Friday, July 9, 2021

Royal Enfield bicycle unlocks wartime history

Old Royal Enfield bicycle.
Old Royal Enfield bicycle led to a history lesson. 

Remember that nearly 100-year-old Royal Enfield bicycle that caught my eye recently? 

The old bicycle was for sale, on CraigsList, in New Hampshire, and I wrote about it, taking special note of the chain wheel and its iconic "Made Like a Gun" theme. 

Royal Enfield made bicycles, in Britain, long before it made motorcycles in Britain and, now India. Without those early bicycles from Redditch, England, there would be no Royal Enfield motorcycles today. Royal Enfield bicycles this old are rarely seen in the United States. 

Not until I contacted the seller did I learn that there is far more history behind this bicycle than I imagined. 

"The Royal Enfield belonged to my father-in-law, Max Ebel, who died in 2007," seller Steve Root informed me. "A wonderful man with an interesting life story. My wife says he acquired the bike long long ago, possibly before World War II. He used it for road trips from Boston up into New Hampshire. He eventually relocated his furniture-making business to Ossipee, New Hampshire.

"Max came to the U.S. in 1937, from Germany. Max was 17 years old, and a pacifist. This did not play well at all in Nazi Germany, and in 1937 he was being 'recruited' forcibly to join the Hitler Youth. Pacifist or not, he ended up in a knife fight with the recruiter. His mother (divorced from his father) concluded, quite logically, that he should go to live with his father in the U.S.

"When World War II broke out, Max, not yet a U.S. citizen, was rounded up and interned. This was a miscarriage of justice, but that was true of almost all internees (German, Italian and Japanese). His story is told at this web site.

"The bicycle gave him lots of joy and he never let it go."

Following the link Steve sent I learned that, like many of his generation, Max only began talking about his story when his family encouraged him to speak about the wrongs done to him.

Many Americans know about the internment camps Japanese Americans were held in, but probably few realize that many Germans, Italians and even Latin Americans also faced incarceration. Whole families, including children who only knew America, were exchanged: sent on ships back to enemy countries where they were again treated like spies, and where American bombs would fall.

I was frankly surprised to learn these things in the process of writing about a Royal Enfield bicycle. My own grandmother was born in Germany and my father and his brother visited Germany with her in the years before the war. Both boys would go on to serve in the U.S. Army during the war. My father remembered that the Army questioned his loyalty but whatever he replied (he always claimed to have smarted off) was good enough.

That's probably the sort of wartime history most Americans remember. There's also recollection that German prisoners of war (real enemy soldiers) were peacefully employed to work on farms in the U.S. while in custody. It's generally told as a cozy story.

That doesn't reflect the reality Max experienced. When German POWs began to appear, Max's cohort of internees was moved to even worse accommodations. To escape those harsh living conditions he volunteered to work on the Northern Pacific, with crews beefing up the tracks to carry wartime cargoes. It wasn't exactly a pacifist thing to do but circumstances demanded it.

In 1944 he was freed, with special restrictions, including staying away from railroads. Ironically, that prohibition, among all the other indignities he suffered, struck the one-time railroad worker as a special unfairness.

While Max and many others are gone now, there is an organization dedicated to remembering the mistreated Americans of World War II. Max's daughter Karen is president of the group.

Perhaps the strongest argument for justice is Max's 1944 rehearing report, posted on the organization's website. This official document details the flimsy circumstances that brought his incarceration and evidence of the sincerity of his loyalty to the United States.

Max became a U.S. citizen in 1953. In a powerful op-ed piece in 2000, daughter Karen observed that honoring the truth about what happened will be good for America.

1 comment:

  1. Good for you, David, for following up on that first story and telling us about Max Ebel's experiences. My wife and I just lost our Japanese-American friend Dennis Arata, whose parents were interned in WWII. They were as American as you and I. Shameful stuff...


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