by Marion Amberg
PRISONERS OF WAR/lifelong friends. Tranquillity/the apocalypse
of marching feet. Imprisoned spirits/Christmas peace.
These are unlikely companions, but when the Peace Prayer
attributed to St. Francis ("Lord, make me an instrument
of your peace") is taken to heart, all things are possible.
In 1945 in Umbarger, Texas, and Algona, Iowa, the spirit
of Christmas shined especially bright. Italian and German
prisoners of war had presented their captors with "gifts
of peace." The goodwill was truly miraculous: Foes became
friends and shackled hearts were set free.
Though decades have passed, the prisoners' message is particularly
poignant this month, which marks the 60th anniversary of
the attack on Pearl Harbor, America's plunge into World
Transformation on the Texas Plains
The Texas Panhandle's High Plains seem to stretch forever
around Umbarger, population a few dozen souls. In late 1945,
nine Italian POWs transformed St. Mary's Catholic Church into
a stunning mini-cathedral. Longtime parishioners still marvel
at how it happened.
The story begins in spring 1943 at the Hereford Military
Reservation and Reception Center, an 800-acre POW camp near
Hereford, Texas. Italian soldiers who refused to fight with
the Allies were interned there.
Food at Camp Hereford was once plentiful and, in accordance
with the Geneva Convention, prisoners received meals with
the same nutritional value as those which American soldiers
received. That suddenly changed after the Allies prevailed
in Europe on May 8, 1945. Photos and newsreels of starving
GIs in Nazi prison camps sparked a national fury. "Quit
coddling the Axis prisoners," incensed civilians demanded.
Whether influenced by the public uproar or an ever-tightening
food supply (the war was still raging in the Pacific), U.S.
military commanders ordered American prison camps to reduce
rations. At Camp Hereford, however, rations were cut to
an inhumane level, as later documented by the International
In addition, the PX was closed and parcels of food were
returned to senders. Hungry POWs were forced to supplement
their diets as best they could. Dogs and cats vanished from
the prison compound; grasshoppers were snatched out of the
sky and devoured.
Though no one died of starvation, "The officers had lost,
on the average, 20 pounds each," writes Donald Mace Williams
in his intriguing account, Interlude in Umbarger: Italian
POWs and a Texas Church.
To keep their minds off food, many prisoners dedicated
themselves to artistic pursuits. Twenty-four-year-old Franco
Di Bello painted a portrait for Father Achilles Ferreri,
a camp chaplain. Hoping to boost camp morale, Father Ferreri
dreamed of having a public art show and asked the future
Italian general for his help.
Held in August, the Camp Hereford "Art Expo" displayed 220
works, mostly paintings but also wood carvings and sculptures.
Father John Krukkert of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Umbarger,
26 miles to the northeast, marveled at the extraordinary talentand
the serendipitous answer to his prayers.
St. Mary's was a humble church. Built in 1929 on a Depression-era
budget, the church of honey-colored bricks was extremely
plain. Parishioners were mostly German-Swiss farmers, and
though they worked hard, the Panhandle did not yield its
fruit easily. Parish funds left few dollars for decoration.
"The church was as white as a barn when I left for the
war," recalls Harvey Artho of nearby Wildorado. "It had
been that way ever since it was built."
White walls, white windows, white Stations of the Cross,
since there hadn't been enough money to buy painted ones:
Everything was white, except the dark altars and statues.
Father Krukkert's plan was as plain as his church wallsthe
Italian artists! But would they work?
"We will decorate St. Mary's Church only in the bonds
of Christian brotherhood and to the glory of God," replied
The artist-recruits were among Italy's finest. An interior
decorator, Achille Cattanei came from Milan. Dino Gambetti,
a professional artist, had painted church frescoes in Genoa
and Turin. Enrico Zorzi and Carlo Sanvito came from wood-carving
villages in northern Italy.
Cattanei had helped Di Bello fine-tune his artistic talents.
Amedeo Maretto and Antonio Monetti hailed from an area near
Venice, renowned for its stained glass. Leonida Gorlato
and Mario de Cristofaro served as artist assistants.
The 'First Dinner'
"Their only pay was to be fed," remembers Jerri Skarke
Gerber, one of several teenage girls at St. Mary's who helped
serve the mysterious enemy. "And fed they were."
When the hollow-eyed Italians arrived at St. Mary's on
October 22, their minds were not on heaven's work. Nor were
those of the cooks, women of St. Mary's Altar Society, who
stared in awe at the enormous appetites and spare waistlines
seated at the long, wooden table. "The first day I ate a
whole chicken myself," Di Bello recounted years later during
a return visit to Umbarger.
But this wasn't the POWs' Last Supperonly the First
Dinner. Platters of roasts and hams followed, plus sausages
and sauerkraut, home-raised "Catholic fryers," fresh bread
and jams, apple pies and peach cobblersGerman-style
vittles that stuck to their ribs.
The 'Italian Reformation'
As Umbarger's curious citizens watched, Dino Gambetti and
Franco Di Bello began the church's most treasured paintings:
scenes from the Blessed Virgin's life. Set in Italian-looking
courtyards and flanking the altar are Di Bello's striking,
8 x 12-foot tempera murals, Visitation and Annunciation.
Di Bello astutely brought the Bible stories alive by incorporating
Umbarger's landscape. Green pastures, shocks of golden grain
and parishioner Meinrad Hollenstein's homestead dot the
background in the Visitation. Beneath a hovering
dove in the Annunciation is Jerri's childhood home,
with two weeping willows in front.
"You can barely see it," Jerri says of the family tribute.
"Franco didn't want to take away from the meaning of the
painting." The colors and lay of the land, however, are
pure Texas Panhandle.
Above the altar, the vibrant, swirling colors of the Assumption
make this larger-than-life mural appear to ascend. This
oil-on-canvas work, which took Gambetti a week to complete,
includes a familial touch. The Blessed Mother's face is
modeled after Gambetti's wife, and a cherub-like bambino
resembles his then-two-year-old daughter.
'Blessed Be the Jackrabbits'
When the POWs returned to camp at night, their trousers
bulged with chicken drumsticks, German sausages and cheeses,
coconut-filled chocolateswhatever they could stuff into
their pockets and pants. They even smuggled jackrabbits.
While the artists worked, their driver and guard, Sergeant
John Coyle, a Catholic from Pennsylvania, and Meinrad Hollenstein
used Father Krukkert's shotgun to hunt the area's many jackrabbits.
"The POWs would tie the rabbits inside their britches
and take them back to camp," explains Ormalene Artho, who
with her husband, Harvey, developed deep friendships with
the POWs. "Then they cooked the rabbits in hair oil; it
was the only oil they had."
Several inmates caught with this contraband spent time
in the guardhouse, including Carlo Sanvito, creator of The
Last Supper, a masterful relief carving. This sermon
in wood, with its deeply etched lines, leads all eyes to
Jesus Christ. Only the greedy can linger at Judas's bag
A Seventh Heaven
Working six days a week and resting on Sundays, the POWs
converted St. Mary's into a seventh heaven. Upstairs, downstairs,
behind the statues, between the windowsthere's hardly a
spot the prolific artists didn't improve by their work.
"They liked the meals so well they just kept on painting,"
good-humored parishioners speculate.
A pair of angels, capturing the likeness of golden-haired
parishionersor so church legend has itkeeps watch from
the nave's semi-arch. A row of Catholic symbols adorns the
balcony's outer rim.
In the choir loft, a painted angel holds Veronica's veil
etched with the face of Christ; another angel bears the
inscription INRI (Jesus of Nazareth, king of the
Jews). Once white, the Stations of the Cross now present
Jesus' passion in color. The POWs also installed the church's
awesome stained-glass windows.
Completed in 41 working days, the artwork was dedicated
on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On
this emotional day the artists sat in the first row. Repatriation
would begin soon, and they had to say good-bye.
Hearts melted and tears flowed freely as POWs and parishioners
hugged. In six short weeks, they had become more than artists
and farmers to each other. They were now friends, good friends.
That's the true miracle of St. Mary'slove and peace.
'O, Holy Night' in Iowa
It's a traditional Nativity scene: a Christ Child, angels,
wise men, shepherds and sheep. There are even camels. What
isn't so traditional is its artisans: German POWs incarcerated
at Algona, Iowa.
When the first prisoners of war arrived in 1943, the news
ricocheted like bullets. "The Germans are coming! The Germans
are coming!" Children ran to the train station, hoping to
glimpse the captured enemy. Adults congregated, too, their
emotions stifled. The war had come home.
If the Americans were afraid, so were the Germansof each
other. Over 90 SS troops, their mark of authority a tattoo
under the right armpit, scared peace-loving POWs stiff.
In time 200 inmatesprofessed anti-Naziswere transferred
to another camp for safety.
Insolent or not, the SS didn't bother Camp Commander Arthur
T. Lobdell. He insisted on harmony and orderand got it.
Once when the SS soldiers refused to work according to terms
of the Geneva Convention, Commander Lobdell simply invoked
the "no work, no eat" rule. Within 10 days, over 80 of the
SS troops were earning their daily bread.
Joy Amid Suffering
Camp Algona is best known for another legacya joyous Nativity
scene. "I never intended to create a masterpiece of art,"
its creator, Sergeant Eduard Kaib, once said. But God had
Not all was calm or bright at Camp Algona as Christmas
1944 approached. Suffering from ulcers, Kaib was also mired
in depression, missing deeply his homeland, family and Germany's
Catholic Christmas traditions.
"During the horrifying years of World War II, my father
never did lose his faith," writes Norbert Kaib about Eduard,
who died in 1988. "To the contrary, he often told me that
during that hard period of life, his Christian belief grew
stronger and stronger."
Even at age 23, the blond-haired Kaib knew well the protective
hand of God. Wounded near Stalingrad, he was evacuated on
one of the last planes out. This radio operator was later
captured in France and sent to the United States.
And so it happened that Kaib, once the chief window dresser
in a Hirschberg, Germany, department store, constructed
a table-sized Nativity scene for his barracks. Not only
were his comrades infused with joy, so was Commander Lobdell.
'Away in a Manger'
Even after the war ended in Europe, it became apparent
the POWs would spend another Christmas in Camp Algona. Kaib
informed Commander Lobdell, "Sir, I'd like to build a larger
Nativity." Once permission was granted, Kaib and three other
POWs, all unfit for heavy labor, began working on the 60-statue
Paid for partially by the POWs, the half-sized figures
were crafted of concrete on wire frames, covered with plaster,
then sculpted and painted. Though tools were crude, the
"Grandma Moses" Nativity is truly an artistic marvel.
"The sheep's wool actually resembles wool," says Wes H.
Bartlett, local historian and compiler of A Collection
of Memories of the Algona Prisoner of War Camp. And
like God's creations, no two of the 30-odd sheep are alike.
A 500-pound camel, its neck hair matted from traveling
afar, follows the exuberant Magi. At the stable, Joseph
holds a red lantern over the Christ Child and Mary, her
blond hair and blue eyes a Germanic touch. No mere featherweights,
the concrete angels keep a close watch.
There are even special effects, resplendent in view of
the times and the simple artistic materials. Down the grassy
hill, a tiny stream gushes into a tiny lake while Bethlehem
appears in the distance. Stars illumine the holy night,
just as they did 2,000 years ago.
In December 1945, seven months after Hitler's surrender,
Kaib presented his gift of peace to Algona. Set up at the
edge of camp, this "trip to Bethlehem" gave many area residents
their first glimpse into the prison compoundand POWs' hearts.
On a bitterly cold night, the Rev. Ralph Kitterman viewed
the Nativity scene. "I knew we would be looking upon the
captured enemies who had been fighting our boys and who
had taken our sons and daughters," wrote Kitterman in A
Collection of Memories.
As the POWs prayed and sang "Stille Nacht" ["Silent
Night"], tears slid down the minister's face. "Our bodies
were cold, but our hearts were burning within," he remembered.
But it was a child who saw the hymn's "radiant beams from
thy holy face." "I remember it like it was yesterday, and
I'll never forget the effect the gift of the POWs had on
me," reminisced Jan Leaneagh Fausnaugh in A Collection
Shivering outdoors, young Jan soon felt the warm glow of
the Nativity scene. "In a crib, surrounded by Mary and Joseph
and the animals, the two hands of Baby Jesus reached up
and out, as though the creators of the figures reached out
to us," Jan wrote.
Extolling the spiritual virtues of the POWs, Commander
Lobdell wrote in late 1945: "It is apparent to all of us
who know the rich background of the German culture that
this scene is an expression from Germans confined in our
camp of their contacts with God."
A Blessing Without End
The world war was finally over, and repatriation of German
troops began. Before Sergeant Kaib left in the spring of
1946, he made permanent arrangements for this beloved crèche.
"There were organizations and people who wanted it," says
Bartlett. Marshall Fields department store in Chicago reportedly
offered $5,000, but Kaib was not swayed. The Nativity scene
would remain in Algona, the source of its inspiration, and
no admission could ever be charged. The Nativity would be
free, just like the love of God.
"I made this at the darkest time in my life," a nostalgic
Kaib told reporters during his 1968 visit to Algona. "Each
Christmas when I hear the Christmas bells in Germany the
past 22 years, I remember the crèche and Algona."
Although the POW camp has long since disappeared, the giving
spirit of four German POWs still inspires eternal hope.
Each December more than 5,000 pilgrims visit this Nativity
scene to see and hear the message of Christmas.
"Peace on earth, goodwill to men," the statues seem to ring
out. "Gloria in excelsis Deo," the Iowa plains echo
in joyous refrain.