Here are four defectors whose stories you won't soon forget.
1. Hitler's Nephew
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
William Patrick Hitler was born in England to a German father, Alois Hitler, and an Irish mother, Bridget Dowling. When William was still a boy, his father moved back to Germany, but his mother refused to go, raising her son alone in England. Alois kept in touch with the family and so, when his famous Uncle Adolf rose to power, young William moved to Germany in the hopes that he would be given a high-profile job. After hounding him for months, Uncle Adolf agreed to give William a cushy position as long as he renounced his British citizenship and promised never to return home. Sensing something wasn't right, William went back to England and capitalized on his famous family by writing an article for Look Magazine called, “Why I Hate My Uncle."
The popularity of the story gave William and his mother (pictured above) the opportunity to travel to America as part of a lecture tour. While there, World War II broke out, and the two were essentially stranded in the United States.
Hoping to do his part in the war effort, Hitler asked for and received special permission from President Roosevelt to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1944.
According to a newspaper story printed at the time, when he introduced himself at the draft office, the recruiter thought he was joking and responded with, “Glad to see you, Hitler. My name’s Hess.” a reference to Nazi leader Rudolf Hess.
William Hitler served valiantly in the war and received an honorable discharge in 1947. Then, he simply disappeared.
In 1998, author David Gardner went looking for Hitler’s lost nephew and found that, after the war, William and his mother had become U.S. citizens and changed their name to Stuart-Houston. William started a successful medical laboratory business, got married, moved to Long Island, had four boys, and died in 1987. At one point during the interview, William's wife claimed that her sons made a pact never to have children—so the Hitler bloodline would end with them. The oldest son, Alexander Adolf Stuart-Houston, has denied that such a pact exists, though the men never married or had children.
2. The Littlest Defector
When the Polovchak family moved to Chicago from Soviet-controlled Ukraine in January 1980, they hoped to find the American Dream. However, it wasn't meant to be. After less than six months, the family decided to move back home. Well, most of the family did anyway. Young 17-year old Natalia and her 12-year old brother Walter were determined to stay in America. So just days before they were to board a plane, the siblings, with the help of family living in Chicago, filed for religious asylum, claiming they faced religious persecution in the Soviet Union due to their Baptist upbringing.
Because of Natalia’s age, her parents couldn't legally make her come home. However, because Walter was still a minor, his parents asked for assistance from the Chicago Police Department to have their son returned to their custody. Under advisement from both the U.S. State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Chicago PD instead placed Walter in the care of the State of Illinois as a minor in need of supervision.
With their hands tied in the U.S., the rest of the Polovchak family went home without him, but they continued to fight for their son’s return through political and legal channels. Before long, everyone from the Soviet Embassy, the FBI, the KGB, and the ACLU were embroiled in the controversial court cases that followed.
Sympathy for Walter caused the U.S. Government to intentionally drag its feet, stretching these court procedures out for six years in order to give Walter enough time to become a legal adult and decide for himself where he would like to stay. He was sworn in as an American citizen just a few days after his 18th birthday and still lives here today.
3. Stalin's Daughter
Svetlana Alliluyeva was born in 1926 to Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. She was the youngest of Stalin’s three children and his only daughter. Her mother died under suspicious circumstances when Svetlana was only six years old, leaving her in the care of nannies for much of her childhood, and only receiving occasional visits from her busy father.
While the two were never close, Stalin still had a forceful hand in his daughter’s life, especially her love life. Although it wasn’t the official reason, it’s believed that Svetlana’s first love was sent into exile because of their relationship. She later married another man, but even after the couple had a son and named him after Stalin, the Premier refused to meet his son-in-law.
She married again two years later, to Yuri Zhadanov, son of Stalin’s second-in-command, Andrei Zhdanov, but the marriage didn’t last. She met her next love, Brajesh Singh, in 1963, 10 years after her father's death. Although the two were never allowed to marry, they often referred to each other as husband and wife. Singh died three years later due to complications from various ailments, and Alliluyeva was allowed to take Singh’s ashes to his family in New Delhi, India. With her first taste of freedom, Svetlana went to the United States Embassy and asked for political asylum.
After moving to America, she wrote her autobiography, Twenty Letters to a Friend, denouncing her father’s regime and the Communist way of life. While here, she married William Wesley Peters, a top apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the couple had a daughter. After this marriage also ended in divorce, Svetlana and her daughter moved to the UK, then later back to the Soviet Union, where they were both, surprisingly, granted citizenship. However, they left again and bounced between the UK and the US throughout the 1980s and 90s.
She lived in obscurity until 2007, when filmmaker Lana Parshina tracked her down to record a series of interviews, resulting in the 2008 film, Svetlana About Svetlana. As of 2010, Joseph Stalin’s only daughter lives in a retirement home in southern Wisconsin.
4. The Reluctant Communist
In 1965, to avoid deployment to Vietnam, U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins, stationed in South Korea, surrendered to a bewildered North Korean soldier. Jenkins thought he'd be sent to Russia and then returned to America as a part of a prisoner exchange, but instead, North Korea reported that he had asked for political asylum. In response, the U.S. branded him a traitor and issued a warrant for his arrest. With no way to communicate with the outside world to plead his case, Jenkins had little choice but to stay in North Korea.
Unlike other countries, North Korea did not provide an easy life for defectors. Jenkins was quarantined in a one-room house with other American defectors, where they received political indoctrination under constant threat of violence. In 1972, they were moved to separate homes, but life didn't get much better. Jenkins was assigned professions and given a small ration of food, but otherwise eked out an existence like everyone else. The violence continued as well, most notably when North Korean doctors held Jenkins down and, without anesthetic, removed a U.S. Army tattoo from his arm with a pair of scissors.
Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman, was 21 years old when she met Jenkins in 1980. Hitomi had been kidnapped by North Korean agents to teach spies Japanese, and was later “given” to Jenkins as a wife to prevent him from “dirtying” the Korean bloodline. While their marriage was arranged - and despite a 20-year age difference – the two actually fell in love and had two daughters. At about the same time, Jenkins and other defectors were ordered to appear in a 20-hour propaganda film, Unsung Heroes, acting as villainous U.S. military leaders. When American intelligence acquired the film, it was the first time they could confirm that Jenkins was still alive.
Figuring they would never be allowed to leave, the Jenkins family made the best of their situation, suffering through the country's most difficult times in the 1980s and 90s. However, in 2002, their luck changed when North Korea admitted that Japanese civilians, like Hitomi, had been abducted. To make amends, abductees and their families were allowed to return to Japan. Jenkins was resistant – he feared North Korea was testing his loyalty, and worried about the American arrest warrant – but he was finally convinced to leave with his family in 2004. Once in Japan, Jenkins offered to have his marriage to Hitomi dissolved, figuring she had only stayed with him before because she had no choice. She refused.
To clear his conscience, on September 11, 2004, Jenkins, at the age of 64, put on his old Army uniform, and reported for duty at Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base near Tokyo. His 40-year absence marked the longest any American deserter had ever gone before turning himself in. Jenkins pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and aiding the enemy, but denied making disloyal statements (those charges were later dropped). Although he could have received life in prison, he was sentenced to 30 days in the brig and a dishonorable discharge, though he was released five days early for good behavior.
In his memoir, The Reluctant Communist, Jenkins regrets that he let his country, his family, and himself down in 1965. Some feel his 40 years of hell in North Korea were punishment enough, while others say he’s still a traitor. Although he has made a happy life with his wife and children, he’ll be the first to say that walking to North Korea was the biggest mistake he ever made.