By Fritz Vincken
It was Christmas Eve, and the last, desperate German offensive of World War II raged around our tiny cabin. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door…
When we heard the knock on our door that Christmas Eve in 1944, neither Mother nor I had the slightest inkling of the quiet miracle that lay in store for us.
I was 12 then, and we were living in a small cottage in the Hürtgen Forest, near the German-Belgian border. Father had stayed at the cottage on hunting weekends before the war; when Allied bombers partly destroyed our hometown of Aachen, he sent us to live there. He had been ordered into the civil-defense fire guard in the border town of Monschau, four miles away.
“You’ll be safe in the woods,” he had told me. “Take care of Mother. Now you’re the man of the family.”
But, nine days before Christmas, Field Marshal von Rundstedt had launched the last, desperate German offensive of the war, and now, as I went to the door, the Battle of the Bulge was raging all around us. We heard the incessant booming of field guns; planes soared continuously overhead; at night, searchlights stabbed through the darkness. Thousands of Allied and German soldiers were fighting and dying nearby.
When that first knock came, Mother quickly blew out the candles; then, as I went to answer it, she stepped ahead of me and pushed open the door. Outside, like phantoms against the snowclad trees, stood two steel-helmeted men. One of them spoke to Mother in a language we did not understand, pointing to a third man lying in the snow. She realized before I did that these were American soldiers. Enemies! Mother stood silent, motionless, her hand on my shoulder. They were armed and could have forced their entrance, yet they stood there and asked with their eyes. And the wounded man seemed more dead than alive.
“Kommt rein,” Mother said finally. “Come in.”
The soldiers carried their comrade inside and stretched him out on my bed. None of them understood German. Mother tried French, and one of the soldiers could converse in that language.
As Mother went to look after the wounded man, she said to me, “The fingers of those two are numb. Take off their jackets and boots, and bring in a bucket of snow.”
Soon I was rubbing their blue feet with snow. We learned that the stocky, dark- haired fellow was Jim; his friend, tall and slender, was Robin. Harry, the wounded one, was now sleeping on my bed, his face as white as the snow outside. They’d lost their battalion and had wandered in the forest for three days, looking for the Americans, hiding from the Germans. They hadn’t shaved, but still, without their heavy coats, they looked merely like big boys. And that was the way Mother began to treat them.
Now Mother said to me, “Go get Hermann. And bring six potatoes.”
This was a serious departure from our pre-Christmas plans. Hermann was the plump rooster (named after portly Hermann Goering, Hitler’s No. 2, for whom Mother had little affection) that we had been fattening for weeks in the hope that Father would be home for Christmas. But, some hours before, when it was obvious that Father would not make it, Mother had decided that Hermann should live a few more days, in case Father could get home for New Year’s. Now she had changed her mind again: Hermann would serve an immediate, pressing purpose.
While Jim and I helped with the cooking, Robin took care of Harry. He had a bullet through his upper leg, and had almost bled to death. Mother tore a bedsheet into long strips for bandages. Soon, the tempting smell of roast chicken permeated our room. I was setting the table when once again there came a knock at the door. Expecting to find more lost Americans, I opened the door without hesitation. There stood four soldiers, wearing uniforms quite familiar to me after five years of war. They were Wehrmacht Germans
I was paralyzed with fear. Although still a child, I knew the harsh law: sheltering enemy soldiers constituted high treason. We could all be shot! Mother was frightened, too.
Her face was white, but she stepped outside and said, quietly, “Fröhliche Weihnachten.” The soldiers wished her a Merry Christmas, too.
“We have lost our regiment and would like to wait for daylight,” explained the corporal. “Can we rest here?”
“Of course,” Mother replied, with a calmness born of panic. “You can also have a fine, warm meal and eat till the pot is empty.”
The Germans smiled as they sniffed the aroma through the half-open door. “But,” Mother added firmly, “we have three other guests, whom you may not consider friends.” Now her voice was suddenly sterner than I’d ever heard it before. “This is Christmas Eve, and there will be no shooting here.”
“Who’s inside?” the corporal demanded. “Amerikaner?”
Mother looked at each frost-chilled face. “Listen,” she said slowly. “You could be my sons, and so could those in there. A boy with a gunshot wound, fighting for his life. His two friends lost like you and just as hungry and exhausted as you are. This one night,” she turned to the corporal and raised her voice a little, “this Christmas night, let us forget about killing.”
The corporal stared at her. There were two or three endless seconds of silence. Then Mother put an end to indecision. “Enough talking!” she ordered and clapped her hands sharply. “Please put your weapons here on the woodpile and hurry up before the others eat the dinner!”
Dazedly, the four soldiers placed their arms on the pile of firewood just inside the door: three carbines, a light machine gun and two bazookas. Meanwhile, Mother was speaking French rapidly to Jim. He said something in English, and to my amazement I saw the American boys, too, turn their weapons over to Mother. Now, as Germans and Americans tensely rubbed elbows in the small room, Mother was really on her mettle. Never losing her smile, she tried to find a seat for everyone. We had only three chairs, but Mother’s bed was big, and on it she placed two of the newcomers side by side with Jim and Robin.
Despite the strained atmosphere, Mother went right on preparing dinner. But Hermann wasn’t going to grow any bigger, and now there were four more mouths to feed.
“Quick,” she whispered to me, “get more potatoes and some oats. These boys are hungry, and a starving man is an angry one.”
While foraging in the storage room, I heard Harry moan. When I returned, one of the Germans had put on his glasses to inspect the American’s wound.
“Do you belong to the medical corps?” Mother asked him.
“No,” he answered. “But I studied medicine at Heidelberg until a few months ago.”
Thanks to the cold, he told the Americans in what sounded like fairly good English, Harry’s wound hadn’t become infected.
“He is suffering from a severe loss of blood,” he explained to Mother. “What he needs is rest and nourishment.”
Relaxation was now beginning to replace suspicion. Even to me, all the soldiers looked very young as we sat there together. Heinz and Willi, both from Cologne, were 16. The German corporal, at 23, was the oldest of them all. From his food bag he drew out a bottle of red wine, and Heinz managed to find a loaf of rye bread.
Mother cut that in small pieces to be served with the dinner; half the wine, however, she put away “for the wounded boy.”
Then Mother said grace. I noticed that there were tears in her eyes as she said the old, familiar words, “Komm, Herr Jesus. Be our guest.”
And as I looked around the table, I saw tears, too, in the eyes of the battle-weary soldiers, boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home.
Just before midnight, Mother went to the doorstep and asked us to join her to look up at the Star of Bethlehem. We all stood beside her except Harry, who was sleeping. For all of us during that moment of silence, looking at the brightest star in the heavens, the war was a distant, almost-forgotten thing.
Our private armistice continued next morning. Harry woke in the early hours, and swallowed some broth that Mother fed him. With the dawn, it was apparent that he was becoming stronger. Mother now made him an invigorating drink from our one egg, the rest of the corporal’s wine and some sugar. Everyone else had oatmeal. Afterward, two poles and Mother’s best tablecloth were fashioned into a stretcher for Harry.
The corporal then advised the Americans how to find their way back to their lines. Looking over Jim’s map, the corporal pointed out a stream.
“Continue along this creek,” he said, “and you will find the 1st Army rebuilding its forces on its upper course.” The medical student relayed the information in English.
“Why don’t we head for Monschau?” Jim had the student ask.
“Nein!” the corporal exclaimed. “We’ve retaken Monschau.”
Now Mother gave them all back their weapons. “Be careful, boys,” she said. “I want you to get home someday where you belong. God bless you all!”
The German and American soldiers shook hands, and we watched them disappear in opposite directions. When I returned inside, Mother had brought out the old family Bible. I glanced over her shoulder. The book was open to the Christmas story, the Birth in the Manger and how the Wise Men came from afar bearing their gifts. Her finger was tracing the last line from Matthew 2:12: “…they departed into their own country another way.”