Gertrude Anna Schneider, an interned German immigrant
Paul Schneider, an excluded naturalized German America citizen
As told to eldest daughter, Vilma Schneider Ralston in
| Paul and Gertrude
Gertrude Anna Schneider, began life in Backnang, Germany
(near Stuttgart) on September 25, 1908….first child of Johann and Luise
Grokenberger. Her first five years were spent in the area in which,
amazingly, she remembers her paternal grandparents, the river than ran
near the town, and the greeting amongst the villagers of Gruss Gott!
Especially does she remember that one evening, in
looking at the moon, her grandfather told her “Someday, Traudl, man
will walk on the moon”. She never forgot his words. The unsettledness
of the times encouraged her parents to consider emigration to Canada.
The posters offered opportunities that were not available in Germany at
the time, which was a time of unease, of unemployment, etc. When
Gertrude was 5 yrs old, and with now a little brother, Adolph, the
family headed to Canada along with many other emigrants. Gertrude
recalled riding in open wagons loaded with other families as they
headed west toward Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; there were many days on
the road, but there also was a sense of adventure which kept most of
them hopeful. Finally, they arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, and were
taken in hand by other German immigrants who had arrived some time
before. In the l0 years they were there, Johann’s journeyman
bricklaying gave him all the employment he needed to provide for his
growing family. Some of what Johann built is still standing today,
including the hospital. While there, he and Luise helped to build and
attend a local Lutheran church, which is, also, still standing. By now,
the family consisted of six children who attended German school to keep
up their original language in a land where English is the national
language.. The cold, harsh winters finally made the family realize that
they should consider relocating to Southern California; friends told
them that work was plentiful and the climate ‘friendly’.
Father Johann left for Los Angeles in 1923, found
employment and a house to rent, called for his family to come, which
they did after an eventful train trip all the way from Edmonton,
Alberta, Canada. The family now settled into their new country, and
soon the 7th child made his appearance, and the family was complete.
Gertrude attended night school to learn proper English and also
attended beauty college…eventually working as a hairdresser, even to
fixing the hair of the starlets in Hollywood.
At a German picnic, she met Paul Schneider, born in
Hamburg, Germany.. He had been a merchant seaman with German and
Swedish shipping companies. He left his ship in Southern California and
after marrying Gertrude, decided on the profession of interior
decorator. Two daughters were born to them, Vilma in 1928 and Verona in
1930. The Depression was in full swing, but frugal Germans as they
were, including Gertrude’s parents, they endured those years by raising
their own food and meat on a few acres. “Oma” Grokenberger fed many at
her table with the fruits of her labor. In 1939, Paul and Gertrude
attended the Deutsche Haus in Los Angeles, enjoying picnics in the
summer, all the ‘fests’ in spring and fall. Their youth were taught
crafts by Gertrude and continuation of their German lessons plus the
festivities of the Maypole and other activities. Though the war came
along and the ensuing story of Gertrude and Paul’s tribulations
followed, there was always the fond memories of the German festivities
before the war, a bright light in a world that was darkening.
On December 7, 1941, about 7:30 pm, three men came to
our home and asked for me. They showed me their badges and informed me
that they were FBI agents. They searched the house, but found only a
box of personal letters from family members living in Germany. Among
the items was a postcard from Paul's sister, living in Stuttgart,
Germany, on which was a picture of Hitler. I was then instructed to get
my coat since they were taking me with them.
I was put into the back seat of the car with one of the
men who carried the box of personal letters. He asked me why I hadn't
become a citizen. I told him that my folks were citizens, my husband
was a citizen and that I had two American-born children. I had gone to
school here and had worked here before I was married. I felt like an
American and just hadn't begun the application for the citizenship
papers themselves. We went to German cultural doings in the LA area and
while my husband was a member of the German Haus, I was not. I realize
now that all German-American clubs were considered "subversive" since
our Government had been negative toward German people for many years.
My "ride" ended at what must have been the police
station. It was a big building where I was taken into the basement
area. I was put into a room where one man sat and was left with him. He
said very little to me. He had me sit under a bright light which got
hot and uncomfortable after awhile. I asked to use the restroom and he
called a matron to take me there. She wouldn't allow me to close the
door, though. I tried to for privacy. I was returned to the small room
and was made to sit there until 2 am. The man there went through the
box of personal letters and I thought that he certainly would return
them to me but he didn't.
Now I was taken to a waiting car where there were men I
knew from the German Club, two of them. I wondered why I was being put
in with these men since they were officers of the German Haus.
Reporters took our pictures and we were on the front page of the
newspaper the next morning, I was told. (My picture was even in a
detective magazine some time later.) This time the two men and I were
taken to the County Jail where we were fingerprinted and photographed.
I was taken to a matron's office. She grabbed my arm and hissed "You
dirty Nazi spy!" I told her I was NOT a spy. I told her that I had two
children home alone, waiting for me. Again she grabbed my arm and
pushed me into a chair and kept me there for a short time. Then she
called in another matron, told me to take a shower and gave me blue
prison garb to wear. I don't know what happened to my clothes. Now I
was put into a cell with another woman. My "cellmate" asked me if I was
German. I said I was. She told me her name was Mrs.D. She said that her
husband was in business as an ornamental ironworker and when I
mentioned that one of my brothers had worked for them, immediately she
remembered him. Then we heard a muffled call from the next cell and a
woman asked in German whether we were German, too. We told her we were.
She was Mrs. B, she said. Now the matrons told us to be quiet!
On the 3rd day, all of the German women were taken to
Terminal Island in San Pedro. Mrs. B and Mrs. D were with me and also a
fourth lady named Paula H. When we were finally allowed to read a
newspaper, I remember reading that Hitler "assumed" that America was at
war with Germany since a German ship had been torpedoed. What upset us
German women was that we had been arrested on the day of Pearl Harbor,
before America was even at war with Germany and even before the
Japanese were arrested and sent to camps.
Island detention center now began to fill up with Japanese
families, but they kept them apart from us, in a bigger room where cots
were put up for them. More German women were also beginning to be
brought in. The head man of the Immigration Office told my parents that
this situation reminded him of the First World War. He said that the
British were showing the Americans how to go about interning people;
that the British "were running the show."
The food was very bad there. I refused to eat any of it
and so did the other women. For instance, one morning we were served a
thin cabbage soup with cabbageworms floating around in it! After about
a week, one of the German businessmen we knew heard our plight and sent
sausages and lunchmeats from his shop. Paula H's brother was a baker
and sent us baked goods. So between the two of them we were eating much
better, God bless them.
Finally, after what seemed like many days, we were
allowed visits by our families. Even though we were under surveillance
during each visit, my husband and I managed to slip each other notes.
We never took time to think about the punishment I might receive if I
was caught. Through this way, my husband got to know all the things
that were happening to me.
On CHRISTMAS EVE, 1941, we were again subjected to
photographing and fingerprinting. For the next 3 months, we kept our
spirits up with doing handwork, letter writing, etc. Then on GOOD
FRIDAY, 1942, they put us through another photographing/fingerprinting
session. It never failed that they used our Christmas holidays for this
sort of thing. Now I was given a 10-minute hearing, and my husband,
Paul, also was questioned. Five men were in the courtroom and a judge
named Silverstein. I never knew the results of this hearing. Soon
thereafter I was awakened during the night by a matron who asked if I
had any luggage, and I said no, of course not. The other ladies didn't
either for how could we, when we were taken out our homes with just the
clothes we had on? Some of us thought that maybe we were going home,
but when we were put aboard a train, we realized that something else
was in store for us. Once on the train, we were told that we would be
in Seagoville, Texas, within a few days, and confined in a women's
prison there. Paula H and Mrs. D didn't go with us. The Ds hired a
lawyer and she was released. She also urged me to hire such a lawyer,
but we had no money. The train car we were in had "FP" on the side
("Federal Prisoners) and when people in the train stations stared at
use, we told them we were Friendly People. Among our group now were
Germans from San Francisco. Japanese internees were kept separate, in
When we arrived in Seagoville, many other German
internees were there already from all over the US. It was a huge prison
and the director was Mr. O'Rourke. I am thankful that he was such a
nice man and for all the months that followed, he was as good to us as
he was allowed to be. He told me once that if it was up to him, he
would throw open the gates and let us all go home.
We each had a small room with a lavatory and we did our
own cooking and cleaning up in the cafeteria. Every night at 10 pm our
doors were locked. In time, we were finally permitted to group together
for visiting in one of the rooms at the end of the hall. We were
allowed to take walks within the designated areas only, and, of course,
there was a searchlight from the tower that operated at night.
After a month in Seagoville, more Japanese began to
arrive, only now these were families. Again they were kept away from
us. The prison had a small commissary where we purchased necessities.
Later, we were allowed to display our handwork there. And at that time,
we were allowed to mingle a little with the Japanese.
One night I was looking out my 2nd floor window where I
could see the daily trains go by, and I noticed that a train had come
in at an unusual time. I saw about 25-30 people getting off. On our
walk the next day, Mrs. B and Mrs. Von F and I walked by the building
where we thought they might have put the new prisoners. On the 3rd
floor of the building, some of them were looking down at us, windows
opened. Without being noticed, heads straight, we told these people
that we were interned German mothers. One of the men said that we
should ask for an interview with him. Mrs. Von F was a lawyer and our
spokesman. She requested an interview and Mr. O'Rourke granted it. This
man, we soon learned was an attaché with the German Embassy in
Brazil and had mistakenly been parted from the other members of the
Diplomatic Corp who were being returned to Germany on the Swedish
liner, the Gripsholm. This man had his family with him, as well. He
wanted each of our stories in brief detail, which we wrote up for him.
He microfilmed them with a camera he had. This happened in August 1942.
As soon as it was discovered that a mistake had been made with this
attaché, he was removed from the Seagoville prison and sent
About a month later, the newspapers carried a story that
Germany was now going to begin interning Americans in France, head for
head, for every German mother being held in internment camps in the US.
This told us that Americans in France were not being mistreated by
German Occupation Forces. We felt that, obviously, our stories had
reached the German government.
| Verona, Paul and Vilma
Schneider 1942. Photo sent to Gertrude. It was examined by the censures
before delivery and stamped “Detained Alien Enemy Mail Examined – US I
In late summer, 1942, Paul came with the girls to visit
me. I recall that when we visited, the person sitting in as supervisor
would finally get up and leave, telling us that we deserved some
privacy. That made our visits much nicer.
My husband, Paul, now tried to give up his citizenship
so that we could be repatriated to Germany. One way or another, we had
to be a family again. The judge denied this request, saying that he
could not allow American-born children to be sent abroad, and that what
was happening to Paul was not prosecution, but persecution. But those
in charge of our government were not through with my husband yet, as he
was to find out.
In October 1942, another hearing was to be held in Los
Angeles, but I could not be there. The girls attended that hearing and
were questioned by several men about activities at German clubs. Before
the end of the year, I was told that I would be released, but I wasn't
told when. That Christmas at Seagoville turned out to be a memorable
one and that helped a lot. The German government had sent two huge
boxes to us for Christmas and also, Mr. O'Rourke allowed us to have a
traditional German meal on Christmas Day. After dinner, the boxes were
opened. In the first box, out came a tree decorated with walnuts and
cookies and glitter...just a beautiful, decorated tree and something
none of us had seen before. The other box contained individual German
Stollen, and cakes and cookies of all kinds. It was sad to be away from
our loved ones, but the little celebration there is a happy memory for
me even today.
On January 12, 1943, I was given my release. I was one
of the first ones to go. Mr. O'Rourke gave me $5 out of his wallet for
food on the train ride home. A matron was to be with me all the way. As
I left the prison grounds, my German friends gathered around me to sing
a farewell song in German. The $5 didn't last long and when the matron
noticed that I wasn't eating she offered me a few dollars so that I
could at least get a cup of coffee till we got to LA. The train arrived
in LA on January 14, 1943. Paul and my girls were waiting for me. It
was a very happy day. I had been imprisoned for 2 years.
But that is not the end of the story. While I was
interned those years, my husband was being persecuted in another way.
He had to sell our home because our bank assets were frozen by the
Federal Reserve Bank. When my husband wanted money for rent or food, he
had to request it by listing just exactly what he would use it for, and
then had to account for every dime he spent. When he tried to work, he
was hounded from one job to another because the boss or owner would be
called on the telephone and ordered to fire my husband. "Let Paul go"
seemed to be the gist of each call. On one job with Allis-Chalmers,
where he was well-liked and thought he would finally be left alone, his
boss one day asked him why calls to him ordered Paul's firing. Paul
told him he was a citizen, I was not and that I was in an internment
camp in Texas. His boss refused to fire my husband, but within days,
the boss was called again and told that if he didn't fire Paul, his
business would "suffer." The boss wrote up a letter of commendation for
my husband and told him how he regretted having to do this to him. This
happened to Paul time and again while I was imprisoned.
Even after my release, Paul was hounded out of a job. We
had moved to Shasta County and he found work with Pacific Gas &
Electric. After only two months, the boss asked Paul "Are you an
American citizen?" My husband said yes. The boss told him "I've got
orders to lay you off, but I'll be damned if I do!" He told Paul that
he owed his life to German doctors during WWI, when he was wounded and
thanks to them he was still here.
Within two weeks, we found out what else was in store
for us. One afternoon, I saw a car parked down by the highway in front
of our home. My husband saw it, too, when he came home from work.
Nothing happened that day, but the next day, that same car was again
parked there. Two men and a woman were in the car. I decided to walk
down and talk to them. They said they were looking for a coffee shop! I
told them they were welcome to come into our home and have a cup of
coffee since they admitted they wanted to see Paul. So they came into
the house, had a cup of coffee and were fairly friendly. However, when
Paul came in, they became sober and very stern. They informed my
husband that they were sent from the War Relocation Board in San
Francisco, and that he, Paul, was to have a hearing there regarding
relocation. We were told that the entire Pacific Coast was off limits
to us. We were so sick and tired of the persecution and hounding of the
past months, and knowing that we would HAVE to move, no matter if we
had a "hearing" or not, we decided to leave voluntarily. We had friends
in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and felt that maybe there they would leave us
alone. We were required to pay our own expenses for that trip and were
given just barely enough gas stamps to get us there. (Related Laws)
Paul had to state what day we would leave, and on that
day, a government car pulled up into our driveway and waited for us to
leave. They followed us all day, but toward late afternoon, Paul
managed to take a road that they must not have known about and we lost
them. Somehow we didn't feel bad about that! The next morning, as we
approached Reno, we met the government car coming the other way,
obviously looking for us. Paul gave them a big grin and pointed to them
that they were going the wrong way! They turned around and followed us
into Reno, where my husband stopped and got out of the car to talk to
them. Believe it or not, the people apologized for having to do this.
| Vilma, Verona, Gertrude,
Paul and young friend 1943 Oshkosh, Wisconsin
We finally arrived in Oshkosh and rented a small house
on School Street. My husband got a job with a painting contractor, Ed
Rehbein. I had to report to a "sponsor" each month, a Mr. Klemmerle.
After over a year there, we wrote to the War Relocation Board that I
was expecting another child. We asked that we be allowed to return to
California because I wanted our child to be born there. Before we
received and answer, Paul's boss was contacted by FBI agents who had
come to Oshkosh to force Mr. Rehbein to fire him. The boss asked Paul
if he'd like to see this agent who was operating out of the local
police station. My husband said "Hell, no!" Then he decided to write a
letter to this agent in which he said, "only a rattlesnake would attack
from the back when a man is trying to earn a living for his family." He
told the agent also that we lived only 1 block from the police station
and if he'd been any kind of a man, he'd have come in person instead of
sneaking around behind our backs. I was sick with fear of retribution
and worried that my husband would be fired for sure. Mr. Rehbein was
kind enough to keep my husband on the payroll.
My sponsor knew of my wish to have our 3rd child born in
California, so he arranged a meeting for Paul and local authorities
plus the FBI agents. My husband was greeted by a room full of men, some
of them in military uniforms. They questioned him over and over again
on various subjects and while he never told me what he answered them,
he must have convinced them that we weren't "dangerous." Within weeks,
we received notice that we could return to California. This time, they
offered $300 for expenses.
It was a wonderful day when we arrived back in
California, even though we'd had lots of car trouble on the trip back.
My husband found work and our 3rd daughter was born in Redding, so my
wish had come true.
| The Schneider family back
in California – Baby Paula front right 1947
| Gertrude Schneider
| Paul Schneider
My husband died in November 1982. The injustice of my
internment and knowing that his citizenship meant nothing during
wartime—since he was "just a German"—was something he never got over.
He had left Germany after the turmoil of WWI, looking for a better life
in this country. The hatred toward the Germans, though, never seemed to
stop, as it is even today. He was persecuted in a way that was worse
than what I endured, for the authorities did their best to stop him
from earning a living. During my internment, he finally had to resort
to moving in with members of my family, he with one member, and our
children with another because he had no income. Until he died, his
bitterness was there.
My two brothers, Eugene and William, joined the US
Navy, partly to help my situation and, of course, to fight for their
country. I will always appreciate their loyalty to me. I knew in my
heart that I had done nothing wrong and the night I was arrested and
sensed the unjustified hatred toward me, I vowed that NO ONE, NOTHING
would break me. I knew how hard my parents had worked here to make
their way and many other Germans, too, along with my husband and me.
I am proud of my German father and mother who immigrated
to Canada and then to the US. Both worked hard and raised their family
without anyone helping them. My Dad made quite a contribution to
Bethlehem Steel Company in LA with his "open hearth" method which saved
the company thousands of dollars. When he retired from the company, he
was presented with a letter of thanks and a small pension for the rest
of his life.
I am proud of being a "Schwab" from Backnang, Germany
and will always love the country of my birth. When I was sworn in
during my citizenship ceremony, the Judge told me that part of being a
good American citizen was to always be proud of who I was and where I
came from. I'll carry that advice in my heart always.