Betty Cowley authored “Stalag Wisconsin: Inside WWII prisoner-of-war camps” in 2002, a pioneer work on this local history.
Cowley, of Eau Claire and not Jewish, is a retired history teacher who taught high school in Altoona for 35 years. When she presented this history to her students, they refused to believe there had been German prisoners of war in Wisconsin during World War II.
Upon initial investigation, she was aghast to discover the scant paragraphs of information at the library on such local history. Cowley could not deny the pull to provide the public with this information. As a history enthusiast, she conducted an exhaustive research from 1997 to 2001.
“I started research right before I retired and just thought ‘go for it!’” Cowley said.
Cowley sees her book as a service to society; she interviewed eight former POWs, 30-40 guards and 350 people who worked with the prisoners and provided authentic photos, all included in her book. There were 38 prisoner of war camps in Wisconsin that held 20,000 POWs, according to the book.
Cowley has done public speaking all over Wisconsin. Attendees are usually World War II veterans, World War II history enthusiasts and people who worked with the POWs, like local Wisconsin farmers; these workers often share personal stories with Cowley about their interactions with the prisoners. Cowley mentioned the remarkable friendships the farmers formed with the prisoners. After the war, the prisoners were sent home to Germany, a country then in economic and social ruin.
“Farmers sent food, clothes and care packages,” Cowley said.
The positive experience for POWs in Wisconsin was often so impactful that, “many went back and became leaders for democracy in Germany,” she added.
Cowley’s lifetime career was teaching history to students, and now doing speaking engagements at regional conferences. Cowley said with an excitement in her voice that she is, “still teaching history.” Cowley has two upcoming speaking events, one Jan. 20 at an American Legion conference and the second May 2 at the Eau Claire Regional Conference of Retired Teachers Organization. “I never expected [the book] to get as popular as it did; community interaction is so pleasant, never had any negative feedback.”
The book is now about 15-years-old, but is still available on some websites.
“At one time my book was in well beyond all school libraries and public libraries in Wisconsin,” Cowley said. “Now, it may or may not be in circulation…my book is old.”