Experiences of a POW: Author's father inspires 'Under the Twisted Cross'Lying in a shelter on the Italian battlefield, Nick Bremer wakes to the sound of German voices. Without ammunition, his squad has no choice but to surrender. Their capture represents the start of a journey to Stalag IIB — known as the worst prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Bremer endures hopelessness, near-starvation, physical torture and mind-numbing monotony, but the question remains — are his wit and tenacity enough to get him through the final European “death march” to the Western Front?
By: Linda Sailer, The Dickinson Press
Lying in a shelter on the Italian battlefield, Nick Bremer wakes to the sound of German voices. Without ammunition, his squad has no choice but to surrender. Their capture represents the start of a journey to Stalag IIB — known as the worst prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.
Bremer endures hopelessness, near-starvation, physical torture and mind-numbing monotony, but the question remains — are his wit and tenacity enough to get him through the final European “death march” to the Western Front?
The experiences of Bremer are told in a new novel titled “Under the Twisted Cross” by Margaret Barnhart of Dickinson.
Barnhart will read from her book at 7 p.m. on Monday in the Dickinson State University Foundation House. After the reading, she will answer questions and autograph books. Refreshments will be served.
The work of fiction is based upon the real-life experiences of Barnhart’s father, Nicholas K. Schuld, who spent 18 months as a prisoner-of-war in Stalag IIB during World War II.
“I remember stories Dad used to tell when we asked —‘What did you do in the war Daddy?’ He only focused on the fun things when telling us kids,” said Barnhart.
She picked up tidbits of information by eavesdropping when the family gathered around the pinochle table.
“Most of the information came when Dad filled out an ex-POW questionnaire,” she said. “I found the events sparked an incredible interest.”
Beyond the paper trail, Barnhart immersed herself in the 1940’s culture.
“I read books about World War II, but not specifically about prisoners,” she said. “I avoided certain books so as not to be influenced by them.”
One of the major sources of evidence to document her father’s experiences was a 1943 military intelligence report that described conditions at Stalag IIB, she said.
She started working on the book a year or two before her father died in 2003, but she has one regret.
“I wrote this book to honor my dad, and he didn’t live to see it,” she said.
Barnhart checked with her family to see if their memories matched her own. Validation of the memories came from a document she found in her dad’s papers. He typed a list of dates and towns that matched official dates.
“The European ‘death march’ comes toward the end of the war, when Germans marched the POWs from the East to the West to surrender to the Western Front,” she said. “It was called a death march because hundreds died along the way. Also, it was undertaken during the worst winter Germany has known in ages.”
As a terrible irony to the march, some of the prisoners were left behind in the camps. They were loaded on railroads and arrived on the Western Front before the others who walked, said Barnhart.
As Bremer endures his captivity, the reader is taken back to the plains of North Dakota through his memories of home and family. One hilarious scene focuses on the marriage of his sister, Agnes to a “Roosian” neighbor — much to the chagrin of her bigoted German father.
“As you get further into the book, the memories are fewer, because he learns he has to live in the now — that’s all there is,” she said.
As Bremer is immersed into camp life, he learns to survive.
“Many ex-POWs will tell you the worse things they endured were hunger and boredom,” she said.
The book focuses on the ingenuity of the prisoners to combat the boredom — even to the making the moonshine.
Because Bremer could speak German, he served as a camp translator. The benefits were mixed.
“Often times, he was under suspicion,” she said.
The name, “Under the Twisted Cross” came to her in a flash as she imagined the POWs constantly seeing the Nazi flag above their barracks.
In writing the novel, Barnhart came to appreciate the enormity of what her parents’ generation experienced.
Coined the “Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw, Barnhart said, “I could honestly feel such enormous strength, honor and humility within that generation. I don’t think many World War II veterans came home with the idea they’d done a heroic thing — most probably didn’t talk about it except among their peers.”
Barnhart stressed the story is a book of fiction.
“I want people to remember that,” she said. “Fiction carries a great deal of truth that sometimes non-fiction can’t present.”
While readers may confuse fact with fiction, she noted, “People who knew my Dad will recognize certain elements of his character.”
Barnhart is an actor, writer and lecturer of composition and literature at DSU. She is married to Patrick Barnhart and the mother of three daughters.
Leading up to the novel, she has published essays and poetry — typically reflecting the experiences of rural life in the upper Great Plains.
“I’ve been writing stories since I was a child,” she said. “I grew up being afraid because I’d hear my parents listening to the news. The news terrified me. In order to help myself go to sleep, I would invent stories.”
Barnhart said the book was written for a universal audience.
“There’s a great deal of literature about the Holocaust — we understand that,” she said. “But I’m not so sure there’s much literature of men who were incarcerated and used their wits to survive.”
Barnhart’s sister Kathy Meyer, South Shore, S.D., read the novel when it was still in manuscript form.
“Seeing my sister’s name on the cover is thrilling,” she said. “It’s personal for us.”
When the war was over and her dad returned home, Meyer doesn’t think there were any celebrations.
“They were released from prison camp and they walked away from the Germans,” she said.
Barnhart’s brother, Ray Schuld of Seattle, also read a preview of the novel.
“It was very interesting — it followed very closely what my dad told us about his imprisonment,” he said. “It was a very enjoyable read.”
Barnhart’s daughter, April Barnhart of Minneapolis read one of the original drafts a few years ago and was excited to see the book in published form.
“I pictured my grandfather as the main character,” she said.
Adding the other characters, she felt submerged into his life as a POW.
“I knew vaguely the stories from my grandfather,” she said. “How my mom developed the other characters is amazing to me. It’s really a good story and I couldn’t put it down.”
Schuld was liberated in May 1945 and married Carolyn Kelsch. A carpenter by trade, he moved to Richardton to be near his parents when his father became ill. He took a job as custodian at St. Mary’s School in Richardton, while Carolyn worked as a cook at Assumption Abbey.
The book was published by Xlibris Corp. Copies will be available at the book reading on Monday, as well as www.Xlibris.com and Ama
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