In the early morning hours of November 25, 1942, four German prisoners of war bound for a POW camp in California’s interior escaped as their train passed through the Livermore Valley east of San Francisco. These men had hopes of blending in with the local German community until they could find passage home. The four were captured within hours of their escape. A photo appeared in the Oakland Tribune later that day showing Alameda County Sheriff H. P. Gleason talking to one of the POWs, Edward Lorenc, 21, who’s asking to talk to the Polish consul. According to Lorenc, he’d been forced into the German army against his will. Later in the article, readers see another captured prisoner, Hans Koerber, also 21, who’s quite happy to present his pedigree as a full Nazi Party member trained up in the Hitler Jugend and confident in the virtures of the Third Reich. Both men were captured wearing diamond-shaped patches on the seats of their prisoner uniforms that reportedly meant “shoot” to their captors.
What if these two men had been successful in their escape? Both had been part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, but they seem as different as night and day. How would these reluctant immigrants survive in a hostile countryside in their attempt to blend in? How would they be greeted by the Californians they met? What would become of them? Real-life Lorenc inspired my character Eduard Lubeck who appears in a short story published this month in Coyotes Along Stony Creek by epublisher Smashwords.
Such accidental immigration to California is a historical anomaly. Or, is it? There are as many stories of immigration as there are immigrants. Mexican convicts were sent north to populate the pueblo of Los Angeles in the early 1800s. Chinese railroad workers who built Central Pacific’s railroad through the Sierras hoped to return home, but by the end of the nineteenth century many had found permanent refuge in the few tiny blocks of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mexicans escaping the turmoil of the Zapata era fled north to barrios in Sacramento and throughout the Central Valley that stretches from Red Bluff to Bakersfield. These accidental immigrants to California are as much the rule as the exception. Only the circumstances of their arrivals set them apart.
Newcomers have always faced hostile locals. As soon as the Spanish laid claim to California, they demanded visitors present themselves for approval in Monterey, but this did little to deter anyone. The Russians set up a colony on the north coast called Fort Ross thumbing their nose at the weak governance of Monterey, only to sell their holdings to the locals when maintenance of the distant colony proved too costly. Mountain men and trappers drifting west enjoyed the beavered streams of the Central Valley. Ships piloted by captains from New England and points around the world made regular runs along the coast for decades in their quiet illegal trade with the missions.
When Americans from the east wrested the state from Mexico in 1846 their brethren had already become an established presence, well integrated into the commercial fabric of the region. Thomas Larkin, when not playing spy for his acquisitive handlers in Washington, amassed considerable land, wealth, and goodwill from the local Mexicans. He paved the way for the American conquest that cost the newcomers little in treasure or conscience. These more-newly arrived quickly set about erecting monuments to their legitimacy and marginalized the Mexicans who’d long called the land their home. The enduring poetry of this takeover is that only a few decades before, the Spanish church had been even more ruthless in subjugating the Natives who’d called the region their home for ten thousand years.
Books I recommend:
Barrio Boy is Ernesto Galarza’s autobiography (1905-1984) about gowing up in Sacramento’s barrio. He also wrote Merchants of Labor which chronicles the Bracero program.The Archaeology of California, by Joseph and Kerry Chartkoff, describes in vivid narrative the California that greeted immigrants who crossed from Asia to North America during the Ice Age. Chartkoff unexpectedly reappeared in my later readings when I was doing research for Stony Creek. He was the author of archaeological reports written in advance of construction of the Black Butte Dam in the 1960s. That area along Stony Creek, much of it now under water, was the setting for my World War II story, The Gift.