THE MURAL MYSTERY
The Mural Mystery
Paintings, thought to have been the legacy of a
captive German, adorned walls at POW camp in Kentucky. The question is:
Which German? New research has rekindled an old mystery.
Our appreciation to Ruth Heffington
of the Union County Historical Society for sharing this article. She states,
"There is still speculation as to which POW painted these murals during
this time era at Camp Breckinridge." One of these murals has been donated
to the Historical Society and is proudly displayed in one of their military
July 6, 1980
The Courier Journal by Bill
West Kentucky Bureau
Robert Steinau - Photographer
Time and redevelopment have
overtaken most of old Camp Breckinridge in Union County. Remains of a few
sagging barracks and service buildings are almost hidden in weeds and bushes.
Farm crops, coal mines and homes cover thousands of acres where 40,000
soldiers trained for World War II and Korea.
The heart of the camp, which
had approximately 3,600 buildings, is the nation's largest Job Corps Center.
Although many of its 200 structures were part of the original camp, new
structures and remodeled ones are making it look more like a college campus
than a military installation.
The place where 3,000 prisoners
or war, mostly German, were housed is a farm field. Occasionally, plows
turn up a button or a rusted tin cup. Otherwise, the site has rejoined
what it was in the first place--some of the county's best farmland.
From the compound came the
most fascinating and memorable Breckinridge leftover from the days of war.
A POW - it has been held -- decorated the walls of the officers club with
some 40 oil paintings and murals. The pictures have survived despite normally
destructive weather, vandalism, intermittent abandonment of the camp and
newness that seemed, at times, to threaten everything old with destruction.
And now, more than 36 years
after the first painting was done both the past and the future of the paintings
have taken unexpected turns. It appears that the identity of the major
painter has been established and preservation of the paintings assured.
Ron Wormald, 52, a former
newspaperman who is manager of community affairs at the Job Corps Center,
offers evidence that the wrong man was credited with the work for more
than 25 years.
As for the preservation,
H.E. "Bud" Ervin, 44 , a Morganfield businessman, has bought the old club
and 15acres around it to use as headquarters for a cable-television business
he is starting in Union County. Ervin, who remembers peeping into the club
and seeing the paintings when he was a boy, says he will "do everything
possible to preserve and protect the art because it deserves to be."
Ervin has replaced broken
windows and cleaned up the hall containing the paintings. He says that
the hall will be open to the public and will not be used for cable television
Until the 1970s. POW Peter
Heinz was credited with the paintings The displace along the walls of the
club ballroom, both above and below a balcony, was called Heinz Gallery.
After joining the Job Corps
staff, Wormald fretted occasionally because so little was known about Heinz.
The name by the way is listed
as Heinz Peter on his tombstone and in some records and letters later received
from former prisoners at Breckinridge.
In the early 1970's Wormald
confirmed through the American Legation in Switzerland Department of German
Affairs, that Heinz was captured in France on Jun 7, 1944, the day after
the invasion of Normandy. He was a paratrooper. The legation said Heinz
died at Camp Breckinridge at 1540 hours on March 21, 1945, of natural causes.
The tales that are told hereabouts
about the 21 year old POW differ from the official account. Many continue
to credit him with the art work but questions are asked about Heinz's death.
There is speculation that
he was murdered in his bunk by fellow POWs jealous of privileges he received
for his paintings in the club, which was being used by non-commissioned
officers when the paintings started. It eventually became a club for commissioned
Wormald tried to get in touch
with Heinz's relatives both to learn more about him and tell them of his
"Letters to relatives, mostly
in East Germany, drew a blank," Wormald says. Wormald had doubts that in
just over seven months between his confinement and his death at Breckinridge.
Heinz could have painted many, if any, of the pictures.
He wrote to German soldiers
who had been in the POW camp.
A convincing number said
the art work was done by a prisoner named Daniel Mayer, not by Peter Heinz
or Heinz Peter.
Wormald pushed on. He learned
that Mayer was in Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps, that he was captured by
the British Third Army at Mejez el Bab, Tunisia, on April 23, 1943.
Records show that Mayer died
at 7:05 p.m. September 21, 1945, at Breckinridge. He was 36, and he was
buried at Breckinridge, next to Peter Heinz.
Wormald learned that Mayer
had a wife, Hermine, and a daughter in East Germany. He wrote to them but
received no answers.
Albert Mueller, who was confined
with Mayer at Breckinridge, wrote that he had conferred with six other
men who had been in the camp with Mayer and that "All these people are
in agreement that the pictures you were talking about were not from Peter
Heinz but from Daniel Meyer."
Heiner Traeger, another prisoner,
said Mayer, as his name was spelled by some, "worried about his family
in the Sudetenland."
The Sudetenland was formed
by Adolph Hitler out of 9,000 square miles of border areas of Bohemia,
Moravia and Silesia in 1938. It was returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945.
In 1930, the area had a population of million Germans and 800,000 Czechs.
"Even our understanding and
compassion, which we all gave him, and our reassurances that everything
would be all right, could not tear him away from his thoughts. Not his
body but his mind broke and one day he didn't want to do anything else
and didn't," Traeger wrote.
Traeger said they missed
Mayer from the compound one day and learned that he had died. "His heart
was broken He was a simple person, quiet and polite and probably from a
small" not too well off family," Traeger said. Traeger, who was at Breckinridge
from May 1943 to April 1946, said he admired Mayer's oil paintings.
Horst Tille, another prisoner,
wrote that he saw Mayer painting a large mural at the NCO club. "It was
not Peter who made the pictures. It was Daniel Maier," Tille wrote.
But the Germans and records
accumulated by Wormald are ambiguous about whether either man was a professional
artist. Occupations of both were listed simply as "painter," which may
or may not have meant "artist."
One German said Mayer was
not guarded when he went to the club to paint.
Another one said Mayer was
"not always like us young soldiers" --- satisfied with the Nazi regime.
He said Mayer "had his own opinions and came in conflict with himself."
Mayer's death certificate
showed that he was born in Czechoslovakia in 1909 and that his family lived
in the town of Barring. It gave his cause of death as pneumonia. Wormald
obtained the death certificate information from the International Red Cross.
Ruth Ellen Espy, of Morganfield,
used to work at Breckinridge, sometimes in the officers club. She recalled
seeing a German painting there.
"He was about 5 feet, 10
inches tall. I was never close to him, and he was always on a stepladder,"
Red Cross statistics show
Mayer was about 5 feet 9 and weighing 163 pounds. He had dark blond hair.
Heinz was described as a tall young man with light blond hair.
Mrs. espy said she was under
the impression that Heinz did the art work but said she could have seen
someone painting pictures around the walls of the ballroom as early as
1943 -- before Heinz was captured.
She said she didn't believe
all the paintings were by the same man; others disagree. Critics disagree
on the quality of the work. Some say it is excellent, others say good work
for an amateur and some say it isn't outstanding at all.
A castle in the larges mural
over the main entrance to the ballroom, has been identified.
In 1970, Wormald asked Ray
White Jr., of the American consul in Munich to try to determine if the
castle was painted from memory by the artist.
White said an expert easily
identified it Asrnech Castle in the Franconia area of West Germany.
The castle mural on a wood
wall is 30 feet 40 inches wide and high The castle is reflected in a shining
Oil paintings that line the
ballroom walls from one edge of the entrance to the other have no people
The paintings which Wormald
is convinced were done by Mayer, all have water, brooks and lakes, but
no oceans. However, one of a fishing village on a large body of water.
Trees in most of them are similar and so are the houses and barns.
But mountains range from
sheer and towering to gently sloping. And one shows what appears to be
a section of a large city, with tall buildings.
March, 1997 one of these murals hangs proudly in
the Union County Historical Society, preserved with care and the story
of the POW's told for the eager listener. A special thank you to the society
for sharing this information.