Gary Floyd now owns the painting that once hung on the wall at his grandparents’ home in Dublin, Ga. It pictured a woman sitting between two children as they stared at a ship in the distance. In the bottom right corner was the signature “S. Pretscher, German P.O.W.” Floyd remembered asking his grandfather about the painting — Who was S. Pretscher? What happened to him?
Last fall, while cleaning out his father’s garage, Floyd, 58, of Birmingham, Ala., found another painting by the same artist — one he hadn’t known about before — and it brought back memories of all that his grandfather had shared about the summer of 1944 when a prisoner of war managed to connect with his captors and leave behind pieces of history that would teach and inform generations to come.
During World War II, more than 450,000 prisoners of war passed through the U.S., said Charles McVey, professor of English and Modern Languages at Lipscomb University in Nashville. Most of the war prisoners were German, and in 1943, with Germany’s surrender in North Africa, thousands of men would arrive to Georgia’s three permanent prisoner of war camps in Augusta, Macon and Columbus.
In 2015, a collection of hundreds of letters from German POWs in Tennessee to a local family were donated to the Lipscomb University archives. McVey began translating the letters, most of which are dated from 1946-1949, and like Pretscher’s paintings in Georgia, they offered insight into a forgotten moment in history.
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“Nobody knows about this. Back then, everybody knew about it,” said McVey. But there are important lessons to be learned from the warm relationships that developed between the POWs and Americans in small towns across the Southeast, he said. “These folks working together, what a lesson for today,” McVey said. “Today you have people that are cursing at each other with so much less reason to be at odds.”
The congeniality between Americans and the German prisoners also struck Carla Charter, 57 of Phillipston, Mass., as she researched POW camps. Charter, a writer, had first stumbled on Siegfried Pretscher’s work while covering a local story. She saw one of his paintings — a woman standing in front of mountains — owned by Cindy Richard, whose father had been a guard at the POW camp in Dublin.
“I got the feeling that it wasn’t just any lady (in the painting). Someone was in love with her the way they painted it,” said Charter. “I wanted to know the end of the story and if he got back to her.”
For more than a decade, she searched the web, contacted German authorities and tracked down any information she could find on Pretscher. His paintings popped up in odd places — at a German auction house for 95 euros and in a book written by a lumberman from Georgia — as well as in the private collections of several Georgia-based families. She shared her research with the AJC in the hopes of learning more about Pretscher.
Pretscher, a self-taught artist most likely from Bavaria, was among the group of German POWs who arrived sometime in 1944 at Camp Wheeler in Macon. He was quickly dispatched to Dublin, where he would work for 80 cents per day as a laborer under the close watch of military guards.
With so many men lost to the war, the agricultural and pulpwood industries in the region had suffered. In 1943, The Atlanta Constitution reported the expansion of war prisoner sites in Georgia — a total of 10 auxiliary camps throughout the state — where prisoners from the larger permanent camps would be sent to make up for shortages in manual labor.
One day while he was waiting to be driven back to camp from a work site, Pretscher sat sketching a woman’s face on a scrap of cardboard. The woman was likely his wife, who awaited his return in Germany with their two children.
In a letter written in 1995 to the Laurens County Historical Society, Oliver Bennett Jr. described what then happened between his father and Pretscher.
“Dad approached him about about the possibility of Pretscher sketching something for him. This conversation uncovered that Pretscher was an artist and that he worked with paints also. Dad immediately upgraded his request to a painting.”
After Bennett’s father obtained the necessary supplies, Pretscher got to work painting a scene of the countryside near his home in Germany using a linen towel as his canvas. Word must have spread about the German artist in town because in just a few months, Pretscher produced at least a half-dozen paintings for camp guards and other workers in the area.
Floyd’s grandfather was working at the new Carl Vinson VA Hospital as an electrician when he met Pretscher. Pretscher spoke some English, though not fluently. The two men worked together and got along well enough for Pretscher to compose two paintings for him. They also began talking about their lives, and Pretscher felt comfortable sharing his views on Nazi Germany. “He told my grandfather he did not agree with the Nazi party but was more or less recruited to fight,” said Floyd.
Pretscher’s generosity and denouncing Nazi views could have been an act of self-preservation, but in many small Southern towns, something deeper was happening. Strangers, enemies, were learning to live and work together in ways that would change their lives.
Scott Thompson, a historian in Laurens County, described how locals would park their cars just outside the prison fence to listen to the men sing German songs and smell the food they prepared for their meals. On Sunday mornings, they watched the POWs take an orderly march from camp to Mass at the Catholic church. With each day that passed, it seemed the POWs were becoming more a part of their community.
“It was a real positive relationship,” McVey said. “I’m sure it was not in the beginning. Most of these fellows were 18 and 19 years old and had been in rough warfare in North Africa. Then they got to the camps and were treated nicely.”
Of course, not everyone in the rural communities of the South would have been forgiving and welcoming to the POWs, particularly families who may have lost loved ones in the war. “I am sure there are those people who were antagonistic the whole time,” said McVey, adding that the close relationships between prisoners and locals were more likely to develop in the smaller auxiliary camps, which were limited to about 250 men, than in the large camps that housed thousands of prisoners at any given time.
Pretscher seems to have spent only a short time in Georgia, and it is likely that he made the rounds of other camps in nearby states such as Alabama and Tennessee before making it back to Germany around or after 1948.
Floyd’s father, who had shipped off with the Navy on the USS Canisteo the summer after Pretscher left town, told Floyd that his grandfather had received a letter from Pretscher around that time. Pretscher wanted to let him know that he had made it back home and reunited with his family.
Decades later, that gives some closure to Charter. Now she finally knows how Pretscher’s story ends. “I have my happy ending,” she said. “It is such a fascinating little story.”
Camp Wheeler and the auxiliary camps in Georgia would close not long after the end of the war. Several years ago, the last remaining barracks from the camp in Dublin was torn down. But through Pretscher and his paintings, the memories of that hot Georgia summer have been passed from generation to generation, serving as a reminder that even in war there are moments of grace.