Hans Kroder finally got back to Moorhead.
If not in body, then in spirit.
He was right there, sitting at the dining room table of Sherry Watt.
Not Kroder. The former German soldier who was a prisoner of war held in Moorhead during World War II and died in 2012 at the age of 90.
But Kroder's grandson, Harald Goldfuss of Bayreuth, Germany, was there, his wife and daughter by his side, sharing why it was so important for him to visit the area.
"Hank Peterson treated my grandfather really well, so he could go home and eventually start a family," Goldfuss said on Thursday, Aug. 8. "My grandfather had my mom, who had me. Now here I am, sitting with my wife and daughter. You could say, then, that Hank Peterson treated me very well, if you want to complete the circle. So this is a very special trip."
This is the story of two families, separated by an ocean and the decades, who've become bonded by a shared history.
One side of the story is Goldfuss, whose grandfather was a POW held in Moorhead as a farm laborer late in World War II, in 1944-45.
The other side is Watt, whose father Hank Peterson was one of the local farmers who contracted to have POWs work on his farm because of the severe labor shortage caused by the war.
Peterson was popular with the 50 or so POWs who worked for him because of his kindness and willingness to break the rules in order to serve the prisoners a homemade dinner or take them to a Moorhead bar. As has been reported previously, many POWs wrote letters to Peterson after they returned to post-war Germany and found their country in ruins. Many asked for food, clothing or money. Others asked for help getting back to the U.S.
- McFeely: 'Dear Mr. Peterson please be so kind and send me something to eat' and other heartbreaking letters from former POWs
- McFeely: German POWs, right here in Moorhead
Kroder didn't write Peterson, but Goldfuss said his grandfather talked constantly about his time here. Goldfuss, who is 48, said he doesn't remember a time when his grandfather wasn't telling and retelling stories about the time he spent as a prisoner in Moorhead.
"His mind was always in Moorhead," Goldfuss said.
Eventually, that preoccupation led Goldfuss to try and find Peterson, or at least his relatives, so his grandfather could visit with them. In 2007, after initially contacting the Moorhead mayor's office, Goldfuss was eventually put in contact with Watt. Sherry and her husband Tom wanted Hans to travel to Moorhead, but the former POW was 85 at the time and couldn't make the trip.
So Sherry and Tom traveled to a small German village near Nuremberg in September 2007 and were given a hero's welcome as they met Hans and Harald. There were tears when Hans and Sherry embraced.
"My grandfather left a little piece of his mind here and for decades that piece was missing," Harald said. "It finally filled in when Sherry came to Germany. That completed a piece of his life."
Harald, Sherry and Tom met again in Florida in 2009.
Goldfuss decided to make the trip to Moorhead with his wife Nikola and 15-year-old daughter Nina after discussing it with family, friends and co-workers.
"They all said, 'Wow, that's unbelievable.' It's such a special story," Goldfuss said. "Why wouldn't we want to come here? We want to see how you live, where you're from."
The family flew from Frankfurt and spent a few days in New York City before flying to Minneapolis. They arrived in Moorhead on Monday and will leave Saturday for Orlando. Nina is a Harry Potter fan and wants to visit Universal Studios.
Harald and Nina speak perfect English, making communication here easy, while Nikola speaks mostly German.
While in Moorhead, the Goldfusses visited the area near the Coca-Cola bottling plant where the POW camp was. They saw the site of Peterson's original family farm in north Moorhead and the Bergquist Cabin, where Hank Peterson was born. Harald also visited with archivist Mark Peihl of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, providing some original photographs of his grandfather for Peihl to digitize.
Brad Dunham, a history teacher at Ulen-Hitterdal High School whose master's thesis was on the Moorhead POWs, also spent time with the Goldfusses.
There's been sightseeing, too, in Fargo and a visit to Scheels. The Watts family also planned to bring the Goldfusses to visit a Zorbaz and see the lakes area of Minnesota.
"It is much more than we expected, with the flat land and the farm fields. The world is still OK here, as we say," Goldfuss said. "But now that I see that the area of the farm where he worked is all different, it's houses now, maybe it was better that my grandfather did not come. It had been decades since he was here and it's all changed. Maybe he would have been disappointed."
There has also been plenty of time to chat, ask questions and share stories at the grand century-old Watt farmhouse a few miles east of Moorhead in rural Glyndon.
"It's been so nice to have them here," said Sherry, 83, who was 8 years old when Hans worked on her father's farm. "It's something we've looked forward to for a long time. I am so glad it happened."
Harald Goldfuss nodded his head and smiled.
"It's a real special story why we're here," he said. "Seventy-five years after my grandfather was in Moorhead, I am in Moorhead."
His grandfather is here again, too.