Have You Read The Train to Crystal City Yet?

CrystalCityJan Jarboe Russell’s The Train to Crystal City was one of my favorite non-fiction reads last year. It simply hit all my buttons: lost of interesting historical facts involving World War II and a great voice. If you haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, I have good news: The book is now available in paperback. I am very happy that the author has answered a few of my questions to pique your interest further. A big Thank You to her for taking the time! So please read on, my friends, unless you want to purchase the book right away. Then you are excused (wink, wink).

Q&A With Jan Jarboe Russell

Author of The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

1. It is well-known that the United States government detained resident aliens and their descendants, particularly Japanese and Japanese-Americans, during World War II. What compelled you to write about Crystal City, the only internment camp established specifically for families?

Sometimes fate hands you a book and you cannot refuse.

I first learned of the Crystal City Internment Camp more than 40 years ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas. Alan Taniguchi, a professor of architecture and well-known Japanese American, told me about it. In time, he introduced me to his family – his father, mother, and brother – who had all been interned in Crystal City. Over the years, I read history about the internment but the focus was always on the 10 War Relocation Camps, which held the Japanese who were evacuated under Roosevelt’s orders. Never a mention of Crystal City.

After Alan died, his son, Evan, gave me a list of names of some of Alan’s friends – Japanese Americans and German Americans – who were in Crystal City. I looked at the list and decided to try and find out what happened in Crystal City. Alan had always said that none of the children in the camp knew what they were doing there or why their fathers had been labeled “enemy aliens.” I set out to find out why. I didn’t realize it would take me five long years of research and writing. But it was a great adventure.

2. Crystal City served not only as an internment camp, but it also provided people who could be exchanged for American citizens held as POWs in enemy countries. A total of six exchanges took place between Japan and Germany and the United States during the war. Why do you think so little is known about Roosevelt’s prisoner exchange program?

I don’t really know. The big newspapers of the day carried small stories about the people sent back to Japan, Germany, and the Italians. But the stories didn’t connect the dots about who these people were or the fact that they were in fact being traded for Americans behind enemy lines in Axis countries. All of this was handled by the Special War Problems Division of FDR’s State Department. Secrecy was expected in those WWII days – everyone was doing what they could for the war effort. The fate of interned citizens from countries in which we were at war was not considered important.

3. It is said that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. I would have a hard time believing a fictitious story about an immigrant family with American-born children being deported to wartime Germany where the father was arrested on suspicion of espionage, only to be then freed and hired by the U.S. military at the end of the war. Yet that is what happened to the Eiserloh family during the 1940s. What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research for the book?

I was most surprised by the fact that in a situation in which Americans were supposed to be traded for Germans in this the last exchange of the war, Ingrid, born in America, and other American-born children of families from Crystal City were traded for approximately 100 German Jews who were in Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. It was Americans for Germans.

In war, things go awry. When I met Irene Hasenberg, born in Berlin and saved from starvation by the trade, I explained that she and the others were traded for Americans like Ingrid and others like her.

“What?” she said. “Why on earth did Roosevelt do that?”

Nothing is black and white, is it? Obviously it was wonderful that at least a handful of Jews were saved in the trade. However, as you say, stranger than fiction.

4. While President Reagan formally apologized for the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II, the similar fate of Germans and German-Americans has yet to be officially acknowledged. Why do you think that is?

I believe it’s a shame. Part of the reason is that there were 120,000 Japanese, two-thirds of them American-born, interned during WWII, a horrific stain on our country. The number of Germans was far less and that’s one of the reasons.

Over the years, Germans and German Americans, many of them survivors of Crystal City, have petitioned Congress to acknowledge their incarceration but Congress has refused. No apology has been offered to the Germans. In my opinion, that too is a stain on history.

Consider this fact: 258 babies were born in the Crystal City Internment Camp on U.S. soil. Only the Japanese-American babies received an apology and $20,000 each in restitution. The internment of the German-American babies – and their parents – has never even been acknowledged.

5. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. What do you think is the most important lesson or impression that readers should take away from The Train to Crystal City?

Exactly. When I was writing the book, I comforted myself with the notion that it could never happen again. Now my book seems completely of the moment. The rhetoric that we hear in the presidential debates of Republicans is not unlike what we heard in the run-up to World War II. Then it was the Japanese, Germans, and Italian immigrants who were scapegoated. Now it’s the Latino and the Muslims. Given the climate of fear, we seem to be repeating the past.

© 2016 Jan Jarboe Russell, author of The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II


Author Bio
Jan Jarboe Russell
is a Nieman Fellow, a writer at large for Texas Monthly, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News, The New York Times, Slate, and other magazines. She is the author of The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson, and has also compiled and edited They Lived to Tell the Tale. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Dr. Lewis F. Russell, Jr.

For more information, please visit http://www.janjarboerussell.com, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.



  1. Interesting interview. Enjoyed it. I’m wondering what happened to the Americans who were sent in these exchanges back to Germany or Italy. Hmm. Did they come home after the war? Or what? I will look for a copy of the book! thanks

    • Some did come back, especially those who were born in the United States. What I found most ironic is that several of the people the book focuses on ended up working for the US army after the war, for example as translators. Just think, first the government locks you into a camp, then it deports you into a war zone, and then it offers you a job to help its military. That is just so ironic.

  2. This sounds fascinating, and I agree with the commenters that this particular bit of our history feels very relevant today. I will definitely check out this book.

  3. The answer to #5 is pretty scary. Why study history at all if we are just going to repeat it?!
    I also don’t understand why they won’t apologize to the Germans if they did to the Japanese – it doesn’t make sense to me. And, what would be the harm? I will never understand what some people do! Great questions, btw!

  4. I started this during Nonfiction Nov last year, but ended up putting it down b/c I was reading it on the heels of The Three Year-Swim Club, another nonfiction from that time period which also touched on the internment camps and I was kind of burned out of that topic.

    But, maybe I should give it another go! Possibly during this year’s nonfiction Nov!

  5. The book looks very interesting. Indeed, as I’ve been watching the news from the US recently I have been fearing that history is about to repeat itself. I wish I could convince myself that internment camps would be the worst of it. I’m stunned at the idea of governments trading people in that way – positively medieval, isn’t it? Please don’t think I’m being smug or superior about the US – the things our own politicians in the UK do and say horrify me equally sometimes…

    • For the past year or so, I can’t help but remember Philip Roth’s The Plot Against American a lot. And then I wonder how so many people can say “never again” and then turn around and say something completely opposite–on both sides of the aisle.
      I don’t think you’re smug! You should hear my phone conversations with my mother. Basically, all we ever do is be outraged over the outrages on both sides of the Atlantic. (And at the end, we talk about the kids for a little while to make us feel a little better…) 🙂

      • Yes, it’s as if they can’t see the similarities. Willful blindness, I think. Haha! It’s my sister and I who do the outraged conversations – and sometimes the blazing rows too! And then we talk about books… 😉

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