by Gennie Truelock
The Homestead Museum’s collection is filled with objects that contain remarkable stories. Some of which can lead us to unexpected places, such as one recently teased out while researching objects for the World War I exhibit currently on display in the museum’s Gallery. While looking through artifacts relating to the war years of 1917-1918, I came across a November 1917 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s booking card of an unassuming butcher. As I stared at the booking photo, a thought struck me, the person staring back at me wasn’t particularly diabolical-looking, nor did he have the look of a man toughened by years of hard-living. Actually, it seemed as if there was a small smile playing at his lips and an assured look on his face that seemed to say that everything would be just fine. However, after some investigating, it turned out that things wouldn’t be fine for the butcher, and I don’t think that his life turned out the way he anticipated. The card didn’t contain a lot of information. Aside from his occupation, it listed his name as Anton Berschneider. At 32 years old, he stood at 5’ 8”, and weighed 152 lbs. He was from Germany and his crime was listed as “Alien Enemy.”
Throughout its history, the American government has determined various immigrant groups to be a threat to national security. When the U.S. entered World War I on April 6, 1917, German citizens residing in the United States went from immigrants to alien enemies overnight. Restrictions where placed on where they could live, what they could do for work, how they could travel, and what they could own. During the 19 months the U.S. was at war, feelings of xenophobia towards German communities ran rampant. Nearly half a million German alien enemies were registered, many were put under surveillance, and thousands were sent to internment camps. Private property and assets totaling more than half a billion dollars were confiscated. So this seemed to be the fate of Anton Berschneider, but I wanted to know more. When did he come to Los Angeles? Why was he arrested? And what happened to him?
So I began to dig. With the help of Steve Dugan, our Operations Assistant and resident genealogist, we began to piece together the paper trail of an ordinary German immigrant whose life was overtaken by unforeseeable and insurmountable events.
Anton’s journey to the United States began in October 1911, aboard the ship, Patricia. At 26 years old, he sailed from Germany to New York as a third-class passenger.
By 1916 he is found in the Los Angeles city directory, living on Hill Street and working as a butcher.
On February 8, 1917, Anton filed his Declaration of Intention, taking the first step to becoming a naturalized American citizen, in which he renounced any allegiance to Germany. His application was suspended, however, when the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6.
On November 5, Anton was arrested and listed as an alien enemy. I was unable to determine what specific law he had broken, or if he even had a trial.
Nine days later, on November 14, the Los Angeles Herald published a brief article regarding Anton’s arrest for “his alleged unfriendly attitude toward this government.” He was sent to Fort Douglas, Utah, where he spent the remainder of the war. Anton’s private property, totaling $430.44, was turned over to the U.S. government. By 1919, Anton was released from the internment camp and left the United States for Mexico.
In 1923, he tried to return to the United States after living in Guadalajara for a number of years. He arrived in Nogales, Arizona, on foot, but was denied entry into the United States. From there the paper trail ends and what happened to him after that is lost to history.
Anton’s story is just one of the millions of immigrant stories found in America’s past, but his journey from immigrant to alien enemy seems to take on more relevance today, as we continue to debate the loyalties and trustworthiness of other immigrant communities.
Want to see this powerful document for yourself? Anton’s “alien enemy” booking card is on display alongside other objects that tell compelling stories about Los Angeles at the California Historical Society’s History Keepers exhibit at El Tranquilo Gallery on Olvera Street through October 1. The exhibit is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.