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