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‘It was a super God wink’

Algona nativity scene built by German POWs

-Messenger photo by Kriss Nelson
This nativity scene was built in 1945 by German prisoners being held at the POW Camp near Algona. It has been preserved and available for the public to view each year since - until this year when it was forced to be closed due to the pandemic.

ALGONA – The baby Jesus; his mother, Mary, father, Joseph and others that make up the Christmas story are often displayed in nativity scenes.

Although nativity scenes are a popular decoration at Christmastime, there is nothing like the one in Algona.

This one- of- a kind recreation of that blessed day 2,020 years ago, was created by German prisoners of war during World War II who were being held at the Prisoner of War (POW) Camp near Algona.

“It is unbelievable how all of this happened. It was a super God wink,” said Algona nativity scene volunteer Marv Chickering.

The nativity is popular all year long – but especially during the Christmas season.

“Certainly this time of year, they have the most meaning,” said Chickering. “We feel so very blessed that this happened in our community. What a huge God wink it was. It is very heartwarming because so many people referred to the German prisoners as Nazis. However, in this camp, 40% of the prisoners were Catholic; 40% of them were Protestants and only 20% of them were Nazis.”

The Algona nativity scene is usually open throughout the year and especially is a popular place to visit each December. However, there won’t be any visitors to the nativity scene this year. The pandemic has forced the closing of the nativity scene for the first time since 1946.

Chickering said they will typically have more than 1,000 guests throughout the year with an additional 1,500 just during the month of December. He estimates in the last five years, they have hosted 6,600 people.

“During December we are open every day and it takes 97 volunteers from our church to sit here and host. For 76 years the nativity has been in our community. For many families it is not Christmas without coming to see the nativity,” he said. “Having the people come and visit is just a joy for me. I have missed it tremendously. It is a sad, sad, sad world.”

The POWs

Chickering said there were 8 million German POWs in camps worldwide with 4 million German soldiers killed in the war and even more injured.

With that many prisoners, there was a need to construct POW camps within the United States.

“The U.S. government wasn’t in favor of prisoners being brought here, but eventually, 380,000 were here in America when the war ended,” he said. “Algona was a main camp and was located just a mile west of town on Highway 18 where our airport is today. It was one of 155 camps nationwide.”

Chickering said having the POWs in the United States worked for everyone.

“Our labor needs were huge. Our men were over fighting a war,” he said. “We could also care for them (POWs) much more effectively here – easier than going over there to care for them.”

Eduard Kaib

Eduard Kaib was one of the hundreds of thousands of German soldiers wounded in World War II.

“Eduard Kaib was a non-commissioned officer in the German Army. He was an architect by trade and a radio man in the army. He was injured at the battle of Stalingrad,” said Chickering. “He was taken to a hospital in France and rehabbed.”

He was then captured.

After his capture, Kaib was taken to a holding camp.

“These were huge camps. Might be 10,000 prisoners in one holding camp, waiting and deciding where they would be eventually taken. The decision was made, at that holding camp in Italy, that Eduard Kaib would be brought to Algona,” said Chickering.

Kaib being brought to Algona – that is a God wink in Chickering’s opinion, as Kaib was the heart and soul behind building the beloved Algona nativity scene.

“There are 155 base camps where he could have been brought and he was brought here. Without him, our treasure would never have happened. He was the whole brains of that,” he said. “There were 750 branch camps out of these 155 base camps. That is 900 camps nationwide and we are the only camp that has this remembrance of those days. The Lord’s blessing has been humungous.”

Kaib arrived in Algona in the fall of 1944.

“He was a sick man with a gastric ulcer when he got here and was placed in the camp hospital,” said Chickering.

Although, even after healing from that illness, Kaib, being a non-commissioned officer wasn’t forced to work outside of the camp, so, as Christmas approached, Chickering said Kaib was feeling better and he began to work on a nativity scene.

“Christmas was coming and he wanted the prisoners to be able to celebrate,” he said. “Germans are very much into nativity scenes and doing them up in a big way.”

The first nativity was 12-feet wide. He made the figures out of dirt, hardened them on a stove and painted them; along with a Christmas tree and put them on display in the camp’s mess hall.

“This man – you talk about a true artist,” said Chickering.

The camp commander, at that time, Lt. Col. Arthur Lobdell, saw the nativity, and was impressed by it.

“Lobdell called Eduard to his office and asked him if he would consider building a larger one for the 1945 Christmas,” said Chickering.

It was then that Kaib and five of his friends began working on the 65 half-life sized figures to help tell the nativity story.

The figures are constructed out of wood with layer, upon layer of concrete. Figures feature shepherds, wise men, children, animals, a manager and more – in addition to Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

“There are 36 sheep in the nativity and no two are alike. There were no molds. They did it with their bare hands,” said Chickering.

The other figures were covered with a layer of plaster in order to have a smooth surface so they could be painted.

“Christmas Eve it was unveiled for the first time in 1945 at the camp,” said Chickering. “Important people from the community were invited to come out. The German prisoners were there. The American military was there and the Christmas carols were sung in German and English together. There was not a dry eye in the house.”

World War II had ended months before that Christmas Eve and the prisoners were sent back home.

“Algona fell in love with the nativity scene,” said Chickering. “The prisoners had no way of taking it back.”

The camp closed in February, 1946.

“There were still prisoners here up until the last minute. They helped to transport the nativity from Camp Algona to a barn where it was housed,” said Chickering.

The nativity was sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce from 1946 to 1957; then the Methodist men from the First United Methodist Church in Algona, Chickering said, stepped in and started their sponsorship in 1958 – and have been doing it ever since; along with help from the community and others.

In 1963, the community contributed funds to build a building on the northwest corner of the Kossuth County Fairgrounds for the nativity and the scene was moved to its current location. A new display room was added in 1994 to better show the many artifacts and publications.

In 1968, Algona hosted Kaib and his family. While he was here, he painted a mural of Bethlehem on the back wall.

Chickering said during an enhancement of the display, they came upon a surprise. Well, more like five surprises.

“We found five handicapped sheep – they had all lost their legs over the years. They had no place else to put them, so they were put under the flooring,” he said. “One of our committee members took them home with him and put wooden legs back on, but he didn’t try to put cement around the wood. They are now behind the wise men.”

Chickering has many favorite stories from people that have visited the nativity scene over the years, but one precious sheep story stands out.

He said it was New Year’s Eve – the last day of the year for the nativity to be open.

“I was lonely out here. I had no guests. Until a great-grandpa, a World War II vet from our community walked in with two great-granddaughters. He was telling me war stories and so I told the girls to go in and count the sheep – but to not fall asleep. They came back out later and I asked the older girl how many sheep are there? She said there are 32 sheep. Well, at that time, there were 31. I asked her how did you get 32? She said, well there are 30 adult sheep. There is the lamb in the shepherd’s arm and there is the Christ Child, the Lamb of God. My only remark was, Amen,” he said.

More God winks

Chickering said 61 years went by after the nativity was built and all they knew was that Kaib and five of his friends built it – they did not know the names of any of the other men.

It was August, 2006 when Ingrid Hazelton, from Port Arthur, Texas, alerted the committee that her father, Horst Wendlandt, was one of the men that helped to construct the nativity. She visited the nativity and after she returned home she was able to send the story in Wendlandt’s own words of his time working on the nativity and time spent being at Camp Algona.

Another story was of a lady from Humboldt that came to visit.

“She and her husband visited Germany in 1992. He developed a root canal problem while he was there. Before he crawled into the dentist chair, the doctor asked him where he was from. He said Humboldt, Iowa. The doctor said well that can’t be far from Algona, I was in a POW camp and I helped build the nativity scene. That information was just dumped in our lap,” Chickering said. “We learn a lot from the wonderful people that come visit.”

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