Hundreds of civilians were arrested and sent to an internment camp in Bavaria, Germany during World War II. My father was one of them.
One evening several years ago I found myself at my computer staring in disbelief at images of eighteen caricatures owned by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Seemingly drawn over the course of three days in 1943, the caricatures depicted uniformed Germans and prisoners in a World War II internment camp, including half a dozen drawings of African American internees. All the caricatures possessed a gentle yet pointed humor that was familiar to me.
I immediately knew that my father drew these caricatures.
According to the Museum’s website, the caricatures had been drawn by a man imprisoned at the Tittmoning internment camp in Germany, and they had been given to the youngest internee of the camp, Jerome Mahrer, who was only fourteen in 1943. Mahrer, known in the camp as Jerry, survived the camp, moved to the United States, and eventually donated the caricatures to the Museum. Although not signed by the artist, they were attributed to my father in accompanying text, but with a mistake: his name was given as Max Brandl rather than Max Brandel. This misspelling meant the searches I had done from time to time on my father’s name had not led me to these drawings. I found them now only because I had searched for “Tittmoning,” a name which I had scribbled down after hearing it once or twice, not from my father, but from my mother.
My parents were Holocaust survivors. I knew very little about their past, and I had only the vaguest idea of how they had survived. The topic was off limits, particularly with my father. During the twenty-one years I had with him before his death in 1975, he never spoke of his experiences in the war, and he certainly never mentioned a place called Tittmoning.
Now, almost forty years after his death (and several years after my mother’s), I stared for the first time at eighteen pieces of art from his time in a German camp. Fifteen of the drawings depicted internees. Some internees had the name of a country — or in the case of Americans, a city or state — on their caricatures. From this, I could see that the men came from countries throughout Europe as well as from the United States, and one was from El Salvador. Some of the Americans had added a European location, which I took to be a European residence or else a location at time of arrest. Some wrote a birth year, and most signed their names. A few wrote personal messages to Jerry, upbeat notes like, “Let’s keep going,” and “Be always a nice kid!”
The three other caricatures depicted German officers in military uniform. One showed a man with a slightly nasty smile berating a terrified man wearing wooden clogs, no doubt my father’s shorthand for a Dutch or Belgian internee. He signed it Uffz (an abbreviation of Unteroffizier) Wörl. Another showed an elderly but authoritative man with craggy features, and was signed Uffz Hofer. A third caricature was of a man who exuded a hawkish intensity and, for that matter, had a disturbingly beak-like nose. This was the Kommandant of the camp, and this one had not been presented for signing.
Not one of the eighteen caricatures was cruel. Features were exaggerated — the defining attribute of caricature — but each drawing was a likeness, the result of my father’s keen observation. Later, I recognized many of the subjects in photographs, and could confirm that each caricature presented an actual person. In a few lines, my father conveyed not only outer appearance, but a glimpse of what lay beneath the surface.
My questions upon finding the caricatures were many. What kind of camp was this where my father had art supplies and the luxury of drawing humorous caricatures? The skill shown in the caricatures, and the fact that drawing is what my father would do if given the chance, were not what surprised me. My father was an artist. After the war, he would make his living as a cartoonist, as well as a creator of humorous features based on drawings, photograph montages and wordplay, with work appearing regularly on the editorial pages of newspapers and in magazines such as Mad, Horizon, and Look. On the other hand, the fact that there were so many caricatures, and that some had been signed, made me think that they had been drawn openly. Art supplies, leisure time, drawing without the need to be secretive — none of this made sense to me.
Something else made no sense: six of the caricatures were of Black men, clearly African Americans. Who were these men, and how was it that they were in the same German camp as my father, a Polish Jew? My father drew Freddy Johnson playing a piano, and Johnny Mitchell cradling a guitar. Jack Taylor had a boxing glove on his hand and an expression that suggested that he may have taken a few too many hits. Kemal Abdel Rahman Berry was self-assured in a tasseled fez. A smiling William Walker wore a plaid flat cap and a scarf, and smoked a pipe; he seemed to be missing a few teeth. Oscar Mathis looked debonair in a tie and wire rim glasses. All six of these caricatures were signed by their subjects.
I started digging for more information about Tittmoning and another camp close by, Laufen, where, I was to find out, my father spent even more time. I learned that men from vastly different backgrounds and parts of the world — men who would never have met otherwise — were sent to these camps as prisoners of Nazi Germany. In Tittmoning, my father, a Jew in his thirties from the city of Lwow, Poland (now, Lviv, Ukraine) and the son of a vodka distillery clerk, lived with and drew caricatures of African Americans, some only one or two generations removed from slavery. Two fascinating, intertwined stories of endurance unfolded before me — the story of how my father survived the Holocaust, and the story of the American civilians caught behind enemy lines during World War II.
The years between the two world wars found many Americans living and working in Europe. Some returned to the United States after a time, but others chose to put down roots. They learned new languages, studied in European institutions of higher learning, found work, and started businesses; they married European women and started families. Among these expatriates were a significant number of African Americans who had come to Europe to escape the prejudice and discrimination they faced in the United States.
World War II broke out in 1939, and the possibility of the United States entering the conflict was a threat to the security of every American living or traveling abroad. Within days of Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany and the United States were at war, and the American civilians who were trapped in Germany and German-occupied countries were classified as enemy aliens. American civilians were a very useful commodity for Germany, because they were potentially valuable in a prisoner of war exchange. Within the space of a few months, a system of civilian internment camps had been set up throughout the Reich. In Germany, these camps were called Internierungslager, or Ilags; there were also camps for enemy aliens in German-occupied France, called Frontstammlager, or Frontstalags. The strategy was to keep citizens of the United States — and Great Britain, and Latin American countries aligned with the Allied Powers — in the Ilags and Frontstalags, until such time as they could be exchanged for the German nationals who were being held as enemy aliens in those countries.
In short order, American citizens, Black and white, found themselves forcibly removed from their homes, sometimes with only the clothes on their backs. They were often first sent to prisons or military camps, but after several weeks or months, they were transferred to civilian internment camps. Family members of an American citizen might be interned in spite of European birth — spouses as citizens through marriage, and children through inherited (ius sanguinis, or right of blood) citizenship. Families were sometimes kept together, sometimes not.
It is important to note that the Internierungslager were different entities from the Konzentrationslager — the Nazi concentration camps into which Jews, Poles, and countless others were forced during World War II. The ground forces of the German military ran the Internierungslager, and the internees were considered prisoners of war, to be treated in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Conventions. Germany had signed and ratified these Conventions, which laid out guidelines for the humanitarian treatment of prisoners. So had the United States and Britain, both of which held German prisoners. Although German adherence to the Conventions during World War II was imperfect, the expectation of reciprocity was an incentive to respect the terms of the agreement. Largely because of Geneva Convention protocols, conditions in the internment camps were tolerable.
Under the Conventions, prisoners could be used for labor only under limited circumstances. They were entitled to food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, and repatriation in case of serious illness. Prisoners could send and receive a fixed number of letters per month, although all mail was read and censored. Delegates of humanitarian agencies were allowed to monitor conditions.
No comparison can be made between Germany’s treatment of interned civilians and its treatment of concentration camp inmates. The concentration camps were controlled by the ruthless paramilitary organization known as the Schutzstaffel (the SS). Germany did not consider concentration camp inmates to be prisoners of war, and they were accorded no rights. As the world eventually learned, the inmates were treated with brutal inhumanity, and millions were tortured and murdered.
Ilag VII — so numbered because it was located in Wehrkreis (military district) VII — consisted of two parts: one in the Bavarian village of Laufen (Ilag VII-H, with H standing for Hauptlager, or main camp) and one in the nearby village of Tittmoning (Ilag VII-Z, with Z standing for Zweiglager, or branch camp). From 1940 to 1942, before becoming a camp for civilian internees, the camps at Laufen and Tittmoning comprised an Ofizierslager, or Oflag, for British officers captured by the Germans. In 1942, those prisoners were sent to other camps in order to make way for British and American nationals. Citizens not only of the United States but also those of Central and South American countries were interned as Americans. Ilag VII was exclusively for men.
At both Laufen and Tittmoning, internees lived in centuries-old stone buildings. Although once the palace of an archbishop, the structure at Laufen had for many years functioned as a prison. Through its windows, the prisoners could see across the Salzach River to the Austrian village of Oberndorf and the Saint Nicholas Chapel, famous then as now as the place where the Christmas carol “Silent Night” had been composed. The Bavarian Alps were visible in the distance, a view which might have given pleasure had it not signified that Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” retreat, the Berghoff — a place he visited many times during World War II — was close by. Twelve miles away was the Tittmoning castle, built in the thirteenth century as a border fortification. Two brick buildings adjacent to the castle also housed internees.
The British internees were housed in Laufen. The majority had come to Ilag VII from the German-occupied Channel Islands, selected for deportation to Germany for reasons that included being born in England rather than on-island, or having served as a military officer in World War I, or being deemed in some way “undesirable” — a convict, for example. The camp population also included British civilians picked up in German-occupied countries (or on a captured ship, in the case of internee Henry Mollison).
The American internees were transferred between Laufen and Tittmoning as suited German needs. They came from diverse backgrounds and spoke many languages — “a very motley lot,” as British Camp Senior Ambrose Sherwill observed. Some internees were citizens of the United States or Latin America who had ventured to Europe for work or study, not always intending a long stay. The most sizeable contingent of Americans was a group of young men born on American soil to Polish immigrants. In the 1930s, with the American economy in steep decline and jobs scarce, large numbers of these immigrants returned to their native country, often bringing with them children who had spent only their first few years in the United States. The Americans from Poland were not the only internees who, although citizens of the United States, had spent most of their lives far removed from it. Thirteen-year old Jerry Mahrer found himself delivered to Ilag VII because he had been born in New York in 1929 to parents who were there temporarily; his father was a Czech soccer star, in the United States for his sport.
One contingent of Americans was a group with fraudulent Latin American passports. These were European Jews who were desperately hoping that possessing pieces of paper that identified them as Latin American citizens would keep them safe. One of these men was my father, on paper — and only on paper — a citizen of Costa Rica. He had never been to Costa Rica, and he spoke no Spanish. But when my parents married in Lwow in January 1941, my father was added to the passport that my mother’s father had managed to procure for his family from the Costa Rican consulate in Lisbon, thinking that it might turn out to be useful. This citizenship status, unwarranted as it was, would save the lives of both of my parents. It caused my father to be sent to Ilag VII and my mother to Frontstalag 194, located in Vittel, France. My parents’ claim to Costa Rican citizenship made them potential bargaining chips, because Germany could exchange Latin American nationals for German nationals held abroad. Many Germans legally residing in both the United States and in Latin American countries had been deemed enemy aliens and detained at the behest of the United States government. Many of those initially detained in Latin America were shocked to find themselves sent to internment camps in the United States — and even more shocked to find that they could be repatriated against their wills to Germany.
None of this means that German authorities believed my parents were Costa Rican, or that they did not keep track of who was Jewish. British and American internees lived in separate quarters. Within the American quarters, the men known to be Jewish, including my “Costa Rican” father and young Jerry Mahrer, always slept in a separate area. During the day, however, all the men had freedom of movement.
The number of African American internees at Ilag VII was relatively small, sixteen or seventeen — eighteen, if one includes the artist Josef Nassy, born in Suriname but nonetheless in possession of a passport indicating that he had been born in San Francisco. Black and white prisoners seem to have been treated equally in Ilag VII. “He [Henry Crowder] and the other colored internees at the camp were not maltreated,” according to an April 1944 article about newly repatriated musician Crowder in the Baltimore Afro-American. “There was never any kind of Jim Crow,” another repatriated musician, Freddy Johnson, told the music magazine Metronome the same month. The situation was similar at other camps holding Black civilians. Leon Brooks was an African American World War I veteran who had stayed in France and married a French woman; he made his living as a wine salesman. About his time in an internment camp in Compiègne, France, he reported, “Black and white make no difference to the Nazis. We were all treated alike.” Jazz trumpeter Arthur Briggs, who had spent close to three years at an internment camp in Creully, France, stated after the war that “he had been treated no better or worse than other prisoners.”
Conditions at Ilag VII were not dire, but they were not easy. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire, and the guards in the watchtowers had rifles. Morning roll call was compulsory, and arriving late, or being guilty of some other infraction, could result in solitary confinement. There was crowding, with two- and three-tiered cots and many men to a room, and there was an utter lack of privacy. Showers were communal and limited to designated times. The buildings had heating systems of sorts — there was a furnace in the basement of the Tittmoning castle, and the adjacent buildings, as well as the sleeping quarters in Laufen, could be heated by means of stoves. But the internees were not always supplied with sufficient coal for the stoves, and many internees spoke of suffering from the cold. Some recalled removing slats from their beds and burning them for warmth.
The men were provided with one or two meals a day. Most often these meals consisted of watery soup and a slice of ersatz bread, and the bread was sometimes moldy. A doctor among the internees calculated that initially the men received no more than 600 calories daily. Hunger was an acute problem and starvation a real danger. After a few months, Red Cross food packages began arriving to supplement German rations. Red Cross-supplied items such as canned meat, sardines, dried milk, hard tack, cheese, raisins, and chocolate vastly improved conditions.
The packages also contained cigarettes, valuable for bartering. Camp guards were open to payment in cigarettes in exchange for favors. “You can get anything with a cigarette bribe,” said internee Freddy Johnson after his return to the United States. “Three days before leaving camp I got roast chicken — it cost me three packs, but it was worth it.” Internees also used cigarettes as currency. Upon his return to the United States, Reginald Berry told the Boston Globe that he swapped cigarettes for guitar lessons. Jerry Mahrer, a non-smoker, “paid” my father for the caricatures with cigarettes. My father, whom I remember as a very infrequent, strictly social smoker, most likely exchanged the cigarettes for something else.
In addition to the much-needed food packages, the Red Cross provided medical supplies, and also clothing. The men had brought very little, if anything, to the camps, and clothing was sometimes in short supply. Some camp photos show men wearing captured uniforms which the Germans had given them. The following plea for clothing appeared in the Chicago Defender, an African American weekly, on Dec. 12, 1942:
“We, Reginald Siki, wrestler, Jack Taylor, boxer, and six other Negro boys are interned here. We’d appreciate it beyond words if you’d give us a few rays of sunshine and cheer by sending each of us, an Ingersoll watch; a sweater coat, three extra large sizes and 5 medium sizes; union suits, sizes 46, 4 pairs; 44, 2 pairs; 42, 6 pairs; 40, 2 pairs; shirts, sizes, 18, extra long sleeves, and 17, 16, and 15 ½; shoes, sizes 11EE, 10EE, 9, 8 1/2D, 7E, 7EE and 8 1/2. Also, rubbers and overshoes to match the shoes, and socks or any other gifts. ‘A friend in need is a friend, indeed.’ Help us!”
The War Prisoners Aid section of the YMCA sent educational and recreational items to the prisoners. Ilag VII internees received shipments of books sufficient in number to stock a library, as well as writing materials, musical instruments and scores, and equipment for indoor and outdoor games. These materials gave the internees ways to fill their days and lifted morale. “Without the American Red Cross, I would have starved and, without the YMCA, I would have gone crazy,” said Reginald Berry in a postwar interview. The musicians among the internees were able to practice and to perform. Team sports were organized, sometimes pitting the Americans against the British.
The YMCA also sent art supplies to the camps. This gave my father a means of self-expression, and it allowed him to hone his skills as he depicted the faces of the diverse camp population. Artwork by other internees also survives. An artist named Josef Nassy created a large body of work during internment that is now owned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Artist Henry Barnett’s meticulous drawing of men relaxing in a vault-ceilinged room in Laufen was turned into a Christmas card that internees sent to their distant loved ones during the winter of 1944.
Prisoner to prisoner educational instruction played a large role in internee life, especially in Laufen. “Years ago, in the first hard months when we had to reconcile ourselves with the hard lot of imprisonment and a long separation from our beloved ones, our classes commenced…we now have an excellently organized educational service in our camp, our numerous classes covering a great variety of subjects,” wrote American Camp Senior Herbert Gompertz in a collection of articles, poems, and drawings created by the internees in 1944 and published in 1945 under the name The Bird-Cage. (My father drew the cover, which depicts Gompertz and British Camp Senior Ambrose Sherwill as birds perched together on a swing. The swing itself: a stick hanging from two pieces of barbed wire.) In another article in The Bird-Cage, an internee identified as D.A.S. noted “The range of classes extends from Russian to knitting, and from the Constitution of England to that of an internal combustion engine.” Jazz musician Freddy Johnson was in charge of the entertainment and music classes, according to his 1944 Metronome interview. Eugene Vanderpool, an American archaeologist and Princeton graduate who had been working in Marousi, Greece when Germany invaded, noted in the 1943–1944 Annual Report of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens that he had taught ancient Greek history at Laufen using a copy of Thucydides he had brought with him, and had also taught American geography and history. Others gave classes in art, astronomy, and mathematics — thirty-two subjects in all, according to one account.
The internees devised other ways to make the time go by. They put on plays, complete with sets and costumes. A playbill for Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” reproduced in pages of The Bird-Cage, reveals that the British film and theater actor Henry Mollison played the leading role. The caricature of Mollison on the playbill may have been drawn by my father; it is very much in his style. “Played to packed houses. Enormous success,” wrote Ambrose Sherwill in his diary.
A variety of performers shared their gifts with their fellow internees. American stunt skater Chick Finks performed a routine that involved skating on a small platform in tight circles with a second internee’s legs locked around his neck. A band of El Salvadoran musicians arrested in Germany performed rumbas and boleros. Musical groups large and small were formed using instruments from the YMCA, and they played everything from jazz to dance tunes to classical pieces.
One of the larger internee bands was the Swingternees, led by a saxophone and clarinet playing British internee named Ted White. The band was popular with both the prisoners and their keepers, and sometimes was allowed out to entertain the local residents. The band members received extra rations for these performances. (White would go on to enjoy a long and successful professional musical career before his death in 2019 at the age of 100. After the war, he toured with a popular British dance band led by Billy Ternent, wrote and arranged music for the English singer Vera Lynn and for BBC shows, and was involved in London theater productions.)
Ted White’s son, David, told me that White formed friendships and played with several of the interned African American musicians. Although Nazi ideology scorned jazz as “entartete” (degenerate), a German officer who nevertheless had a taste for it brought Ted White from Laufen to Tittmoning in order to introduce him to pianist Freddy Johnson, interned in the latter location at the time. According to David White, Freddy Johnson was dubious that the young Londoner would be a “proper” jazz musician, but he was won over by White’s rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose.” Thereafter White and his instruments were regular visitors to Tittmoning.
Despite their attempts to create some semblance of normalcy, internees woke up each morning to the knowledge that they were prisoners. Nobody could say how long the war would last. One might hope to be chosen for a prisoner of war exchange, but there was no way to predict when that might occur, if at all. The men heard Allied airplanes flying overhead on bombing missions — American planes during the day, British planes during the night. Their lives depended entirely on people and events beyond their control, a fact they were painfully reminded of when no less a Nazi leader than Heinrich Himmler, the highest-ranking member of the SS, arrived at Tittmoning on November 21, 1942 in a large black car. “I could see the silver skull insignia on his cap. He went inside to speak to the camp commandant,” remembered one internee after the war. Another internee remembered Himmler’s visit as “chilling.”
Who were the African Americans in my father’s caricatures? Some were high profile entertainers and athletes, well known in the countries in which they had chosen to live. Others lived abroad quietly, known only in their immediate circles. But all had this in common: arrest and internment caused the trajectory of their lives to be drastically, and sometimes irrevocably, altered.
The military bands that accompanied the Black regiments deployed to France during World War I, and the new style of music they played, received an enthusiastic reception. “The ‘jazz germ’ hit them,” observed Noble Sissle, a singer and drum major with the band of the 369th Infantry Regiment (and a noted songwriter and bandleader in his own right), after the band performed in a French town. The jazz germ spread, and it thrived. African American musicians working in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s had little trouble finding audiences. Two of my father’s caricatures depict musicians who initially came to Europe with a jazz band known as the Sam Wooding Orchestra.
A New York City native, born in 1904, pianist Frederick (Freddy) Johnson joined the Sam Wooding Orchestra for its 1928 European tour and ended up staying for sixteen years. During that time, he performed in top Paris nightspots, led an orchestra called the Harlemites, and played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins. (He was also briefly associated with another well-known name: his piano work shines in Marlene Dietrich’s 1933 recording of “Wo Ist Der Mann?”.) By the time of his arrest on December 11, 1941, Johnson had been living in the Netherlands for seven years, and he owned a nightclub in Amsterdam.
While an internee, Johnson performed on a piano provided by the YMCA, studied classical music scores (also provided by the YMCA), gave music lessons to his fellow inmates, and, according to his friend and fellow internee Ted White, boxed, wrestled, and concocted gourmet meals from the ingredients of Red Cross packages. Johnson was returned to the United States in a March 1944 exchange of war prisoners. His wife, Ida, and their two New York-born teen-age daughters joined him there several months later; they had been held in a German civilian internment camp for women and children. Once back in the States, Johnson continued to perform and teach. He returned one time to Europe, as a rehearsal pianist for the “Free and Easy” big band tour led by a 26-year-old Quincy Jones, before succumbing to cancer in New York in 1961.
Banjo and guitar player John (Johnny) Mitchell was born in Baltimore in 1902. Baltimore “had a great variety of jazz and many excellent performers…they also had the best banjo players in the world” said multi-instrumentalist (and fellow member of the Sam Wooding’s Orchestra) Garvin Bushell in his memoir, mentioning him specifically. Mitchell worked regularly in New York beginning in 1921, playing with several different bands and accompanying the likes of Edith Wilson and Jelly Roll Morton, but in 1925 he left New York with the Sam Wooding Orchestra, which had been hired to provide the music for the “Chocolate Kiddies” revue as it toured Europe. The Wooding Orchestra continued on its own after the revue closed, and it was arguably the first American jazz orchestra to tour Europe; it also traveled to Egypt and South America. Mitchell stayed with the Wooding Orchestra until it disbanded in 1931, after a second European tour. He then joined another touring American jazz band, Willie Lewis’s Orchestra, and when that group broke up in 1941, Mitchell opted not to return to the United States. He was arrested on December 11, 1941, in Amsterdam. Mitchell obtained a guitar while in Tittmoning, and he sometimes performed with other internee musicians. Little is known about his life after his repatriation in 1944, but his guitar playing can be heard on Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra recordings of 1945 and 1946. One account, which I could not confirm, had him eventually leaving music, and working as a New York City building superintendent.
Two caricature subjects were athletes. Reginald Berry, born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1899, was one of the first African American professional wrestlers. By the 1920’s he was well known throughout the United States, fighting under the name Reginald Siki or Regis Siki, and claiming a colorful but completely invented past in which he was born in Senegal or, more often, Abyssinia. (In one version of the story, he was discovered by a traveling Italian sculptor.) Berry was well over six feet tall, with a striking physique that led to appearances as a movie extra. He appeared in Tarzan and the Golden Lion, released in 1927; he may also have been an extra in Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings, although accounts differ. After moving to Europe in 1933, Berry wrestled, appeared in movies, and worked as a “physical culture instructor.” He was arrested in Prague in 1942 and brought to Ilag VII soon after. Berry was among those returned to the United States in 1944. His Bohemian wife Jarmila (the second of three wives) and their young son, who were interned together elsewhere in Germany, followed him to the United States on a subsequent prisoner exchange.
After his return to U.S. soil, Berry gave several newspaper interviews. He sometimes asserted that he had been arrested and interned because he had refused to salute the Nazi flag. This bold but unlikely explanation may have been simple self-promotion, but it also may have been a way to hide the fact that the reason for his arrest and internment was that he was American, and not, in fact, Abyssinian. Berry soon resumed wrestling, sometimes as Reginald Siki, but frequently as Kemal Abdur Rahman, Kemal Abed El Rahman, or Kemal Abd-ur-Rhaman, variations of the name he had started using since converting to Islam in Prague around 1940. He died in 1948 at the age of 49. Some sources state that he succumbed to injuries suffered in the ring, but his death certificate (under the name Kemal Abd-Ur-Rahman, place of birth: Abyssinia, Africa) attributes his death to something more ordinary: coronary sclerosis, a heart ailment.
Jack Taylor, a light heavyweight boxer, was born in 1896 (the year on his Tittmoning caricature) or in 1899 (the year on his boxing records, and also the year I found on a 1935 register of residents of The Hague, the Dutch city in which he had settled by 1936, and on a World War II draft registration card filed after his repatriation to the United States). Taylor was known professionally as the “Nebraska Tornado.” The nickname, and the numerous bouts he fought in that state in the 1920s (and the fact that “Nebraska, USA” is penciled onto his caricature), suggest Nebraska origins, but Taylor was born in Blacksburg, South Carolina. He spent over a decade boxing in the United States, with forays to Cuba, Mexico and Panama, before relocating to Europe in 1924. There he became sufficiently well-known to be featured on one of 33 trading cards of boxers issued by the Amatller Chocolate Company of Spain in 1928. (Interestingly, the text on the back of the card was not entirely complimentary and alluded to behavior of a less than sportsmanlike nature, which may have been nothing more than his tendency, noted in the occasional newspaper article, to break out into the Charleston in the ring.) During his years in The Hague, Taylor gave boxing instruction, and for a time he and two Surinamese boxers ran a sports and massage establishment.
Arrested and interned in 1941, Taylor was popular in the camp, remembered by Jerry Mahrer and others for his kindness, and also remembered by some for giving head massages. A visiting YMCA worker took a photograph of Taylor that was carried by American newspapers in 1944; it captured Taylor speaking to a rapt audience of Tittmoning internees about his defeat of German world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling in ten rounds in 1925. Taylor’s internment ended when he was repatriated in 1944. What he did after returning to the United States remains a mystery.
Oscar Lee Mathis was born in Plains, Georgia in 1910. A former internee who roomed with him in Tittmoning told me in an email that Mathis had been a “cabin boy” on the transatlantic passenger ship the SS George Washington, and was subsequently brought to Prague by a fellow ship employee with whom he became friendly. He was living in Prague and working as a waiter when he was arrested. Mathis remained at Ilag VII until a 1945 prisoner exchange. After the war, Mathis spent at least some of his time in Waycross, Georgia; a 1946 directory entry identifies him simply as a laborer. He died in Waycross in 1972.
Penciled on to William Walker’s caricature are the words “New Jersey — U.S.A” and “Holland.” Although he may have spent time in those places, Walker was born in Bridgewater, Virginia, either in 1894 (according to the date on his caricature) or in 1895 (according to Social Security and other records). Fellow internee Reginald Berry referred to William Walker as a “medicine man” in a postwar interview, but it is hard to know what he meant; a German record from August of 1946, when Walker was still living in the town of Laufen, referred to him only as a “kraftfahrer,” or driver. I was not able to determine what brought Walker to Europe. It appears that he spent time in Belgium, since he was interned along with a son, Thomas, a glass blower (according to Berry) who was born in that country in 1920. A second son, George, born in Belgium in 1922, may have been interned in Ilag VII as well, as an August 1945 ship manifest that shows George Walker heading to the United States (specifically, to his uncle Benjamin Walker in Virginia) and giving Laufen as his most recent residence. In 1949 William and Thomas Walker also came to the United States, giving a Harlem address as their destination. Whether the three displaced Walkers reunited, and what shape their postwar lives took, I do not know.
Ilag VII held several other African Americans. Six were performing artists. One was a veteran of World War I who chose not to return home after serving in France. Also interned as American civilians: the war veteran’s French-born sons, and an artist who possessed an American passport, but was not, in fact, an American.
John Welch was born in 1906 as John Welsh, but the name Welch was what both he and his sister Elisabeth, a highly popular cabaret singer and musical theater performer in her adopted home of England, preferred. As a young man, Welch worked as a professional orchestra musician in his native New York. In 1932, he moved from New York to Germany to further his music studies at the Berlin Conservatory of Music. He lived in Berlin, studying and playing piano, until his arrest in 1942. There is no record of Welch giving musical performances while interned, but more than one fellow internee recalled him practicing classical music on a silent keyboard. He served as the tuner for the camp piano, and without doubt was the “Mr. Welch of Tittmoning” whom Ambrose Sherwill mentioned in his diary as having received a payment of one British Red Cross parcel and fifty cigarettes “in gratitude for his work on the piano.” I reached out to Elisabeth Welch’s friend and biographer, Stephen Bourne, who said that Elisabeth told him that her brother’s hands were affected by the winters in the damp and cold camps, and that his arthritis made it difficult for him to continue as a concert pianist after he returned to the United States on a March 1944 exchange.
In a fascinating series of articles written for the Pittsburgh Courier shortly after his return, Welch described life in Berlin over the course of his ten years there. Welch stated that “before Hitler came to power, the Negro was treated exceptionally well.” Even under Hitler, Welch maintained, Black people were not targeted for ill treatment in any systematic manner, but at the same time he strongly condemned “Hitler’s poisonous doctrines” and the white supremacist beliefs and anti-Semitism of the Nazi party. After the war, Welch frequently visited his sister in England, but little else is known about his postwar life. John Welch died in New York in 1999.
Henry Crowder was a pianist, orchestra leader, composer, and singer who was born in 1890 in Gainesville, Georgia, the son of a tannery worker. He launched his musical career in Washington, D.C., where he played piano in brothels and restaurants, and later he worked in Chicago. Crowder’s first trip to Europe was with the jazz band known as Eddie South’s Alabamians, a job for which he left behind his wife and a young son. In 1928, in Venice, Crowder met heiress Nancy Cunard, of the Cunard Line family, and began a seven-year romantic association that was a life changing relationship for both, although Crowder later wrote with regret about the affair and felt that Cunard had treated him badly. Cunard traveled in elite intellectual circles, and soon Crowder found himself rubbing shoulders with influential literary figures Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound and the artist Man Ray. (Man Ray’s dramatic photographic portrait of Crowder with Cunard’s bangled arms on his shoulders belongs to the Pompidou Center.) Crowder returned several times to the United States during the prewar years, but he did not reconcile with his family, each time choosing to return once more to Europe. “In Europe the Negro will learn that color prejudice, though it exists in some places…is never, as in America, a religion or a creed,” he wrote in 1934. Crowder frequently performed in France, but was in Brussels in 1940 when Germany invaded. In an interview given to the newspaper The Afro-American once he was safely home, he described fleeing to France, narrowly missing being killed by German bombs, and fleeing back to Brussels 122 miles on foot — but back in Brussels, he was quickly arrested, and sent to Ilag VII.
Crowder left the camp in a March 1944 prisoner exchange and reunited with his wife. His remaining years seem to have been spent quietly in Washington D.C., at least some of them given over to working at the United States Customs Bureau and the United States Coast Guard. There is reason to think that Crowder’s internment experience was difficult for him. In an obituary following his 1955 death, Atlanta’s Black newspaper, Atlanta Daily World, wrote that Crowder returned from internment “broken in health.” It also noted that Crowder had told a friend that, during his internment, “his music was all that held his sanity together.”
George Welch was born in 1882 in Edenton, North Carolina. In 1901, he left the United States to work as a seaman; he returned and spent time in New York, but ultimately left again to live and work in Europe. Little is known about his career, but in a 1921 passport application submitted to the American consulate in London, Welch stated that in the years since 1907 he had been in Belgium, France, Australia, Africa and England for the purpose of “theatrical work.” Welch was arrested in Brussels and imprisoned at Ilag VII until a March 1944 prisoner exchange. Upon arriving in New York, he described himself as a singer and pianist to a reporter from the New York Amsterdam News. He also said that his parents had been enslaved, and he stated, “I don’t intend to live in the south. My memory is too good for that. During the years I’ve been away, there was always the feeling I was free. I’d hate to be disappointed at 62, so I’m staying right here in New York until the war is won. Then, I plan to return to London.” Whether he made it back to London, I was unable to determine.
Similarly, I found few details about the life of internee Philip Atkins. At the time of the United States Census of 1900, Philip Atkins was a nineteen-year-old farm laborer in St. James County, Louisiana, but by 1912 he was living in Brussels, Belgium, married to a Belgian woman with whom he had had a daughter the previous year. In a passport application submitted to the United States Legation in Brussels in 1915, he gave his occupation as musician. At some point after the war, Atkins made his way from Germany back to Brussels, and he died there on February 13, 1953, one day after his seventy-second birthday, of an undetermined cause.
Edward Montgomery and Samuel (Sam) Johnson (no relation to Freddy Johnson) were American entertainers who spent the greater part of their lives in front of European audiences. Montgomery was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1893. Johnson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1890. Both men left the United States in October 1913 and soon were traveling Europe as part of a troupe that included the well-known dancer and choreographer Louis Douglas. After that, their careers diverged. Edward Montgomery performed as a dancer and a musician throughout the continent, and for a time he was a part of Louis Douglas’s “Black People,” a revue that toured Europe and Africa with a cast that included New Orleans jazz great Sidney Bechet. Sam Johnson performed in Europe and Africa with a family act made up of himself, his Swedish wife Oleida, their Beirut-born daughter, and his stepson. The Pecans, as they were known, tap danced, and also performed magic acts. Johnson’s granddaughter told me in an email that Johnson preferred life in Europe; it was where he felt “at home and accepted.” But Johnson and Montgomery remained American citizens, and in 1942 both men were arrested in Oslo. They were sent first to a Norwegian prison camp, and then to Ilag VII.
Sam Johnson returned to the United States in February of 1945, part of a prisoner exchange. His wife (an American citizen by marriage, who had been imprisoned in a separate internment camp) and his daughter (who had been sent to a Norwegian convent to wait out the war) joined him after the war ended. Johnson’s health in his later years was poor, and he died in a Philadelphia nursing home in 1959, only 69 years old. I found nothing to indicate that Edward Montgomery was able to reunite with his family. Records show that he remained in the town of Laufen until May 1948, when he returned, alone, to the United States.
Among the internees of Ilag VII were several World War I veterans who had been living in Europe since the end of that war, and one of them was African American Robert Eddie Young. Young was born in Valdosta, Georgia in 1895, enlisted in the United States Army in 1917, and served for two years with a medical unit at Camp President Lincoln, near Brest, France. In June 1919, a still deployed Young applied for a passport in order to stay on in Europe for what he called “commercial business.” Although he stated that he intended to return home within three years, this did not happen; in October 1919, Young married a native of Brest, and by the late 1920’s he was living in southern Holland and working as a blacksmith in a coal mine. Young and two of his sons, Eddy Young, born in 1923, and Paul Joseph (also known as Paul Jozepf) Young, born in 1925, were arrested and sent to Ilag VII; the sons, although born in France, were considered Americans due to their father’s citizenship. It is not clear when Young gained his release from Ilag VII, but two years after the war’s end, in 1947, he returned to the United States, a country he had not seen for decades, bringing with him his wife, and three children who had been born in the Netherlands. He died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1980.
As for Robert Eddie Young’s French sons, both were “repatriated” to the United States, where they had never lived, in February 1945. They stayed, and found work, and Paul Young served in the United States Army for two years. But they also knew Pennsylvania prisons from the inside, imprisoned for criminal offenses that included burglary and robbery. Paul Young died in 1992. Eddy Young died in 2004.
The artist Josef Nassy deserves special mention. Nassy was born in Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) in 1904, and was living in Brussels, married to a Belgian woman, at the time of his arrest. The American passport that landed him in the internment camps had been obtained through deception. As a young man, Nassy lived in the United States, and in 1929 he needed a passport. Knowing that San Francisco birth certificates had been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, he claimed to have been born in that city in 1899. The passport he obtained made him nominally an American — and led to his arrest as an American in April of 1942. Nassy was a descendant of Sephardic Jews, a fact that he kept quiet during his internment. After the war Nassy returned to Belgium, and he died there in 1976.
Josef Nassy created a large body of paintings and drawings in the camps, much of which is owned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many of these works depict cold and gloomy landscapes and men with bowed heads and sad expressions. When I learned that Holocaust Museum’s Nassy suite included a caricature of Nassy by an unknown fellow Tittmoning inmate, I had a good idea who drew it. A visit to Washington, D.C. confirmed my suspicions. My father’s style is unmistakable, and he had marked the caricature with his initials as well as a date: December 17, 1942. Nassy looked thin and troubled, and the red scarf around his neck suggests that the winter cold had arrived.
Not all of the Ilag VII internees made it to the end of the war. Over a dozen men are known to have died during internment, either in Ilag VII or in nearby hospitals. Men were sometimes transferred to other camps, and this could end very badly. The names of several transferred Jewish internees can be found on records connected to the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps.
Yet most of internees of Ilag VII did survive internment. A few hundred gained freedom in prisoner of war exchanges, or through repatriation on medical or other grounds. A total of 687 prisoners — 162 American and Latin American men, and 525 British men — remained in Laufen on May 5, 1945, the date that the American 20th Armored Division, a division of the U.S. Seventh Army, threw open the metal entrance gates of the camp and liberated the internees. (Tittmoning no longer housed civilian prisoners in the last year of the war. It was once again an Oflag, and held Dutch military officers.)
One of the 687 liberated internees was my father. As deeply painful as it certainly was to live in a German internment camp for over two and a half years, being sent to Ilag VII was for him the difference between life and death. Unlike most members of his family, he survived the Holocaust. Three months after his liberation from Laufen on May 5, 1945, my father reunited with his wife — my mother — who had been liberated from Vittel, France, eight months earlier. My parents had been apart since the fall of 1942. Their reunion was not to be taken for granted, as the camp in Vittel was one where a very different narrative from the one in Ilag VII had unfolded. My mother was one of the few Jews who survived Vittel.
My parents lived together in Paris for three years before emigrating to New York in 1948. In both cities, my father relied on his pencils and his sense of humor to survive. In France, he got back on his feet by drawing caricatures of GI’s in the post exchange of a United States Army transit center, and he sold drawings of political figures to French, Belgian, and Swiss publications. After settling in the United States, he found success as a freelance cartoonist and designer of visual humor features. Some of his work was meant to entertain, but other work had a sharp edge. His satirical caricatures of political figures appeared on the editorial pages of many American newspapers, and some of the photographic montages and the other creative work he did for Mad beginning in 1966 were political commentary as much as they were humor.
It is extraordinary to think that a Jew imprisoned in Germany during World War II had the time and materials with which to draw the men around him, but this turned out to be my great fortune as well as his. I penetrated the wall created by my father’s silence about his past only when I stumbled on a passageway that he had never intended to leave me, one made of eighteen pieces of paper. On the other side of the wall: a civilian internment camp, where several hundred imprisoned Europeans, including my father, and several hundred imprisoned Americans, Black and white, experienced loss, hardship, and displacement…and also, improbably, creativity and connection.