The story of the Jewish refugees from Germany who fled the Nazis to Latin America and found themselves in internment camps in the United States during World War II
After his factory was set on fire, his property confiscated, and two months spent behind bars, Max Brill finally managed to leave Nazi Germany with his family in 1937, beginning a new life in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
He worked in electronics for a while, but then opened a pub and seemed to be on the road to social and economic rehabilitation. However, Brill found himself once more in a state of economic uncertainty when the United States of America entered World War II and his name made it onto the U.S. embassy’s blacklist of German-owned businesses.
Brill had difficulty advertising his business in the local press or even purchasing merchandise. Local suppliers were afraid of doing business with a person on the blacklist for fear that they might end up on the list themselves. His repeated appeals to the embassy claiming he couldn’t be a Nazi supporter because he himself was Jewish and had been forced to emigrate from Germany due to the regime’s persecution fell on deaf ears.
In a separate case from May 1944, the new Bolivian government, which had seized power in a coup in December 1943 and had yet to be recognized by the United States, was forced to hand over a number of German and Japanese citizens living in its territories, some of them without any semblance of proper justification.
These examples illustrate one of the most bizarre anomalies of World War II—the blacklisting of eighty-one Jews, the confiscation of their assets and their subsequent imprisonment in internment camps in the United States, along with 4,707 citizens of the Axis countries who had been living in Latin America, most of them Germans. The very same Jews who had left Germany because of their Judaism, were persecuted in their country of refuge because of their German origins. During part of their imprisonment, they were even detained in the same camps as those who held Nazi views.
Germans began migrating to South and Central America as early as the 19th century. Some owned large coffee plantations or engaged in large-scale trade. Those with means were connected through economic and family ties to the local elites. After Hitler came to power, a number of them joined the Nazi party—some due to a belief in racial purity and Nazi ideology, and others in order to maintain good relations with the German authorities, or to ensure the safety of their families back in Germany, or to secure the German state’s continued partial funding of local German institutions.
Most of the Germans in South and Central America did not join the Nazi party, but neither did they display any ideological opposition to the regime. While there was friction between the “old guard” and members of the Nazi party over control of the community’s cultural and educational institutions, it seems that these conflicts had more to do with personal and intergenerational tensions than with ideological differences.
In any case, the establishment of the new regime in Germany led to the spread of the Nazi party in South America and a rupture in relations within the German diaspora communities, between Jews and non-Jews. Some of the Nazi leaders wanted to replicate the persecution of Jews that was being carried out in Germany and target the local German Jewish population as well. Eric Heinemann, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Guatemala and later Israel’s ambassador to the country, noted that only four families out of all the Germans in Guatemala continued to maintain friendly relations with his family after Hitler came to power. Moreover, Hentschke, the leader of the Nazi party in Guatemala, even organized surveillance of Jewish homes to make sure that the local Germans were indeed boycotting them.
The growing concern in the United States over Germany’s military successes and the U.S. decision to join the war in late 1941 led the government to take action against German citizens. The U.S. administration saw them as a potential fifth column and decided to issue blacklists of German-owned businesses. American companies were prohibited from trading with the businesses on the list. Later, Central American countries and a number of South American states were forced to hand over Germans suspected of Nazi activity to the American administration. The U.S. however, which relied on corrupt and self-interested local intelligence sources, did not conduct a thorough examination of the candidates for deportation and thus Germans who had nothing to do with the Nazi party, and even anti-Nazis and Jews persecuted by the Nazis were sent to prison in the United States along with Nazi party activists.
The conditions in the internment camps weren’t exceptionally harsh and the detainees’ basic needs were reasonably met. At the family camp near Crystal City, Texas, there was a school, cultural institutions and even a makeshift swimming pool. Each child received a daily milk ration. However, life for the Jewish detainees was not easy, as the most vocal and powerful group in the camp were the Nazi supporters, who sometimes harassed the Jewish detainees. For example, in the Stringtown internment camp, pro-Nazi detainees managed for a while to prevent the Jewish detainees from attending English classes and from taking part in the camp’s sports and cultural activities. Eighteen Jews who were housed in a steamy bunk next to the camp’s showers faced daily antisemitic ridicule from passers-by.
Luckily for the Jewish inmates, in March 1942 the Department of Justice assumed control of the camps from the State Department. The Justice Department officials were more sensitive to questions concerning the legality of incarcerating people without trial solely because of their background, and without any evidence of subversive, pro-Nazi activity. Jewish and refugee organizations pleaded the case of most of the Jewish detainees and in the spring and summer of 1943 the Jews were transferred to a separate camp near Algiers, Louisiana. Within a year, all but six detainees received a conditional release. They were allowed to make a living, and some were even able to volunteer to serve in the United States military. After the end of World War II, seventy-five of the Jewish prisoners decided to move permanently to the United States. Only two returned to South America.
It turned out that the American imprisonment of German citizens offered an opportunity to save Jews from the Holocaust. Hoping to “repatriate” some of its citizens in the diaspora, Nazi Germany had built a special compound inside the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for this purpose. This facility was intended to house Jews who had real or forged documents testifying to some connection to countries in North or South America. So long as the Nazis had hope of exchanging their own citizens for these detainees, the detainees were kept alive. However, the U.S. government’s reluctance to send its German detainees back to Germany, mainly due to the fear of strengthening the German war machine, meant that very few Germans were actually returned to Germany in exchange for Jews with ties to the United States or to countries in Latin America. The failure of these efforts meant that these Jews had lost their importance as bargaining chips. Only a handful of them managed to survive the war.
Friedman, Max Paul, Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign Against the Germans of Latin America in World War II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003
Strum, Harvey, “Jewish Internees in the American South, 1942-1945”, American Jewish Archives 42,1 (1990), pp. 27-4