About World War 2: A Small Christmas Truce
A Tiny House in the Hurtgen Forest
No Repeat of the Christmas Truce of 1914
In World War Two, there was no truce similar to the one that occurred during Christmas in 1914 in World War One. In that earlier conflict, thousands of British, French and German soldiers, exhausted by the unprecedented slaughter of the previous five months, left their trenches and met the enemy in No Man's Land, exchanging gifts, food and stories. Generals on both sides, determined to prevent fraternization in future, saw to it that such activities would be severely punished and so there were no more Christmas truces the rest of that war or the next. But, in December of 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, while the Americans fought for their lives against a massive German onslaught, a tiny shred of human decency happened on Christmas Eve. A German mother made it so.
Three American soldiers, one badly wounded, were lost in the snow-covered Ardennes Forest as they tried to find the American lines. They had been walking for three days while the sounds of battle echoed in the hills and valleys all around them. Then, on Christmas Eve, they came upon a small cabin in the woods.
Elisabeth Vincken and her 12-year-old son, Fritz, had been hoping her husband would arrive to spend Christmas with them, but it was now too late. The Vinckens had been bombed out of their home in Aachen, Germany and had managed to move into the hunting cabin in the Hurtgen Forest about four miles from Monschau near the Belgian border. Fritz's father stayed behind to work and visited them when he could. Their Christmas meal would now have to wait for his arrival. Elisabeth and Fritz were alone in the cabin.
Defending in the Dead of Winter
Visitors at the Cabin
There was a knock on the door. Elisabeth blew out the candles and opened the door to find two enemy American soldiers standing at the door and a third lying in the snow. Despite their rough appearance, they seemed hardly older than boys. They were armed and could have simply burst in, but they hadn't, so she invited them inside and they carried their wounded comrade into the warm cabin. Elisabeth didn't speak English and they didn't speak German, but they managed to communicate in broken French. Hearing their story and seeing their condition-- especially the wounded soldier-- Elisabeth started preparing a meal. She sent Fritz to get six potatoes and Hermann the rooster-- his stay of execution, delayed by her husband's absence, rescinded. Hermann's namesake was Hermann Goering, the Nazi leader, who Elisabeth didn't care much for.
While Hermann roasted, there was another knock on the door and Fritz went to open it, thinking there might be more lost Americans, but instead there were four armed German soldiers. Knowing the penalty for harboring the enemy was execution, Elisabeth, white as a ghost, pushed past Fritz and stepped outside. There was a corporal and three very young soldiers, who wished her a Merry Christmas, but they were lost and hungry. Elisabeth told them they were welcome to come into the warmth and eat until the food was all gone, but that there were others inside who they would not consider friends. The corporal asked sharply if there were Americans inside and she said there were three who were lost and cold like they were and one was wounded. The corporal stared hard at her until she said “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. Dazed by these events, they slowly complied and Elisabeth went inside, demanding the same of the Americans. She took their weapons and stacked them outside next to the Germans'.
Tension and Roast Hermann
Understandably, there was a lot of fear and tension in the cabin as the Germans and Americans eyed each other warily, but the warmth and smell of roast Hermann and potatoes began to take the edge off. 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.
By the time the meal was ready, the atmosphere was more relaxed. Two of the Germans were only sixteen; the corporal was 23. As Elisabeth said grace, Fritz noticed tears in the exhausted soldiers' eyes-- both German and American.
The truce lasted through the night and into the morning. Looking at the Americans' map, the corporal told them the best way to get back to their lines and provided them with a compass. When asked whether they should instead go to Monschau, the corporal shook his head and said it was now in German hands. Elisabeth returned all their weapons and the enemies shook hands and left, in opposite directions. Soon they were all out of sight; the truce was over.
Approximate Site of the Cabin
Your Mother Saved My Life
Fritz and his parents survived the war. His mother and father passed away in the Sixties and by then he had gotten married and moved to Hawaii, where he opened Fritz's European Bakery in Kapalama, a neighborhood in Honolulu. For years he tried to locate any of the German or American soldiers without luck, hoping to corroborate the story and see how they had fared. President Reagan heard of his story and referenced it in a 1985 speech he gave in Germany as an example of peace and reconciliation. But it wasn't until the television program Unsolved Mysteries broadcast the story in 1995, that it was discovered that a man living in a Frederick, Maryland nursing home had been telling the same story for years. Fritz flew to Frederick 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 said the reunion was the high point of his life.
Fritz Vincken also managed to later contact one of the other Americans, but none of the Germans. Sadly, he died in on December 8, 2002, almost 58 years to the day of the Christmas truce. He was forever grateful that his mother got the recognition she deserved.
© 2012 David Hunt