show me your papers
Monica and her mother, 1942
Monica and her mother, 1942

The first time I was evacuated was in early 1942, at the age of nine months. The allies bombing the German City of Aachen every night had become too traumatic, so my mother took her babe and fled to the Austrian Alps.

So, I spent the next three years in this rustic farm building: two rooms and a veranda and outhouse on the second floor; wood storage, bake oven and chicken coop on the first; no electricity; no running water.


Last night I slept in a metal storage shed because the house we are rehabbing on the mainland had just been sprayed with foam insulation and wasn’t fit to stay in. Well, that’s not the entire reason. Had I been willing to show my identification papers to the authorities, I could have returned with my spouse to Saint Simons Island when it “re-opened.” But, that’s not something I can do.

You see, back in the 1940s and long after, the countries of Europe insisted on restricting residence to permittees. The Austrian authorities had obviously issued permits to my mother and me, because that’s how they knew where to find us and issue an eviction notice after Germany was defeated and no longer an Austrian ally. I remember the overnight journey from Austria to Munich well. It took the freight train a whole night to make a trip of a couple of hours under normal conditions.

But, when we arrived in the rubble yard that used to be the Munich train terminal and got out of the freight train, there was nobody demanding papers in a city being administered by the U.S. military. Nobody impeded our trek to the home of friends, who just knew we were going to arrive when it became public knowledge that the Austria was throwing people out. I remember it well because, as a four-year old I espied a button in the wall, pushed it and discovered that, though a street-side wall was being held up by a giant wooden beam, the doorbell still worked and we were admitted with lots of hugs and smiles.

When I was eight, my mother decided she didn’t like married life and evacuated us to California to start a new life. That, too, required a permit, which was issued by the U.S. immigration and naturalization service, with no strings. We could settle in Los Angeles and my mother could become employed almost immediately. No work permit required.

To make a long story short, let me just report that because of a peripatetic parent, I was evacuated to and from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santiago de Chile and Manhattan before settling in the Bronx and then removing myself to Washington D.C. Although I was issued citizenship papers in 1955, nobody ever asked for them.

Indeed, it was only because I thought I might want to go overseas in 1989 and applied for copies from the Department of Immigration because mine had burnt up along with our house in 1974 (another evacuation!) that I discovered the Federal bureaucracy couldn’t locate them either and issued a new version upon my word that I am who I am.

Not until I went to renew my Georgia license to drive last year was I ever asked for those papers. Never mind that U.S citizenship has absolutely nothing to do with whether one is qualified to operate a motor vehicle.

I produced my papers, but I suspect I secretly vowed not to participate in that charade again. So, when it was announced that in order to return to my home on Saint Simons Island, after having dutifully evacuated in the face of Hurricane Matthew, I would have to show proof of residence, I balked. After all, this “papers please” regimen was not in force the last time we evacuated for Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Not only were there no check points between north Florida and our house. There wasn’t any traffic for 145 miles. Besides, wasn’t it the “Papiere, bitte” people from which Americans were sent to liberate the citizens of Europe. Why are we putting up with them here at home?

Because segregation, it seems, is a really hard habit to break. Get rid of one kind and another rears its ugly head. That and the bureaucratic desire to keep peripatetic populations in check. Going where your own two feet can take you is, of course, the essence of liberty. Any evacuee will attest to that.




Editor's Note: this story first appeared at the author's Google+. Image: the image is from the author's personal photos.

Monica Smith

Monica Smith writes Hannah's Blog. Born in Germany, she came to the United States as a child, living first in California, then after an interval in Chile, in New York. Married to a retired professor at the University of Florida, where she lived for 17 years, she moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1993 and now divides her time between Georgia and New Hampshire. (New Hampshire, she says, is always interesting during a presidential election.) She and her husband have three children and five grandchildren. Ms. Smith says she "learned long ago that I am not a good team player when I got hired at the Library of Congress, fresh out of college with a degree in political science and proficiency in four foreign languages, to 'edit' library cards and informed my supervisor that if she was going to insist I punch the clock exactly on time, my productivity was going to fall from being the highest to being the same as everyone else's. The supervisor opted to assign me to another building where there was no time-clock. After I had the first of our three children, I decided a paycheck wasn't worth the hassle."