WBBM Newsradio/Bob Roberts

Little-Known History: Some German-Americans Were Interned In Chicago

October 26, 2018 - 9:18 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- The story of Japanese-American internment camps during World War II is well-told. But many German-Americans were also interned, and some of them passed through a home at 4800 S. Ellis Ave. in Chicago. 

Friday night, there was a candlelight vigil at the South Side home for descendants of the men once interned in there. Their only crime was being of German ancestry.

The FBI and Lake Bluff police came for Otto Ott on Washington's Birthday 1942, acting on false information that he and other German-American employees of Chicago's LaSalle Hotel were Nazi spies. 

His daughter, Frances Ott Allen, worked for years to obtain the government files on her father. She said her father’s fate may have been sealed when he told agents he didn’t “sing.” He may have thought the agent was referring to music, not its underworld meaning.

The agents and police also asked to "see the guns.” Allen said her parents never kept any. She said the agent and police discussed tearing out the Otts' newly finished bathroom floor but changed their minds, saying he would be interned.      

The edict was a surprise, Allen said, because her father had taken care to get rid of his camera and radios, which the Roosevelt administration did not want "enemy aliens" to possess.   

It took a while, but Allen said she and her mother learned that he was detained in the faded South Side mansion. She said they were allowed to visit on Saturdays.     

"It was an all-day trip, going down to the Loop from Lake Bluff and then taking the bus all the way out here, and the visits weren't very long," she said.     

Allen said an agent would sit between them to monitor their conversation and take notes. No touching was allowed.

Historian Teresa Van Hoy of St. Mary's University in Dalls said the home held as many as 40 detained German-Americans at any one time. She said most were eventually reunited with their families in camps where Japanese-Americans lived on one side and German-Americans on the other. 

Once freed, Allen said, her father never talked about it again, and her mother warned her never to tell anyone, because they would be judged as criminals.

Allen said that when her family returned to their Lake Bluff home after the war ended, she was ostracized by fellow fifth-grade students. Her family moved to another suburb a year later.

Rob Fuhr said his late father, Eberhardt Fuhr, was one of many German emigres rounded up at the beginning of the war in the Cincinnati area. Fuhr said his father was 3 when his family emigrated and posed no threat.

The end of the war did not end the family's internment, he said. They were not allowed to leave their relocation camp in Crystal City, Tex., until 1947.

He said his father told him that interned Czechoslovakians and Italians also passed through the home on Ellis Avenue.  

A 1798 federal law allows the internment in wartime of so-called "enemy aliens." Both Allen and others who participated in the vigil said they believe the law is overdue for review and change.

"I think the law should change,” Fuhr said. “It has some really strange implications for our immigration policy now.”