By Mr. Eric Pilgrim (Fort Knox news)February 23, 2018
A large church rises from a snowbank in some distant land; a small village, possibly German, dots the landscape nearby in swirls of blues and whites.
At first glance, the painting might seem rather typical of the many landscape oil paintings that can be found in stores around the nation. But like any painting, there's always a story behind the story.
The story of this painting began around 1947, when a young 8- or 9-year-old Martha Atcher rode in large laundry baskets pushed along by German soldiers. The soldiers, prisoners of war living at Fort Knox, worked at a laundry facility supervised by her father, William "Thurman" Atcher. The facility was situated down the road from the POW camp and across the street from the U.S. Bullion Depository.
To many at that time, Thurman was known as Dutch. To the soldiers he worked with, he was sincere enough to warrant a painting by one of them. To Martha, the soldiers were always sincerely happy, despite their status as prisoners.
"[The German POWs] had a really good relationship with my father," said Martha. "They really enjoyed being around him and he thought greatly of them as well. I never heard him say anything bad about them."
The German POWs' kindness and respect for Dutch was mutually sincere enough for Dutch to regularly bring Martha to work with him at that time, without concern.
"The fact that you would bring your own 10-year-old daughter with you to work demonstrates there's no trepidation," said Eric Brandenburg, Martha's son.
Many of the farmers and shop owners who employed German soldiers enjoyed the lighthearted, pleasant nature of the prisoners, according to Matthew Rector, historic preservation specialist at the Fort Knox Cultural Resources Office. In one instance, an American guard trusted the German prisoners he was watching enough to spend ample time taking naps against trees.
By 1948 or 1949, many of the German soldiers had been processed and deported back to Germany. The assumption is that the artist of the painting was also deported.
Martha remembers her father receiving many gifts from the soldiers, including pocket knives and bracelets. The painting appeared in her family home around that time.
She said she is not surprised by the warm gift given to her father. Unknown to her, though, was which one of the POWs painted the scene or where it is depicted. The only clue to the artist's identity are the initials HM.
Rector said the only record he could find of any prisoner of war with the initials HM out of the 3,000-plus prisoners at Fort Knox was a Hans Mielenz, found in a sketch book.
While the artist may never be verified, Martha said the painting he left with her father turned out to be the best gift of all.