Northern Illinois was home to several German POW camps during World War II. A Hampshire man got to know one camp personally, in more ways than one.
In 1944, Hampshire was home to the J.B. Inderrieden cannery, which packed local peas and sweet corn. John Fenzel Jr., then a 12-year old paperboy, overheard the city mayor and farm managers discussing a labor shortage at one of the local restaurants.
“I’m sitting at the counter," he recalled, "and they said, 'Boys, do you know we’re not going to have enough help to run this canning factory? What are we going to do?' There was another farmer --I forgot exactly who he was -- he says, 'Why don’t you bring in some German POWs?'”
There were soon tents and barracks. And in April 1944, prisoners from Camp Grant in Rockford came to Hampshire. They included volunteers with the German Afrika Korps captured in Libya. More than two hundred prisoners worked in the field and cannery. But base authorities wanted to make sure the Germans were kept occupied. That’s when the camp’s colonel paid Fenzel’s father a visit.
“'Would you be against your son coming into the POW camp twice a day,'" Fenzel remembered the colonel saying, "' delivering these papers and at the same time cutting out anything that pertained with murder or rape?' Dad says, 'No, I’m not against that. The kid will learn something.'"
And learn he did. Fenzel became well acquainted with Hans Finkel, a POW who ran the camp’s PX, essentially a general store. Finkel helped Fenzel with his schoolwork and recounted stories from back home. Eventually Finkel, who Fenzel said had noticed his fellow Germans were skilled at woodworking, asked the boy if he would help bring in supplies such as sandpaper and varnish. Fenzel said he had a mixed reaction to the request.
“Hans, I can’t bring carving knives in," Fenzel recounted telling him. "And he says, “Johann, just take a minute, look on the counter, what do you see?” I say, 'oh my God, straight razors.' He says, 'they have straight razors. If they’re going to pull anything, don’t you think they’d use straight razors?' I said, 'you’ve got a point.'”
Fenzel agreed to bring in the supplies, and was paid in Hershey bars and tobacco products he could sell at his father’s garage. Among Fenzel’s mementos from that time is a wood carving by POW Ludwig Kafka, an aircraft mechanic who made the piece out of part of an orange crate. It contains photos of Fenzel at a young age, and the motto “Bete und Arbeite,” pray and work.
Fenzel says the POWs were quite religious, and made their way every Sunday to the local Catholic and Lutheran churches. Once the services let out, Fenzel says something special would happen.
“Whatever church let out first, " he said, "they would meet in the center of town, and they would sing, give you a concert, like 'Lili Marlene' and 'Silent Night' in German,” he said.
Fenzel said the Germans got along well with the troops and townfolk. He even worked with some of the POWs in the fields, such as by riding crop dusters. The prisoners taught him how to play Euchre and Pinochle, and shared stories of the war. Fenzel said one man showed him an interesting photo from North Africa.
“They were around a bonfire, the Americans and the Germans," he explained, describing the picture. "The Germans arms were stacked behind them. The American arms were stacked behind them. Here they are playing cards around a bonfire.”
The Germans worked at Camp Hampshire from April to October in 1944 and 1945. They were sent home the next year. Fenzel said they were sent back with new uniforms, along with money they had earned during their work. But, he said, their fate depended greatly on which occupation zone they returned to. Fenzel said they were treated well in the British and American zones, but not in the French zone.
“They made them work in coal mines," he said. "The uniforms, everything, clothing was taken away from them, and they were put in prison camps again. They were kept in France for another year."
After the war, Fenzel enlisted in the Army. and in the mid-1950s was deployed to Germany to defend against a possible Soviet advance. Fenzel said he tried to re-establish contact with Hans Finkel and Ludwig Kafka, but army duties kept him from being able to seek them out in Berlin or Vienna. Fenzel said he was able to meet Finkel’s family in the 1990s after the Berlin Wall came down, but Finkel had unfortunately passed away a month prior. Later, in 2005, Fenzel was able to get in contact with Kafka’s daughter. But, he said, she didn’t initially believe his story about Kafka’s life in the POW camp. She asked Fenzel to identify her father in a family photo.
"'Mr. Fenzel, Herr Fenzel. Pick out Ludwig,'” he recalled her saying. "I did. I said, '[Dein Papa,]' and then she hugged and kissed me. She believed me finally, because she couldn’t believe that he would be involved in stuff like that.”
There’s little trace of the camp left in Hampshire, so Fenzel has become a de-facto expert on the subject. He said Germans regularly inquired about the camp.
“I had two U-Boat commanders come talk to me," he said. "I had to show them everything. And they couldn’t believe we treated the prisoners like we did.”
Fenzel continues to tell his story, and said the cordial experience in Hampshire between the POWs and Americans hints at something greater.
“We’re all body and soul, so to speak," he said. "They’re the same as we are, in a way. Take away some of the outside response that they have or this outside action that they perceive, put forth. We’re all the same when it comes right down to it.”