German-American shares experience of wartime internment
At 17, Eberhard Fuhr lettered in varsity football, belonged to student clubs and studied hard until two FBI agents arrested him.
They led the teenager out of his Cincinnati high school in front of wide-eyed classmates. One agent clasped his left arm while the other followed behind with a drawn pistol. Outside, they handcuffed him.
Fuhr will never forget the day in 1943, when he lost all belongings inside his school locker along with his dignity.
Later, authorities sent the young man to a camp in Crystal City, Texas, where he was interned with the rest of his family as an enemy alien.
“I did more than four years for being German,” Fuhr said.
Today, the Palatine, Ill., man tells a little-known and compelling story.
During World War II, the U.S. government interned 15,000 German-American civilians as enemy aliens. Some were U.S. citizens.
Congress has apologized for the wartime internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans and nationals, Fuhr said, but it has largely refused to acknowledge holding German-Americans for years in internment camps. Some were deported to fend for themselves in wartime Germany.
Tim Holian, senior lecturer at UW-Rock County, invited Fuhr to speak on campus Tuesday, April 29.
“This is something really unique,” Holian said. “I don't think anyone has had a chance to hear this story. I don't know if they will get the chance again. There are not many people still alive with clear memories of internment anymore.”
German-Americans who were sent to camps lost their homes and all their possessions.
“These are real people, not something from a dusty textbook,” Holian said. “These things happened to them, not because of wrongdoing, but because of the times they lived in.”
At 89, Fuhr shares the painful details so history will not be lost.
“I don't accept expense money when I make presentations,” he said. “I want this story to get out. No one seems to know about German-American internment.”
He does not condemn the United States for what it did.
“But I would like to see someone openly debate internment,” Fuhr said. “How can you do it without trampling on the human and civil rights of people?”
Born in Germany in 1925, Fuhr came to the United States with his parents and older brother in 1928.
In 1942, his parents and younger brother, who was born in the United States, were sent to an internment camp with 12-foot-high fences and guard towers every 50 yards. The Crystal City camp in the harsh desert held both German-Americans and Japanese-Americans.
Before leaving their home, Fuhr's parents were not allowed to pack clothing or personal items.
“My mother was 52 and a homemaker, whose life revolved around the church and taking care of the kids,” Fuhr said. “She lost all the family photos, including baby photos of her kids. My parents lost all their possessions and their house.”
When the war ended, young Fuhr and his family thought for sure they would be released. But the government shipped them and those still in the camp in 1947 to Ellis Island, where conditions were cramped and dirty. The plan was to send them back to Germany.
After a Congressional hearing, the U.S. Attorney General granted releases to those still in custody more than two years after the end of hostilities with Germany.
“My family, burdened with the stigma of internment, had to start from scratch,” Fuhr said. “My parents never really recovered emotionally or economically.”
Fuhr completed high school and graduated from Ohio University with highest honors. He also met his late wife of more than 56 years in the camp.
“I dwell on the positive,” he said. “But I resent what was done to my mother and my father. Without experiencing internment, no one can appreciate the intense terror of government power and the despair of hopelessness one feels.”
He said many internees went to their graves never speaking of the experience because of the psychological scars that it left.
“No internee ever was convicted of a crime,” Fuhr said. “They were not criminals, but people caught in a web of wartime hysteria.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.