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“What gets me is that there never was a movie about POWs — about prisoners of war.”
From Billy Wilder’s 1953 film  Stalag 17

This week I had a video shoot that took me through Algona, Iowa and I was reminded of a little known piece of American history. And  an unusual Christmas story.

During World War II, German Prisoners of War were kept in various cities in the United States and Canada. One of those cities was Algona, Iowa in the northern middle part of the state.  Between 1944-46 over 10,000 German POWs spent time in Algona, though no more than 5,452 were there at one time.

Some think Algona being chosen had something to do with Vice President Henry Wallace who was born and raised in Iowa. But whatever the reason, the government purchased 287 acres of land and in three months the camp was built.

Today the camp is gone and all that is left are some remnants collected in a museum and the stories. Some of the stories involve how the town and the POW were friendly with each other. German was not a totally foreign language in parts of the the Midwest that were founded by German immigrants. Apparently the POW were not limited to the camp but worked on farms and in factories in Iowa and nearby Minnesota. As according to The Geneva Convention regulations the POW were paid between 10 & 80 cents a day for their labor. And this is where the Christmas twist occurs in the story.

Eduard Kaib was an architect in Germany before becoming an officer in the Germany Army and ending up as a POW in Algona in 1944. Using a mixture of soil and an oven he made a small Nativity scene and displayed it at the camp. The next year Kaib and and five friends began working on a much more elaborate Nativity scene that involved 60 one-half sized figures made of wood, plaster and concrete. The expenses were covered by the POW from their earnings.

The Nativity was set up in the camp but also in a way that could be seen by the public. When the camp was disband in 1946 the town preserved the Nativity scene and the tradition of viewing during Christmas time in Algona survives until this day.  It’s a pretty interesting story. Especially when you contrast it to war itself, Hitler and Nazi Germany. Like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol it’s a feel good story that has a dark side.

At least one screenplay has been written regarding this unique era, but as far as I know no film has been produced. But one day I think this story will get told as a feature because stories that contrast the best and worst of mankind need to be told to give us hope. That the light shines in the darkness.

Merry Christmas.

P.S. For more information about the camp visit the Camp Algona POW Museum website.

Scott W. Smith

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Today is my last day of spending a week in my old Florida stomping grounds. It’s been a mixture of business and pleasure. So between Disney World one day, the beach another day, I was rounding up equipment for a little video shoot. Somewhere along the way I realized that if I lived in Orlando it would be hard to write and blog on a daily basis. There are just a lot more distractions here than back home in Iowa.

Not to mention the hours I spent this week driving to and from various activities and duties. Last night I got a kick out of going to dinner at a Central Florida Romao’s Macaroni Grill and walking in and seeing several pieces of artwork on the walls by my friend and Cedar Falls-based artist Gary Kelley.

Several years ago I asked Kelley why he didn’t at some point in his career move to a big city. He joked that he was from Algona, Iowa (pop. 5,741) and Cedar Falls was the big city. Then he went on to tell me that he didn’t need to move to a big city because he had an agent in New York and it didn’t mater where he lived. It was the work that mattered.

Kelley further said that he liked living in an area which had a low cost of living and where he could drive to his studio in five minutes (unless he decided to walk). He said that the problem that artists often have in big cities is that just living is a full time job on top of being an artist.

Of course, living in smaller areas has a different set of problems. What’s that saying—”Every problem has a solution, every solution has a problem.” My point is the only way to create everyday is to limit your distractions. I’m sure most creatives in Orlando and L.A. aren’t going to both the beach and Disney World/Disneyland every week. You simply must find a way to limit your distractions and focus on the work at hand.

That all brings me back to the book Your Screenplay Sucks!

“Really, really good writers will write even if they are not paid for it. It’s a compulsion for them. And it feeds something in them that goes beyond the financial. You must be writing because if you don’t write, you’ll die.

…All artistic pursuits are about discipline. Margot Fonteyn. Julian Schnabel. Mick Jagger. Saul Bass. Ron Bass. Picasso. Donatella Versace.  Milton Cantiff. Worker bees every one. It’s about waking up earlier than the other guy and working harder than the other guy and caring enough to be professional about this craft you say you love.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks!
pages 244-245

(Of course, I should say that some artists can get quite a lot done working at the beach. Here’s a iPhone shot I took yesterday at Cape Canaveral of a sand sculpture.)

Related post: Screenwriter’s Work Ethic

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