in society.''


  The internment of German and Italian citizens was more selective, Florida State University history professor Max Paul Friedman added. In their cases, the FBI was more likely to have evidence of conspiracy with enemy governments.

  However, Friedman said many German and Italian citizens living in Latin America were interned unfairly. Cash bribes encouraged some Latin American citizens to give false information about their German and Italian immigrant neighbors.

  Schmitz said his father blamed their internment on suspicious neighbors in New York City who complained to authorities that Schmitz's family was listening to German music. When the FBI discovered that Schmitz's father was an illegal immigrant who jumped ship and made it to the U.S. shore, he was suspected of conspiring with the Nazis.

  ''I wasn't resentful, because my father wasn't resentful,'' Schmitz said. ``He considered it to be a vacation at the government's expense.''


  Inside the camp, work was optional. School was taught in each group's native language. Internees could build and renovate their camp homes and spend in-camp
  money. There were beer halls, soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts and a summer theater, Schmitz recalled.

  ''As a kid, I really didn't mind,'' Schmitz said. ``I went to school and went swimming.''

  But the older residents of Crystal City were more aware of the armed guards, the 10-foot control towers and the floodlights.

  The war outside the barbed-wire fences was hardly talked about. But after the family was released, they returned to New York City and learned more about the

  ''I became annoyed and felt guilty that I was a German American because of how the Nazis had performed,'' Schmitz said.

  Once at Marine boot camp in the mid-1950s, he mentioned his experience to a supervisor and was promptly labeled a ``Nazi.''

  So he kept quiet about the experience.

  But now he seeks historic recognition for German and Italian internees.


  ''We get surprised faces when we tell people we were interned,'' Schmitz said. ``People almost always say they didn't know about it. I'd just like to see something in the history books.''

  So would his son John Eric Schmitz, a 37-year-old doctoral student at American University's history department. If it weren't for his family's experience, John Eric
  Schmitz said he would have gone through the U.S. public-school system without ever knowing about the internment of Italians and Germans.

  In 2000, President Clinton passed a bill officially recognizing the internment of Italians in U.S. camps. A bill is pending in Congress for German internees.

  John Eric Schmitz is writing his dissertation on the detainees' experiences. The subject, he said, is relevant to the current political climate for Muslims living in the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11.

  ''At least politicians are trying to say we don't want to repeat what we did to the Japanese, although it'd be nice if they'd also mention the Germans and Italians,'' he
  said. ``Few historians know what happened to them.''