116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A Nativity scene created by German prisoners of war during World War II continues to attract thousands of visitors to north-central Iowa every December.
The Nativity’s 60-plus, half-life-size figures were created “during the darkest time of my life,” said Eduard Kaib, the POW who designed and helped build the display.
Kaib, a commercial artist before the war, was captured by Allied forces and arrived in Camp Algona in September 1944. He came up with the idea for a Nativity while being treated at the camp’s hospital.
He returned to visit his creation in 1968 and later wrote to an Algona grade school class, “I never intended to create a piece of art. The only intention when making the Nativity scene was to help bring the joy of Christmas to our camp.”
The federal government began building a $1.2 million POW camp, to house 3,000 prisoners, in 1943 on land near the Algona airport. The Milwaukee Road built a spur line to the barracks as the camp was being built.
By Jan. 22, 250 POWs had been moved from helping with the hemp harvest near Eldora to Algona to get the camp ready.
Col. Joseph Church of Vermillion, S.D., became the camp’s commander, replaced a few months later by Lt. Col. Arthur T. Lobdell, who remained with the camp until it closed at the end of the war.
POWs captured in France began arriving in Algona at the end of July and were assigned to work in nearby cornfields.
The prisoners were paid about $3.60 per day — about $55 a day in today’s dollars — but were allowed to keep about 80 cents of that in camp scrip. The rest went toward the costs of their incarceration.
The Algona camp had 17 branch camps extending from northern Minnesota to southern Iowa in August 1945, with German POWs cutting timber in Minnesota’s north woods, picking peas in southern Minnesota, detasseling corn in Iowa and helping with the harvest.
Kaib, the artist
When Kaib arrived in the camp, he was issued the standard blue denim work clothes with P.W. the sleeves.
He had been a radio operator in the German army when he was captured near Nice, France, and taken to New York and then to Algona.
While being treated for an ulcer in the camp hospital in the fall of 1944, the homesick Kaib started work on a creche.
He and five other prisoners used scavenged materials and some of their pay to create a 12-foot-wide creche they set up on the outskirts of the prison camp. They shaped the figures on concrete wire frames, finishing them in plaster and painting them.
Their creation first made news in the Kossuth County Advance on Dec. 21, 1944.
Lobdell, the camp’s commander, was impressed and suggested Kaib and the five other POWs, including Horst Wendland and Eric Knoll, make a larger version.
War ends, camp closes
World War II ended Sept. 2, 1945, and the closing of Camp Algona started Dec. 1.
The Nativity — 50-by-50 feet by then — was set up in a separate building at the edge of the camp for Christmas 1945.
Each camel weighed more than 500 pounds, other animals about 50 pounds each and each human figure about 100 pounds. The scene itself was lighted and included a small waterfall. Benches allowed spectators to sit and study the figures.
The public was allowed to view the Nativity on Thursday evenings and Friday through Sunday afternoons. Visitors had to check in at the camp’s main gate and were directed from there.
After the war
The Algona camp was cleared out May 23 and 24, 1946, and the 65-Nativity became the property of the Algona Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Kaib and others moved the Nativity figures to a building on the Kossuth County Fairgrounds. And the Jaycees opened the display to the public Dec. 8 through Dec. 25, 1946. More than 700 visitors showed up the first day.
Kaib returned to his home in Osnabruck, Germany. His wife died of cancer shortly after he arrived home. He and his 10-year-old daughter moved to Bielefeld, where he began a plastics business that included manufacture of window decorations.
In December 1958, the Men’s Club of the First Methodist Church in Algona took over sponsorship of the Nativity. It drew more than 5,000 visitors each year from across the country and foreign countries.
The creche moved to a new, heated building in 1963.
Return to Algona
Algona residents invited Kaib to return to Algona for Christmas 1968, wanting to honor him and perhaps find out the names of the other POWs who had helped create the Nativity.
Kaib, then 55, came to Iowa with his second wife and their son and daughter. He visited the Nativity every day during his stay, leaving for home Jan. 1.
“I am pleased that this creche has made so many people happy,” he told his hosts.
In 1972, the running water feature of the original Nativity was restored. Admission was still free though a donation box was placed in the lobby to help with maintenance.
Kaib died in 1988. He left a list of rules regarding the Nativity he’d created as a POW:
- The Nativity scene is to open only at Christmas, so its meaning is not lost.
- Admission is to be free.
- Donations are to go to the scene’s upkeep.
- The Nativity cannot be used for commercial purposes.
- It must stay in Algona.
Seventy-six years later, the rules are still followed.