Anne Frank’s Iowa Pen Pal and Other Stories From World War II

In the spring of 1940, while World War II heated up in Europe, a 10-year-old girl in Danville, Iowa, received a handwritten letter from her new Dutch pen pal, named Anne Frank.

A few months earlier, the first Jewish refugees arrived at a makeshift hostel in West Branch, which some Iowa Quakers had set up in a shuttered boarding school.

As the war dragged on, some 10,000 German prisoners of war spent time in a network of Midwestern work camps headquartered in Algona. A group of them built a nativity scene that still attracts visitors every December.

These remarkable stories of Iowa’s personal ties to World War II will get a retelling during the Preserve Iowa Summit, set for June 8–10 in Fort Dodge. To some listeners in the audience, the facts will be familiar. To others, they’ll be brand new.

“These stories appear and then fade away. It’s just the cycle of popular history,” session leader Michael Luick-Thrams said over the phone from his home in Germany.

Luick-Thrams, a Mason City native, has written extensively about Iowa history and led history-themed bus tours through both his home state and Germany. He plans to join the upcoming summit session via Skype, with in-person presenters Jerry Yocum and Marvin Chickering from the Camp Algona POW Museum and Nativity Scene.

Together they want to teach folks how to preserve what remains from the war — artifacts, letters, photos and such — and use them to help younger generations understand the “Greatest” one.

Anne Frank’s pen pal

This story starts, as many do, with a really good teacher. Birdie Mathews taught for decades at the Danville Community School, near Burlington, and occasionally traveled overseas during summer breaks. She often collected contacts for potential pen pals, a relatively new idea at the time.

So that’s how one of “Miss Birdie’s” students, Juanita Wagner, age 10, wrote an introductory letter about her family and farm and then sent it off to Anne Frank’s address in Amsterdam in the spring of 1940.

A few weeks later, Juanita received not one but two letters in return — one from Anne, and one from Anne’s older sister, Margot, who wrote to Juanita’s older sister, Betty Ann. The letters were in English — probably translated by the Franks’ father — and enclosed with both girls’ school pictures.

Anne Frank sent this photo of herself to Juanita Wagner in 1940. (Courtesy of Traces.org)

“It was such a special joy as a child to have the experience of receiving a letter from overseas,” Betty Ann recalled years later in a fascinating account on Luick-Thrams’ website, called Traces.

Although Anne made no mention of the war in Europe, her letter was dated April 29 — just 11 days before the Dutch surrendered to the Nazis. The Iowa sisters immediately wrote back, but they never heard from the Frank sisters again.

After the war, Betty Ann became a school teacher in Illinois and wrote again to the Amsterdam address. She received a long handwritten reply from Anne and Margot’s father, Otto, who explained the now-famous story of how the family had gone into hiding and had been carted off to the concentration camps, where both girls died.

“When I received the letter, I shed tears,” Betty Ann recalled. “The next day I took it with me to school and read (it) to my students. I wanted them to realize how fortunate they were to be in America during World War II.”

The Scattergood Hostel

As news from Europe grew increasingly grim during the late 1930s, a group of Quakers at an Iowa youth conference decided to help.

They persuaded their families and local congregations to team up with the American Friends Service Committee to re-open the Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, which had closed during the Great Depression, and turn it into a work camp for recent arrivals from Europe.

The “response was immediate and almost exclusively positive,” according to the Traces website. “The idea of helping in tangible ways those in need in faraway lands struck a resounding chord in many Midwestern hearts.”

The first guests arrived in the spring of 1939 — first a handful of men and then, in July, a few families. They cooked meals, washed laundry and tended a garden. They also cared for an assortment of hens, sheep, pigs and even a few ponies for the kids to ride. In between chores, the guests took classes to polish their English, learn how to drive a car and, in many cases, learn skills for new careers in the United States. (Back home, many of them had been urban professionals — doctors, lawyers, judges — and were unaccustomed to farm work and household chores.)

European refugees found a safe haven in West Branch from 1939 to 1943. (Courtesy of Traces.org)

Most guests — a term the Quakers used instead of “refugees” — stayed for several months before resettling elsewhere. In all, 186 guests passed through the Scattergood doors between 1939 and 1943, when the hostel closed. The site re-opened as a school a year later.

“Most of the guests were extraordinarily grateful — not to mention relieved — to have a quiet refuge where they might reassemble fragments of their road-worn lives,” according to Traces. One man described the hostel as “a place of peace in a world of war, a haven amidst a world of hatred.”

Camp Algona

During the war, American military leaders decided it was cheaper and more efficient to send prisoners of war to the United States rather than house and feed them in camps near the front lines.

So hundreds of thousands of German soldiers spent time in America, including 10,000 that passed through Camp Algona from 1944 to 1946. Algona was the central branch of a vast network of smaller sites that housed POWs throughout the Midwest.

The German prisoners helped fill a labor gap, filling in for the American farmers who had marched off to war. But they also cultivated more personal relationships, quietly building friendships and even romantic relationships with the locals. At the Camp Algona POW Museum, Jerry Yocum tells the story of a camp in southern Minnesota whose leaders had to build a bigger fence to keep the prisoners in and the local women out.

A few years ago, Jerry drove to Mason City for surgery on his shoulder. The next month, back at the museum, a Clear Lake visitor came in and mentioned that her California relatives had hosted a German POW who moved to the United States after the war and raised a son — who turned out to be Jerry’s surgeon.

“It was his dad’s dream to bring all of his siblings over,” Jerry said.

Camp Algona POW Museum. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Stories like this one abound at the Camp Algona POW Museum, but the most famous exhibit is the Nativity scene that a handful of German prisoners made during their stint here during the war. It’s housed at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds, under the care of the First United Methodist Church who welcome visitors every December.

“Just wrap your mind around 65 half-life-sized figures made of cement and wood,” Jerry said. The camels weigh 500 pounds, the humans are 100 pounds, and the sheep — all 37 of them — weigh 40 pounds apiece.

“To think these prisoners had it on their hearts to build that — it’s just beyond imagination,” Jerry said.

Jerry Yocum, Marvin Chickering and Michael Luick-Thrams will present “Iowa and World War II: Preserving What Remains” during the 2017 Preserve Iowa Summit, June 8–10 in Fort Dodge. Interested? Register right here.

— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs