August 27, 2012

What peanut butter taught me about culture and history

My 90-year old grandmother is a badass.  She’s cheated death multiple times, gotten sassy in her old age, and simultaneously handled both her walker and a shotgun.   I went to visit her earlier this week.  We got on the subject of peanut butter, and all of a sudden she just mentioned this offhand:

“Well, when we would get groups of German prisoners from the camp to come work on the farm...”

Wait, WHAT?  Stop.  Back up.  German prisoners of war worked on my grandparents’ farm?  I had never heard this story.

My grandmother threw her head back and started laughing.  “Lord, I hadn’t thought about that in years.”  

There was a German prisoner-of-war camp in the town closest to my grandparents’ farm.  Most of the men in the area had gone off to fight in the war, so proper farm labor in the early 1940s was pretty hard to come by.  Someone had the bright idea to take advantage of the German POWs, and before long the area farmers were able to check out groups of prisoners to help them in the fields.

My grandfather was in need of extra hands just like everyone else, so he would pick up prisoners to come work in the peanut, cotton, and corn fields.  While it sounds like forced labor, and frankly, it probably was, the men were actually happy to get out of the camp and do something.  If it was raining, they were even happier - rain meant that they got to drive the mules in the corn fields.  They loved driving the mules, and they would argue among themselves about who would get to drive next.  

The POWs weren’t given much food.  They were handed over to the farmers with a small sack that contained their lunch.  One day, my grandmother decided to sneak a peak at their provisions - the sack contained nothing but a little bread and peanut butter.  She was appalled.

Now, the Germans apparently loved peanut butter.  But my grandmother was rather miffed at the fact that they were sent out to work with so little to eat.  She had a garden full of vegetables, and even though giving anything to the POWs was very much against the rules, she wasn’t about to let them work through those long days on nothing but bread and peanut butter.  She started sending my grandfather off with home-cooked food for them.  

The men were incredibly grateful and appreciative.  They fell in love with collard greens, cornbread, and sweet potatoes.  They also had a great deal of respect for the food they were eating, and they took great pride in washing their faces and combing their hair back before sitting down to eat.  And it’s not like they were even dining at a real table - they ate on wooden planks smack in the middle of the fields.

After the war ended, the men were sent back to Germany.  But many of them stayed in touch and regularly wrote letters to my grandmother.  She wrote back and even sent them jars of peanut butter, which they couldn’t get in Germany.  

Now, my grandmother certainly didn’t speak German, and these men spoke little to no English.  But the former POWs knew a German family that had escaped to Flint, Michigan, and they served as translators.  When a letter from Germany arrived for my grandmother, she would send it to the family in Flint, then they would translate it and send it back to her.  They did the same for her letters, translating them into German before sending them to Germany.  

My grandmother has lived in the same rural community her entire life, and she’s never been out of the country.  But she was able to get a cultural experience in her own hometown that I’ve logged many cramped miles in pressurized jet-powered tin cans to get for myself.  Without ever going to Germany, she was able to experience some of it through the people.  People - that’s what travel is about, isn’t it?

She says she still has those letters somewhere.  I hope I get to see them someday.


  1. What a neat story. It's so interesting that the POWs were given peanut butter; yet, when I lived in Germany, I could have bribed a local 50 Marks (<--I date myself right there) and a krug of hefeweizen, and I still couldn't have had one eat peanut butter.

    It's noteworthy to me that we don't really document the experience that the WW II POWs in the U.S. had. I did find this from the Smithsonian:

    1. I never knew that there were any German POW camps in the US until my grandmother started in on this story. And I don't think the POWs had ever eaten peanut butter before being sent to Alabama. That's why my grandmother sent them jars of it after the war - they couldn't get it back in Germany. Great article, by the way. I'm amazed that this little bit of WWII history is never talked about.