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Gifts of Peace

By Marion Amberg

In Texas and Iowa, thousands of visitors come each year to see stunning religious art created during World War II by Italian and German POWs.

Q U I C K S C A N

Transformation on the Texas Plains
Artistic Escape
The 'First Dinner'
The 'Italian Reformation'
'Blessed Be the Jackrabbits'
A Seventh Heaven
'O, Holy Night' in Iowa
Joy Amid Suffering
'Away in a Manger'
'Stille Nacht'
A Blessing Without End
Visiting These 'Gifts of Peace'

The Assumption, painted by Italian POW Dino Gambetti
Photo 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 War II.

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 Red Cross.

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.

Artistic Escape

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 talent—and 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 walls—the 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 Di Bello.

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 Supper—only 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 cobblers—German-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 chocolates—whatever 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 of money.

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 windows—there'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 parishioners—or so church legend has it—keeps 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's—love 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 Germans—of each other. Over 90 SS troops, their mark of authority a tattoo under the right armpit, scared peace-loving POWs stiff. In time 200 inmates—professed anti-Nazis—were transferred to another camp for safety.

Insolent or not, the SS didn't bother Camp Commander Arthur T. Lobdell. He insisted on harmony and order—and 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 legacy—a joyous Nativity scene. "I never intended to create a masterpiece of art," its creator, Sergeant Eduard Kaib, once said. But God had other plans.

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 crèche.

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.

'Stille Nacht'

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 compound—and 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 of Memories.

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.


Visiting These 'Gifts of Peace'

GLORIA ON THE TEXAS PLAINS. St. Mary's "Little Vatican" is open for viewing before and after Mass. Weekend Masses are Saturday, 5 p.m., and Sunday, 9 a.m. Weekday Masses are Tuesday and Thursday, 7 p.m., Wednesday and Friday, 8 a.m. For more information, call St. Mary's Rectory at (806) 499-3531. Umbarger is located southwest of Amarillo on U.S. 60.

O, HOLY NIGHT IN IOWA. The Nativity scene, located in its own building on the Kossuth County Fairgrounds at U.S. 169 and Fair Street in Algona, is open from the first Sunday in December through New Year's Eve.

Hours are Sunday and Christmas Day, noon-9 p.m.; Monday-Saturday, 2 p.m.-9 p.m.; New Year's Eve, 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Group tours are available year-round by arrangement after calling (515) 295-7519.

Marion Amberg is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Even in war, the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis can work wonders, she notes.

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