Politics and Military

The Top Secret Reeducation Camp in RI During World War II

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Guards in front of Fort Kearney

Guards in front of Fort Kearney

Some of Germany’s finest writers and artists churned out an anti-Nazi newspaper at a secret reeducation camp in Narragansett, R.I., from February 1945 to April 1946.

The newspaper was produced for tens of thousands of German POWs held at prison camps throughout the United States.

The German intellectuals who published the newspaper, Der Ruf, were prisoners of war selected because they hated Nazism.

After they returned to Germany, the POWs formed a world-famous literary circle, Group 47, which dominated German literature for decades and nourished young writers such as Nobel Prize winners Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass.

US POW Camps

During World War II, 425,000 prisoners of war were incarcerated in 700 camps inside the United States. Most were German, and many of them weren’t Nazis.

More than a dozen prison camps were located in New England. In Massachusetts, prisoners were held in Boston when they arrived, while wounded POWs were sent to hospitals and anti-Nazis were imprisoned at Fort Devens. Others were held at Camp McKay, Westover Field, Camp Edwards on Cape Cod and Camp Andrews and Fort Strong in Boston Harbor.

They were held at Bradley Field and at Fort Kearny in Connecticut. They were sent to Camp HoultonHobbstown, Princeton and Seboomook in Maine. They were held in a camp in Stark, N.H.

Life could be miserable in the camps for German POWs who opposed Nazism. They were beat up, even murdered by hard-core Hitler followers.

Secret Reeducation Camp

Franz Wischnewski and Curt Vinz

Franz Wischnewski and Curt Vinz

The War Department sent the most brutal, dedicated Nazis to a maximum security prison in Oklahoma. And then the Department’s Special Projects’ Division set up three secret reeducation camps in Rhode Island – at Forts Kearney, Getty and Wetherill. Their aim: to prepare German POWs to rebuild their country as a democracy and to persuade them to break from Nazi beliefs.

Anti-Nazi prisoners were chosen to create "intellectual diversions" for German POWs. The project was called the Idea Factory or just the Factory.

The German prisoners were carefully screened to make sure they hated Nazism and wanted to rebuild Germany into a free democratic society. Most had been forced to join the army and some had been imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps.

On Feb. 27, 1945, 85 German writers, artists and professors were moved to Fort Kearney, situated on 20 acres in Saunderstown above the West Passage of Narragansett Bay. The fort had been used for coastal defense, but the naval threat disappeared and the fort's heavy guns had been taken elsewhere. The fort had barracks for the prisoners, a kitchen and administrative buildings in place.

Life for the prisoners wasn’t too bad in the secret reeducation camp. They were wakened in the morning by a recording of Duke Ellington’s Lady Be Good. They had to wear clothes printed with “PW,” but sometimes they were allowed to wear khakis. They were also given a measure of freedom. Sometimes they could take the ferry to Newport for supplies. One local resident remembers seeing prisoners in their “PW” clothes strolling along Boston Neck Road, presumably on their way to Twin Willows, a bar still in operation.

Their main task was to publish the German-language newspaper. Prisoners who worked on Der Ruf and later joined Group 47 included:

  • Hans Werner Richter, a novelist who eventually earned worldwide fame for his role in starting the Group 47.
  •  Dr. Gustav R. Hocke, Der Ruf’s first editor in chief. He was a prize-winning novelist and newspaper correspondent who had been forced to serve as a civilian interpreter for the German Army. He was captured in Sicily in September 1944.
  • Alfred Andersch, a writer who became a leading literary and radio figure in postwar Germany. After serving time in Dachau, he was forced into the army, deserted, and was captured. After the war, he continued to work on Der Ruf in occupied Germany.
  • Curt Vinz, production editor.
  • Franz Wischnewski, an artist and graphic designer.

The newspaper was first distributed to German prisoners in March. They were given small amounts of money and had to buy the paper for a nickel. That way, reasoned the Factory, it wouldn’t seem like American propaganda.

Der Ruf

A November 1945 edition of Der Ruf

A November 1945 edition of Der Ruf

Ardent Nazis called it “Jewish propaganda,” burned the newspapers and threatened prisoners who bought them. At some camps, Der Ruf was greeted with enthusiasm, and the staff received hundreds of letters praising their work.

Stories included recommendations on the best American writers (Steinbeck and Hemingway); accounts of the horrors of German concentration camps; war reporting; descriptions of the strengths of America’s political system; a history of free German labor unions; and quotations from American authors like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Walt Whitman and Thornton Wilder.

Until April 1 of that year, the Factory produced 26 editions of Der Ruf. Fort Kearney was closed and the POWs returned home.

One POW author wrote that the secret reeducation camps were “probably unique in human history” … because “Voluntarily, German prisoners of war have undertaken to start a work of positive aid to their own fellows here in captivity . . . . They did it as men who believe in the future of their home country, a country that must become a part of a peaceful world.”

Wischnewski, Vinz and Andersch continued to publish Der Ruf in Germany. Its circulation reached 100,000 until the Americans shut it down because it opposed the occupation of Germany.

The Der Ruf alumni then formed Group 47. Richter said its members were determined to prevent forever a repetition of what had happened. “They wanted to lay the foundation of a new democratic Germany, a better future and a new literature, conscious of the responsibility in regard to politics and the development of society as a whole,” he said.

After it closed as a secret reeducation camp, Fort Kearney's buildings were given to Rhode Island State College. It is now the Narragansett campus of the University of Rhode Island.

Images courtesy of Edward Davison Papers, Yale University Library, except for photo of Der Ruf, which is from the Office of the Provost Marshal General, RG 389, National Archives). With thanks to the Small State, Big History blog, The Top Secret World War II Prisoner-of-War Camp at Fort Kearney in Narragansett.

 

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