Readers are often familiar with the stories of Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII. Fearing the Japanese-Americans would send messages to Japan to undermine the American war effort. This relocation project meant over 120,000 people, many of whom had been born in the US, were evicted from their homes and sent to various camps across the US. Though their story is less well-known, German-Americans also faced detention as enemy aliens. During WWII, the United States detained 11,000 ethnic Germans, some were sent to internment camps while others were watched.
Different Days by Vicki Berger Erwin centers on German-Americans in Honolulu beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We learn about the family through eleven-year-old Rosie. Rosie and her younger brother Freddie live with their mom and dad near Pearl Harbor. On that Sunday, December 7, the noise of explosions shatters the air. Papa wonders if a fuel tank has exploded.
Rosie and Freddie dash into the yard and watch planes flying overhead. They run and play pretending to be in the Army. Rosie notices the planes look different from the ones she is used to seeing; a bad feeling creeps over her. Then Mama calls Rosie and Freddie into the house: “Schnell Lieblinge!” They know she means business.
Mama and Papa are German-Americans. Mama had been born in America and Papa had become a naturalized citizen. Both are staunch supporters of the United States. Little does Rosie know that the bombs being released upon Pearl Harbor will also unleash horror on her own life.
Papa has a store where he repairs and sells radios. Mama runs a kindergarten in their home; that allows young working mothers a safe, nurturing place for their children. Malia, who has formerly owned the kindergarten, now works with Mama as a second teacher.
On Monday, with no school due to the bombing, Rosie helps her mother with the kindergarten children, at least those who show up. Papa has gone to work. Soon, two men in dark suits knock on the door. The men ask for Mr. and Mrs. Schatzer. They learn Mr. Schatzer is at work; they demand that Mrs. Schatzer go with them. When she protests that she needs to care for the children, they tell her they are not requesting her to go.
Rosie is puzzled about why the men would be so gruff and why they would take her mother, an American citizen, away for questioning. She will soon learn the situation only gets worse. Papa is taken from his store. Two carloads of men come to the house and remove all the radios and flashlights; they search the house. The men return from upstairs with the camera, some books written in German, and photographs taken in Germany and at Pearl Harbor taken by their Aunt Etta. Aunt Etta’s photographs have been published in newspapers and magazines.
Rosie still cannot understand why these items are so important to the hateful men in her home. The men all leave, taking the items they have confiscated with the. Another car pulls up in front of the house. Rosie breathe a sigh of relief because Aunt Etta climbs out of the car. Unfortunately, Aunt Etta will also soon be detained herself leaving the children. Rosie calls her mother’s older sister, Aunt Yvonne, to ask is she will come stay with her and Freddie until her parents return. Aunt Yvonne is married to an American, not of German descent. She is stuffy and standoffish, not at all like Mama and Aunt Etta. She agrees the children can stay with her because she could not possibly stay in their home, her because “I have far too many responsibilities here, my dear.” Readers soon learn her responsibilities are meeting her friends and shopping. Still, as the adult, Aunt Yvonne holds power over Rosie and Freddie.
Rosie, thinking she and Freddie will stay only a few days with Aunt Yvonne, does not pack much for herself and her brother. In fact, she forgets two of the most important items to her: her journal and her spelling guide. Rosie is a champion speller, and she practices her spelling often to keep her skills sharp.
Staying with Aunt Yvonne also means Rosie and Freddie will be in the house with their teenaged cousin Rainer, who is mean-spirited. Aunt Yvonne reminds me of the aunt who takes in Seita and his little sister Setsuko after the attack that destroys Kobe, killing their mother, in 1945. Their mean-spirited aunt takes the children into her home temporarily, but she mistreats them. Akiyuki Nosaka tells the semibiographical story in the anime movie Grave of the Fireflies.
Rosie loves mystery stories, so she determines that she will discover what has happened to her parents. She watches and listens for clues. Unfortunately, she has forgotten her journal, so she cannot write down her thoughts. She manages to find some scraps of paper until she decides she will sneak into Rainer’s room and find a notebook. He won’t miss it as long as she can slip in and out without being seen.
Being resourceful, Rosie thinks that going back to her home will provide her with some clues. She learns that Malia is now living in the Schatzer home. Malia tells Rosie the home is now hers and that she is again running the kindergarten. Rosie finds that information puzzling. Late, she takes some change from Rainer’s room and rides the bus to her father’s store only to find it closed. Later, she learns where her parents are being kept and blackmails Rainer into taking her to the fort in order to ask to see her parents and Aunt Etta. Of course, she is denied the opportunity to see them, only leading to more pain and frustration.
In Aunt Yvonne’s home, Rosie and Freddie are treated unkindly. Aunt Yvonne considers them dirty, noisy nuisances. Rosie does her best to entertain Freddie and keep him out of Aunt Yvonne’s way. Uncle Charlie is kind to the children, but he is seldom at home; he even goes to work on Christmas Day. When Rosie protests, he says, “War doesn’t take holidays.”
Rosie continues to watch and listen trying to find out what will happen next. She especially wants her parents and Aunt Etta to come home. Readers will feel the growing disappointment and the feelings of loss. While Aunt Yvonne provides a place for the children to stay and food for them to eat, she lacks any warmth or love.
Eventually, the family is reunited. Rebuilding their lives is not easy. When Rosie sees her parents after their release, she feels she is dreaming or losing her mind. Papa calls her name, “Rosalie!” Her parents are wearing the clothes they left in, but now the clothes “hung on them. Papa’s hair was shorter that she remembered and Mama’s was tied back with a scarf.”
Vicki Berger Erwin reveals the source of her story in the “Historical Note” found at the end of the book. It is based on the true story of Doris Berg, who, like Rosie, watched the bombs fall on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following day, just as for Rosie, life for Doris and her younger sister changed drastically. Doris had the same questions as Rosie about why her parents were targeted when they certainly were not enemy aliens. Finally, Doris and her sister are reunited with their parents. For a long time, the family did not speak of the incarceration. Mr. Berg told his daughters: “Only cowards give up, so pick up your bootstraps, move forward, and achieve.”
Vicki Erwin grew up in Mexico, MO, where she began her voracious reading habits which certainly continue to this day. She has written twenty-six books. Different Days is the most recent and it publishes October 3, 2017. She is currently co-authoring a book with her son Bryan: Slaying in South St. Louis: The murder of Nancy Zanone. It is slated for publication in late spring 2018.
Vicki’s first book was Jamie and the Mystery Quilt.
Vicki’s husband Jim Erwin is also a writer. They are both friends of mine since Jim and my husband grew up together in Springfield, MO. Vicki sent me an advance copy of Different Days and I am pleased to write a review of a little told story of German-Americans who were detained during WWII. Vicki is a talented writer!
Read more about Vicki Berger Erwin at her Web site: https://www.vickibergererwin.com/.