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Remembered History --> Discrimination

Discrimination in California

This is lengthy, but I feel I want to share and give some insight into another era and what I experienced during WWII.

I was born in 1939 in Kansas City, Missouri. “Gone with the Wind” and the “Wizard of Oz” were the big movies of that year. Europe was in chaos; it wasn’t a fun time! The big thing that played out in the life of everyone who was carrying a German name was the scrutiny and feelings of anger vented toward us.

My family arrived in the San Diego area on June 1, 1943. The cross-country trip was a long one. Ration stamps for gas and tires and sugar and shoes made it a major experience. I think it was in Tucson, AR, my dad did some refrigeration repair so he could get some better tires. We settled into an area 15 miles south of San Diego bounded by the ocean on the west, the border with Mexico on the south, the south end of the bay of San Diego on the north and “truck farms” to the east and southeast toward the border. Imperial Beach. We soon saw vacant old Victorian-style houses on the farms that were boarded up. The families of the Japanese living there had been “relocated.” Not all Japanese were required to leave, as they were critical to keeping us fed with celery, lettuce, and lots of tomatoes.

I remember going to the store with my folks as a very little girl and hearing the gossip about the Japanese and the rumors that they had radio transmitters and were sending information to Japan. Remember, San Diego was a major U.S. Navy port and center of aircraft manufacturing which fed into the conspiracy theories. Next to the bay of San Diego where the aircraft factories were, a 5-mile strip of Hwy 101 was covered with camouflage so that this would appear to be a beach to any enemy planes.

So in this atmosphere I entered school. On the first day I remember the teacher asking me how I pronounced my name, as had we dropped the Umlaut and added an ‘e’? Of course, I didn't know. I was only 5 years old. She carried on a lot about my being German! The next thing I know is my classmates are asking me if I’m a Nazi.

I had just moved to San Diego from a city that had regular air-raid drills at night. We would have to turn off the lights, draw dark window blinds, and I went to my designated “safe” place, which was under Mama's sewing machine.

We had an oblong cloth banner in our window on the front door. It was red, white, and blue with one gold star in the middle. I remember riding in the back of the old Hudson through neighborhoods and looking for those banners. I was so excited to find one with three stars. We had one member of our family in the service, my brother. That family had three family members in the service.

My older brother was somewhere in the South Pacific in the Army, one cousin was flying on bombing missions, and another was over in Europe in a tank fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Nazi? I had no idea what that name carried or what it meant to be asked that. After that day at school and my sharing this experience with Mom and Dad, German was no longer thrown into a conversation. Verboten!

So fast-forward to today: In searching for my husband’s Italian ancestry and their movement in the USA and my German ancestry in the USA and Germany, I know why they didn't want to leave a trail. The Italians also suffered some of this scrutiny because of Mussolini. They often anglicized their names. Many a Giovanni became John. Did you know many Italians were interred during WWII?

I now know why it was so important to my family to move into the mainstream and give up the language. During a 1952 visit in Kansas City, at an aunt’s request I answered the phone. The person on the other end asked to “speak to Mrs. Koehler.” I told her she had the wrong number. I was 13. Suddenly I remembered what my dad had told me about the use of the Umlaut. She had to call the lady and explain.

One last point: Even with our close proximity to Mexico, 3 miles as the crow flies, Spanish was not allowed in school either.

Carol Koehler Cima (ronandcarolc@msn.com)


My father was a first-generation German-American. When he began kindergarten in Kansas, he spoke only German, as his parents socialized exclusively within the German-speaking community. The USA became involved in World War II at about the same time that he began school. He still has vivid memories of being chased home from school by children who would throw rocks at him and call him a Nazi. Also, my grandpa wouldn’t let my grandma open the door for anyone while he was away during the day. It’s difficult for me to imagine living with that kind of hatred and fear.

Now, my daughter calls my dad “Opa,” and we’ve traveled to Thüringen to get to know our family there. At least there’s a happy ending.

Kristin Van Scoy (kvanscoy@fuse.net)

Persecution in Texas

Reading your notes about Germans in America and growing up German in America and experiencing prejudice struck a note in me, so I thought that I’d write and share some thoughts.

I'm a second-(or so) generation German born in America. That means that my dad’s dad came from Saxony. My grandmother (dad’s mom) was already a second-generation born American. On my mom’s side, it was my great-grandparents who came to Texas from Pommerania. So this explains the “or so” in the previous sentence. I was born in south central Texas, east of San Antonio and south of New Braunfels, in an area that was heavily settled by German immigrants. I am now 46 years old (where does the time go? . . . I still think of myself as a young guy growing up on the farm).

Growing up we spoke only German. My parents (both born in Texas) could speak enough English to “get by,” but it wasn’t comfortable for them. All the neighbors were German and spoke at least some German. When we went into town to the stores to buy groceries, farm supplies, car parts, etc., we always went to the clerk who also spoke German. So there wasn’t a need for me to learn English. I’m sure that I understood a few words and phrases, but it wasn’t something that I actively used.

Then when I started the first grade, I HAD to learn English. It wasn’t easy. Most of the other kids in my generation spoke English . . . the Germans had intermarried with “Americana.” German wasn’t spoken much at home anymore, but a few of them spoke some German and many understood German. So they helped me to learn the language quickly.

Kids can be cruel though. The American children made fun of me and called me Kraut and Nazi for speaking German. I quickly learned English and blended in. By high school I had successfully lost my German accent and didn’t take on much of a Texas accent either.

I’m very proud of being German and have always felt closer to my roots in Germany than I have to America. My parents tried to instill as much America in me as possible (thus the very non-German first name), but it didn’t stick. They never made it to Germany to visit the relatives there. The relatives came to Texas to visit us (after the Wall came down).

I try to go to Germany at least twice a year. But all my life I’ve been a guy without a country. I don’t feel at home in America, and my heart and soul is always in Germany. I’d much rather speak and hear German than English. The English language has never sounded like a language to me. It’s just a bunch of sounds put together to form sentences. German, however, has meaning and depth and feeling to it. When I hear German, I see what is being said in COLOR. When I hear things in English, it’s black & white (that is an analogy to describe what my mind processes when I hear the languages).

On the other hand, when I go to Germany, I can blend in well and most don’t know that I live in America. My relatives there can’t understand my feelings for being German since I grew up in Texas and never experienced the things that went on in Germany during the Communist occupation, etc. When people ask, I tell them I’m an American-born German living in Texas. To my way of thinking, a person isn’t described by the country that he was born in or the one he lives in, but by the blood that’s running through his veins. Please don’t take that as my being anti-American. America is a good country . . . no better or worse than most other countries. It’s just that I identify more with being German than being American.

Other stories of persecution: My grandfather used to tell stories of how he rode into town one day and the inhabitants had an effigy of the Kaiser hung up in the town square. This occurred as WWI was raging, and people were on the lookout for Germans who were sympathetic to the Fatherland. So during that time, all the Germans who could tried to speak English and to blend in. Those who didn't know much English stayed at home on the farm and didn't travel to town or mix with Americans due to the danger of being imprisoned or even killed.

Later, during World War II, although my family in Texas were poor and farmers, my grandfather still sent care packages to his brothers and sisters in Saxony several times a month. They were filled with flour, sugar, coffee, chocolate, hand-me-down clothes, etc. Sometimes the packages made it to the intended recipients, and sometimes they were confiscated by the customs officials who took the items home with them. I hope that everyone who has family stories writes them down and preserves them for future generations so as to remember how things used to be.

Floyd Poenitz (f.poenitz@comcast.net)

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