Often overlooked in the history of World War II is the presence of POW camps throughout the United States. About 155 camps held nearly 400,000 German, Italian and Japanese prisoners during the last two years of the war. By that time, Prison of War camps in England and the Pacific could no longer accommodate the demand.
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Building the German POW Nativity in Iowa
Eduord Kaib was a German officer who found himself transported to the middle of Iowa farm country in 1944. He had been captured by U.S. forces near Nice, France. An architect in civilian life, Kaib cheered himself and others that first holiday by constructing a tabletop sized crèche – a traditional German holiday decoration.
The camp commander saw the creche as an opportunity to improve the morale of American and German soldiers under his supervision. He encouraged Kaib to design and construct a much larger nativity for the next holiday season.
The Geneva Convention of 1929 required that prisoners of war be paid ten-cents an hour for their labor and have access to recreational activities. So Kaib and a small group of prisoners used their earnings from working on area farms to purchase wood, concrete, chicken wire and plaster of Paris.
It took them more than four months, working during their free time, to build 65 figures at half of life size. Their detail and life-like quality are remarkable. That they remain in pretty good shape all of these years later speak to solid construction by the Germans and tender care by the Americans.
Visiting the Algona Iowa POW Nativity
When the camp was dismantled in 1946, the Junior Chamber of Commerce took possession of the nativity. For several years, they displayed it in a small building at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds during the holiday season. In 1958, the United Methodist Men’s Club took possession of the nativity, opening it for public viewing each December ever since.
Kaib, a successful entrepreneur in Germany after the war, returned to Algona with his family in 1968. He was treated as a celebrity, as he should have been. His is an enduring story of peace on earth, good will toward men for all generations.
Make sure your visit to Algona includes a stop at the Camp Algona POW Museum 114 S. Thornington Street. You’ll learn about all aspects of the POW camp in Iowa, as well as those from this region who served in World War II. This museum is open throughout the year. Volunteers can make arrangements for you to see the Nativity, even if it’s not Christmas time.
There were similar camps opened in the U.S. during WWII, but not for prisoners of war. These camps were for American citizens.
Learn more about the Midwest’s role in WWII with an overnight trip to Manitowac, Wisconsin.