The Train to Crystal City
FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program
America’s Only Family Internment Camp
During World War II
Jan Jarboe Russell
Review by Brenda Repland
Americans are often taught in school about the travesty of interning Japanese Americans and legal residents during World War II. But little or nothing has been written about the Germans and Italians who were there as well. Now Ms. Russell writes about a secret FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)-approved internment camp in Texas where thousands of families were incarcerated. It was, in fact, the only camp for families.
As war got under way, President Roosevelt anticipated that there would be Americans trapped in countries belonging to the Axis (egs. Japan, Germany, Italy). He developed a prisoner exchange program called “Quiet Passage,” during which hundreds of prisoners in Crystal City – including American-born children – were exchanged for other more important Americans (diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, physicians and missionaries) caught behind enemy lines. (Germans were very specific providing lists of their nationals they wanted returned to Germany.)
Virtually secret until now was the practice of deporting Japanese and Germans from Latin America and incarcerating them in Crystal City as well. (Ultimately, some were exchanged and returned to countries they had never visited nor whose language they even spoke.)
This book focuses on two American-born girls who were interned for years. We follow them and the struggles of their families in camp and subsequently as exchange candidates. We also see examples of Jews in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp being exchanged through the advantage of having false passports.
This is a fascinating history of a dark time in history. Ms. Russell has captured the trauma these families faced and how some were haunted forever by the experience. It’s also a lesson in cultural norms. When the war was over, Japanese internees refused to believe that Japan had lost. They insisted that it was American propaganda. When they had to accept the truth, it was devastating.