Memoirs of a Censor ….


Marianne McCall

© 2006


Guantanamo Naval Base, where men are imprisoned without being charged for a crime and without access to the courts, the horrors of Abu Ghraib, all these stories are constantly in the news and stir in our collective conscience feelings of unease; we see measures taken out of fear and/or arrogance but unworthy of this nation founded on human justice and fairness.   In my mind they bring back experiences both similar in some ways and in many ways quite different from what I witnessed at another time and place, namely a small Texas town in the early ‘40’s.


The setting for these experiences was Kenedy, Texas - the epitome of small American towns of its day, with all its virtues and faults, depending on your point of view.  Its 2,500 inhabitants, a very homogenous group of folks, were deeply suspicious of outsiders, even those who resided only some 20 miles down the road.  They were adamant to maintain their own mores and habits “untainted” by “the other”.  Superficially they were divided into bible toting Sunday morning church goers, or Saturday night carousing drinkers.   Saints or sinners, all actions were duly noted, ridiculed and criticized by each faction.   You either belonged or were an ostracized outsider.


Keeping track of which was which was the choice of a woman at the local switchboard, (this was long before the advent of cell phones) who would “plug you in, or pull the plug“, depending on circumstances or her approval or disapproval. 


She was the source of all information, which meant if you dialed zero on your rotary phone to speak to the operator, there she was.  She knew everyone and conveyed messages to those who desired that service.  If you wanted “Joe” to come home from the bar at a given time you could call the operator to convey that message in no uncertain terms.  No privacy issues in those days.  When a baby was born, she would circulate that news to any and all including length of labor, and birth weight.


Access to Kenedy was provided by a Greyhound bus line and a railroad.  Near the bus station were conveniently placed benches, mostly occupied by wizened old men, napping in the warm sun, but still alert enough to observe the arrivals of strangers and/or departures of inhabitants.  In case of a question, they would be happy to share this information with you.  Could they be considered the forerunners of Homeland Security?  On one occasion, when my parents and brother came to visit me on a weekend, one of the old men volunteered the accurate information that I had been seen boarding a bus for San Antonio, Texas, the closest larger city to visit.

What was I doing in that god-forsaken hole in the road, half-way between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas?   A town that was known as “6 Shooter” junction until just a few years before,  where shootings occurred at the slightest provocation.  Well therein lies a tale.


In the late Thirties, my family and I had fled Nazi Germany and my father established a medical practice in Dallas, Texas.  He had been a well known physician in Germany, who could see the handwriting on the wall and had the foresight to leave, while it was still possible.  He decided on Texas, since that state experienced a shortage of physicians at that time and permitted him to take the State Board with the help of an interpreter.


Our English language skills were quite limited, although we had taken English lessons before our departure.  Our British English was difficult for Texans to understand, “you say tomato, I say tomató” and the early years of adjusting to life in America were challenging, to say the least.  My father could not get rid of his guttural “r” sound, so when he went to the local supermarket to buy coffee and was asked how he wanted it ground, and replied “regular,”  the clerk could not understand him so, reluctantly he switched to “fine” to get what he needed.


I had finished high school in Germany but, in order to improve my language skills, attended high school in Dallas for one year.  I was the only foreigner the giggly teens had ever encountered, and since communications were difficult, they spoke in a loud voice, which compounded the problem, since it wasn’t my hearing that was deficient.  Shouting didn’t help my understanding, whereas speaking more slowly with proper enunciation would have been useful.  The only intermediary who understood me was a rather sophisticated French teacher, who had widely traveled, who befriended me and explained to the children that speaking slowly and with proper enunciation might make conversation easier.


I went on to college (SMU) loved the more enlightened atmosphere, and finally formed meaningful relationships with some of the students.  In 1942 I graduated from college with a major in foreign languages and a minor in psychology and was looking for opportunities to use these skills.


By chance there appeared an ad in the Dallas Morning News, offering  a position with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for  internment camps in various parts of the country.  What was needed was someone with German language skills to censor incoming and outgoing mail of the Germans interned in these camps.  The Geneva Convention allowed an exchange of correspondence between internees and their families.  It was the responsibility of the interning country to carry this out.


A not too hidden agenda was to detect attempted escape by detainees (such as “I am planning to look at the fence from the outside.“)  Nor were detainees allowed to complain about ill treatment or inadequate food in their letters to their families.  Additionally, I was to serve as an interpreter at hearings when internees - some of them a year after their forced arrival at the camp were finally given the chance to confront their accusers.   I applied, and was hired. 


It was an exciting time for me to be away from home for the first time, to experience a totally different life style, become my own person and get a glimpse at small town America.  The job was a step in that direction.  With it, however,  came a conflicting sense of  reticence about reading private correspondence,  and a new sense of power and a temptation to make this job a romantic, spy-catching game.


One of the men concluded a letter to his wife with “yours by force, beyond my control, faithful husband”.   Another detainee sent almost identical love letters to two women, assuring them each of his undying devotion.  I had to suppress the urge to switch envelopes...  And there was a man with a sense of humor, who was clever enough to censor his own letter by cutting out a line before submitting it then pasting a strip of paper behind it and adding in his own handwriting:  “I cut out this line myself.” 


Although many Americans citizens are aware of the World War II imprisonment of West Coast Japanese Americans in relocation centers, few are aware of the smaller internment camps run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detain civilians from Latin America.  Please note civilians.


 There were three of them in Texas, located at Seagoville, Kenedy, and Crystal City.  In the early 1940’s there was fear/hysteria that Germans and Japanese, who lived in Latin America, might infiltrate the U.S. therefore, under the authority of the Department of Justice, members of Axis nationalities residing in Latin American countries were suddenly and without prior notice or trial deported to the United States and most of them  placed in Texas internment camps. They were often deported arbitrarily as a result of prejudice and because they provided economic competition for the Latin American natives, not because they posed a security threat.   In many cases they had been residents of South American countries for  many years, had married native women, and owned successful businesses such as coffee plantations which were then expropriated by those countries.


In addition to Germans, Japanese and a few Italians were also deported to these camps.   My job was in Kenedy, Texas, an all men’s camp.   Before the war, the site was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp;   Kenedy business owners, in an effort to increase local prosperity, lobbied the INS to use the camp as an internment facility.


However, the average homeowner in Kenedy worried endlessly that there might be a daring escape from the camp, and panicked at the thought that these “dangerous criminals” might harm their women and children! And indeed, one man managed to escape for a very few days. Very hungry and cold, he returned to camp on his own, since he had no training in survival skills!


   The camp received its first  large group of prisoners in 1942, and during its existence housed more than  3,500 aliens. *#Other camps housed families with children, and couples without children. 


So there I was the only female staff member among a large group of men with divergent political persuasions.   Staff was provided with free housing in barracks inside the barbed wire enclosure, surrounded by guard towers with strong search lights. etc.  The rooms  for staff were freezing cold in winter, hot in summer. 


Staff consisted of the camp commander and the town’s lawyer, who was hired for his German knowledge, since he came from a small German community in Texas, however, his language skills were not that up to date, and I was able to help on many occasions when he was baffled by  the internees’ deviousness.


We also had a Korean interpreter, who worked with the Japanese internees. 
Puck and I became friendly, since he too was lonely and unacceptable to the town folk.  He once told me that my face was like the full moon, which I found to be insulting, equating it with being fat.  It was later explained that this was a big compliment!  Learned something else again.


And there was the town dentist, whose office was located on a two story building above the railroad.  When I developed a miserable tooth ache, I consulted him, had him yank out the tooth after he spit onto the railroad tracks and then proceeding with the task at hand. 
I was able to put up with barrack life for about a month, feeling like a voluntary detainee, then decided to move to town where a woman advertised a room for rent.  Meanwhile not only the internees but the staff were given the cold stare; we were obvious outsiders. 


It then became the job of the woman from whom I rented to assure the population that I didn’t present a danger to them.  Her main preoccupation:  the cleanliness of her neighbors laundry, sheets, towels rustling in the breeze on clothes lines.  Along with the weather, the efficiency of various detergents was the main subject of conversations among neighbors across the fence.  Hardly a fascinating subject but, it was a relief from the “who done what to whom on Saturday night, in a drunken stupor”. 


I was stunned by small town life, with its narrow focus and petty concerns.  If gossip was local, it became blown up all out of proportion, whereas anything happening “down the road” just proved how careful one had to be of those “d... strangers”.  And we all know what stranger rhymes with! 


Obviously, when you do a large sweep of nationals, a few bad apples will surface.  So there were Nazis and Nazi haters in the camp voicing their opinions ferociously.  The internees were treated well quite unlike some of the horror stories now surfacing regarding detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo.  Yes, they were confined to camp but otherwise could exercise, read, write, etc. and wait for the Hearing which would hopefully establish their innocence when it came to being a threat to the United States

In the beginning large amounts of food were delivered weekly to be prepared by the elected cook.  Since the Germans were in the majority, they demanded fare heavy in potatoes and pigs’ knuckles, which made the Japanese population retch.  They wanted rice and dried squid.  In order to avoid a revolt, finally two separate kitchens were established, each ethnicity preparing food to its taste.   We joked that we would like to share the men’s meals, since the cook was able to bake apple pies with whipped cream on top! 


And there was humor and excitement too.  On one occasion one of the female staff members left a bag of her personal dirty clothes in the kitchen to be taken to the town laundry.  The fellow in charge of camp laundry thought it was part of the regular kitchen wash and took it to the Japanese laundry room to be washed.  A riot nearly developed when female underwear showed up on clotheslines across this all men’s camp, and a search was on for hidden women!


I found myself in the strange position of empathizing with many of the detainees, some of whom wrote me love letters.  My father had instilled us with the idea that we were to see each person on his or her own merits, as individuals, and not use generalizations on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity.    Since by definition I could not be accepted (I wasn’t from there) I was compelled to turn to “other outcasts,“ for companionship.  Some were quite fascinating.


There was Mrs. Crawford, whom I ran into on an evening stroll, an old woman who looked like a scarecrow, rags blowing in the breeze, who lived at the edge of town in a room with her cats, 5 dogs, and a few chickens.  She greeted me like her long lost daughter, told me she was 72 years old and a devout Catholic.  When I mentioned that I was Jewish, she said “God bless you, my child, for is it not said in the Bible that the Jews will save the world”, which statement came as a surprise to me.   I assumed that she was only mildly deranged.  She was happy to have someone to talk to, which gave me a chance to practice my Spanish, her native language.


It was a lonely existence, but I had fun playing with fire and finally dated a detainee for a while, who had been released from camp and worked in the local coffee shop.  He was a charming, intelligent man, who through no fault of his own, was caught up in these sweeps.  That relationship had to be kept secret, as it would have been considered “a conflict of interest”.  It ended when his stepmother arrived for a visit, and I learned that he had a great deal of romantic affection for her.


Some of the guards at the camp wanted to date me, but I discovered quickly that their interest in me had little to do with my great sense of humor and or intellect.  They wanted only physical contact and since there was no chemistry on my part,  I found this to be inappropriate, and soon preferred my own company to having to discourage clumsy attempts at unwanted intimacy. 


In time, and that could be several months to a year, each internee was given an individual hearing on the basis of which his fate depended.  If the internee was found innocent, he had the option to return to his native country.  If interested in being repatriated to Germany, there was a ship, the SS Gripsholm, ready to return him to Germany.   I learned that the German government offered each man who was willing to return to Germany after the war the one time sum of $4.50 for his patriotism!  That did not sound like much of an incentive to me, nor would it go very far in today’s dollars. 

In a few cases, internees were freed to live in Kenedy until other arrangements could be made. 


All in all - and with a keen interest in psychology - I found this whole experience totally consuming and fascinating, and my feelings for the detainees and against the local narrow-minded folks only intensified. 


The camp was finally closed in 1944.  We made a final inspection of the premises and found it fascinating how the empty barracks still expressed so much of their former inhabitants’ personalities.  There were pin-up galleries of lingerie clad females, cut out from the Montgomery Ward catalog, and the bragging of our one and only Frenchman who had a “female” companion, which turned out to be the stray camp cat he took to bed with him, my first look at bestiality.. 

New York


My next challenge to use my German knowledge and to also help the war effort came in the fall of that year when German speaking men and women were wanted by the War Department to become censors.   I applied, was hired and moved to New York, where I lived in the home of a friend of my family, who had a room for rent.  I was somewhat under scrutiny myself, in as much as my job was classified top secret.  The building elevator operator told me that on one occasion a man with a badge inquired what I told him as I left for work in the mornings.  He replied “she says good morning to me”, and apparently that was OK.


As America had entered the war (World War II), battles were fought in Europe and prisoners taken.  These POW’s were held in a number of prison camps in this country, and here we were dealing with enemy combatants, a long way from the civilians encountered in Texas.


Strict rules, per the Geneva Convention, governed their treatment and ability to communicate with the folks at home.  And there was no personal interaction, as had been in Kenedy.  My job was to read their outgoing and incoming mail.  I did this with great fervor, feeling that I finally had an opportunity to strike back at Germany, a country that had robbed me of being a normal teenager and - as I found out later on - would have killed me for being a Jew.  There was no ambivalence in that job.  I loved what I did and to this day consider both the camp experience and my time working in New York as the most fascinating work experience I have had. 


Outgoing letters consisted of 25 line stationery, treated in such a way that a drop of water would show green, in order to prevent secret messages from going through.  I worked in a high rise building where 98 languages and dialects were read and evaluated.  Bear in mind that our current technology was in its infancy stages, if that.  Intelligence gathering was done mostly through the written word or code interception.  When reading outgoing mail, we had instructions to delete any complaints of ill treatment. More interesting was the mail from Germany to these men, and there we were requested to file reports on:


                                    damage sustained by bombing
                                    possible catastrophic illnesses
                                    interruptions in water/power supply


These directives changed on a weekly basis.  The person in charge of the censors was a stern woman who had her own agenda, and did a bit of indoctrinating herself.  She explained her assessment of the German character to us; according to her they all had basically split personalities who could wax sentimental when on a hike they found a bug on its back struggling to right itself - and would considerately turn the critter back on its feet - but were quite capable of killing millions of innocent men, women and children, such as in the Holocaust with never a feeling of guilt. 


There was a different technique applied in the handling of our outgoing mail and the German censors’ treatment of their outgoing mail.  We were requested to excise unwanted material with a razor blade, whereas our German counterparts used a black ink marker to obliterate the information they didn’t want to leave Germany.  So we had our work cut out for us by trying to lift the blacked out parts to learn what information the German censors considered taboo, which was quite often just what we were looking for. 


Since the men were aware of mail being censored, there was a smart aleck who devised this letter to relatives, sure he would not run afoul of censorship rules:


“Date:  Who cares;
 Place:   Ditto




After leaving where we were before we left for here, not knowing we were coming here from there, we could not tell if we would arrive here or not.  Nevertheless, we are now here and not there.  The weather here is just as it is at this season but, of course, quite unlike the weather where we were before we came here.  The whole thing is quite a new experience here, because it isn’t like where we were before we left there for here.  It is now time, in all probability to stop this somewhat too newsy letter before I give away too much information, as the censor here is likely to be a spy.” 

As all mail from Germany went to a central P.O. Box to be censored and then distributed to the various camps, misunderstandings occurred on the home front, so that some German mom would ask her son to look up a former neighbor.  She noticed that he was in the “same box”, assuming that to be a camp rather than a post office address.


So I spent about one year in New York, which I explored in the time available to me, found it to be a most stimulating, fascinating city, and remained permanently short on sleep. 


At the end of the war, we were given the opportunity to join the occupation forces to work in Germany, with the assurance that - if we were killed - our bodies would be returned to America at government expense.  This didn’t sound like an appealing concept to me, so I decided my job was finished and returned to my home in Texas.


As fate would have it, while in New York I was introduced to the man who would become my husband and whom I joined in Bolivia, South America, for one year, but this is another story.