An Extraordinary Encounter
by Joel Haas
The summer I was 21, I lived in a small Austrian village along the Danube about 15 miles northwest of Vienna. One day, my Austrian school chum, Max, and I were strolling the Danube beach doing what 21-year-old guys do — check out the girls and stop at every beer hall along the beach. Max was eager to learn Southern US English since British English was the only sort taught in schools there. Between listening to my mother’s Tidewater Virginia accent and reading the complete Uncle Remus in the original, Max was doing pretty well.
At one of the beer halls, Max was practicing his Southern English; he still had an Austrian accent.
An old man — okay, probably our fathers’ age — in paint spattered workman’s clothes, a three-day growth of beard and an old Afrika Korps cap (minus the Nazi insignia) wandered over to our table. We were sure he was going to ask us to buy him a beer.
Instead, he looked down at us and said “Whur y’all boys come from?” His accent was flawless.
Yes, we were surprised!
“I’m from North Carolina. Where did you learn English?” I finally managed.
“Ah spent three and a half years choppin’ cotton in Alabama as a prisoner of war. Reckon dey put me to workin’ with Black people as some sort of punishment or humiliation. Lotta Austrians are ‘fraid of colored folk, but not me. They treated me real good. They are fine people. Ah even sang in their church choir.”
Unbidden, he then broke into “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” singing in a remarkable baritone. After that one, he proceeded to sing several more, some I knew and some I had never heard before.
Of course, we bought him a beer.
Then Max and I returned to the beach. Callow youth that I was, I did not even ask his name or where he lived. I had never seen him in the village before and I never saw him again.
I had forgotten about the incident until recently. Going through old letters and paperwork, something brought it to mind. I googled “German POWs in America +WWII” I found the old house painter was not unique, not by a long shot. Over 380,000 German POWs and another 200,000 Italian POWs were housed in 511 main camps and thousands of sub camps across the US! Some 6,000 German POWs worked in North Carolina between the summer of 1943 and the spring of 1946. They were hired (and paid at prevailing standard wage rates) as waiters at the Duke University and UNC dining halls, as laundrymen, and yard maintenance at Duke.
The majority, though, harvested crops for farmers suffering acute shortages of manpower to bring in crops. One NC POW’s letter to his German girl friend complains about harvesting peanuts — “The most idiotic job one can image!” he told her, “and we have another four weeks of it,” as noted in the to letters home from a POW to his girlfriend in Germany. POW mail in both directions was sent through Switzerland and was surprisingly regular.
Oct. 2, 1944
My Dear Gisela,
Sadly, I have to write you merely a card the reason for which I’ll tell you in my next letter.
I am doing well, which, of course, I hope is the same for you.
The last 14 days we’ve been put to harvesting crops. If you know anything about peanuts, that’s the job we do. There is not a more idiotic job! This goes on until the end October.
Feel greeted by your hot-loving lover,
Dec. 4, 1944
I am sending you a Christmas greeting. I am doing well which I also hope is the case with you. Today we started the first day of Advent and it won’t be long until Christmas is past. I and fellow in the bunk next to me have made ourselves little Advent wreathes so that the place looks a little bit like Christmas. That’s all for today. I’ll close and hope to get a letter from you.
Greetings many times over!
Your Werner Letter
(courtesy of NC Archives. Trans by Dr. Michael Haas)
Below — Among the first POWs — U boat crew captured off the NC coast 1942. They were among the very few German POWs in America before July 1943. Photo courtesy of NC Archives