The Camp Algona Nativity Scene
Posted December 16, 2016on:
This December, as they have since the end of World War II, residents and visitors to Algona, Iowa, will gather to view a Nativity Scene created by German architect Eduard Kaib while he was a German Prisoner of War at Camp Algona.
Kaib, an architect by trade, created a small nativity scene that impressed the Camp Commander who asked him to create a larger version. Kaib enlisted five friends to help create 60 half-size figures from wood, wire and plaster. Prisoners paid for the construction. When World War II ended the camp was disbanded and the scene was left to the city of Algona. It was first available for public viewing Christmas 1945. Since the 1950s the scene has been housed in a special building. The nativity scene is maintained by the Algona United Methodist Church and available for viewing each holiday season. Visitors have included former POWs and family members.
German POWs were able to pursue other artistic endeavors while living at Camp Algona. There was a camp orchestra, band, and German language newspaper and art classes. A small crèche, carvings, woodwork and paintings are displayed at the Camp Algona Museum. Exhibits depict POW camp experiences, POW contributions to the farm economy, and their interactions with community members who feared the POWS until they realized “they look just like us.” Exhibits also highlight camp military and civilian workers, contributions of Kossuth County women to the war effort, and Americans held in Axis POW camps. Four military guards stationed at Camp Algona were former prisoners in these camps. Prisoners received medical treatment and only a very few died while at the camp; a Lutheran pastor provided Sunday worship services in English and German.
Camp Algona was the base camp for over 10,000 German Prisoners of War from 1943-1946. Branch camps were in Iowa and neighboring states. One branch camp, the Whitewater POW Camp, was at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Winona County (Southeast Minnesota.) Camp Algona’s buildings were torn down and the wood was reused after the war ended. The camp site is now the location of a National Guard Armory and a city airport.
After visiting the museum we spoke with a local citizen who grew up a farm near the camp. She got to know prisoners who worked on the family farm or attended church with her family. These friendships were not uncommon and many former POWS visited Algona after the War. Visiting the Camp Algona Museum was on my “do” list for far too long; it was well worth the wait and visit. Two photos of museum displays and and resources are below.
The Camp Algona Nativity Scene (PDF)
POW Nativity Scene, narrated video with script, First United Methodist Church
Camp Algona Museum (website with links to the Nativity Scene)
Whitewater’s German POW Camp; Learning more about POWs in the U.S. (with resource list)