Encounters between Midwesterners and German or Austrian POWs
Although supposedly from separate “worlds” or at the least from different “sides” of a vicious war, ironically of all places on a planet caught in conflagration, the Midwest farm folk and German POWs who worked together some six decades ago on the vast North American prairie came into close contact--often literally elbow to elbow. Below are some remembrances of those encounters: we would welcome more.
Please accept these two army vehicles as a donation to TRACES' [planned] museum [and current traveling German-POW exhibit]. They have been packed in childhood things, and the box was just opened prior to TRACES' presentation in Grand Rapids, Minnesota [in May 2003]. They were made for me by a German POW in 1944 or 1945, who accompanied my father, Staff Sergeant Evert W. Berg, on routine U.S. Army deliveries in an Army staff car from Fort Snelling, Minnesota, to the Federal Building in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During WWII Mother and I lived with her parents on 30th Avenue South in Minneapolis, just off Hiawatha Avenue; Dad and the POW would often stop by to visit. One day the POW gave me the two [handcrafted wood-and-canvas] vehicles. That is all I know of him, but I remember that he was kind and loved children. There is no name or photo of him.
I include a photo of Dad in uniform in the hopes that this German POW, if still alive, might notice it and be able to contact me.
I remember as a nine year old walking home from the fourth grade we would pass the E.G. Morse Poultry house in Mason City, Iowa and see the POWs working, loading trucks and the like. We thought they were monsters until we started waving at them and they waved back, which started a relationship that has lasted till this day. (The E.G. Morse Poultry House was located just on the east side of the Minneapolis and Saint Louis railroad tracks on 2nd Street Northeast. The building is still standing but not used anymore.) I became friends with a POW named Hans (I never knew his last name) and when I asked him how Germany could do all the terrible things it was doing, he said “The same thing could happen here if Dillinger was President”. I never forgot that.
After some time we got permission to have him over to the house for dinner one Sunday. It was quite an experience for a young boy who was filled with all the propaganda of the times.
It was D-Day, June 6, 1944, and everyone was in downtown Fairmont, Minnesota to find out together how the boys were doing on the beaches of Normandy and to share and comfort each other in the worry over it all. Some had sons, grandsons and relatives there. The merchants had placed radios above entry doors to hear the continuing news coverage, and semi-circles of hundreds of people stood outside together at each store. I was nine at the time. Those boys were our heroes, believe me! In front of Paulson’s Drug Store I looked at the man to my right along with his buddies--a German soldier, in uniform, listening as intently as the rest of us. I nudged him with my elbow and defiantly chided him with my finger thumping on my chest, “I am Byron.” He nodded quickly and responded without gesture, “Jerry.” Whether that was his name or the reference to Germans, I did not know. A solitary tear effortlessly flowed down his cheek. A German soldier crying--what is this? “Jerry” was one of the remnants of Rommel’s fierce Afrika Korps brought in regiment strength as POWs to do the work of Fairmont while her sons were away. He wanted to know like everyone else that day what was happening. Enough people in Fairmont spoke German to keep them advised. The war had come down to the two of us on this momentous day, and there I stood next to the enemy ready to defend Fairmont against them, even at my age! I will never forget "Jerry” and that moment.
Parenthetically, I wonder where he is, if he is still alive?
from her book Eggs in the Coffee, Sheep in the Corn: My 17 Years as a Farmwife (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1994; pages 55-62). Used with permission.
we had made the move to the farm in 1943, with the draft board’s approval,
and settled into the unfamiliar routines, I had been able to keep the
ugliness of the Second World War II at the back of my mind. Two summers
later, however, all that changed. In the middle of haying, John—one of the
older hired hands—left for higher wages. He was not very energetic, but
that was hard to find when so many young men were in the service. We had
kept this hired man through the winter to be sure of having someone to count
on for the crop season. When we were unable to find a substitute for him,
Don had to work early and late, more than he could sustain.
the hot days and weeks followed, I kept wondering when the war would end and
we could find help for Don and return to a more normal life. When that
happened, I had heard, the town fathers planned to rename the streets of
Appleton [Minnesota], as memorials to our boys who had already died in
Europe and the Pacific. There was still a steady barrage of stories about
the ferocity of the German people under Hitler. We presumed it was partly
propaganda to bolster the war effort, but surely it must be based on
something. Could there be truth to the dreadful tales of atrocities?
Don steadfastly refused to believe the rumors, saying, “They’re just people like us, trying to get along in the world.” But for me war was madness. Would I or my child someday have to lose a brother, husband, or son to war? Tucking Anne in for her afternoon nap, I gave her a lingering hug, rejoicing that she would never be called upon to carry a gun.
I put these unsettling thoughts out of my mind and hurried to make bread. I
had just shaped six shiny, yeasty—smelling loaves when Don strode into the
kitchen and grabbed the phone. He sank gratefully onto the chair, mystifying
me with a brighter—than—usual smile. I knew he was bone weary. He had
managed to cut and bale three hundred acres of the best upland
hay—bluestem, redtop and bluegrass. Because he’d had no helper to do the
stacking as he ran the baler, the oblong, sixty—five—pound bales of
prime hay were left lying in the large field. Now ominous black clouds,
gathering in the west, threatened this important feed crop.
I spread a faded blue tea towel over the loaves where the sunshine would
help them rise, and I listened in growing bewilderment to his conversation.
I talking to the officer in charge?” he asked. “Can you send me twenty
of the prisoners tomorrow to stack hay bales—probably two days’ work?
I’ll pay four dollars per man. By eight o’clock? And you’ll send a
guard? And their food also? Sounds okay to me—tomorrow then.”
in the world? What prisoners?” I gasped as soon as he put the phone down.
mailman gave me the idea,” Don gloated. “Can you believe it? There are
German prisoners of war in a temporary camp at Ortonville—just twenty
miles away. We didn’t see it the day I drove you over there to Big Stone
Lake. I’d never even heard of it. But they hire out the men to farms
around here. I plan to get Bill Ahrens over to interpret. I’ll put a skid
on the other tractor. Twenty prisoners as farm hands! We’re all set.”
This is farming? I thought. I knew about Germans. Growing up, I had been told how popular my father’s university classes in the German language had been—before World War I. Then few people dared study German. He had become an economist and also volunteered as a government “Dollar a Year Man,” scanning German-American periodicals for any hint of disloyalty or subversion. And in this war, while the fear of German Americans was lessened, the new weapons of war made the carnage unspeakable. All the hate talk came into focus. Mental pictures crowded back of butchered bodies on bloody battlefields. Headlines had screamed, “Air Raid Kills 1,500 Civilians,” “Barbarous Bombing,” “Polish City in Flames.” Spy posters of helmeted Germans with cat eyes warned: “HE’S WATCHING YOU.” I still carried a feeling of shock from a small item I’d read in the newspaper the year we moved to the farm. Apparently, a member of the President Roosevelt’s own party condoned anti-Semitism on the floor of the House and was not rebuked for it. While I seldom had time for the newspaper since coming to the farm, I still wondered at the power of prejudice, never guessing it would lead to the horrors of the Holocaust.
everyone else was caught up in the tide of hatred and fear, I, too, felt
myself shrink from having anything to do with the Germans. But no matter
where my political thoughts took me, in farming I had learned to ask
practical questions first. “Will they come to the house to eat? What
time?” I asked Don.
anxiety must have showed, for he pulled me down onto his lap. “For once,
you don’t have to think of food. The camp will send it along.”
I asked, noticing that his usual high color came back to his cheeks, smooth
now since their annual peeling from sun and wind. I smiled as he pushed his
fingers through his thick brown hair. I wished I’d known him when he’d
been nicknamed Curly—the president of his high school class, a star in
football, track and Glee Club.
“The camp manager says that everything is supplied. Just relax. When have I had a chance to say that to you before? Not since we moved to the farm,” Don laughed. “Enjoy it while you can. It will all work out,” he said and kissed me.
reassured, I said “If only we’d get two more days of good weather before
that storm hits.”
I mentioned the weather, there was no hope of getting more information about
the prisoners. He gave me a quick hug and hurried out with an anxious look
at the darkening western sky.
I set about cleaning up the kitchen, I could not get the German prisoners
out of my mind. A temporary prisoner-of-war camp near Big Stone Lake, Don
had said. If I had my geography right, this lake drained south into the Minnesota River. Thus the lake water joined
little Pomme de
Terre River, which looped through our pasture a mile south of the buildings.
Men who had perhaps killed our own boys were living in custody that close to
us. Too close, I thought. How could Don be so calm about them, and even plan
to use them here!
Promptly at eight o’clock the next morning, the German prisoners arrived in a big pickup truck and were marched off to the west field in their rumpled, ill-fitting work clothes. I studied them from our kitchen window. They had none of the hangdog, discouraged look that I expected. Their youthfulness also surprised me. With a spring in their step, two led the way. Many were looking around curiously, as if taking mental note of an American stock farm. The guard’s eyes darted about, his gun ready. He seemed out of place—and yet reassuring. These were German soldiers, after all.
Douglas came up the lane to enjoy morning coffee with me. She was happily
feeding applesauce to Anne when Don hurried in to report on the workers’
progress. He said he had taken a look at the small amount of cheese, bread
and water provided for the noon meal and was appalled. “The guard argued
when I told him to give the men this food at ten o’clock,” Don said.
“He told me those weren’t his orders, but I said: ‘They’re working
for me now, and it’s backbreaking work stacking those bales. They need
plenty to eat.”‘ Don turned to me. “Can we rustle up some sandwiches
for their dinner?”
his promise, I grinned and said nothing. He shrugged his shoulders
helplessly, and I had to laugh. I was learning fast that everything on a
farm revolves around food.
for you, Son. We’ll manage something,” Mother Douglas reassured him. She
smiled and glanced curiously at me, but said nothing more. Soon we were both
busy preparing two big pork roasts for the oven. Her patrician face grew
pink with her effort. Her cheerful energy and resourcefulness were never
exhausted, and she had Don’s easy way of making the best of whatever
Don told me that he had bought cigarettes, and the men were delighted when
he gave them each a pack at morning break. They sat or sprawled in the
sweet-smelling hay. Many of them spoke fairly adequate English, though with
a heavy guttural accent. They began to ask questions about the cost of
machinery and land. A blond young man ventured that he would like to return
to this country after the war was over. Several nodded in agreement.
slight fellow, hardly more than a boy, said shyly, “The Americans, they
sent Karl to work in town. For a mechanic. I was helper. We got wages. I
learned and saved.”
Don wondered whether they were perhaps better-fed and housed in the
converted youth camps here than in Germany. We knew nothing of their former
army conditions. Don had learned that the camps provided showers and
recreation rooms, small libraries, and playing fields. There were even
musical instruments, and some did wood carving. The men appeared to be in
noon he and Papa drove the pickup to the field with our lunch—hearty
sandwiches of homemade bread with thick crusty slabs of the meat. We put in
baskets of tomatoes with saltshakers, lots of coffee, and hot apple pie
sweetened with Karo syrup—our wartime sugar substitute. The meal was a
treat to the men, and they showed their appreciation by working faster than
anyone would have expected.
The rows of finished haystacks grew slowly but steadily, and Don and Bill Ahrens covered them with sheets of neoprene and tied them down with rope. The clouds hung heavy in the sky, and the shirts of the men showed dark patches of sweat in the sultry heat. Don began to believe he had a chance to save most of the crop. Well over half of the field was finished when the huge Minneapolis- Moline tractor stopped abruptly. The men gathered around it. A small part in the carburetor had broken. Don made the familiar dash to town for a replacement, but he returned half an hour later to report that the part was unavailable. They would simply have to give up any idea of finishing today and continue to do the best they could with the big old International Harvester M.
man called Karl stepped up and looked closely at the broken part. “A piece
of sheet metal you have got?” he asked. “And a coarse file? A few
minutes only I need. That old part, it cannot be fixed. But a new one, that
and Don hurried to the shop building crowded with tools and broken parts.
Karl had been silent when some of the younger men had asked questions, but
now as he worked he kept glancing at Don.
he burst out, “I suppose you hate us?” “Well, now, I don’t know how
you get into the army over there,” Don began.
card to us is sent. It says, ‘Come!’”
here” Don replied. “Then they give us a gun and issue some ammo, and we
go and shoot at each other.”
gave him a look that Don found to be at once searching and full of
gratitude. They completed the work in what had become a comfortable,
companionable silence. When the two men returned to the field, no one was
surprised that the tractor part fit perfectly.
only a quick afternoon stop for more sandwiches, fresh doughnuts and coffee,
the men finished what Don had thought would be two days’ work. Don
continued covering stacks until, when he came in for a warmed-over supper at
ten, he could say the job was literally all wrapped up.
storm broke noisily about midnight and woke us. Nearly three inches of rain
soaked into the thirsty fields, but our precious hay crop was safe and
never saw these men again. The Ortonville camp closed in September, and the
prisoners were probably moved to the main camp in Algona, Iowa before their
return to Germany. Did any of them ever follow their dream and come back to
our shores? We have often wondered. Although Don had offered to give them
what help he could should they return, we heard nothing. Wherever they are,
I hope they sometimes have warm memories of that day.
Next morning the sun sparkled on the wet fields. I drank in the pervasive peace that follows a storm. My anxieties had been washed away.
was late summer on a farm south of Fairmont, Minnesota. A group of POWs had
to help my father, George
harvest his grain. Father
said these men were to be treated and fed just like any other thrashing crew
that may have helped them. That meant that they ate inside, around the old
oak table laden with a lot of home-cooked food. Which, considering the
circumstances, wasn’t the case at every farm where they worked. My mother
recalls that some of the POWs wouldn’t come into the house to eat, but
most of the men did and enjoyed the food--and the polka and waltz music
played on the record player. Some of them said it was the first “real”
music they had heard in over a year.
Siems, harvest his grain. Father said these men were to be treated and fed just like any other thrashing crew that may have helped them. That meant that they ate inside, around the old oak table laden with a lot of home-cooked food. Which, considering the circumstances, wasn’t the case at every farm where they worked. My mother recalls that some of the POWs wouldn’t come into the house to eat, but most of the men did and enjoyed the food--and the polka and waltz music played on the record player. Some of them said it was the first “real” music they had heard in over a year.
My mother said one young man, in his early 20’s, spoke pretty good English. He told them that he was from Austria and that this wasn’t “his” fight--that the German army came through the towns and villages and “took” anyone who could fight. He said he left his young wife and an infant son. He said he was so worried about them and worried if he would find them all right after the war.
I was about six months old at that time. This young man asked if he could just reach out and touch me. Without saying a word, Mother picked me and handed me to him. She said he staid there rocking and patting me, with tears streaming down his face. And, she recalled what was so remarkable about it was that I was not crying when this stranger picked me up, but contentedly smiling up at him.
He said the people of Fairmont, for the most part, had been very kind to them. And if he could, he wanted to return to the U.S. after the war and live around Fairmont. My mother said that while there were some ex-POWs who did return, they never heard from this young man again. By the time I heard this story, she had no longer remembered his name or if he said where in Austria he was from.
I was too little to remember WWII, but it had a profound effect
on me. To me it was about people and how
it effected the families of soldiers on both sides. I never
knew his name, but I will always remember the young man who held me in
that summer of ’44 and cried for his lost family.
I never knew his name, but I will always remember the young man who held me in that summer of ’44 and cried for his lost family.Today, if he is still alive, this man probably has grandchildren or great-grandchildren the age I was back then. I wonder--does he sometimes think back when he is holding them? Does he remember the little curly-headed blond baby girl that smiled up at him as he held her that hot Minnesota August day, in 1944?
Click here for one German POW's story of how he experienced Midwesterners from "the other side".