American Journalists and the “Grand Refrigerator”: A Small Pearl Harbor Story

Two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the American government arrested hundreds of German, Italian, and Japanese citizens who were resident in the United States as enemy aliens. Among those arrested were German diplomats and journalists. In retaliation, the Nazis put all the American correspondents who were still in Germany under house arrest.  A few days later, they were sent by train to the resort town of Bad Nauheim, along with American embassy and consular personnel and their families.  The Americans were held there for five months while the American and German governments negotiated details for a personnel exchange. No mail was allowed in or out.

The Americans were interned in the Grand Hotel, a summer resort hotel which had been vacant since the beginning of the war and was by that time not so grand. The building, which was not designed for winter use, was unheated. The internees dubbed it “the Grand Refrigerator.” The food was inadequate. (Some internees used the breakfast rolls to caulk the leaky windows in their rooms, preferring to be a little warmer at the cost of a little more hunger.) —in all fairness, the conditions weren’t that different from those suffered by the average German at the time.

According to the internees’ own accounts, their biggest problem was boredom. They responded by creating “Bad Nauheim University.” With the motto “Education of the ignorant by the ignorant,” internees taught each other a variety of courses that included tap dancing, Sanskrit, bridge, self-defense, and philosophy. The most popular of these was a course in Russian history taught by diplomat and Soviet specialist George Kennan, who could not fairly be charged with ignorance of his subject.

George Kennan, ca 1947

They also held readings, musical performances, spelling bees, treasure hunts and mock trials. When the weather warmed up, they organized baseball games, using a bat whittled from a tree branch and a ball stitched together by an America doctor from a champagne cork, one internee’s pajamas, and a sock.

They didn’t play baseball for long. On May 12, 1942, the internees left Bad Nauheim on a train for Lisbon, where most of them boarded a Swedish ship bound for the United States. Thirty-two employees of the diplomatic service were sent directly to new assignments in Europe or Africa. They arrived in New York City on May 30th, 20 to 40 pounds lighter than they were on December 7, 1941

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Bad Nauheim tourist board prefers to emphasize another American who spent time there, in 1958:



  1. Joy McGinniss on December 12, 2023 at 4:28 pm

    This sounds like it would make a great historical novel or movie. Or both!

    • Pamela on December 13, 2023 at 3:17 pm

      Or at least a scene. Not sure there’s enough story for a whole novel or movie.

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