[This review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Fall 1999, pp. 383-4. It was reprinted in The St. Croix Review, June 2000, pp. 63-4.]
The Prison Called Hohenasperg
by Arthur D. Jacobs
Universal Publishers, 1999
$19.95, Paperback, 162 pages
ISBN No. 1-58112-832-0
Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey
The significance of this book varies with the level of comprehension with which it is read. It is possible to read it simply as the personal memoir of a retired American Air Force major who tells the gripping account of his experiences during and immediately after World War II, when as the son of German parents living in Brooklyn, he was held in internment first at Ellis Island, then at Crystal City, Texas, before finally, at age 12, being deported to just-defeated Germany, where he was transported with others in a locked and unheated boxcar and finally imprisoned, as if a Nazi, in the American military prison at Hohenasperg, Germany. The narrative continues to tell how he celebrated his thirteenth birthday in his cell there. He was soon transferred to a camp in Ludwigsberg. After he, his brother, and parents were released in March 1946, they lived a life of destitution and near-starvation in Germany until finally an American woman made arrangements for him to return to the United States to live with a family in western Kansas. He did not see his parents again until 1958.
The broader meaning of the book is found in part in what it tells us about Americans of that time. Some were warm-hearted and generous, such as at the internment camp in Crystal City, where everything was done to make the conditions humane, and such as the woman who in effect rescued him and directed him to the family that made him one of their own in Kansas. While he was in Germany seeking ways to help his family survive, Jacobs was befriended by American G.I.s. Other Americans, however, were cold, bureaucratic, often extremely cruel, in ways that readers will be shocked to discover: the FBI's ransacking the Jacobs family's home in Brooklyn repeatedly, and taking away the father, without any explanation; the inhumanity of 92 hours in a frozen boxcar without heat or blankets, with only a common bucket for urination and defecation, and with only bread and water to eat and drink; the incarceration of a young boy in a heavily guarded cell, where he was told that the punishment for misbehavior would be hanging. This is a portrait that Americans don't like to associate with themselves. If it came from someone anti-American, it would be one thing; but it comes from a man who, as a native-born American citizen, went on to serve his country until his retirement from the Air Force.
What is perhaps most significant about the memoir, however, is that in very human terms it "gives the lie" to the claims of alienated Japanese-American activists, and the many others who have pandered to them politically and ideologically, since the 1960s that the United States evinced a vicious anti-Oriental racism during World War II by interning Japanese-Americans, but not doing so with German-Americans. It shows that Germans in the United States were in fact interned and deported - and, with them, their children who, having been born in the United States, were American citizens. This undercuts the cry of "unique victimization" made by the activists.
We know, of course, that much else undercuts their claims. While Japanese aliens were in fact interned, and Japanese-Americans who proclaimed a fierce loyalty to Japan were also held in compulsory custody at Tule Lake, the great bulk of Japanese-Americans were not interned at all, but were evacuated from the west coast of the United States to relocation camps, from which they could then resettle for the duration of the war, if they wished, to any part of the country other than the west coast. Funds were even raised to help send 4,300 young Japanese-Americans to 300 American colleges while the war was still in progress. Conditions at the relocation camps were along the lines of those described by Jacobs at Crystal City: somewhat spartan housing identical to the barracks in which American soldiers were housed, but with a great many cultural and recreational amenities.
The book is enhanced by an insightful Introduction by Joseph E. Fallon, who adds a point we might otherwise not have thought of: that "one of the primary purposes of the internment program was to provide the U.S. Government with leverage in negotiations with Berlin for the return of persons from the Americas who were interned by [the] Third Reich." Thus, Jacobs found by painful experience that in wartime the fate of individuals often turns on larger strategic or tactical needs.