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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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MSU professors story of fathers WWII expulsion is personal one

Forced repatriation


By Amanda Dyslin, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato]

Photo by Luke Gronneberg
Kimberly E. Contag and James A. Grabowska.
Kimberly E. Contag and her husband, James A. Grabowska, spent seven years researching and writing the story of Contag's family's experience in the early 1940s. The result of their efforts is a work of creative nonfiction that tells a period of history perhaps never told - the repatriation effort during World War II when 2,000 people of German, Italian and Japanese descent were deported from South America.

ST. CLAIR " Kimberly Contag didn't write this book for her father, nor was it solely about filling gaps in her family's history.

"Where the Clouds Meet the Water," which her husband James Grabowska co-authored, was written more for thousands of strangers whose stories had never been told. Its purpose was to shed light on events in history few people know about, but that her father and grandfather experienced firsthand - the expatriation of 2,000 people of German, Italian and Japanese descent from South America during World War II.

"Nobody knows about this. Historians didn't," Contag said. "I thought, if somebody doesn't start the ball rolling here, it's never going to roll and all these people are going to be dead."

But Contag didn't just want to write a history book detailing dates and facts that would only be accessible to an academic audience. She wanted to tell an engaging story to attract readers of all ages and backgrounds.

That's where her father came in. Carlos Contag lived in Quito, Ecuador, for 11 years of his youth until his family was forcibly removed from the country in 1942. The Contags - widower Ernst Contag and his four children - were of German descent and became victims of the repatriation effort as part of a diplomatic exchange arranged by the United States' State Department and cooperating countries.

From there, the Contags' story is devastating and arduous. Their four-year journey takes them from the United States to Portugal to Nazi Germany during the war to post-war France and eventually back to Ecuador, facing oppression, hunger, separation and even death along the way.

Contag said she knew her father's experience would be the basis of her book, she said. It was the perfect focus for a work of creative nonfiction that encapsulated the tragic events of thousands of South Americans. But piecing the story together proved difficult.

Carlos Contag often told his daughter and her siblings about what he went through, but just bits and pieces of what he could remember. He and his siblings knew little about the politics involved in the expatriation effort. And he had a stroke six years ago, making it difficult for him to communicate his thoughts.

So, instead, Contag and Grabowska spent years in the late 1990s researching and traveling to five countries, interviewing survivors of the Ecuadorian blacklist and going through detailed personal documents that belonged to Ernst Contag.

"We followed the trail that my grandfather left from place to place. He kept date books of where he was," she said. "Then we'd visit those places and talk to those people, many of whom are still alive. ... And many still remember my father's family."

Five years later, Contag and Grabowska have pieced together her family's intricate journey. They finished the book in July and it was released in August.

One of the most rewarding moments after completing the book was watching her father cry when he heard the book read aloud.

"That was a wonderful part of the experience," she said.

"Where the Clouds Meet the Water" is available at

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