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German prisoners of war called Fort Niagara home Effort seeks to chronicle their WWII experiences

Today, guests flock by the thousands to witness history at Fort Niagara, glimpse the gorge at Letchworth and swim Lake Ontario at Hamlin Beach.

Six decades ago, hundreds of unwilling guests were forced to live in those spots.

They were among more than 1,800 German prisoners of war brought to Western New York to help deal with a wartime manpower shortage caused by the demands of the military draft.

Fort Niagara was a major POW camp that started housing hundreds of prisoners in May 1944, said Sue Dietz, Porter town historian.

"And there were a number of subcamps -- Letchworth, Attica, Hamlin Beach -- and they had very small facilities, maybe 80 or 90 prisoners," Dietz said. "There was a barracks for the prisoners at the Heinz canning factory in Medina."

The prisoners were returned to Europe after World War II, and a group of local historians now hopes some who survive will want to come back for a visit in the spring. The historians plan to host a national seminar May 5 and 6 at the fort on the experiences of Axis prisoners of war held in the United States during World War II.

Work has been under way for months on collecting reminiscences of local residents who had contact with the POWs confined in northwestern Niagara County.

Dietz said the prisoners at Fort Niagara were German soldiers who had been captured the year before when they surrendered in North Africa.

The first shipment of prisoners, numbering about 400, was transferred by railroad from a camp in Texas. More shipments followed. The men stayed in temporary barracks constructed near the edge of what is now Fort Niagara State Park.

Nothing remains of the barracks except a marker near a soccer field used years ago by the POWs and today by local children.

Working in the canning factory at Heinz was only one of the jobs for the prisoners. Many found themselves harvesting fruit on local farms. Dietz said they filled in for American soldiers who sometimes had been detailed to agricultural work.

"Before using the POWs, there was an economic crisis on farms," Dietz said.

Other prisoners were assigned to work in factories in Lockport and Newfane, said Ann Marie Linnabery, assistant director of the Niagara County Historical Society.

Linnabery said the idea for the seminar originated with local history buffs in Lewiston and Youngstown and was adopted by the Niagara County Historical Society.

A Prisoner of War Coalition was set up and includes representatives from the Historical Society, Old Fort Niagara, the Province Archives of the Sisters of St. Francis at Stella Niagara and local historical societies in Lewiston, Porter and Wilson.

"We actually worked with setting up a database, having people call in who remembered the POWs and had contact with them," said Linnabery.

The Historical Society expects to receive $5,000 in state funding through State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, to help pay for the seminar and the data collection effort, Linnabery said. Local historical groups have contributed smaller sums.

The featured speaker at the seminar is to be Arnold Krammer, a history professor at Texas A&M University who has published several books on German POWs in America, as well as the Holocaust. Linnabery said about 200 academics are expected to attend.

Anyone else interested should call the Historical Society at 434-7433 or send Linnabery an e-mail at history11@verizon.net to get on the mailing list. Reservations are not yet being taken.

A Web site is to be posted shortly at www.fortniagarapowcamp.org.

A presentation on the murals in the Fort Niagara Officers Club is being prepared by Laurene Buckley, director of Niagara University's Castellani Art Museum. The historic murals were painted by POW Ernst Wille, who later became a noted German artist.

Gretchen Duling, a Youngstown researcher, is compiling oral history interviews with local residents who remember contacts with German POWs, along with Sister Mary Serbacki, archivist at Stella Niagara, and a videographer. So far, half a dozen interviews with locals have been recorded.

Eighteen residents have called the Historical Society to report that they had memories of the POWs; others who would like to be interviewed may call the society.

A German-speaking woman who was interviewed earlier this month had been in touch with one of the former Fort Niagara prisoners.

"He recently died. One of his great hopes was to come back here to show his family Fort Niagara," Duling said. "He was very upset about 9/1 1 because of his experience here. He was very angry that anyone would attack America on American soil."

Other efforts have been made to get in touch with former prisoners by letter.

"They're very elderly. If we had the opportunity [to bring them to the seminar], we would," Duling said.

The Fort Niagara POW camp is believed to have been closed by the end of 1945, the year the war ended, but Duling said some local residents remember seeing prisoners in the area in 1946.

The prisoners were not allowed to refuse repatriation to Germany, and there are no reports of Fort Niagara prisoners escaping and staying in the United States. About 80 POWs did escape from other camps, but they were all eventually rounded up by the FBI.

"While the war was going on, they were happy to be here because they were getting fed better and they weren't in the midst of the war," Dietz said. "There were some [who wanted to stay], but most of them wanted to go home. They were worried about their families."

The Rev. Friedrich Heim, a German-speaking priest from Stella Niagara, said Mass at the fort for the Catholic prisoners, Dietz said, and an interfaith service also was offered.

According to Dietz, the Swiss inspection report said that Fort Niagara had the highest percentage of prisoners attending religious services of any POW camp in the United States.

"They were thanking God they were here," Duling said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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