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Bringing War Home: A prisoner and a painting

A woman searches for the story behind a mysterious painting of her father from the summer of 1945.

ANNIKA SHINN: Here in the US, we often think of the Second World War as service men and women waging this war overseas. Yet, more than 400,000 prisoners of war spent time as laborers in prison camps across the United States, including Utah. Here in Utah, German and Italian soldiers housed in POW camps also worked as agricultural laborers on local farms. These were not the only camps in Utah. Japanese American citizens and families forcibly removed from their homes ended up imprisoned in the Topaz camp near Delta.

The US established 13 camps in Utah for P.O.W.s, primarily adjacent to military installations along the Wasatch Front. Four of these camps were in rural communities, where hundreds of prisoners worked alongside farmers and their families. What were the legacies of such camps, especially for rural populations? The full story of the impact of POW camps and forced labor is still not well understood, particularly for Utah's rural communities. Through a family object, a portrait of a young boy, Wendy Pettit shares a story of one such encounter between a German POW and her father.

WENDI PETTETT: The portrait was painted in July of 1945 — my dad was four. My grandfather would take his truck, go to the camps, pick up the POWs and drive them to a farm he was working on in Clarion farming sugar beets. There was never any worry that the P.O.W.s were going to run off. They had it pretty good where they were. They were just happy to get out of camp and go and do things.

One day, one of the P.O.W.s asked my grandfather if he could do a portrait of my dad. My grandfather had no problem with this. So, they went off and sat down in a barn and he started doing this portrait of my four year old dad. The story goes, he was interrupted by one of the guards and the guards made him stop. And then he had to take the portrait back to the POW camp to finish it. When he was finished he gave it to my grandfather. And so we've had this portrait in our family for, I mean my dad's 81 so, years and years and we never really talked about this.

My dad, you know, he was four at the time — he never really asked more about this. I was the one that he started thinking, “why don't I know more about this.” A lot of our relatives that were there at the time have passed, or their memories are gone. So unfortunately, that's the whole story we have — until about 10 years ago.

I really doubled down. I wanted to find out more about this. So I emailed state history. And at the time, there was a gentleman named Scott Porter. And he was doing research on a documentary he was doing about the POW camps here in Utah. Scott and I kind of went back and forth. And Scott was like, “You know what I would really actually like to interview your father.”

Scott came over and interviewed my father. And then he took all the information he could, off of the portrait with him to Germany, going to their archives. About a month later I get an email from Scott saying, “We found your pow.”

It was a German citizen named Heinz Benzig. He died about five years after he returned to the war. It says on his documents that he was an artist. He was the one that did the portrait of my father. A lot of people don't know there was a POW camp in Salina or anywhere in Utah. These are the stories we've lost. And those are the stories that I want to bring back out and have people hear and learn about.

I think objects are the best way to do it because it's something that you can see and sometimes be able to feel and touch. It brings it together for you. I think objects are really very important for us to be able to connect. People start telling stories that you've never heard before because the object was the thing that made them remember or talk about it.

Original air date: March 16, 2023

Katie White has been fascinated by a multitude of subjects all her life. At 13-years-old Katie realized she couldn't grow up to be everything — a doctor-architect-anthropologist-dancer-teacher-etc. — but she could tell stories about everything. Passionate about ethical and informed reporting, Katie is studying both journalism and sociology at Utah State University.