MOORHEAD — The letters are at once unfailingly polite and heartbreaking. Some nibble around the edges of what the writer really is trying to say, and others get straight to the point. All paint the topsy-turvy picture of young men believing their time as prisoners of war in a foreign land was far better than their situation after they'd been released and returned home.
"The time in captivity was a carefree time," reads one letter.
"I must tell you ... it was the best time of my life," says another.
The letters, some written in German and some in English, were sent by former German prisoners of war who spent time in Moorhead near the end of World War II in 1944-45. They were mailed to Henry Peterson, one of two local farmers who contracted with the U.S. government to have German POWs temporarily transferred to the area to help with labor. Because so many young American men were overseas fighting the war, the country was faced with a severe labor shortage.
I wrote about Moorhead's POWs in a recent column, the latest Forum piece on the topic. The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, led by the outstanding Mark Peihl, has also done extensive work on the POWs story.
After my column ran in the Sunday, June 30, print edition of The Forum, several readers sent messages with tidbits of information or memories of the POWs. One of those readers was Sherry Watt, of rural Glyndon, Minn. She is Peterson's daughter and wanted to know if I was interested in the letters the POWs sent to her dad after they returned to Germany.
If only all questions were that easy.
I visited the Watt farm and, sitting at the kitchen table, Sherry shared a scrapbook she kept with copies of the letters and some photographs of the prisoners. During the war, the Petersons lived in north Moorhead near the family's original farm, which was located at the site of the Original Homestead Park at 11th Street and Seventh Avenue North. (Hank Peterson was born in what is known as the Bergquist Cabin, which still sits in the park.)
Sherry was 8 years old in 1944 and remembers walking to the farm each day and seeing the prisoners work.
"They painted a white stripe on my dog one time," she said. "It was a black dog. I was very upset."
Sherry, now 83, remembers many of the prisoners as young men. Some of them gave her dad a woodcarving she still keeps at her home.
"Just kids, really, who were 17, 18, 19 years old. I never talked about it much with my dad. I wish now I would've, of course," she said. "But when you're young, you don't think about those things. There is just so much history."
Turns out Sherry donated the original letters to Minnesota State University Moorhead about 40 years ago, where they remain archived at Livingston Lord Library. A visit there to see them, and the personal photographs some ex-prisoners sent to Peterson, showed their strong feelings for the Moorhead farmer and how desperate many of their situations were in post-war Germany. The letters written in German were translated by an MSUM professor.
"Dear Mr. Peterson please be so kind and send me something to eat," wrote Josef Barbarini, of Cologne, in a letter dated Feb. 16, 1947. "The need and the hunger drive me to write to you. You do not believe how hopeless everything is here. One sees nothing but ruins, misery, cold — and there is nothing to eat."
Harry Rocktashcel, of Arnstadt, located in what would become Soviet-controlled East Germany, sounded in despair when he wrote to Peterson on March 8, 1948.
"I do not want to sound inopportune. If I write to you today, it is the urgent need that forces me to do so. Perhaps you can imagine what it means to have children in such a desperate time," Rocktashcel wrote. "For four years I was a POW. When I came home, my house had been destroyed by bombs. There are no words to describe such an urgent need. But that is not it. If one only had enough to eat again. Always hunger. One does not have any strength left.
"The children are undernourished. They look at us with hungry faces, one cannot help them. There are not meat and fat, the main food is not available. For a long time there have been no potatoes. Bread and milk are in short supply. People are desperate. In winter there is no heat in the homes, no warm clothing, no shoes. But that is not all. If we only had enough to eat, just once. Dear Mr. Peterson, forgive me for being so frank. Please do not misunderstand me. Maybe you have some hand-me-down clothing for us adults and for the children. ... Now I would like to ask you to send us some food, I mean, if you have some to spare."
Paul Joachim Muller wrote on Dec. 12, 1947, and signed his letter, "Your POW."
"It is very bad what the Nazis made of Germany. Dear Mr. Peterson, if I could ask you something, then it is this: if you should have any leftovers, maybe food or something to smoke or soap, or old underwear, I would be very grateful to you," his letter said.
A couple of former prisoners asked Peterson to help them get back to America. One was Franz Wdowig, who was living in Germany because his former home in Upper Silesia became part of Poland under Soviet occupation. Wdowig didn't want to return to his homeland because he would be drafted into the Polish army.
"Mr. Peterson, I have a big request. There is the possibility to immigrate to America. Mr. Peterson, how would it be if you could employ me as a worker? But I'd like to come with my whole family and in-laws. My family is not large; my wife and 2 children, and the in-laws are 3 persons!" Wdowig wrote on Sept. 8, 1948.
Some ex-prisoners sent photographs of themselves or their families. Almost all begged Peterson to write back. Michael Oberlehner wrote on March 1, 1948, from Neuzeug, Austria, and included a wedding photo. About 30 former prisoners wrote to Peterson. Some of the letters have been digitized and are available online.
Watt doesn't know if her father wrote back, sent them food or sponsored their immigration to America. She believes the prisoners thought highly of Peterson because he brought them to the family home for supper, allowed them to go to movies and once brought some of them to the Magic Aquarium Bar in Moorhead for drinks — all of which was strictly forbidden.
"He didn't have any boys, only two girls," Watt said. "Maybe that's the reason he treated those boys so nicely."
Watt and her husband Tom traveled to Germany in 2007 to visit a former prisoner who contacted them.
For some of the prisoners, as their letters attest, time spent in Moorhead was the best of their lives.