We are blessed in Lawrence County to be recognized far outside our borders for kindness shown to those who were once our enemies.
About 400 pieces of correspondence from former German POWs to a Lawrenceburg family are now part of the special collections at David Lipscomb University’s Beaman Library. A recent program at the University honored that donation and the friendships those letters represent.
“The relationships underlying the words are precious,” said Dr. Charlie McVey, a German professor who has worked with his students to translate the letters from “old” German. “It’s clear that the prisoners experienced American kindness, Southern (Lawrenceburg) hospitality, and Christian love.”
In April, 1944, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp just west of Lawrenceburg’s downtown was converted to a holding area for 334 German prisoners of war. The local newspaper announced, “Nazis to be here soon,” but before they left in March, 1946, the same paper called them “German boys.”
The prisoners were put to work. They cut wood for Dickson, Tennessee’s Wrigley Chemical Company and were field hands for local farmers, including landowners James Stribling and his daughter and son-in-law, James Lois “Jim” and Delmer Brock.
The family became very close to the young German men. One example of that friendship, said local Historical Society president Curtis Peters, is a painting that remains in the Stribling-Brock family collection. Delmer Brock purchased oil paints and brushes for one prisoner, and passed them to him through the camp fence. The POW used a starched piece of bed sheet as his canvas, and painted a battle scene from the North African coast, where most of the prisoners had been captured.
Peters also said that the evening before the Germans left Lawrenceburg, six who had spent the most time with the local family broke out of the camp, walked to the Brock house to tell the family goodbye, then sneaked back into camp.
When the war was over, the Stribling-Brock family corresponded with about 30 of the former prisoners. Early letters tell of harsh conditions in post-war Germany, and offer thanks for gifts sent from Tennessee friends.
A letter dated December 15, 1947 from Erich Thimann reads in part:
“Dear Mrs. Brock:
“Today I have gotten around to writing you a small letter. I have a special reason for this since I received your wonderful package on Wednesday, December 12. I thank you for this wonderful Christmas present. I have seldom been so richly gifted. The things you sent me fit very well, except for a pair of pants that I will have to have made a little smaller. The shoes also fit very well.
“You cannot imagine how happy I am. All these things are seldom available here in Germany, and only on the black market. Above all, I would like to point out that the shoes you sent me just don’t exist at all in Germany any more. There are some that are made out of rubber, but none out of leather. I am so happy that I now once again can dress acceptably, and for this reason I must continue to be grateful to you all, my dear Brock family.”
The men shared “everyday things” about their lives, a sign of true friendship. A letter from Thimann two years later, accompanied by a photo, relates:
“You were no doubt surprised when you opened the letter. As you see, I have a little girl. The little 3 month old is on the picture. She was born on January 23, 1940. She brings us great joy. She got her first teeth a few days ago . . . .”
The correspondence dates from 1946 to the 1970s. Jim Brock stored them in a cornflakes box, which was discovered among her estate in the 1980s. A chance meeting in Lawrenceburg between Curtis Peters (who is also a member of the Stribling-Brock family) and a Lipscomb history professor in 2013 led to the donation of the letters.
The story of the letters has been told by NBC Nightly News, Yahoo.com, USA Today and the London Daily Mail. A letter from the German consulate in Atlanta that was read at the Lipscomb program called the collection “another milestone in the friendship between Germany and America since the horrors of WWII.”
Friends of the Beaman Library are erecting a historical marker at the site of the former POW camp.
Photos by Randy Brewer and David Lipscomb University staff. Top image was developed by the university and used on all materials related to the September 10 program.