A couple of weeks ago, my cousin, Mike Koehler, from Mt. Pulaski telephoned. Mike calls at least twice a month, and at the beginning of this call he asked, “Do you know what day it is?”
Actually, I had no idea what day it was, although I was fairly certain it was December.
“December 19,” he said. “Sixty-six years ago today, I was captured by the Germans. You know that recipe I sent you? That is what I had to eat on Christmas Day.”
Several weeks earlier, during one of our talks, Mike had asked if I knew what German black bread was. When he told me the official Nazi recipe that was fed to prisoners of war, it was not what I had imagined at all – with “tree flour” in the mixture.
He followed up by sending me a copy of the recipe concocted in 1941 through the Nazi Food Providing Ministry, and published as an "official" recipe. Black bread (broat) was made by mixing 50 percent bruised rye grain, 20 percent sliced sugar beets, 20 percent tree flour (sawdust) and 10 percent minced leaves and straw. From Mike’s experience, sometimes there were other ingredients, such as bits of glass.
Another staple was a thin soup made with kohlrabi.
After being captured, he was soon put with other Americans and sent to Camp 4-B near Leipzig, Poland, where he was housed with other men in a big barn of a building with barbed wire nailed all around the outside of the building so there would be no escape.
A smaller work camp more than a mile away could hold 35 men, and he spent time there as well.
The prisoners were members of a work detail and marched, under guard, three miles to the train station, where they boarded a train to take them to where the railroad had been blown up by allied bombers the previous week.
Mike chuckled as he told of the guards commenting that the Americans were some of the slowest workers they had ever seen. Repairing the railroads was one of the prisoners of war’s main jobs.
As the war was winding down, the need for manpower was still great, and the German military then began to put uniforms on the old men of the country.
Mike credits their 84-year-old work detail guard, "Kraut," with saving his life. Mike was suffering from rheumatic fever, and the old guard encouraged him to keep going. If he had stopped, he would have been taken out and shot.
When news came that the Americans had landed near Leipzig, an order came down that all of the POWs were to be killed. The German hierarchy at the camp decided against this, because of repercussions from the Americans.
One idea was marching the prisoners to the Russian front line and handing them over. But they knew that the German soldiers were hated by the Russians and would be better treated by the Americans. The decision was made to march the men toward the Americans, who were said to be only one mile away.
The German guards were detained, and Mike, along with two of his fellow POWs – a man from Indiana and another from Kentucky – interceded for their octogenarian guard, and had him released. The Americans borrowed a Jeep, picked up some groceries at the commissary and, with Kraut’s directions, drove him to his home.
Returning to camp the men boarded ship and headed home. For Mike, his home for the next 18 months was a military hospital, where he recovered from rheumatic fever. He returned to his home and family in Illinois, and in no time had met the girl of his dreams in Berniece Torbeck, daughter of Otto and Leona Kruenegel Torbeck.
The photo accompanying this article was taken on their wedding day. Mike and Berniece were the parents of two children, Judy and Michael, who, with their families, live near Mike in the Mt. Pulaski area.