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Prisoners of Fear

Prisoners of Fear


Santa Cruz Library exhibit recounts the stories of ‘enemy aliens’ imprisoned during World War II

by Laurel Chesky

An icicle. A dust storm. Those are the only fleeting memories
Heidi Gordon can glean from her year in a Texas internment camp.
She was just 3 years old at the time.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, Gordon and her sister, Ingrid
Cutler, knew that something strange had happened to their
family, but their parents never talked about it. Caught up in the
here and now of youth, they didn’t press their parents for the truth
about the past. It wasn’t until after their father’s death that they
became curious. In 1994, when their mother was in her 80s, the two
women sat her down, stuck a photo album in front of her and turned
on the tape recorder. Over time, the story slowly unraveled.
Like thousands of other civilians of German, Italian and Japanese
descentsome legal residents, some U.S. citizens, some who didn’t
even live in the U.S.the Gurcke family (Gurcke is Heidi and
Ingrid’s maiden name) was torn from their home country of Costa
Rica and placed in an American internment camp during World War
II. The exhibit “Enemy Alien Files: Hidden Stories of World War II,”
currently showing at the Santa Cruz Library downtown, details the
imprisonments. The exhibit is a joint project of the Friends of Santa
Cruz Public Libraries and the Santa Cruz chapter of the American
Civil Liberties Union.
While the local American Japanese community has waged an
organized effort to expose the internment of their neighbors and
forefathersa re-enactment of the ordeal played to a packed house
last April in Watsonvillethe captivity of Germans and Italians is less
commonly known.
In 1936, Heidi Gordon’s father, Werner Gurcke, a German citizen
and resident of Costa Rica, married Starr Pait, who was an
American citizen. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, the
Gurckes lived in Costa Rica with their two small daughters, Heidi
and Ingrid.
Werner Gurcke wound up on a list of 35 Costa Rican residents
considered to be among the most dangerous U.S. enemies. Donald
says her father’s only “crimes” were belonging to the local German
club and donating “the equivalent of a dollar to a relief organization
for Germans that might have been a front for the Nazi Party.”
Nevertheless, Gurcke’s import-export business, along with 340
other Costa Rican businesses, was blacklisted by the British
government. Then, under pressure from the U.S., the Costa Rican
government also blacklisted his business. “Anybody in the U.S. who
continued to do business with him got a visit and was told it was an
extremely unpatriotic thing to do, and they could end up in jail,” says
Gordon, who has spent the last few years researching her family
National Insecurity
All across Latin America, U.S. intelligence agents targeted ethnic
Germans, Italians and Japanese, who were considered enemies of
the U.S., in the name of national security. At the time, the U.S.
government feared the spread of fascism so close to home. But there
were other, more insidious reasons. Axis nationals ran businesses
that successfully competed with U.S. ventures, and the U.S., some
historians say, used the war as the perfect excuse to stomp the
competition. And, the government realized they could trade Axis
nationalseven those living in Latin America and who hadn’t
entered their home countries for several yearsfor U.S. prisoners of
war overseas.
In 1942, after a German submarine attack near the port city of
Limon, Gurcke was arrested and imprisoned. In mid-December, he
was released and given a week to “take care of everything,” Gordon
says, before being shipped to the U.S. Then the Gurcke family was
herded on a cramped, stuffy U.S. Navy ship headed for California.
Werner lived in the ship’s hold with the other men, while Starr stayed
in a cabin with Heidi, 3, and Ingrid, 2. She washed diapers with
seawater and cared for the girls, who came down with whooping
cough during the voyage.
Once they landed in Southern California, Gurcke was immediately
charged with entering the country illegallyeven though he was
forced hereand sent, with his family, to an internment camp in
Crystal City, Texas. Gordon says that, after being on the ship, life
didn’t seem so bad at the camp. They received adequate food,
shelter, and medical care. Still, they were prisoners of a war they had
nothing to do with them.
Fifteen months later, the family was released and came to live in
Santa Cruz in a summer cottage owned by Starr’s family. But the
nightmare wasn’t over yet. In 1946, the U.S. government tried to
deport Werner Gurcke, not back to Costa Rica, but to Germany,
where he hadn’t lived since age 19. Gurcke was lucky. His boss
intervened and he was allowed to stay, possibly because his wife
was an American citizen. Others weren’t so lucky. Many other Latin
American Germans were sent back to Germany, a country they no
longer considered home. Even some Jews, who had escaped Nazi
Germany, found themselves on a ship back to the Fatherland.
Santa Cruz resident Maya Sapper’s father also narrowly missed
being shipped back to Germany. Sapper was 11 years old when
Guatemalan soldiers came to her house and marched her father to jail
by gunpoint. The Guatemalan government froze their assets and
kicked them off their farm, which was owned by Sapper’s
grandmother, a Swiss citizen. Her father, who was a Guatemalan
citizen, was sent to jail without being charged for any crime.
“We were shocked, we were all shocked, we couldn’t believe it,”
Sapper recalls. “We knew what was going to happen, because the
rumors were coming around that we were going to be taken away.”
Her father was eventually taken to camp in North Dakota, while the
rest of her familyher mother and four childrenstayed behind in a
rented house. They were given $100 a month, from their own seized
bank account, to live.
After the war, imprisoned Germans were being sent back to
Germany, and Sapper’s father feared that would be his fate, too. He
hired a lawyer, and a judge exonerated him of any crime. “But as he
was going down the steps of the courthouse, the police nabbed him
again and accused him of being illegally in the country,” Sapper says,
“even though they had brought him here under gunpoint. They did
that to all of them because they really wanted to use them for
exchange purposes.”
But his lawyer was able to win custody of him, and by Christmas,
1945, Sapper’s father rejoined his family in Guatemala.
Never Forget
Both Sapper and Gordon’s stories have happy endings. Neither
family got any of their money or property back. However, the
Gurckes lived out their lives peacefully n Santa Cruz. In 1953,
Werner Gurcke became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. Sapper’s
father returned to Guatemala, where he began importing BMW’s.
Both families were thankful to have survived their ordeals.
Nevertheless, the “Enemy Alien Files” exhibit at Santa Cruz Library
opens old wounds to remind the public how quickly civil rights can
deteriorate when fear grips a nation. In light of the U.S.’s war on
terrorism, it’s a timely lesson.
“I hope that today we will be aware of what happened so it won’t
happen again,” Sapper says. “I think it’s important to be aware that
our liberties can be taken away.”
Sapper doesn’t believe that what happened to her father would
happen today in her adopted country. She married an American and
moved to the U.S. in 1953. “This country has changed too much,”
she says.
Gordon, on the other hand, is not so sure. With thousands of Arabs
and other immigrants being herded up and held indefinitely by the
U.S. government in the wake of Sept. 11, she sees history repeating
itself. “What’s going on right now made me realize that I want to
speak out about this,” she says. “I think we need to think about it.
We need to look at what we did in the past, and it needs to be
The exhibit “Enemy Alien Files” shows through Feb. 28 at the
Santa Cruz Library, 224 Church St. At 6:30 p.m., Friday Jan.
31, Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the Northern
California ACLU, speaks on past and current attacks on civil
liberties. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19, local historian Sandy
Lydon speaks on the detention of “enemy aliens” during WWII.
Both programs are free and take place at the library. Call
420-5790 for more info.


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