The Little Museum that Could: Documenting My ‘Neighbors’ Fate-and My Own

In a train from Prague to Ostrava, spring 1992:

Navigating his high-school German and my miserable Czech, the well-dressed business man across from me in the crowded compartment and I strike up an amiable, increasingly trusting rapport. In a disclosing moment, he shares that as a teenager, every weekday he rode a train into Ostrava from his small town in nearby mountains, where there was no high school. During the Nazi occupation, as the commuter train he took coasted into the city, on a siding just before the main station, he saw human hands sticking out of slots in the car sides, flailing the air, and he heard faceless people begging for water and food. At the time, he wondered who these helpless souls might be, but since he knew they weren’t the little girl across the street or his uncle in the next village, he thought nothing more about this unsettling sight, nor did he do anything that might risk his becoming involved. As he later learned, they were waiting for the flood of deportees already at Auschwitz, across the border in Poland, to be “processed” before they met a similar fate. As he told me this, I wondered how the lad—now a likeable man approaching old age—squared this horrific experience with the rest of his life. Surely, its scars stayed with him for decades.

In a classroom at Clear Lake (Iowa) High School, 1979:

While discussing Elie Wiesel’s Night in our World Literature course, our teacher tells us, her students, “how to always tell a Jew—by his nose . . . and penny-pinching!” She should have known: unlike us country bumpkins, she’d grown up in the Big City, Saint Louis, before “the War” (which, without ever needing to confirm, we all knew meant of course the Second World War—that epic, indelible drama that stained our entire Western culture). And besides, she was our teacher: “She has to know!”
A teenage Iowa farmboy, I protested “How could the Germans let Hitler do all those horrific things?” “Oh,” my teacher responded, summarily—”That’s human nature!” Her pat answer didn’t satisfy me. Although some of my ancestors had been in North America since 1630, most of them hailed, a little more than two centuries later, from German-speaking lands. If Germans, under Nazi direction, murdered six million Jews and millions of others “because it was in their nature,” then why hadn’t my German-American family killed any children of Israel or invaded any neighboring countries that morning, after a hearty deutsches FrĂĽhstĂĽck? If people are “bad by nature,” then what hope was there of ever crafting a better world?
No, I concluded, such logic is bunk.

It was compelling questions, blended with circumstantial necessity, that led me to enroll as a doctoral student at Berlin’s Humboldt University in the fall of 1993. It was only natural, then, that when asked about what I’d like to write my dissertation, I reached back to my roots and opted to research the integration of European Jews and other refugees who fled Nazi terror and washed up on the safe shores of my native Iowa, at the American Friends Service Committee-sponsored Scattergood Hostel.

One of the first things my Doktorvater (doctoral advisor), Herr Herbst, taught the other Kandidaten and me was that it is more important (in academic endeavors, certainly, but moreover, in life) to pose “the right questions” than to pretend to spin “the right answers.” (And, as this son of a Lutheran pastor during the Nazi regime had painfully learned since the war’s end, the fate of others mirrors one’s own humanity—or lack thereof.)

Questions I had, galore! My bigger struggle was to distill those probing inquiries into their most effective forms. For the sake of my dissertation, I wanted to learn about—and from—the fates of individuals who had fled the Third Reich. With grants from a foundation and the Berliner Senat, I traveled twice to the U.S. to interview about 40 one-time refugees (“guests” as their Quaker hosts preferred to call them) and hostel staff—rare, noble individuals who reached out to dejected Europeans, although they had no direct connection to them nor any obligation to help them. Before the word “Holocaust” had entered popular language, these people understood that the suffering of others compromised their own integrity; this compassionate understanding led them to act, when the vast majority of others did nothing while millions perished.

One of the first former refugees I met was Irmgard Rosenzweig Wessel, in New Haven, Connecticut. It touched me that already in 1938 Irm’s family found assistance among Friends as she rode the Quaker-supported Kindertransport to England, where she lived for two years with a Quaker family before being reunited with her parents in New York and sent to Iowa by the AFSC. Sure that she would find wild animals and Indians in Iowa, at the end of their four-day bus ride to the American Heartland, Irm found a new world that would require unending adaptation from her and her family—but eventually would also offer them a new life, with unimaginable opportunities. The Rosenzweigs were assisted in their efforts to adjust by complete strangers, wanting to be of use, in a central Illinois prairie town, after they left the hostel.

Some of the first staff I met were Earle and Marjorie Edwards, a newly married Baptist/Methodist couple who recently had discovered Quakers’ historic Peace Testimony before becoming some of Scattergood’s first staff. Now retired from years of serving AFSC and a longtime convinced Friend, Earle told me, along with ever-gracious Marjorie, that my multi-culturalist thesis was wrong: “Quakers didn’t force these people to abandon their native cultures: they wanted to ‘become Americans’ and we helped them, out of the sincere belief that doing so would be the best assistance we could offer in their overcoming the trauma they had endured at the hands of the Nazis.”

Indeed, former staff members George and Lillian Pemberton Willoughby, Camilla Hewson Flintermann, and many more—both former staff as well as refugees—echoed the Edwardses’ position. Dresden native Hans Peters, who I found living with his Iowa-born wife, Doris, in a mixed-race low-income housing project in Rockford, Illinois, testified that after their harrowing brushes with hate and violence in Germany and German-occupied European countries, for the most part the Quakers’ guests eagerly jumped into the business of transformation through intentional socialization as “New Americans”—with the help of a few strangers in a foreign country, their new “neighbors.”

Humbled by having to scuttle the whole premise of my doctoral studies and start over, after I wrote Out of Hitler’s Reach: The Scattergood Hostel for European Refugees, 1939-43, I shifted my focus to those who I thought sent Nazism’s unfortunate victims packing in the first place—German soldiers. Wanting an Upper-Midwest connection to this postdoctoral, independent research, I felt gratified to learn that 10,000 of the 380,000 German prisoners of war imprisoned in the U.S. between 1942 and 1946 were kept at the 36-camp system known as Camp Algona. (About 50,000 Italian POWs also landed in the U.S., as did 6,000-8,000 captured Japanese soldiers.)

A camera team and I crossed Germany seven times to tape some 55 hours of interviews with former German POWs who had spent at least part of their imprisonment in Iowa, Minnesota, or one of the Dakotas. I expected to find hardened Nazis trying to justify their collaboration with a finely tuned murder machine. What I found, with one exception, were elderly men who had spent a lifetime trying to come to terms with the wartime years of their lost youth. Mostly, I got to know thoughtful, pacific men who, over the decades since the Nazi debacle, had come to disavow war of any kind, for any purported reason. Even more surprisingly, I discovered that rather than being clear-cut “perpetrators” I found men who, having been manipulated to support a corrupt, cynical, deadly system, had been robbed of prime years of their lives—not to mention having been driven, in too many cases, to commit crimes against humanity. The lines between victim and perpetrator, then, blurred beyond true accuracy or usefulness.

By an odd, random coincidence of birth, in the course of my research I uncovered the fact that due to a freak military failure—a shortage of guns and gasoline—over 1,800 U.S. soldiers from the Upper Midwest-based 34th Division were captured in one day, on Valentine’s Day night, 1943, in the North African desert. Until the Battle of the Bulge, almost at the war’s end, most U.S. POWs in Nazi Germany thus came from Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Eerily, I learned that former bus drivers of mine as well as school principals, postmen, neighboring farmers, local movie-theater owners, and insurance agents all had been POWs during World War II—yet while my peers and I were growing up in postwar plenty, none spoke of it. Their experiences were, for us, invisible, and therefore sadly missing from our early edification.

Striking such a rich historical vein, it seemed only natural to document the mirror side of the German-POW story: the experience of Midwest POWs held in Germany. Among other findings, my assistants and I learned that while U.S. treatment of German POWs in the U.S. largely followed humane and decent norms, the mostly grueling, often heartless treatment of Allied POWs at the hands of agents of the Nazi regime bred only hatred and lingering resentment in those who endured it. (It’s important to note that unlike the U.S. home front population, German civilians were being bombed daily, and were faced with desperate food shortages and other forms of deprivation. In such an environment, Allied enemies’ fates were of less concern.)

By the time I came to research Midwest POWs’ experiences in Hitler’s “Greater Germany,” the cataclysmic events of 9/11/01 changed the nature and relevance of my expanding studies. The bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon only quickened the urgency I felt, as volunteers and I documented some mostly forgotten subchapters of the last “good war” and, in the process, provided evidence that even in a conflict that has been portrayed as clearly justified, untold suffering took place—and we found that both sides committed acts that can be seen if not as outright wrong, then at least as deeply regrettable. Such acts demean us and diminish our humanity; they erode our souls and make the world a more base, brutish place. At the same time, they call us to consider who our neighbors are and our response to them.

After returning to Iowa in the fall of 2001, having lived 11 years in Europe, it seemed time to institutionalize my research, so TRACES came into existence as a nonprofit, educational organization. To expand the project’s overall focus as well as appeal to more diverse audiences, we uncovered and preserved dozens of additional stories that illustrate war’s wider effects—stories germane to reflections on war and peace, freedom of speech, diversity and tolerance, and so much more.

We discovered, for example, that before she went into hiding with her German-Jewish family in Amsterdam, Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, wrote to pen pals in Danville, Iowa, and that the still obscure, recently fled von Trapps of The Sound of Music fame gave concerts across Iowa and the Midwest in the late 1930s. Numerous journalists and diplomats from the Upper Midwest, too, worked in Germany before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, or were interned there after the U.S. joined the war.

Besides the Scattergood Hostel, other groups also were helping those unwanted in the “new Germany” to reach the Midwest, and German American immigrants struggled between fading ties to their homeland and new lives in their adopted country.

Also, we learned that the only U.S. citizen executed upon Adolf Hitler’s direct command was a woman from Milwaukee who had married a German graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, and moved to his native land: Arvid and Mildred Fish Harnack ultimately were betrayed for spiriting secrets to both the Soviet and the U.S. governments. He was hung from meat hooks and she guillotined at a prison outside Berlin, alone and unnoticed. Tales of pro-Nazis in the Midwest, and photographs of Dachau and Buchenwald shot by Midwest soldiers rounded out the broad prism we offer our audiences through which to view anew a war they thought they knew.

In fall 2005, TRACES moved from Des Moines to Saint Paul, Minnesota. After having been a “virtual museum” at, with a few exhibits that traveled to locations around the Midwest, we now had a permanent museum. For a second time, Irmgard Rosenzweig and Edith Lichtenstein Morgen trekked to the Midwest for a TRACES opening—this time, the museum itself. Chronically understaffed and underfunded, we assembled the displays in six weeks, right up to midnight the day before its opening. Irm and her patient husband, Morris, came to see if they could help; at the moment they arrived, I was unpacking artifacts for a display case in the German POW exhibit. Without batting an eye, Irm bent over and began removing items we had collected during our many interviews—journals and books from Camp Algona, wood carvings, paintings, clothing with “PW” stenciled on them, etc. Then she reached into the crammed box and pulled out a Nazi flag with a screaming swastika in the middle of it. Irm nonchalantly kept talking about other things as she unfolded the blood-red banner and shook out its wrinkles. I froze as I saw what was happening and cried quietly, to think that this old woman who, as a girl, had been the victim of blind hate and, with other Jews, threatened with annihilation now stood in my museum and was unfurling the flag that represented all that she and her family had endured.

I realized at that moment: TRACES is all about documenting what happened to “the little girl across the street,” and that by relating such stories to thousands of people, we might offer examples of wickedness and its fruits. At least, the people whose lives we touch might see, even if in a small way, that what happens to our neighbors can happen to us. How we respond to them and their plight says everything about our own essence. To deepen our own souls, we must stretch the borders of our hearts to have genuine space for the dreams and joys, sufferings and sorrows of those around us. If we cannot meet this admittedly exceptional challenge, we cannot be fully human.

A peace project presenting itself as a history museum, TRACES continues to reach people and to affect the way they see the world. To accomplish this, copies of two of our two-dozen exhibits move around the region in retrofitted school buses. To date the two BUS-eums have toured over 650 communities in all 12 Midwest states, with more than 75,000 visitors having gone through them, and several million more having learned about them via radio, TV, and newspaper features.

One of the bus-borne exhibits features VANISHED: German-American Civilian Internment, 1941-48. A provocative story, it documents the fates of 15,000 German-American immigrants interned by the U.S. Government as late as three and a half years after the war ended, including Jews who had fled Europe, and 4,058 Latin American Germans forcibly brought to the U.S. (The Roosevelt administration exchanged more than 2,300 of the internees during the height of fighting for German-held U.S. nationals; children, women, and men found themselves returned to a country the adults had chosen to leave, with many of the children unable to speak their parents’ mother tongue.) None of the internees were ever charged with, tried for, or convicted of a war-related crime, nor were any afforded legal representation. As no one spoke against their arbitrary and, in almost all cases, unjustified imprisonment, these people vanished for up to seven years, without a trace or hope! They returned to civilian life to find their homes and careers lost. Obviously, their fates have much to say to us today, as we navigate the confusing current social and political chaos of smoke-and-mirrors never-ending war.

VANISHED will be parked at the Friends General Conference Gathering in River Falls, Wisconsin, and interested Gathering participants can make a field trip to visit TRACES Center for History and Culture in downtown Saint Paul’s historic Landmark Center (the former Federal courthouse, built circa 1896, around a six-story neoclassical Victorian atrium). There will be six exhibits documenting Friends’ responses to the Holocaust: AFSC’s refugee centers at Scattergood Hostel and at Quaker Hill in Richmond, Indiana; Leonard Kenworthy’s year in wartime Berlin helping would-be refugees get out of the Third Reich; Clarence Pickett’s two fact-finding tours to Nazi Germany; and others. Visitors to the BUSeum and the museum will be able to contemplate the wartime fate of their “neighbors”—and some of the lessons inherent in those experiences that remain relevant for all of us.

Michael Luick-Thrams

Michael Luick-Thrams, an attender of Twin Cities (Minn.) Meeting, directs the TRACES Center for History and Culture in Saint Paul. The museum and the BUS-eum 2 will be featured at the 2007 Friends General Conference Gathering in River Falls, Wis.