History lesson

Arrived at the campus today to find that there was a traveling history exhibit parked outside the Student Center on the little-known internment of German-Americans in camps during World War II. I found out about the exhibit too late to bring my first class, but the second class spent 20 minutes there before the exhibit bus had to travel on to Warren.

In short, 15,000 German-Americans were rounded up and held in camp without charges during World War II. Most had immigrated within the previous twenty years. Many had children. If they had farms or businesses, they likely lost them while they were interred.

Some, in fact, were sent back to Germany in trade for America POWs. This was quite a shock for children who were born in this country. The internees and their children ended up in Nazi Germany, and had to stay there until the end of the war.

One of the camps was Fort Lincoln near Bismarck, ND. Photos of the camp show a place eerily similar to the Nazi concentration camps. Barbed wire, rows of barracks. Of course, nobody was shot, but one might have hoped we could have done better.

Some of the internees went crazy. There was nothing to do in the camps but sit. You couldn't answer charges against you because there were none.

I remember when I was in college going through some papers and finding letters from Germans who were sent to camps. One man was arrested by the FBI after a neighbor reported that he had shown "inordinate interest in train schedules through Jamestown." The implication was that he could be a Nazi spy.

Sen. Bill Langer finally got that man released, and Langer was a champion of German-American citizens interred during the war. He often visited Ellis Island where many of them were kept. Langer showed no such interest in the plight for Japanese-Americans in internment camps, that I could find, but he deserves credit for being probably the only American politician willing to stand up for the rights of interred German-Americans.

Of course, Langer was always championing lost causes, a proclivity which earned him the label as an irrelevant maverick and probably caused his visits to the camps to be ignored.

Only one of the students had heard of this internment previously. That student had actually visited one of the camps.

So, although we were scheduled to go over the Spanish conquest of Mexico today, I think the students learned more by going to the exhibit.

On the side of the bus were many placards going over the history of internment. Included was the text of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits imprisonment without charges amongst other things. One student read the 5th Amendment and, apparently confused by the archaic language, said to the student next to him, "What the hell. I don't get this one."

I stood back and watched as he and another student gradually figured out that what they were reading was the foundation of the phrase "plead the 5th."

"Cool!" he said, and moved on to the next placard.