German-American Internment in the U.S. Heartland

I became interested in German-American internment during the two World Wars when I found out that roughly 11,000 German Americans were, in fact, interned – a history few of us know. While none of my German-American ancestors were interned, one of my great-grandfathers, a German Methodist minister born in Germany, could well have been interned during World War I had flames of xenophobia had been whipped up more than they were, since everyone born in Germany were targets of suspicion. Over time, the xenophobia underlying the internments didn’t go away, but rather shifted to other groups, today principally Mexicans, Central Americans, and Muslims. Ironically, many people with German ancestry, unaware of our own history, participate in today’s xenophobia. This is why I believe that Critical Family History is, well, critically important.

So I was excited to discover Heartland: A Historical Drama about the Internment of German-Americans in the United States during World War II. Heartland, published by Sense Publishers in 2014, was written by playwright, dramaturg, and journalist Lojo Simon  and political activist and playwright Anita Simons. The play has won several awards, including Dayton Playhouse FutureFest 2008, and Long Beach Playhouse New Works Festival 2008. Sense Publishers recently released it as a book that can be read easily and used readily in schools.

The play tells a story of a German-born widow and her three children, living on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Before he died, the widow’s husband had applied to employ prisoners of war through the U.S. War Manpower Commission. When the play opens in 1941, the family is notified that his application has been approved, and two German prisoners of war are on their way. The widow is thrilled, as she and the children cannot manage the dairy farm by themselves. As the story unfolds, the family gradually develops a friendship with the two German prisoners, partly because they share a language, and also because the two young men are good workers. But non-German townspeople begin to worry that the widow may be a traitor – she has become too close to the German prisoners of war, and speaks with them in German rather than English. She is arrested, then sent to an internment camp. She never recovers from the trauma of what she is put through.

The authors explain that they became interested in writing this play in 2005 after viewing a TV documentary about the internment of German prisoners of war, paralleling imprisonment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo. They began researching German POW camps in the U.S., which led them unexpectedly to accounts of imprisonment of German-American citizens under the Alien Enemies Act, signed into law in 1798. The authors tracked down stories of German Americans who had been imprisoned, which they used to create Heartland.

Readers and family historians who want to know more about the interment of German Americans can consult the German American Internee Coalition, formed in 2005 for German-American and German Latin-American citizens and legal residents who were interned, and their descendants. There, you will learn, for example, where camps existed throughout the US and Central America that detained mixtures of German Americans, German Latin Americans, Italian Americans, and Japanese Americans.

If you are a teacher, there is much you can draw on. Heartland itself can be used in classrooms from high school on up. It is fairly short, and reads easily (although there is a fair amount of German dialog with translation available). The German American Internee Coalition provides curriculum guides for teachers. They are mapped against California’s History-Social Science Framework, but could be used anywhere. The curriculum guide consists of seventeen lesson plans and three one-act plays. The lesson plans deal with issues such as the Alien Enemies Act, motives behind imprisonment, black lists, and stories of prisoners.

I believe this is a piece of U.S. history that all of us should know. To me, it demonstrates that none of us is safe from xenophobia, but also that our collective memory of imprisoning U.S. citizens continues to be eradicated, even when it’s part of our own family stories. Perhaps if we knew our history better, we would be less likely to repeat it.

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