It's 1944. Otto Steinke is too old to be drafted, his son just a few months too young. Besides, both are needed because the Allied cause requires mountains of food, food the Steinkes can produce on their Iowa farm. Not everyone can be a soldier, even some who really, really want to be.
Come harvest, Otto faces a crucial shortage of help. Hired men are not to be found--some are off to the South Pacific, some to Europe. Harvest holds enough anxiety as it is, but how he’ll get his crop in without enough help is enough to keep him awake at all hours. So many men are gone that church music sounds like a women's chorus.
Down the road there's a POW camp where hundreds--even thousands--of young men don't do much at all. The government puts out a shingle, and Otto Steinke, whose mom never really learned English at all, decides to take a chance on the enemy, so to speak; so he goes down the road to the POW camp and asks for a few young men. It's harvest, after all. They’re needed.
One of the men who, under guard, comes to his farm is named Becker, a prisoner of war Steinke discovers rather quickly is hardly a Hitler fan. Becker had been conscripted. He hated the way his country was treated after the Great War, but once they start working, to Otto Steinke, this man Becker--and the others, for that matter--doesn't feel so much like an enemy. It’s very strange at first.
When harvest is over, Becker stays on--Otto can use help around the farm, and he's working ground down the road for neighbors also. Although he and Becker are circumspect about using their German language in public, when the two of them are together in the barn or the shed they communicate like brothers in the old country. When finally the war in Europe ends, the two are friends, so much so that when Becker is returned to Germany--as all the POWs had to be--some tears fall in the Steinke home.
"Write us, for sure," Otto’s wife says on that last day. "If something there is what you need, let us know."
But the Germany Becker discovers when back home is not the Germany he left. The country is ravaged. When he leaves the bombed-out cities, he is surprised and he is blessed to find his house, out in the country, still intact, his family safe.
But the economy is in shambles—no work, no money, no food.
One day Becker decides to see for himself if what his wife has told him in the dead of night is true. When the Allies came, they forced everyone from town to see what Hitler had done to those he hated, she told him. A death camp was hidden away in a forest not all that far away. She won’t tell him exactly what she saw. She didn’t have to.
When he comes to the camp there are no bodies, no starving prisoners, no children. Still, when he walks in, the suffering had somehow lingered: he can see it, smell it. It will infect you, he tells himself. Even what's not there could kill you--just imagining.
"Write us, sure," Otto’s wife had told him. "If something there is what you need, let us know."
But he cannot do that. In Iowa, he was treated like an honored guest. Here, in this place where he is standing, he knows exactly what his wife would not describe, that people here were treated like vermin, that they died from nothing to eat. He doesn't dare to write the Steinkes. He is so greatly ashamed.
When he returns, his wife comforts him, but tells him to sit down and write his American friends, not for his sake nor for hers, nor for Germany’s, but for the children--"because they are suffering, really, really suffering. Can't you see?"
He can. So he does write. And in the letter he tells Otto what his wife saw—and what he did, even though there were no people then. And then he asks.
And relief comes as he knew it would: "ten packages: food, clothes, chocolate, and things impossible to get."
Becker and his family, or so the story goes, were filled with thanksgiving.
Based on a story among many collected by Linda Betsinger McCann in Prisoners of War in Iowa (Des Moines: Tandem, 2018).
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