The secret history of prisoner-of war-camps in Minnesota

'Prudence' by David Treuer
'Prudence' by David Treuer
Courtesy of Riverhead Books

In 1944, a strange exchange was taking place between Minnesota and Germany. Young Minnesotan men were heading off to fight in World War II, just as young Germans were being shipped to Minnesota, to prisoner-of-war camps scattered across the state.

The war had left Minnesota with a critical labor shortage, and the German prisoners arrived to fill that need. They harvested beets outside Hollandale, Minn. and worked in the lumber camps of Itasca and Cass counties. More than 15 camps were established in Minnesota, housing some of the 400,000 POWs brought to the United States.

Captured German soldiers began arriving in Bena, Minn. in the winter of 1944. Fears ran high at first in the surrounding communities. Could the prisoners escape? Would they attack the local towns if they got the chance? But months passed without incident. In addition to barbed-wire fences, the Germans were discouraged from attempting escape by the guards' constant tales of "the surrounding wilderness, inhabited by timber wolves, bears, and dangerous Indians."

On October 28, 1944, two German soldiers decided to take the risk. Using a map they found in a dictionary, they plotted the only course they could imagine back to Germany: Down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where they hoped to find a ship that would carry them home. A 1,500-mile trek straight south to Louisiana.

David Treuer
Author David Treuer
Courtesy of the author

David Treuer first heard this story as a child, growing up on the Leech Lake Reservation near Bena. His family vacationed at a nearby resort, and as Treuer fished and played in the water, his father told him about the young Germans and the POW camp, which had sat on the same grounds as the resort.

"One night," his father said. "Two men tried to escape in a rowboat."

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That story has been turning over in Treuer's imagination ever since. "In my mind, World War II was something that happened far, far away," Treuer said. Standing on the camp grounds brought the war home.

In his newest book, "Prudence," Treuer drops readers into the same historical moment that has fascinated him for decades. "Prudence" unfolds in the 1940s and explores the strange relationship between the POW camp and the neighboring Ojibwe reservation.

Treuer crafts an intimate portrait of a father and son against this political backdrop. The Washington Post wrote: "Treuer's novel is set 70 years ago, but don't think for a moment that it's historical fiction. The brilliant, brutal world he builds, destroys and builds again is the one we're still living in."

A runaway German soldier darts through Treuer's narrative.

In reality, the two escapees didn't make it very far. Word of the runaways spread. "Nazis Still Are Hunted" read the November 2, 1944 headline of the Duluth Herald.

With a crude raft and meager supplies, they eluded authorities for several days, surviving freezing weather and tangled terrain, but when a search party came within 15 feet of their forest hiding place, they decided to surrender. They had traveled just 30 miles.

"People ask me: why'd you pick Minnesota, why World War II?" Treur said, talking about the inspiration for "Prudence." "As a novelist, the fun thing is to take something people think they know and turn it on its head. People think of Minnesota as a quiet place full of nice people and we think of World War II as a noble effort that happened far away. I wanted to turn that all around: Minnesota is not as quiet as we think and the people are far more complicated ... And World War II didn't happen far away, it happened right here."