Little did I realize the impact a recent email request would have on my life.
Asking several close friends living near the North Sea area of Germany for Weihnachtskrippe (Christmas nativity scene) photographs, I received the beautiful story of love and forgiveness that follows. I was born, raised, married, and lived various times in southeast Nebraska, and not once had I heard of the Algona nativity or its story.
Thank you to those who contributed in any way to the two Weihnachtskrippe (Christmas nativity) publications. A hearty toast must be extended now to Helmut Fischer (Norden, Germany) for the article you’re about to read and to Lew Miller (Nebraska) for its translation.
Eastfrisian (Germany) Messenger Christmas Journal (Monday, December 24, 2007)
“Our bodies were cold but inside our hearts were burning.”Christmas prisoner of war camp in Iowa The story of Wübbo Freesemann from Weener.
Norden/hf It might be difficult, but try to imagine. At Christmas time, you are thousands of miles away from home. Your homeland is at war, and you are a prisoner in a foreign country. That was the situation for 3,200 men in a prison camp in the area of Algona, Iowa, U.S.A. during the Second World War. Eduard Kaib, an architect and sergeant in the German Army was lonely and deeply felt the isolation when he thought of home, his family, the church service, and happy festivities on this day of celebration. This loneliness triggered in him the idea of creating the figures of the birth of Christ, stated the German translation from an essay “Christ’s Birth—Scenes Built by Prisoners of War at the POW Camp in Algona.”
Algona is a small city in the US state of Iowa, location of a prison camp for German soldiers in the Second World War. Until now, Iowa was more widely known as an immigration region of many East Frisians in the last nearly 200 years. At the end of the Second World War, approximately 400,000 German prisoners were located in the United States, who were all, except about 20 who were in state penitentiaries, returned to Europe.” I was the commanding officer for the German prisoners for 28 months in Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. In the main camp in Algona and its three branch camps, we had in total 80 American police officials and 80 officers, in addition to on average of 300 non-officer soldiers and 30 officers. Our camp had a total of 10,000 Germans held with an average of 3,261 for 28 months,” wrote the camp commandant, Lt. Col A. T. Lobdell on January 9, 1947.
Among the prisoners was Wübbo Freesemann from Weener. Further information of interred East Frisian soldiers is not available. On a ten-page document that can be downloaded at http://www.pwcamp.algona.org/, Freesemann describes his military service and his time as a prisoner in Algona. He arrived at the camp in Algona between July 16 and 18. As a prisoner of war, he was predominantly agriculture but also with factories and excavations.
His newspaper report contains answers to a total of 31 questions, at which the 31st is the most impressive. Wübbo Freesemann tells of meeting his half-brother, Hiebo, unknown until then, in a country where he had found his second home.
I remember Ludwig Ebens from Palmer, (Iowa). He was the driver of our vehicle from the electric company. He was 50 years old at that time, and I spoke Low German with him daily. In the summer of 1945, I was working with Harm Kettwig near an intersection when suddenly a car stopped and the driver asked, “Where do you come from?” (Woher kommst du?) My answer, “From East Frisia.” (Aus Ostfriesland.) His question: “From what part over there?” I. “Near Lärweg.” His question: “Are you a Freesemann?” Harm Kettwig knew my brother. It was an unforgettable experience. Upon leaving, he gave me some tobacco. With Bill Niemeyer and his brother southeast of Britt, I forgot being a prisoner of war. On the last workday with them, they gave me a basket of fruit. (Author’s content translation)
You can still visit the POW camp in Algona. In 1995, the Ensemble of the Rural Academy of Krummhörn presented a musical here in Iowa, “To Behind the Sun.” Today, a Christmas visit to the famous scene at Christ’s birth is a custom that many people and neighboring states undertake and plan for and repeat every year.
Eduard Kaib and his friend began the production of nativity figures in the fall of 1944. They built these figures out of cement on a wire frame and formed plaster in laborious handwork. The material for the figures, about three feet high, was purchased by the prisoners with their own money. The Baby Jesus lies in the crib filled with straw, in the middle with Joseph and Mary kneeling and the Shepherds on both sides. In the corner, the Wiseman from the East, shown nearing the crib. All this is accessible to the people in and around Algona. “A tradition was called into life.” Meanwhile, this artwork is now in a newly constructed building and in the background the song “Silent Night, Holy Night” is heard by the observers. Priest Ralph Kitterman also experienced this in 1945.
My first memory as a priest after seminary was a congregation in the country, about five miles north of the prisoner of war camp in Algona. We saw how the camp developed and were present at the first Christmas celebration and the nativity scene when completed. One of my members worked as a secretary in the main office. The camp itself was highly secured and civilians were forbidden at the entrance. The secretary called to me and asked if my wife and I would like to observe a very special religious experience. We met them at the entrance gate and went about half a mile between the high barbed wire fences to a special area. Before we entered, we were told that we would be in a darkened zone. The prisoners could not see us and we should remain completely quiet. Crowded together, we were waiting in a small area. It applied to our sensitive feelings. I knew we were looking at captured enemies who had fought our boys, the sons and daughters of our church family.
In the distance we could hear the military footsteps and recognized movement in the darkness. Finally, the footsteps stopped and one could feel the closeness of the assembled group, separated from us by barbed wire.
In the crystal-cold air, the guttural German sounds of masculine voices. My two years in college sufficed to understand something. The “Our Father” was being prayed. It was Christmas, and I heard how the God of Luther and the Holy Fathers had been called upon by the wars. I began to tingle. Then I heard a musical pitch being struck. Very slowly, a little light penetrated the darkness and you could differentiate between human figures and shadows. Then from the men’s musical group, every beautiful melody, “Silent Night, Holy Night,” sang in their mother tongue. As the Christmas carol came to an end, a Christmas play was presented. Shepherds and sheep, created from clay of the camp ground, adorned with all colors and substance that were in the camp behind barbed wire. Then the Holy Family and the crib appeared.
After “Silent Night” they began singing other well-known Christmas songs, one after another. They sang with enthusiasm. I was happy to be in the dark, because there I stood, and the tears streamed down my face. We received the inspiration on the hills of Iowa during war time with this profound cry for “Peace on Earth.” Our bodies were cold, but inside our hearts were burning. I saw the men, many miles away from their families and lonely, captured, who praised God and their prayers for a speedy ending of the war. After the prayer, the lights were turned off and they returned to their confined quarters. Mrs. Kitterman and I turned our faces into the north wind, went back to our auto and to our parsonage, people with a new understanding why HE came to us.
Peace on Earth Good Will to Men (Norden 1952)