Most people are aware of the famous Christmas truce that took place in 1914 during World War One. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day German and British soldiers stopped fighting and met in no man’s land to exchange food and souvenirs. Prisoners were exchanged, there were joint burial services and there were even soccer matches between the opposing combatants, guns having been left behind. The Christmas truce spread up and down the lines and the trenches but regrettably only a few instances took place in 1915. By the 1916 Christmas it was only a memory, directives from the high commands on both sides having outlawed such fraternisation. Increased fighting, the horrors of trench warfare and the use of weapons such as tanks and poison gas were inconsistent with the spirit of Christmas.
There is a lesser known moment in World War 2 that is as heart warming as the WW1 Christmas truce and, let’s face it, the way the world scene is today we can do with some feel good moments to restore our faith in humanity. During his 1985 visit to Germany, President Ronald Regan stated that the story “needs to be told and retold because none of us can ever hear too much about building peace and reconciliation.”
So what is this moment of kindness that deserves being told and told again?
American soldiers in the Ardennes Forest
It took place during the Battle of the Bulge, the military operation that has been the subject of numerous films. Between 16 December 1944 and 25 January 1945 German troops launched a major offensive in the Ardennes region with the intention of recapturing the harbour of Antwerp. Those who have seen the series Band of Brothers will be familiar with the operation, the hardships endured by the surrounded, defiant soldiers such as the Battered Bastards of Bastogne and the harsh winter conditions which supported the massive German onslaught.
On Christmas Eve 1944, three American soldiers were lost in the Ardennes forest, desperately trying to make their way back to their own lines. They had been walking for three days trying to make it home, one being badly wounded as well, when they happened upon a modest cabin in the woods. Inside the cabin were Elisabeth Vincken and her 12 year old son Fritz. Their home and their 88 year old bakery in Aachen, Germany, had been bombed, hence they had moved into this small hunting cabin near the Belgian border. Elisabeth’s husband Hubert remained in Aachen working and visited them when he could.
"We were isolated. Every three or four days, my father would ride out from town on his bicycle to bring us food. When the snow came, he had to stop."- Fritz Vincken
They had been hoping that he would arrive to spend Christmas Eve with them but it was clear that this would not be happening this year.
“At that moment, I heard human voices outside, speaking quietly. Mother blew out the little candle on the table and we waited in fearful silence. There was a knock at the door. Then another. When my mother opened the door, two men were standing outside. They spoke a strange language and pointed to a third man sitting in the snow with a bullet wound in his upper leg. We knew they were American soldiers. They were cold and weary. I was frightened and wondered what in the world my mother would do. She hesitated for a moment. Then she motioned the soldiers into the cottage, turned to me and said, 'Get six more potatoes from the shed.'"
Elisabeth could not speak English and the Americans could not speak German, but communication was possible with signs and broken French. When Elisabeth sent Fritz to get potatoes she also told him to kill Hermann the rooster, named after Hermann Goering, whom she disliked. Elisabeth had planned to roast the rooster when her husband joined them.
As the rooster roasted, Fritz answered another knock on the door, thinking there must be more American soldiers. Instead there were four armed German soldiers. Elisabeth and Fritz could be executed for harbouring enemy soldiers, the situation was dire. Elisabeth went outside and addressed the German soldiers, a corporal and three privates, all cold, hungry and also lost. She told them that they were welcome to come inside and share the meal but that there were others present that they would not consider friends. The corporal asked whether they were Americans and Elisabeth answered yes, that they were also lost, cold and hungry and that one was wounded. The corporal looked hard at her and eventually responded “Es ist Heiligabend und hier wird nicht geschossen.” “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” She insisted they leave their weapons outside and required the same of the Americans, collecting their weapons and putting them outside.
As the Germans entered, the air was tense. The enemies eyed each other warily but as they sat and smelled the chicken roasting, things began to ease. The Germans produced a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread. While Elisabeth tended to the cooking, one of the German soldiers, an ex-medical student, examined the wounded American. In English, he explained that the cold had prevented infection but he’d lost a lot of blood. He needed food and rest.
"The tension among them gradually disappeared. One of the Germans offered a loaf of rye bread, and one of the Americans presented instant coffee to share. By then the men were eager to eat, and Mother beckoned them to the table. We all were seated as she said grace.
"'Komm, Herr Jesus,'" she prayed, 'and be our guest.'
"There were tears in her eyes and as I looked around the table, I saw that the battle-weary soldiers were filled with emotion. Their thoughts seemed to be many, many miles away.
"Now they were boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home."
In the morning, as both sides made ready to depart, the German corporal advised the best way for the Americans to make it back to their lines, showing them on their own maps. He also gave them his compass.
"My mother gave the men back their weapons and said she would pray for their safety. At that moment, she had become a mother to them all. She asked them to be very careful and told them, 'I hope someday you will return home safely to where you belong. May God bless and watch over you.'"
The soldiers shook hands and walked off in opposite directions.
Fritz and his parents survived the war, his mother and father passing away in the 1960’s. Fritz married and opened a pizzeria in Honolulu. Although he tried for years to find any of the American and German soldiers who had stopped by the cabin on Christmas Eve in 1944, he had no success, not even when President Reagan mentioned the story in his 1985 address in Germany in the context of reconciliation.
When the television program Unsolved Mysteries broadcast the story in 1995, someone reported that a man living in a Frederick, Maryland nursing home had been telling the same story for years. Fritz flew there in January 1996 and met with Ralph Blank, one of the American soldiers who still had the German compass and map. Ralph told Fritz “Your mother saved my life”.
Fritz Vincken also managed to later contact one of the other Americans, but none of the Germans.
Fritz died in on December 8, 2002. Amongst his final words: “My mother’s courage won’t be forgotten and it shows what good will will do.”
Elisabeth Vincken would often say, "God was at our table" when she talked of that night.
Fritz Vincken in the 1940’s