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Church preserves Nativity built by German POWs

German prisoners of war during World War II created a 60-piece Nativity from concrete and plaster during their captivity at Camp Algona in Iowa.
German prisoners of war during World War II created a 60-piece Nativity from concrete and plaster during their captivity at Camp Algona in Iowa.
UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
December 20, 2007 | ALGONA, Iowa (UMNS) 

A symbol of peace—and a piece of history—is being preserved by members of Algona First United Methodist Church.

Marvin Chickering is among the Nativity's caretakers at Algona United Methodist Church.
Marvin Chickering is a Nativity caretaker at Algona United Methodist Church.

A concrete-and-plaster Nativity, built by German prisoners of war housed in a World War II camp at Algona, draws more than 2,000 visitors each year. The scene stretches 40 feet wide and includes 60 figures.

"It’s a labor of love for many of us," said Marvin Chickering, chairman of a United Methodist Men committee that oversees the display.
"There’s a history here which is very unique. You’ll find no other one like it in the world."

The Nativity first went on display at the edge of Camp Algona in 1945 and was left behind as a gift to the town after the end of the war. Six POWs were involved in the construction, which took nearly a year. The effort was headed by Edward Kaib, an architect and noncommissioned officer in the German Army.

The Algona church's United Methodist Men group adopted the display in 1958 and led efforts to build a permanent home on the county fairgrounds. Church members volunteer to show the Nativity during the Christmas season. Some area residents bring their families every year.

Camp Algona in Iowa housed thousands of German POWs during World War II.
Camp Algona in Iowa housed thousands of German POWs during World War II.
"It’s really cool," said Emma Schmidt, 10, a member of a Girl Scout troop who came to see the prisoners’ artwork.
"I liked it because there were lots of sheep," said Brittany Fisher, 9.

Camp Algona housed more than 3,000 German prisoners during World War II. The prisoners used their own money, earning 10 cents an hour toiling in Iowa farm fields and working other jobs to buy the materials.

In interviews following the war, Kaib said the scene was never intended to be a work of art, though Algona residents who care for it disagree.

"They were artists in every sense of the word," said Chickering. "The thing that has struck me over the years is their ability to capture facial expressions with the various human figures."

While the prisoners came to the camp as enemies, friendships developed with some Iowa residents who kept in touch after the war's end.

Ellen Platt, whose father worked as a carpenter at the camp, recalls attending Christmas services there when she was 11. In a collection of memories compiled by Wes Bartlett, Platt writes, "There was no feeling of fear or real understanding of the meaning of war or the prisoners. Those German prisoners who were isolated and confined shared with us the true meaning of Christmas."
World War II veteran and Algona resident Max Bartholomew is glad the Nativity is preserved for future generations. "I appreciate the fact that the German soldiers thought enough that they made that type of display," he said.
More than 2,000 people view the Nativity each year.
More than 2,000 people view the Nativity each year at the county fairgrounds.

Makenzie Pesicka, 11, is amazed by the Nativity and the story behind it. "They said that it was our enemies. You’d think that they wouldn’t do anything but like hurt people," she said. "Then when they leave, they’re your friends."

There is no admission charge to see the Nativity—one stipulation of the German prisoners when they turned it over to the town.
Chickering believes the scene offers a lasting message and a hope for peace in a sometimes violent world.

"… Governments make war, people don’t," he said. "We just need to work hard as individuals to try to treat others as we would want to be treated, the golden rule. And if we all do that, …peace is attainable."

*Gordon is a freelance writer and producer in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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