During World War II about 400,000 prisoners of war were held on American soil. Approximately 10,000 German POWs lived and worked in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. This week some of the POWs and their families are visiting the camps to remember, learn and reconcile. Along the tour they say they've encountered mostly friendly people. But a few U.S. war veterans have protested the visit.
Christine Schunart was just an infant when her father went to war for Germany. He was captured after four years of fighting and shipped to Algona, Iowa. He ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Fairmont in southern Minnesota. He worked alongside American factory workers canning corn and peas. Schunart and her family are visiting the history museum in Albert Lea. They met with war veterans, historians and other people interested in the era.
"It's very moving for us to be at these places where we never really knew about." Schunart's daughter Sonja translates for her mother.
"When he did eventually come home his daughters were 6-, 8- and 10-years-old," Schunart explains. "When he did come home he was kind of a stranger to his family. On the other hand they were very proud to have a father. When asked at school what their fathers do many children had to say my father died in action. And they were proud to raise their hands and say we have a father and he's at home."
Since her father only lived for seven more years after he came home, Schunart wanted to learn more about him.
She learned that life here was actually easier than Germany. Food was plentiful and the climate was similar to home. She says he liked how he was treated.
"My grandfather, her father wasn't treated as a number, he was treated as a person," Sonja Schunart says. "He was really an individual being."
An Iowa-based non profit educational organization called TRACES organized the group's trip. Michael Luick-Thrams, the executive director of Traces, says it's their goal to preserve and tell stories of people from the Upper Midwest and Germany who met each other during World War II and use their example to wipe out today's prejudices. Luick-Thrams says they've been accused by some U-S war veterans of glorifying the German experience.
"This is the problem when you lump people together as the Nazis, the Germans, the Americans or the Iraqis," Luick-Thrams says. "You reduce people of their individuality when you do that. It's the first step of war to dehumanize a population then it's ok to extinguish them."
One war vet had a different perspective. Albert Lea resident John Drenth is a United States veteran of World War II.
"I've been to Germany twice since then and have no hard feelings at all," Drenth says. "We compare notes. I used to say you were on that side of the line. I was on this side of the line. They helped me when I was lost. They're nice."
On Sunday TRACES will have a POW conference in Muscatine, Iowa. POW letters, journals, photos and other artifacts will be on display at the Muscatine Art Museum through January.More Information