History Is: Letters all tell same stories about same concerns

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 14, 2002

It’s people that make the world go round &045; different people with different beliefs.

On Wednesday, we hosted a group of German tourists. What made this day so unusual was not the fact that they were from Europe because each year we have visitors from at least eight foreign countries. These people were here for a special reason. They had had relatives, fathers or grandfathers, who had lived in prison camps in southern Minnesota or northern Iowa during World War II. These descendants were coming to America to see the land where their relatives had lived, and possibly the farms or factories where they had labored during their internment, and maybe to meet the families of those who had known their relatives more than 50 years ago. The tour was organized through TRACES, a non-profit organization in Mason City, Iowa.

Their visit to the museum was wonderful. Over coffee and doughnuts everyone chattered about traveling to each other’s countries, and the hum of voices in Heritage Hall told me all I needed to know about friendship. It was the war and all of the sad times that brought these people together, and we knew that for them the fear and hatred was in the distant past.

Email newsletter signup

I was concerned about writing this column. That concern did not stem from the person to person, smile to smile experience on Wednesday morning. My hesitation came from conversations outside of that room and an e-mail letter that TRACES received in connection with the tour. Conversations had taken place with phrases like, &uot;Why do you want to bring that all up again? The memories are bad. Let’s keep it in the past.&uot; The e-mail letter was by a man whose father had been imprisoned in Germany, and whose family life had been difficult because of his memories.

Twenty years ago when I was in Germany, I spent a Saturday morning at Dachau. I still carry a most vivid image from that camp of a large vertical sculpture of emaciated bodies underlined with the words &uot;Never Again&uot; written in four different languages. I believe that, like those words, this trip by the POW relatives, the area receptions, and the weekend conference in Muscatine, Iowa are healing experiences for everyone involved.

&uot;Swords Into Plowshares,&uot; by Dean B. Simmons, has a listing of the Minnesota POW camps that were a part of the Algona Branch Camp system. During the latter years of World War II, there were POWs from Germany and Italy living and working near Ada, Bena, Bird Island, Crookston, Deer River, Fairmont, Faribault, Grand Rapids, Hollandale, Howard Lake, Montgomery, Moorhead, New Ulm, Olivia, Ortonville, Owatonna, Remer, Saint Charles, Warren and Wells, Minn. There were also 10 branch camps in Iowa, two in North Dakota, and two in South Dakota. There were many more throughout the United States. These prisoners worked in lumber camps, in canning factories, on the farms, and wherever there was a need.

&uot;Signs of Life,&uot; edited by Michael Luick-Thrams, is a compilation of letters to their families in Germany sent from those imprisoned at Camp Algona. While the POWs had enough to eat and warm clothes to wear, their correspondence shows their concern for those at home. The following is an excerpt from a man who had not heard anything from his family in Germany for more than eleven months.

He wrote, &uot;My dear Bertchen, my dearest children, Today I will again write to you … I still don’t know whether you have received my mail. I am very anxious about you, because you are in the biggest danger zone. I understand that there is not much left from our house in Aachen. If I come home well and we are together again, then everything will be good. I am worrying about my parents, too, because I don’t know where they are and what my father has to suffer with his illness. The mental stress is getting to me. My thoughts and hope are that we will meet again &045; then I find again strength. So, I hope, the same for you my love. To you and my dearest little ones, many greetings and kisses, till we see each other, your Jean.&uot;

&uot;Enemies Within – Iowa POWs in Germany,&uot; edited by Luick-Thrams, shares memories of some of our young men who were held captive. Therrl Mesecher writes of his feelings during his imprisonment and soon after regaining his freedom.

&uot;After two years we had for the first time given up all hope. We share a piece of raw rutabaga between us and wait for the cramps which usually follow. Bill and Alex, our English and Scottish friends, are with us and in the same condition. They have very little to say…&uot; and &uot;We weren’t afraid then because our nerves were never given a chance to relax. At no time were we ever completely free of nervous tension. And now it is reproduced in harmless noises. Thank God, I am here [a hospital in Paris], I did survive it all. Now, if I could only relax and quit living the entire panorama over and over again. If I could quit comparing the sound of a cigarette lighter with that of an angry guard’s rifle safety release. The rumble [of the food carts] in the halls with that of distant artillery or bombing. Instead of being always on the alert to jump and move fast at the first harsh command. If only I could just relax … It isn’t fear of death; God knows that no man with two years of POW life behind him is afraid of death. Many have chosen it in preference to existence in prison.&uot;

These letters, from Germany and from America, all tell the same stories &045; concern for loved ones and home and health and peace. They are all written by people &045; different people with different beliefs &045; and the world goes round.

Bev Jackson is executive director of the Freeborn County Historical Museum.