At Christmastime, there’s an almost instinctive desire that burns within us to make our way home. That’s why it’s always been so poignant to see scenes of soldiers deployed overseas at this time of year.
That was never more the case than at Christmas in 1944, during World War II. After the D-Day invasion in June, the tide of the war had shifted in favor of the Allies, and there was a general belief that the war in Europe would be over in time to send the troops home for Christmas. Unfortunately, Hitler had other ideas.
By late autumn, it was clear that the Allied advance across Europe had slowed, and the war wasn’t ending soon. Then, on December 16, the Germans launched a massive offensive near the German-Belgium border. The Allies were caught off guard by the surprise attack—which became known as the Battle of the Bulge, because the German advance created a deep bulge into the Allied lines. The ensuing fight became the largest, bloodiest battle for U.S. forces in World War II.
The Germans weren’t the only thing the GIs were battling; the weather was atrocious, and the Americans were without adequate winter gear. It was so frigid ammunition clips froze solid and snow caused weapons to jam. The bad weather also prevented Allied planes from providing support to troops on the ground.
Americans suffered almost 90,000 casualties during the Battle of the Bulge. And Christmas Day was especially bad, with some of the bloodiest, most desperate fighting of the war.
But in the midst of this grisly battle, something rather magical happened in a small cottage in the middle of a dense forest where a German woman named Elisabeth Vincken lived with her twelve-year-old son, Fritz.
When Elisabeth’s husband had been ordered into the civil-defense, he sent his wife and son to live in his hunting cottage, believing they would be safe in the woods. But when the battle began, the cottage was surrounded by the fight.
As Fritz later told the story, he and his mother had planned on slaughtering their rooster, Hermann, for Christmas. But when they realized his father wouldn’t be there, they decided to wait, hoping he might be home by New Year’s Day.
On Christmas Eve, they heard a knock on the door. Outside they found two American soldiers standing in the snow. Neither Elisabeth nor Fritz spoke English; the Americans couldn’t speak German. But they pointed to another man lying in the snow, a wounded comrade, and asked to come inside.
Although the soldiers were armed and could’ve forced their way in, they stood politely, waiting for an invitation. Elisabeth asked them in, and they placed their wounded friend on Fritz’s bed.
Elisabeth discovered she could talk to one of the Americans in French. As she tore bed sheets to bandage the wounded soldier—who had been shot through his upper leg and nearly bled to death—she learned that they’d lost contact with their battalion and had wandered in the forest for three days.
Elisabeth told Fritz to go get six potatoes, and Hermann—they would slaughter him tonight. Fritz was setting the table when there was another knock on the door. Expecting more Americans, he opened the door only to find four German soldiers. He was paralyzed with fear—he and his mother could be shot for sheltering the enemy.
Elisabeth quickly stepped outside and wished the Germans Merry Christmas. Just like the Americans, they had gotten separated from their regiment and asked to rest in the cottage for the night. Elisabeth told them they were welcome, and that they could join them for a fine, warm mean and “eat till the pot is empty. But we have three other guests whom you may not consider friends.”
The soldiers realized there were Americans inside, but Elisabeth put a stop to a fight. “Listen,” she said, “you could be my sons, and so could they. A boy with a gunshot wound, fighting for his life. His two friends lost like you and just as hungry and exhausted. This one night, this Holy Night, let us forget about killing.”
She asked them to put their weapons on the woodpile and get inside before the others ate the dinner. Amazingly, the soldiers complied. Elisabeth asked the Americans to do the same, and they dutifully turned their weapons over to this remarkable woman.
Two of the Germans were only 16. The oldest was the 23-year-old corporal. While Fritz retrieved more potatoes and Elisabeth prepared the meal, one of the Germans, an ex-medical student, examined the wounded American. He said, in English, that the cold had prevented infection, but he needed nourishment and rest.
The Germans pulled out a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread to add to the meal. The Americans had instant coffee.
The tension eased as the enemy soldiers sat down around the table. Then Elisabeth said grace, ending with the old, familiar words of prayer, “Come Jesus, and be our guest.” Fritz recalled that he saw tears in his mother’s eyes, and in the eyes of the battle-weary young soldiers, “some from America, some from Germany, all far from home.”
The next morning the Americans fashioned a stretcher for their wounded friend from two poles and Elisabeth’s best tablecloth. The German corporal showed the Americans on a map how to find their way back to their own lines. As they picked up their weapons, Elisabeth bade them farewell, “Be careful boys. I want you to get home someday where you belong. God bless you.” The soldiers shook hands, then went their separate ways.
For the rest of his life Fritz would remember what his mother did on that miraculous Christmas Eve. There in the forest, for one night, through the strength and courage of a good woman, the spirit of Christmas came alive, and in the middle of that horrific battle there was, in that little cottage, peace and good will.
Merry Christmas everyone.
Paul E. Pfeifer is a state of Ohio Supreme Court Judge