On his thirty-third birthday, January 10, 1942, my father sent a letter to the Costa Rican secretary of state as required, registering his name and address as a resident alien. My parents spent hours thinking about how to make it clear that Werner was not a danger to the country, in spite of his place of birth. He wrote in Spanish.

“As a German subject, I want to make it known that I have been in this country for twelve years, dedicating myself to business. I married a North American woman and my life has been spent on work and home. I belong to no party nor do I support Nazi ideas. I want to say this for future record. I’d also like to say that my two little daughters are registered with the North American Consulate.”

Neither of them was aware that Werner was now labeled “one of the most dangerous German nationals in the country” in a secret FBI memo. The memo, sent to the Alien Enemy Control unit in Washington D.C., stated, “During 1941, several reports were received from a source generally reliable to the effect that Gurcke was a German merchant in Costa Rica who possessed Nazi sympathies and was considered to be one of the most dangerous German nationals in the country. It was reported that he and his wife were voting members of the German Club of San Jose [sic].”

My father’s driver’s license

He spent less time in town now. What work he could do there took only a few hours. He picked the coffee harvest—hot, dirty, physical labor—and he and my mother spread it out to dry. Since they had no equipment for roasting it, they sold the crop to a larger concern. He also planted a variety of vegetables, many of them succumbing almost immediately to insects and animal predators. Doggedly, he replanted. …

My father was profoundly troubled when he came home from town on June 28. Local newspapers, including the La Tribuna he held in his hand, had a full page of the names of people and companies on the Lista Negra o Proclamada Para Costa Rica (Costa Rican Black or Proclaimed list). The vicious banner above the names declared: “Do not buy from the enemies of the democracy. The money you give will be used to attack you. Eliminated economic dealings with the sympathizers of Gestapo crimes. It is a war to the death: You are totally against them or with them. …” It was signed “La Directiva de la Acción Democrática Costarricense” (Board of Directors, Costa Rican Democratic Action Committee). Werner hadn’t realized until the moment he read those words how widespread the demonization of Axis nationals had become. He was also shaken when he saw that my mother’s name had been added to the list.

Then a few days later, the Costa Rican military raided our home, confiscating my parents’ old hunting rifle, camera and radio. It was the loss of the camera that hurt the most; there would be no more pictures of Ingrid or me.

My mother’s driver’s license

… July brought more bad news. A German submarine torpedoed a ship in Limón, killing twenty-four crewmen. That led to protests and a riot in San José, injuring seventy-six and damaging one hundred and twenty-three buildings. One hundred Germans were immediately imprisoned, and the rest were confined to house arrest. Karl Oskar was jailed on July 4, while my father was placed under house arrest.

It fell on my mother now to drive into town, trying to collect money that was still owed to the business. And people paid. They were very nice about it, to her relief. She also had to tackle the Junta de Custodia to gain access to our family’s savings.

My father was chagrined to be so powerless. After over a week of staying in the house and garden, he was wild with restlessness. He decided to take a walk at dusk, unable to contain himself. My mother insisted on going with him. We children were left in the care of María Rodríguez, a neighbor. Whether someone saw him away from the finca and reported it, they never found out, but several days later—on the fifteenth—he was arrested and taken to a prison in San José.

What had happened? Was he asked to report to the police station, or was he picked up by Costa Rican police in a late-night raid of our home? Other families in Latin America reported their men simply disappeared, snatched off the streets. Some were gone for months before they were able to write their loved ones from a camp in the United States or from Germany or Japan. My mother only told me of the walk she took with my father the last time they were free together in Costa Rica. I didn’t think to press for more details. …