I am in nursery school, and we are playing a singing game. Sleeping Beauty lies in the center of our circle, giggling as she tries to keep still, and we crouch around her. Sometimes my sister or I get to be Sleeping Beauty, but usually we are part of the circle. We sing the verses and gradually stand taller, until finally we are all on tiptoe, hands held high over our heads, shouting the last verse—’The hedge grows very high!”—as we try to form an impenetrable barrier. A prince, chosen from the class, always gets through our hedge and frees our captive.
Our nursery school is surrounded by a different sort of hedge; the thorns are barbed wire. There are watchtowers and armed guards. There is no prince.
When I began looking into my family’s imprisonment in World War II, my idea was to record what had happened for my children. As I learned more, I realized our experiences did not represent an isolated injustice to one family, but a pattern that occurs whenever a nation feels threatened. Families around the world are at risk whenever government policy-makers assume that ethnicity alone decides loyalty. I hope this look at an almost-unknown chapter of United States history will be a reminder that there are lessons to be learned from our past.
…My family was one of many caught in the far-flung net cast by U.S. authorities seeking the enemy in Latin America during World War II. My father and uncle, Werner Gurcke and Karl Oskar Gurcke, were German citizens who had lived in Costa Rica since the 1920s. In the early 1930s, Karl Oskar married a Costa Rican woman with one young daughter. In 1936, my father married an American—Starr Pait, my mother—and they made their home in the capital, San José, where my sister and I were born. Blacklisted by the British in August 1940 and the United States in 1941, my father and uncle were arrested as Nazis and dangerous enemy aliens in 1942 and held without charges for six months. Then both our families were deported to the United States and interned in a camp at Crystal City, Texas.
Was my father a Nazi? Absolutely not. In January 1942, when my father registered as a resident alien in Costa Rica, he made clear that he was not at all interested in politics, preferring to concentrate on family and business. Letters both my parents wrote during the war years indicated strong dislike for Nazi policies. A governmental review of my father’s case in 1946 concluded there was no evidence he even tacitly sympathized with Hitler’s aims. Our family’s whole ordeal hinged on unsubstantiated allegations by anonymous informants—and one fact; my father was born in Germany.
In several letters, both my father and mother stated that other members of his family did have Nazi leanings. I have no evidence that any of them belonged to the Nazi Party, although they may have been nationalistic. Because my uncle and his family chose to be sent to Germany, no U.S. government review of his case was ever done.
In 1946, my father’s status as alien enemy was finally dropped, after he received the first full hearing and review of his case, but charges of illegal entry into the United States threatened repatriation until 1948. From 1940, when my parents were blacklisted in Costa Rica, until the day my father became a citizen of the United States on April 21, 1952, my parents lived with uncertainty and fear. If they had realized that even naturalized U.S. citizenship would not have safeguarded my father during the war years, they would never have felt secure again.
I learned part of our story from my mother, who was in her eighties when she finally let me interview her. Her memories were so painful that it took over a month of visits to record her recollections, offered in fragments through her tears. My father never talked about any of it. He had faced not only the destruction of his own way of life, but also the distress of knowing his parents and youngest brother were living through another war in Germany. After his death, I found he’d saved numerous letters and governmental papers, tucking them into a shabby manila folder at the back of an old filing cabinet in the garage.
Other documents and information were obtained through Freedom of Information and Privacy Act requests to various government agencies. I have not altered the abbreviated spellings my mother often used in her letters. All translations are my own. (Book revised and updated, 2008.)