It’s a traditional Nativity scene. Christ Child. Angels. Wise men. Shepherds and sheep. What isn’t so traditional is who made it: German POWs incarcerated at Algona, Iowa.
The story begins in 1944 when Sergeant Eduard Kaib was captured in France and shipped to Camp Algona, a base camp in north-central Iowa that housed 3,200 German POWs and oversaw 34 branch camps in Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas.
Suffering from war injuries, Kaib was also mired in depression. He missed deeply his homeland, family, and German Catholic religious traditions. One day, the radio operator had a divine idea.
“Sir, I’d like to build a Nativity,” Kaib petitioned Camp Commander Arthur T. Lobdell.
Permission was granted, and Kaib and several other POWs began work on the 60-statue Nativity. The half-sized figures were crafted of concrete on wire frames, covered with plaster, then sculpted and painted. Though tools were crude, the “Grandma Moses” Nativity is an artistic marvel—details are incredibly realistic and vivid.
“The sheep’s wool actually resembles wool,” said Wes H. Bartlett, compiler of A Collection of Memories of the Algona Prisoner of War Camp, about the 30-odd sheep that look woolly enough to be sheared.
At the stable, Joseph holds a red lantern over the Christ Child and Mother Mary, her blond hair and blue eyes a Germanic touch. No featherweights, the concrete angels keep watch, while the Magi and camels look on exuberantly. Overhead, stars illumine the holy night just as they did 2,000 years ago.
In December 1945, seven months after Hitler’s surrender, Kaib assembled the Nativity on the edge of Camp Algona. For many area residents, the “trip to Bethlehem” was their first glimpse into the prison compound—and POWs’ hearts.
“I knew we would be looking upon the captured enemies who had been fighting our boys and who had taken our sons and daughters,” wrote Rev. Ralph Kitterman in A Collection of Memories. As the POWs sang Stille Nacht (“Silent Night”), tears slid down the parson’s face. “Our bodies were cold, but our hearts were burning within. The concept of Christmas and the family of God became most real.”
But it was a child who saw the song’s “radiant beams from thy holy face.” “I remember it like it was yesterday,” recalled Jan Leaneagh Fausnaugh in A Collection of Memories. “In a crib … the two hands of Baby Jesus reached up and out, as though the creators of the figures reached out to us.”
Before returning home to Germany, Kaib made permanent arrangements for his “gift of peace.” Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago offered $5,000 for the scene, but Kaib was not swayed. The Nativity would remain in Algona, the source of its inspiration. To this day, thousands of pilgrims flock to Algona every December to see and hear the message of Christmas.
“Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” the statues seem to ring out.
“Gloria in excelsis Deo,” the Iowa plains echo in joyous reply.
To learn more, visit http://www.pwcamp.algona.org.
Copyright © 2017 Marion Amberg