By Gail Kittleson
It goes without saying that war changes people. I would add that studying war can change a person, too. I’ve experienced this myself, and shudder to think of the real facts of our historical record being altered or whitewashed for students. How can they ever come to appreciate the common humanity we all share if they’re sheltered from the veracity of history, including the cruelty humankind afflicts on its own?
As an historical fiction author, I focus on the World War II era, where individuals learned about evil by surviving when that maliciousness was unleashed upon them. Those who lived to tell the story longed for justice and peace, and to put the hatred behind them.
One brief example of this transformation is memorialized not far from my Iowa home. Camp Algona, in a town by the same name, was built on farmland to house German troops captured in North Africa and Normandy. The citizens of Algona, as anti-Nazi as any other normal Americans of the time, had no choice but to accept the presence of the enemy in their area.
Thousands of German troops were processed at this main camp, and some were sent to smaller branch camps across the Midwest. But some of the most virulent devotees of Adolph Hitler, including officers from his North Afrika Korps, remained at Camp Algona for an extended time.
The army assigned a commander and guards from various parts of the United States, MPs and others who could not deploy for one reason or another. But a large share of the workers came from civilians, ordinary people from Algona and the surrounding area.
What transpired fascinates me—the prisoners worked in crews to help farmers plant and harvest, make hay and weed their fields. They saved Minnesota’s 1944 pea crop. Because Camp Algona treated the prisoners according to the Geneva Convention, many of them experienced deep gratitude—enough to fashion a three-quarters size nativity scene as a gift to the city of Algona before they were sent back to Europe.
In business interactions, friendships were formed. Some prisoners kept in touch with Iowans after they returned home. A few, facing utter devastation in Germany, worked hard to return to Iowa and start over.
This is just one side-story from a horribly cruel war. And here’s the irony—I grew up about an hour and a half from Algona. A couple of branch camps were about half an hour away from our family farm, but I never heard about the POW camps until the last decade. When I share about Camp Algona with book clubs, most people are not aware of this unique thread from the war here in Iowa.
As parents, we can help our youth learn from history and recognize themselves in stories like Camp Algona. Through research and proactive interaction with our school systems or home school organizations, we can help bring history alive to our children and teens—and bring home the thread of humanity that runs through us all. But one thing is sure, if we sweep the past under the rug, vital lessons about our common humanity will be lost.
About Gail Kittleson
When Gail’s not steeped in World War II research or drafting scenes, she does a limited amount of editing for other authors. She also facilitates writing workshops and classes, both in Iowa and Arizona, where winters find her enjoying the incredibly gorgeous Ponderosa forest under the Mogollon Rim. Favorites: Walking, reading, meeting new people, and hearing from readers who fall in love with her characters. Visit Gail at http://www.gailkittleson.com/ and www.facebook.com/GailKittlesonAut.