Talking with Authors: Alexis Clark “Enemies in Love: A German POW, a Black Nurse, and an Unlikely Romance”

    Author Alexis Clark and host Paul Schankman have a conversation about her remarkable new “stranger than fiction” book, Enemies in Love, which tells the true story of a black nurse and a German Prisoner of War, who fell in love during World War Two, and eventually married. Though their story began more than 70 years ago, it feels very relevant today as America continues to wrestle with issues of racism and hate.

    Buy “Enemies in Love”

    Transcript

    Host:

    Well, we are at the Goldfarb School of Nursing for our interview today, which seems an appropriate place for our story. And it’s also an appropriate time, because this year marks the 70th anniversary of President Harry Truman’s move to desegregate the armed forces, and that’s certainly something that plays into our story as well.

    Alexis Clark, welcome to St Louis. Thanks for doing this.

    Alexis Clark:  

    Thank you for having me.

    Host:

    Well, the book is terrific. It was a really good, interesting and fun fast read. And a lot of stuff in there, I didn’t know anything about. There’s a lot to unpack here. But I just want to start right from the beginning with the subtitle, Enemies In Love, A German POW, A Black Nurse, And An Unlikely Romance. I think you’re underselling it.

    Clark:  

    Just a little.

    Host: 

    Unlikely? How about unbelievable?

    Clark:  

    Right. you’re right. Incredible.

    Host:

    This is incredible. A story of an African American nurse and the 1940s, World War II, and a German POW, and they became a couple. Amazing.

    Clark: 

    Yes.

    Host:

    Well, how did you first hear about this story?

    Clark: 

    Well, so I am very interested in World War II history, but actually I was having just a casual conversation with my mom over dinner and I discovered I was a distant relative of Colonel Charles Young. And he was the highest ranking African American in the military until his death in 1922. So I just got the bug. I just started reading about blacks in the military.

    So I stumbled across this book called GI Nightingales, and it was all about the Army Nurse Corps in World War II. And there was a brief chapter on black women who served, and I didn’t know that. I knew about the wax, but I didn’t know they were in the Army Nurse Corps. And apparently, this author sent out a questionnaire to black nurses. Elinor Powell, the nurse in my book, responded and included just a little tidbit. It was one sentence. It said, “The war offers fond memories for Elinor who met and later married a German prison of war in Arizona.”

    So I’m just like, “Time out. What?”

    Host:

    Wait. What?

    Clark: 

    Exactly. Exactly. So I contacted the author. I’m like, “What happened? How do I contact her?” She’s like, “I never met her. She just … This was an interesting factoid.” So I just knew I had to unpack that history.

    Host:

    Well, you didn’t have much to go on to begin with.

    Clark:  

    I didn’t, but Elinor has unique spelling of her name, and then she also included where she was from, and I knew her age, and I could get the roster of black nurses in the war. So that, as a journalist, I had the papers and some documents, and I just started digging.

    Host:

    There were so many different stories that kind of veer off of this, but starting with Elinor, she was an exceptional person and in an exceptional position I think for her time, because she was living up north in a relatively …

    Clark: 

    They were an upwardly mobile African American family, which was very uncommon. And it’s funny, she was from Milton, Massachusetts, which was a very progressive suburb outside of Boston. And Boston, as we know, has had some volatile racial history.

    But in this conclave, she grew up with white friends, went to white schools, her parents did very well. So she was largely shielded from discrimination growing up.

    Host:

    Until she got into the United States Army.

    Clark: 

    Until she decided to serve her country. That’s when she was confronted with Jim Crow.

    Host:

    That must have just shocked her.

    Clark: 

    It was very difficult. It was hurtful and humiliating. She had a tough time throughout the army experience.

    Host:

    And Jim Crow in Arizona. We don’t normally think of Arizona when we think of that sort of thing.

    Clark: 

    I know. And it was pervasive in the south, the southwest, on the west coast. So it’s not just the deep south that had segregated facilities. They were actually throughout the United States.

    Host:

    Talk about Frederick a little bit.

    Clark:

    So Frederick was born in Germany, but mostly raised in Vienna, and he was from a very wealthy family. And his father served in the Great War, and they were German nationalists. They were believers in Hitler. Frederick, on the other hand, was conscripted. He was not a military guy. He was not a follower of Hitler. He was actually more of a renaissance man, painter. He loved to cook. He loved to be outside. But he had to be in the army or face the consequences. So that’s what happened.

    Host:

    How did they meet?

    Clark:  

    It’s a great story really. So apparently, Frederick, his assignment was to work in the mess hall because he was a great cook and excellent baker. And this is what he shared with his children and other family members. He said he saw her when she walked in, and it’s like he was under a spell. And then some flirtation started to develop.

    Host:

    Did they have any hesitation about developing this romance from the point of view … from a couple of points of view? Really one, I suppose it could be treasonous if somebody found out…

    Clark:

    Oh, absolutely.

    Host:

    And also, that eventually the war would end and he would be gone.

    Clark:

    I think it was youthful rebellion. I think they also were madly in love. But they were taking major risks. I Here you are, have an American nurse in the army, and he’s in Hitler’s army. So we are enemies at war. So she could’ve been court marshaled had their romance been discovered. And also, it’s a collision of Jim Crow and Nazism. Even though we’re at war, these are two countries that have racialized laws. So they both were committing crimes. So you really think about, wow, they just … they erased all of that.

    And so I think, yes it was they’re young, they’re rebellious, but they also hated what their countries were putting forth and selling this racism because that’s not what were in their hearts either.

    Host:

    And there probably weren’t too many people who had the same experiences, background, attitudes in the army. The fact that they would find each other is pretty amazing.

    Clark: 

    I think so too, because they really weren’t ever supposed to be with each other when you think about that time period.

    Host:

    Well, really it’s called Enemies in Love, but they weren’t, on that level, enemies at all. It seems like the enemies were their own countrymen and women.

    Clark: 

    I agree. I agree. Yeah. That’s an excellent point. Sure.

    Host:

    A German POW, too, is not just a question of being prejudiced. The Arian master race theory, they were killing people.

    Clark:  

    Right. Well, that’s what was so shocking about this assignment, to put black women in direct contact with German prisoners of war. And what I learned, and this was actually from Elinor in this previous book, the commanding officer approached her unit and said, “We’re shipping you to a German POW camp,” because they were concerned with all the fraternization that was taking place between the white nurses and the German POWs. So they said, “Okay, we’ll send in these black nurses, and then there won’t be any problems.”

    And so that became an overwhelming assignment for black nurses throughout World War II. They were either taking care of German prisoners or at segregated bases where there were black soldiers.

    Host:

    At one point, there’s even a nursing shortage and the army won’t see their way to…

    Clark:

    I know. And that just shows you how entrenched discrimination and racism was then. So there was an ongoing nursing shortage throughout World War II. And then, when you had so many returning American men wounded, there was a threat of a nursing draft. Even in January of 1945, FDR, in his State of the Union, says that there might be a nursing draft if we don’t get any more volunteers.

    Meanwhile, thousands of black nurses, on record there were 9,000 who had applied, and their applications were denied. And they had comparable credentials. But this is just where we were where the American military, and I think society at large, didn’t want to see black women in uniform. So a very small number actually served, and that’s another big tragedy.

    There was always a need for hope, and many nurses long before World War II tried to be admitted into the Army Nurse Corps. So their desire to be a part of the armed forces and to be patriotic and serve their countries started long before World War II. It was just always an uphill battle. But thanks to civil rights groups, thanks to the black press, thanks to some public outrage, they would always kind of climb the tree with fingernails. But they got there eventually. But they were subjected to a horrible quota during World War II, and that’s why their numbers were so low.

    Host:

    We know that Elinor was treated poorly by the people in that area. What about Frederick? How were the POWs treated?

    Clark:

    Well, that was another part of the history that was shocking to me. So in a lot of the cases. They were treated very well. Actually compared to blacks in uniforms, they were treated better. I uncovered in some of my archival research, particularly in the NAACP, there are many letters by black soldiers and black nurses. And there’s this one particular troubling anecdote. It was in Texas and it was at a train depot. And the black soldiers couldn’t go into the dining room, but the German POWs and their American guards went right into the dining room, sat down, ate, had their cigarettes. And the black soldiers in a US military uniform had their faces pressed to the glass because it was whites only.

    Host:

    So the war ends and they inevitably are going to be split up when they send Frederick back to Germany. How did they decide to stay back together?

    Clark:

    The big secret. Well, again, we’re talking about some very young, headstrong people. So believe it or not, they figured, okay, the best way, the smartest way, for Frederick to return the United States is if they conceived a child. And they did. That’s exactly what they did.

    And you really think about that because, wow, that meant she was going to be a single mother impregnated by a German soldier, who then has to leave because all the POWs were deported. That was just part of the law. So she was going to have to return home unwed and pregnant. But they believed in their love and she was willing to risk that. And that’s exactly what happened. And he was able to return a year later. And they married in June, 1947, 20 years before the Loving v. Virginia decision.

    Host:

    Where did they marry?

    Clark:

    In New York. The courthouse in New York.

    Host:

    About the only place probably at that time they could have done that.

    Clark:

    Well, yeah, because there were quite a number of states where it was still against the law for blacks and whites to marry. But in New York, that wasn’t the case, which is why they chose it.

    They moved to Boston, but they struggled getting housing. No one wanted to give them a lease. He struggled finding employment, just taking odd jobs. And so they knew something was going to … they’d have to make a decision. They couldn’t live like this. And they decided to move to Germany since he was groomed to take over his father’s lucrative business.

    Host:

    That didn’t work out so great either.

    Clark:

    No. Can you imagine? What could go wrong?

    Host:

    Right. They were seen, and particularly Elinor is, I think you’d make the point in the book, almost like an animal in the zoo.

    Clark:

    That’s how she felt.

    Host:

    … or some sort of curiosity.

    Clark:

    People were pointing at her, gawking at her, even some were yelling racial slurs. There was this one moment where she was just walking on a very common street, and this man drops his groceries. It’s like his vegetables roll down the street. It’s like he’s seeing a ghost. He can’t believe it, because it was so unheard of to have African Americans in some of these German towns. And that’s where they … they moved to a smaller university town. So that didn’t go well. And she also had … she wasn’t welcomed by his parents.

    Host:

    Yeah, she had the mother-in-law from hell.

    Clark: 

    Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. That was a very difficult year and a half that they were in Germany.

    Host:

    So they came back to the United States.

    Clark: 

    That’s what they did. So they would move. That’s the way they made it. So if things got bad, they would just pick up and move. So they started off in the suburbs of Philadelphia. That didn’t work out too much. They had to move again. They couldn’t enroll their son in the school of their choice because he was black.

    But then Frederick takes off and goes to baking school, which ends up being a blessing because they keep moving. But after he finishes, he gets a job with Pepperidge Farm in Connecticut. And that’s when they start seeing a more stable lifestyle.

    Host:

    They had a family. In addition to the one son, there were other children.

    Clark:

    Now they’re two. Now they have two sons.

    Host:

    I’m wondering in the midst of all this, I don’t want to sound like Spencer Tracy at the end of a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but did they give any thought to what this was going to be like for their children? They had a hard enough time as it was.

    Clark:

    Surprisingly, no. And that’s some criticism that Chris and Steven, those are their sons, And even their other relatives, they just thought that they were so naive and so … They didn’t even talk about being a mixed race couple. It wasn’t a thing. It’s almost like they were trying to raise themselves and their whole family in this colorblind bubble. So they didn’t address civil rights. They just moved. When things didn’t work out and they found out that they weren’t welcomed in an environment, they left. They didn’t really stick around and fight.

    And later on in life, that was a problem for their kids who had had some identity issues in their teen years.

    Host:

    And when you talk about a bubble, they actually, if there was a bubble out there somewhere, they found it.

    Clark:

    They did. They did. They found actually the perfect place, just an hour north of New York City in Norwalk, Connecticut. It’s called Village Creek. And even in their covenants, they advertised itself as a prejudice-free zone. And so they welcomed mixed race couples, artists, gays, Jewish families, groups that had been discriminated against. And they found this paradise, and they settled there and lived there until they passed away.

    Host:

    How did you research this? Because most of … obviously the two main characters were no longer with us.

    Clark: 

    I know.

    Host:

    Was it just talking to family? Were there records someplace?

    Clark:

    I spoke to the experts, and then I spoke to relatives. I spoke to neighbors. And then I would do that over the course of a few years.

    Host:

    Now, the sons, did you speak to both or only just one?

    Clark:

    I met both, of course, but there was really one that I had to rely on because the older son, Steven, didn’t want to be a part of the research. It’s too painful for him, surprisingly. Even he’s in his seventies now, but he remembers everything and the painful memories and he just didn’t want to go there. I tried so hard to convince him, but it didn’t work. So I just had to rely on Chris, who was great.

    Host:

    What’s the reaction been to the book? I imagine people are as surprised as you were about just this whole story.

    Clark:  

    Yes. It’s been great. They’re surprised, they’re fascinated, they’re intrigued. This is uncovering a lot of history that they didn’t know about as well, so that was the goal of this book. And they’re also completely in love with Elinor and Frederick because their story is so unusual.

    Host:

    What was the reaction of the family?

    Clark: 

    Chris liked it, and I was so … that was like the first thing. That’s the son, the younger son. I was so nervous because it can’t be easy to have some outsider write about your family, particularly your parents’ marriage, because I do get pretty personal in the book. But he said he was in all of the research and that he liked it, and I was just so relieved by that.

    Host:

    Even having the family members to speak to, were there a lot of questions in your mind that were still unanswered about this that you couldn’t find an answer for, but you tried?

    Clark:  

    Well, sure. Elinor and Frederick were of a generation that really didn’t share a lot of their painful moments with their children. I think we’re a lot more open now. So there were questions that I thought would have been obvious. Chris didn’t talk about Hitler with this father. I’m thinking to myself, “How did you guys not talk about it?” But they left painful memories and put them in the past and that’s how they, I guess, survived really.

    So I had tons of questions, but it’s just not there. And I wanted to write it completely non-fiction book, so I didn’t want to take liberties of how I thought they would have responded.

    Host:

    You started this book a number of years ago. It took a long time to research obviously. That said, do you think that the fact that it’s coming out now, in the times we seem to find ourself in, makes it even more important for people to read this?

    Clark: 

    I think so. There is something painfully current about this book. Well, we already know there’s a rise of neo-Nazis. That’s going on. You wouldn’t really think that Nazis would be kind of like a current subject, but it is right here in the United States. So that’s unfortunate.

    I think mixed race couples, we have evolved. But you still have reactions in a population of people who don’t approve of that, and I love that this story shows that more than 70 years ago, there were people in this world who were like, “No, I’m not going to decide who I’m going to spend the rest of my life with just based on skin color.” But that’s still … racism is still an issue. So there are themes in this book that we’re still grappling with today.

    Host:

    What do you hope people take away from it?

    Clark: 

    Well, first of all, I hope that they appreciate the history. I hope they are inspired by the story of these courageous black nurses. And then I also hope that they’re inspired by Elinor and Frederick’s courage. I think that there are several themes in this book. They’re brave, they’re courageous, they’re honorable. And even though they move a lot, there are some moments where she, in this one point where she does talk about discrimination, so I think she’s forthcoming in some of her confrontation. So that’s important. I think people have to speak up really, because if you don’t speak up, it’s like your silence is, to me, a sign of approval.

    Host:

    You are, among other things, a journalism teacher.

    Clark:

    Yes.

    Host:

    You’ve been at this a long time writing for some very fine magazines, so you know your craft very well. But I’m wondering, having gone through this experience, if you learned some things that you now pass along to your students as a result of having worked on this book.

    Clark:

    Sure, sure. And I stumbled along and made mistakes. But I think that the biggest thing is to talk to as many people as possible and always go back to your sources. I can’t tell you how many times I would speak to someone and I just knew to check in in a couple of weeks or a couple of months because they would have remembered something just like, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, blah, blah, blah,” and that’s just really, really key. Stay on top of your sources. That’s important.

    Host:

    I noticed on your Twitter feed, you call yourself an opinionated southern belle, I believe was the way it was put.

    Clark:

    Yeah, that’s true. That’s true.

    Host:

    As a journalist, of course, you’re not supposed to insert your opinion into a story. Was that difficult for you in doing this book, or did you allow yourself some room to do that?

    Clark:

    I tried to really allow this, Elinor and Frederick, Just gather the information as much as I could. I think I was objective with it. But at the same time, I have no problem saying that I’m against racism. So there’s certain times where I think being opinionated is good.

    I think it would be a beautiful, compelling story on screen. That is my goal, and I hope that happens soon.

    Host:

    Have you already got a cast in your mind?

    Clark:

    That’s a fun question. I have some favorites. I do. But I’m open. So I was thinking first for Elinor, I like Kerri Washington. I also like the actress Condola Rashad. If you watch Billions, she’s great. She’s also fantastic Broadway actress.

    And I was thinking for Frederick, Michael Fassbender. But who knows?

    The tricky part is, it’s funny, Elinor was 23 and Frederick was 19 when they met. They were so young. And it’s like I think about what they endured. I automatically put them as older, especially when you think about, gosh, he was in the battlefield at 19. But I think those actors, even though they’re older, they’d work.

    Host:

    Do you think if they would have met somehow later in life, older, they would have gone ahead and gotten together, or was this sort of a moment of youth?

    Clark:

    I think youth was on their side for sure. And not that you’re young, that you’re not thoughtful, but I do think there is something. Just there is more wisdom and more fear as you get older. You know what this world can be like. So I think it helped them that they hadn’t experienced that much of life yet.

    Host:

    Well, the book is Enemies In Love, and it’s terrific. And Alexis Clark, thanks very much for being with us.

    Clark:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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