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German WWII POW Finishing NY Mural

July 24, 1999

YOUNGSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) _ As a prisoner of war, Ernst Wille spent his days behind a paintbrush, filling a wall with an image of peace.

By the time he was captured at Normandy on D-Day, the young German soldier had seen enough of war. He had watched the serene beach he’d painted 36 hours earlier turn red with blood and, after his capture, helped pile the lifeless bodies left behind.

At the western New York fort where he was held for 18 months, Wille’s talent, recognized by his captors, allowed him to pursue a more hopeful vision.

While other German and Austrian POWs labored in local peach groves, Wille painted portraits of fellow prisoners, officers, their families, and a mural in the Officers’ Club which he would not have time to finish.

Until now.

At age 82, Wille on Friday put the finishing touches on the mural he started 55 years ago. He is donating it and 11 other works to the state of New York, hoping they will be displayed for the public in the now unused Officers’ Club. A private citizens’ group is trying to turn the club into a museum.

``My problem was, it was not finished and that’s why it kept coming into my mind,″ Wille said through his friend and interpreter, Rolf Goellnitz, recalling his decades-long desire to complete the mural. ``Normally, when something is done, it’s out of my mind.″

The pastel-tinted mural depicts the history of Old Fort Niagara, a 300-year-old fort established by the French in the northwesternmost corner of the state and later controlled by Britain and finally, the United States. Wille was held in barracks at the fort from 1944-46.

In one section of the painting, a Canadian soldier and an American soldier extend outstretched arms toward one another in a sign of peace. Elsewhere, two cannons face away from each other.

``He did not want to depict death and dying. That’s why the cannons are facing apart,″ said RoxAnn Madera, who helped set up the exhibit of Wille’s work.

The mural is in water-based paint on a ``canvas″ of sewn-together Army bedsheets and covers a wall in the Officers’ Club ballroom.

It was on his first return visit to the United States in 1976 that Wille saw his painting for the first time since the war. Before the trip, he wrote to the town of Youngstown explaining that he had begun the painting as a POW, but had been shipped out without warning after the war’s end, leaving the mural, his preparatory work and research behind.

``He just wanted to know if it still existed,″ Goellnitz said.

Upon seeing it again, the artist decided to more strongly incorporate the Niagara River on which Old Fort Niagara sits. As a prisoner, he had not been able to view the river’s power, but as a tourist quickly grew to appreciate it.

Wille made gifts of his other works, including the beach scene at Normandy that he had completed and mailed the day before the Allied invasion, and a tribute to Duke Ellington.

The Officers’ Club jukebox gave Wille his first taste of American jazz and three large paintings pay homage to Ellington’s ``Black, Brown and Beige Suite.″

Educated at the Academy of Art in Munich, Wille taught art at the University for Art and Design at Aachen until 1982.

His work, paintings and sculptures, are displayed in many German museums, including Cologne’s Kunsthalle museum. His bronze sculptures decorate City Hall in Cologne, where he lives, and a monument honoring victims of the Holocaust stands in Aachen, Germany.

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