Peace on Earth and good will towards man never seemed farther away. The world was still at war, and what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge was in its second week of savage conflict. It was Germany’s last desperate attempt to take over Europe---a massive offensive through the Ardennes mountain region of Belgium. American G.I.’s whom, a few weeks ago, thought they might make it home for Christmas were now embroiled in the bloodiest fighting they had seen in three long years.
If there was any safe haven amidst all this horror, a German woman, Elisabeth Vincken, and her twelve-year-old son, Fritz, were in it. They had taken refuge in a small hunting cottage deep in the Hürtgen Forest. It was all they had left after an Allied bombing raid had destroyed their home in Aachen, along with most of the city.
It was just the two of them. Elisabeth’s husband, Hubert, had been ordered to serve with the civil-defence guard for the town of Monschau, five miles away. They had meagre supplies. For light, a few candles. For heat, a single fireplace. For food, some eggs, a few vegetables, mostly potatoes, and a rooster that they were trying to fatten up for a special dinner to celebrate the day that Mr. Vincken returned.
The war, it seemed, was all around them. Elisabeth and Fritz could hear the pounding of field artillery, the rumble of bombers overhead, the hammering of gunfire, and the screams of men fighting and dying.
The noises of war had been constant for the nine days since the Germans had launched their offensive, but on this Christmas Eve night, a lull fell over the countryside, and Elisabeth and Franz were grateful for the serenity of quiet. For them, that was Christmas miracle enough.
Then the stillness was interrupted by a knock at their cabin door. Believing that his father had returned, young Fritz jumped up excitedly, only to be restrained by the firm, gentle hand of his mother. Elisabeth blew out the candles and cautiously opened the door.
She saw standing there two men, carrying---more like dragging---a third man. Blood from a bullet hole in his leg had left a crimson trail in the snow. They wore helmets and uniforms. But they were the wrong kinds of helmets and uniforms.
None of the three men looked older than twenty. They were pale, with faces lined with dirt and desperation, and they shivered in the freezing cold. They carried rifles and appeared to be at the very limit of human endurance. They could have forced their way into the shelter of the cabin. But they did not.
Instead, they looked at Elisabeth Vincken with pleading eyes.
After a long moment, Elisabeth Vincken said “Kommt rein,” and stood aside to let the solders enter. They carried the wounded man, who looked more dead than alive, inside and laid him down on Fritz’s bed next to the kitchen.
Neither Elisabeth nor Fritz spoke English, and none of the Americans spoke German. Mrs. Vincken then tried French. One of the soldiers knew enough of that language to get by.
During the fighting, he explained, they had gotten separated from their outfit. They had wandered lost in the ice-covered woods for the last three days, without food, hiding from the Germans.
Elisabeth told them to warm themselves by the fireplace, while she tended to the other soldier’s leg wound. She tore up a bedsheet to make bandages.
To feed the hungry men, Fritz was sent to get a half-dozen potatoes from the larder, while his mother dispatched the rooster and prepared it for the cooking pot. In an hour, the tiny cottage filled with the aroma of hot food.
Fritz was setting the table when another knock came at the door.
The uniform of the Wehrmacht. German ground troops!
Elisabeth’s face turned white. Fritz, standing behind his mother, froze with fear. Even at his age, he knew that sheltering enemy soldiers was considered treason, and at this stage of the war, collaborators were treated harshly. His mother could be shot.
Mrs. Vincken stepped outside, slowly closing the door behind her, and greeted the German soldiers. They, too, were hungry and cold and, if anything, were even younger than the American G.I.’s. One of them, a corporal, told Elisabeth that they had gotten lost and asked if they could rest inside until morning.
Certainly they could, she told them. “But,” she added, “we have three other guests, whom you may not consider friends.”
“Who’s inside?” demanded the corporal. “Americans?”
The soldiers swiftly unslung their rifles.
Elisabeth met the Germans’ now-wary eyes with a stern glare. “Listen,” she told them. “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 as exhausted as you are.”
The corporal started to speak.
“This one night,” said Elisabeth, raising her voice, “this Christmas night, let us forget about killing.”
The German soldiers stared at her in awkward silence. Before they could say anything, one way or the other, Mrs. Vincken pointed to a small shed and told the men to put their weapons in there. Reluctantly, they did so. Then Elisabeth invited them to go inside her home and sit down to dinner.
The German soldiers entered the cabin.
Seeing the Wehrmacht uniforms, the G.I.’s instantly grabbed for their rifles. Until a sharp cry from Elisabeth stopped them cold. She spoke to the G.I. who understood French. He translated for the other two Americans.
With uncertainty on their faces, they handed their rifles to Elisabeth, who put them out in the shed with the others.
The air was thick with tension as two groups of enemies who had been taught and trained to kill each other sat down to dinner. Forced to sit shoulder to shoulder at the small table, or only a few feet across from each other, they glared back and forth with uncomfortable suspicion. To soften the mood, Elisabeth introduced the Americans to the Germans.
The American who spoke French was Jim. The wounded man’s name was Harry. The other G.I. was Ralph.
Gradually, the men from the other side began to speak.
“No,” he replied, “but I studied medicine at Heidelburg until a few months ago.”
He examined Harry's wound and redressed it. Then, in rough English, he explained to the other G.I.’s that there were no signs of infection. “He is suffering from a severe loss of blood. What he needs is rest and nourishment.”
The German corporal “suddenly remembered” a bottle of red wine he had in his ruck sack. Heinz produced a loaf of rye bread from his, and they handed them over. In return, Ralph dug out a can of instant coffee from his pack. The booty was added to their Christmas “feast”.
Elisabeth said grace. It was the same simple prayer that Fritz had heard his mother speak over every meal. “Komm, Herr Jesus. Seien Sie unser Gast.” But this time, he noticed, there were tears in her eyes. Looking around the table, the boy saw the war-weary soldiers blinking back tears, as well, their thoughts of people and places far, far away.
It didn’t take long for the seven starving soldiers to go through the chicken soup, roast potatoes, rye bread, and pineapple pudding. By the time their plates and bowls were empty, the atmosphere in the little cottage had lightened considerably. Warm food on a cold night has a way of doing that.
Afterward, the men exchanged cigarettes---Ecksteins for Chesterfields---and shared a smoke.
By daybreak, Harry had regained enough strength to be moved. Mrs. Vincken prepared for him a glass of the wine sprinkled with some sugar. Using a couple of poles and Elisabeth’s best tablecloth, the German soldier who had studied medicine constructed a stretcher for him.
The others enjoyed a breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee. Then, it was time to go.
Jim pulled out a map and the German corporal traced out a route for him. Translating, the English-speaking one told him, “Continue along this creek, and you will find the 1st Army rebuilding its forces on its upper course.”
“Why don’t we head for Monschau?” asked Jim.
“No,” said the German. “We have retaken Monschau.”
To make sure they could find their way, the German corporal gave his field compass to Ralph.
“I hope someday you will return home safely to where you belong,” said Elisabeth Vincken. “May God bless and watch over you.”
They disappeared in opposite directions, and Elisabeth Vincken never saw any of them, again.
A few weeks later, Hubert Vincken returned to his family, safe and well. He and Elisabeth remained happily together for another nineteen years, until his death in 1963. She followed him three years later.
As for young Fritz, he grew up and followed his father’s trade as a baker. In 1958, he got married and moved to Hawaii, where he established his own bakery shop. Eventually, he became a U.S. citizen.
For decades, Fritz had wondered over the fates of those seven soldiers who had come knocking on his mother’s door on that Christmas Eve in 1944. In 1973, Readers Digest published Fritz’s first-hand account of that night. After that, it would surface occasionally, usually as a human-interest piece by a local news station. One year, reporter Rod Ohira wrote it up for the Honolulu Advertiser.
In March of 1995, the story was mentioned on the television series Unsolved Mysteries, which led to Fritz getting the answer to his lifelong question, at least, in part. He was contacted by the resident chaplain of a nursing home in Maryland. The chaplain told Fritz that he knew a man who had been telling the same story.
In January, the following year, Fritz Vincken visited the Northhampton Manor Nursing Home in Maryland and was reunited with Ralph---Ralph Blank, former soldier in the 181st Infantry, 8th Division. When Ralph opened a box and pulled out the compass that the German corporal had given him fifty-two years earlier, tears welled up in both men’s eyes.
“Your mother saved my life.”
For all of her days, whenever she talked of that night, Elisabeth Vincken would say, “God was at our table.”
For those of Christian faiths, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of their saviour. Men of other religions observe their own holy days with equal reverence. That is as it should be.
But there is something about the season of Christmas that transcends religion. It’s an ephemeral, almost electric feeling that fills the air and imbues us with a greater sense of kindness, of cheerfulness, of kinship. We regard each other less by our differences and more by our common humanity. For one brief time of the year, we . . . all of us . . . those of all faiths and those with no religion . . . are joined together by one profound spirit of good will---the Christmas spirit.
It was there, sixty-seven years ago, in that small forest cottage in the midst of a world war.
To-day, at this time of times, on this day of days, and for many more of them, may the Spirit of Christmas be at your table.
From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas, and many more of them!