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Guests Behind the Barbed Wire: German POWs in America: A True Story of Hope and Friendship

By: Ruth Cook
Reviewed by: Jim Reed
Crane Hill Publishers, 2007
$29.95, Hardcover

The day a person gives up on the Geneva Convention is the day a person gives up on the human race. 

                                                                —Sarah Vowell

Ruth Beaumont Cook’s amazing and entertainingly detailed account of the tiny town of Aliceville, Alabama, during World War II is at once a highly personal narrative, an engrossing true tale of heroism and extreme kindnesses, and a textbook about a time and place that must not be forgotten.

More than 250,000 captured German soldiers were incarcerated in the U.S. during the War, and this is one small part of that surprisingly forgotten period in the early 1940s. Cook’s attention to the humanity behind a larger cataclysmic period of history keeps the reader’s feet on the ground, while reminding us that there is poetry to be found wherever one searches.

Guests Behind the Barbed Wire relates how the residents of Aliceville reacted to a benevolent wartime invasion by thousands of German soldiers, how the military personnel-turned-prison guards learned that soldiers can be noble and kind simultaneously, and how it is possible for a nation’s leadership to carry out a mission of peace in the midst of horrendous warfare. This is the story of just one of many American towns that had to come face to face with an unarmed enemy, and how restraint and firmness and outright goodwill saved the day.

The late Kurt Vonnegut Jr., himself a POW during the Dresden holocaust, observed, "Has any psychological experiment yielded a more delightful suggestion than this one: that there is a part of the mind without ambition or information, which nonetheless is expert on what is beautiful?"

Ruth Beaumont Cook has done us all a favor. In the midst of twenty-first century ethnic cleansings, civil wars, genocides, and flagrant disregard for the Geneva Accords, she has reminded us that beauty and friendship can be found under the worst of circumstances. Maybe that’s what keeps us going.

Jim Reed is editor of Birmingham Art Journal and owner of Jim Reed Books and the Museum of Fond Memories in Birmingham. 


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