Saturday, July 07, 2007

Love Thine Enemies: A Slice of Nebraska History

Our 4th of July travels took us beyond our usual haunts, and as a result we were thrilled to discover a jewel of a museum near Holdrege, Nebraska. The Nebraska Prairie Museum was HUGE; over one acre of indoor collections in pristine condition. We saw period clothing, antique toys, farm equipment, tools and household items, a unique W.W.II German POW exhibit room, and even fine art.

I was surprised to find the very classy art gallery in a separate section; it houses an exhibit that tells the story of a unique chapter of history: a German POW camp. This was a chapter of history with which I was completely unfamiliar, and it was fascinating!

The POW camps in Nebraska were not widely publicized. People would have panicked had they known that 100,000 Germans passed through the camp gates, right in the heart of our country. Those numbers are huge when you compare them with the population of the county, which was less than 9,000 total.

Half of the male population in Nebraska was engaged in military service, which created a crisis on the farm. Labor was sorely needed on the family farms. The government's answer to this was to provide a German Prisoner of War Camp, built near Atlanta, Nebraska. This was not slave labor or a concentration camp. Prisoners were treated humanely and could volunteer for all types of work. They were then paid by their local employers through a U.S. government agency.

Only about 8% of the POWs were hard core Nazis, and these were identified and separated. The majority of the prisoners were friendly and willing to work for "our side". Most poignant to me were the letters that the prisoners wrote to the farmers after they were released and returned back home when the war ended. Genuine friendship and love developed between the prisoners and the host families. The farm wives baked them cherry pies and treated them with great kindness , so that lifelong friendships resulted. Some of the prisoners opted to stay in the USA and became citizens.

Artist Thomas F. Naegele worked at the prison camps as an interpreter. He painted life as he saw it in the camp, often using pieces of wood that were in the wood pile for burning. His series of pictures is entitled, "In the Eye of the Storm", to capture the conflicts of the world at that time between two theaters of war, the calm that prevailed in the life of the German soldier held in Camp Atlanta.

Here are a couple of samples of his work; a more complete series can be viewed here.

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