Nebraska Prisoner of War. Star Journal, Scottsbluff NE, April 14, 1991.
Michael P. Peterson
Department of Geography / Geology
University of Nebraska at Omaha
We stopped in a small village north of Nuremburg in Germany to spend the night. The village, called Heroldsburg, is located in a small valley with houses intermixed with farms and tightly packed together on either side of a small stream. As evening approached, we walked through the narrow streets of the village when we met an older man pushing a bicycle.
"A lot of construction work here, isn't there?" he said.
"Yes." I replied as I examined the re-surfacing work on the streets.
"Are you from here?" he asked.
"No." I said. "We're from America!"
"America" he said with astonishment as he looked more closely at my wife and two daughters. "Where in America?"
"Most people here haven't heard of the state," I replied somewhat embarrasingly. "It's in the middle of the United States. It's called Nebraska."
"Nebraska!" he said with delightment. "Nebraska" he said again pronouncing the middle 'a' as a long 'ah.' "I was there!" he said as he thought for a second longer trying to remember the name of a city. "Scottsbluff" he said, finally.
I thought to myself: What would a German have done in Scottsbluff, Nebraska? "Prisoner of war?" I guessed before he could go on.
"Yes" he said. "Three and a half years!"
"How were you treated?" I asked.
"Well, they caught me, the Americans did, and put me on a cargo ship. It took a long time to get to the United States because we had to avoid the U-Boat areas. When we arrived, they de-loused us and gave us new clothes and brought us to Scottsbluff. They had a new facility there surrounded with barbed wire. The hardest part was the first six weeks. They quarrantined us. We couldn't get out and work like the others. I remember that young girls would come by from the city and bring us cookies and apples. We asked why they were bringing us these things. They said that they wanted to see the 'Nazis'."
Things got better once we could get out and work in the fields. The 'farmers' said that we worked hard. They were especially nice to us but they weren't allowed to feed us. One farmer didn't think we were being fed enough to work all day the way we did so he brought us a big lunch everyday. We told him that this wasn't allowed but he said, 'Let them bring a 100 officers, I only fear God.'"
"I remember this farmer well" he went on. "One day he arranged with the guards to let us spend the whole day at his house. We were there between 8 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. It was not a holiday but it was a day of celebration for us. For eight hours we weren't prisoners, we were just people visiting the house of a farmer."
"Because of an injury to my chest, I was allowed to leave a year early - in 1946 - a year after the war was over. I showed the doctor that because of the injury I couldn't raise my arm above my head. The doctor said 'OK' and I knew that meant I was going home. The farmer told me that Germany was destroyed and that my house would be gone. If I wanted to come back to Nebraska, he would pay for the trip back to Scottsbluff."
"When I returned home, I found that my house had been destroyed by American artillery. I wrote back to the farmer and told him that my house was fine. I didn't want him to worry about me. I also told him that I would stay in Germany. Nebraska was nice but I was too old to start a new life and learn English. The farmer was so religious - I knew I would have to become like that too. It wasn't for me."
It was getting dark by now and my youngest daughter wanted to move on. Before we left he told us that he was 88 years old and that he tried to keep fit by walking and riding his bicycle. He showed us a picture of his wife who had died at 84. He was alone now. At the end he said: "I was a prisoner and being a prisoner isn't nice. But the guards were decent with us. The one farmer was particularly nice, giving us food, inviting us over for a day and offering to pay my way back to Nebraska. I will never forget that." We shook hands and said good-bye.
The way the guards and the farmers had treated this man and the kindness they had shown was remembered with fondness. He certainly had some bad memories but they had been put aside. Too many good things had happened to him in Nebraska to dwell on the bad of being a prisoner.
The way he had been treated was important to him. It was important to me too. My 8 year old daughter knew some German and understood some of the conversation. But, as I went over it with her and tried to explain what had happened to this man and why, it became clear to me that his experiences in Nebraska were shaping my daughters impression of her own country and of the people that live there. I wondered: What if this man had only bad experiences, how would I explain it to her and what would she have thought about her country? Fortunately, in this case, I didn't have to try to explain why people had done bad things. That is important for a parent. I imagine she will remember for some time the chance meeting with the former prisoner of war and his experiences with the people of the state of Nebraska. In some ways, the way that we treat people, even a "dreaded Nazi," is never forgotten.
Dr. Michael P. Peterson is an Associate Professor of Geography on leave from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is currently a Fulbright Professor at the Freie Universität Berlin where he is teaching classes in computer cartography. His 8 year old daughter is in the second grade in a German grade school. The meeting described here took place on March 11, 1991.