German Americans

With war declared on December 7, 1941, German American aliens, like Italian and Japanese American aliens, became “enemy aliens.” As such, under a presidential proclamation, any enemy alien 14 years old or over was liable to apprehension, restraint, and removal. Habeas corpus and the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause failed to extend to enemy aliens, U.S. courts had ruled. The threat of invasion made them liable to summary arrest and detention.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) apprehended enemy aliens identified as dangerous, allegedly, to the nation's security. For Italian and Japanese Americans, those targeted for internment were men who had served in their country's military, newspaper publishers and editors, radio broadcasters, and language schoolteachers. In the first few weeks of the war, the FBI picked up some 1,260 German Americans. Like the other enemy aliens, German American aliens were subject to the military's curfews and prohibited zones along the West Coast, and those apprehended were placed in internment camps run by the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Eddie Friedman, born to Jewish parents in Hamburg, Germany in 1892, immigrated with his wife to San Francisco in 1931. In Germany, Friedman was an attorney and judge, but in the United States, he sold and delivered home baked Viennese cookies and pastries and worked as an elevator operator in San Francisco's office buildings. In September 1940, Friedman and his wife registered under the Alien Registration Act, and on December 8, 1941, FBI agents broke into their home and ransacked the place looking for evidence, and then took him in. As he signed the proclamations to take in German and Italian American enemy aliens, President Franklin Roosevelt remarked, according to his attorney general, “I don't care so much about Italians. They are a lot of opera singers. But the Germans are different; they may be dangerous” (Christgau, 54).

Wolfgang Thomas was born, like Friedman, in Hamburg, Germany, in 1904. He was a businessman, married a German American, and immigrated and settled with her and their two small children in Seattle, Washington. He worked for an import firm, and applied for U.S. citizenship but was told he had to wait three years. On December 8, 1941, the Seattle FBI office received word from Washington, D.C. to apprehend Thomas as a dangerous enemy alien. They entered his home, searched the place, seizing films, letters, and books, and escorted Thomas to their car. The agents explained to Thomas's wife they were taking him to the Seattle INS office, and that was it.

Eddie Friedman was driven to FBI headquarters, and turned over to the INS. At the temporary detention station, he encountered other German and Italian and Japanese American aliens. All the men were handcuffed, and the German and Italian Americans were assigned beds along the outer perimeter and Japanese Americans, the inner beds. On December 17, 1941, the German American aliens were told they were heading for Bismarck, North Dakota, and they were placed on board a train. The passenger train had barred, blacked-out windows, and guards with machine guns faced the men. In Portland, the train picked up 22 more enemy aliens, including Wolfgang Thomas. They reached Bismarck on December 20, 1941, and were loaded onto army trucks and taken to Fort Lincoln where they met 292 captured German seamen taken from ships in U.S. ports. German Americans numbered 118.

Friedman developed fence sickness, he told his fellow internees, being cooped up behind barbed wire. He wrote to Edward Ennis, director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit, and to Eleanor Roosevelt, the president's wife. He was merely “selling cookies and pastries,” he wrote to Roosevelt, when he was apprehended. “As you are in a position to help people in distress more than anybody else in the country, I would like to ask if it would be possible to bring about an early release” (Christgau, 61).

In February 1942, news spread through the camp that a Japanese American internee, Jinosuke Higashi, had committed suicide after his comrades had given him a farewell party. On March 25, 1942, Wolfgang Thomas received word that he was ordered for internment following his Alien Enemy Hearing Board appearance. The board considered him potentially dangerous. Three days later, Eddie Friedman was paroled but not back to San Francisco, which was a restricted zone for enemy aliens. He had to live outside the prohibited zone and have sponsors. He could not meet those conditions, but on April 24, 1942, Friedman finally received word he could return to his home in San Francisco because restrictions had been lifted. Four days later, Friedman climbed the steps to his apartment, opened the door, and announced to his waiting wife, “It's me. Hello … I'm home” (Christgau, 81).

Wolfgang Thomas received word of his release on May 28, 1943. He left Fort Lincoln on June 5, and two days later he was home. “It is a wonderful feeling,” he wrote to the officer in charge of Fort Lincoln, “to be home with my family again” (Christgau, 85).

Gary Y. Okihiro


Christgau, John. “Enemies”: World War II Alien Internment. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1985.