By James F. Linzey, Chaplain, Major, ARNG (Ret.) —
One of the most inspiring stories of peace through Christ among ardent enemies unfolded in a potentially volatile setting. Here is the World War II story of a German mother, her 12 year old son, three American soldiers, and four German soldiers — each of the three parties previously unknown to one another, and how they came together to celebrate Christmas in 1944 in the height of the Battle of the Bulge.
On December 16, 1944, the Germans initiated a massive campaign against the Allies in the Ardennes Forest, a mountainous region extending throughout Belgium, France, and Luxembourg on the Western Front. Over 250,000 German troops mounted a blitzkrieg, attempting to divide the Allies in a major offensive. This set the stage for the Battle of the Bulge. Heavy snowstorms erupted unexpectedly, forever changing the course of this infamous battle and possibly World War II, along with the individual lives of millions of people, and particularly nine individuals one Christmas Eve.
The soldiers were fighting in trenches, on the plains, and on mountain sides. Supplies came to a devastating halt. In thousands of cases, there was no ammunition, no food, no medical help, no shelter, no jackets, no gloves, wet socks and wet worn out boots, no heat, and separation from their platoons! Soldiers were using newspapers and curtains from the wreckage of houses and cabins that were bombed to wrap their feet.
In the Ardennes Forest an American soldier was shot in the upper leg and was bleeding to death. Two fellow American soldiers tried to help him get behind the American line several miles away. Additionally, they were starving and freezing. There was deep snow on the ground, and a heavy snow storm erupted. Disorientation set in. They wandered aimlessly in the Ardennes Forest for three days.
In the distance they saw a cabin and approached it. When they got close to the front door, the two lay their wounded soldier on the snow.
One of the soldiers knocked on the cabin door. Inside was a German mother named Elisabeth Vincken and her 12 year old son Fritz. Because their home in a nearby city had been partially destroyed when Americans bombed the area, Mr. Vincken sent his wife, Elisabeth, and their son, Fritz, to their cabin.
Mr. Vincken remained behind to repair their house and business. His plan was to join them at the cabin when he completed the restoration of their home. He had hoped to be done by Christmas Eve and celebrate Christmas with his wife and son at the cabin. But he did not show up due to the severe snow storm.
Mrs. Vincken heard the knock, opened the door and there stood two American soldiers with weapons, and a third laying in the snow. She did not know English, nor did the Americans know German. But one of the Americans spoke some French, as did Mrs. Vincken. So in broken French and with some sign language, they explained that they were lost, hungry, close to death, and that the soldier laying on the ground was shot and bleeding to death. The American soldiers asked for any assistance in terms of shelter and food for the night, so that they could start in the morning to find the American lines.
There was a German law forbidding German citizens from harboring enemy soldiers. Mrs. Vincken could be shot for providing any assistance. But it was a Holy Night—Christmas Eve. Mrs. Vincken was Lutheran. So Mrs. Vincken let them in. Had Mrs. Vincken turned them away, the American soldiers would not have forced their way in. They would have continued on and hoped to survive the night. Mrs. Vincken was not a sympathizer for the Allied forces at all. She was a Christian and would have assisted anyone needing humanitarian help.
Mrs. Vincken sent Fritz to get six more potatoes from the shed outside and to bring in the rooster. She was going to prepare a Christmas Eve supper for the American soldiers. She went to work in the kitchen preparing supper. Shortly thereafter, there was another knock at the door. So she assumed more American soldiers had arrived needing help.
She opened the door and turned as white as a ghost. There stood four German soldiers with weapons. Mrs. Vincken greeted them. They had lost their way in the forest during the snow storm. Separated from their unit with no food nor warmth for days, they were hungry and feared they might die in the sub-freezing weather with no help in sight. Mrs. Vincken stepped outside and shut the door to speak to the German soldiers privately.
She explained that three American soldiers came and that one was severely wounded and bleeding to death, and that they are inside. She said, “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” And she told them that they could eat as much as they wished. She then asked them to give her their weapons. They agreed. She had them lean their weapons against the cabin outside.
She then went inside and shut the door and informed the American soldiers that they had guests, but that they would not be harmed. She explained that there were German soldiers who likewise needed help and that they will come inside for supper and stay the night. She then asked for their weapons, and they agreed. She took the American soldiers’ weapons outside and leaned them against the cabin with the German soldiers’ weapons. Then she invited the German soldiers to come inside.
So there they were. The German soldiers were on one side of the living room and the American soldiers on the other side, facing the opposing side while Mrs. Vincken prepared Christmas Eve supper. The silence was very apparent. Out of the silence emerged the voices of the German soldiers singing the German hymn “Silent Night” in Latin. “Silent Night” was renowned in both German and Latin. The Lutheran denomination in those days held mass in Latin. So German Lutherans often sang in Latin. Then their American brothers in Christ joined in in English. Tears came down the faces of the German and American soldiers as they sang ‘Silent Night.’
The German soldiers brought out of their supplies a flask of wine and a loaf of bread. They shared their wine and bread with the American soldiers. With tears running down their faces they had communion. Then one of the German soldiers began speaking in perfect English to the American soldiers and said he was a medical student. He offered to operate on the wounded American soldier.
For several hours this German soldier operated with no anesthesia. It was such a meticulous and intense operation that his forehead was perspiring. Finally, he got the bullet out and bandaged up the wounded American soldiers. He said that the cold weather prevented infection from spreading. Mrs. Vincken had finished preparing the Christmas Eve supper. She invited them to the table and prayed, “Komm, Herr Jesus, and be our guest.” They had Christian fellowship that Holy Night.
According to Fritz, in an interview in later years, “There were tears in her eyes and as I looked around the table, I saw that the battle-weary soldiers were filled with emotion.”
In the morning, Mrs. Vincken gave them back their weapons and said she would pray for their safety. The German corporal showed the Americans on their own map how to get back behind American lines and gave them his compass. The German soldiers and the American soldiers all shook hands and went in opposite directions. Fritz later recounted, “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.’”
In 1965, Mrs. Vincken passed away. Mr. Vincken had likewise passed away in the 1960s. Fritz Vincken and his wife moved to Hawaii and he opened up Fritz’s European Bakery in Kapalama, a neighborhood in Honolulu. For years he told the story of what happen that solemn Christmas Eve.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States, had heard the story and re-told it during a visit to Germany, saying, “The story needs to be told and retold because none of us can ever hear too much about building peace and reconciliation.” The story caught on like wildfire.
In March 1995, Unsolved Mysteries dramatized the event and put it on national television. The American soldier who had been shot was Ralph Blank. Ralph was residing at Northampton Manor Nursing Home in Frederick, Maryland. He had been telling the story the same way Fritz had been for decades. But when he saw it on Unsolved Mysteries, he went public with the story.
Fritz flew to Frederick, Maryland to become reunited with Ralph Blank. When Ralph saw Fritz again, he said, “Your mother saved my life.” Fritz was very pleased that his mother had received credit for saving the lives of seven American and German soldiers. Ralph told Fritz where one of the other American soldiers was located. So Fritz went to see him as well.
None of the German soldiers came public with their stories. It could be that none of them were still alive and may have been killed during the war.
Fritz passed away in 2002. But the historical account of peace through Christ on that legendary Holy Night — Christmas Eve, 1944 — remains as a testimony of the peace that passes understanding which only comes from an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul the Apostle said, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will protect your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, MEV).
The power of the cross of Christ brings peace through Christ no matter what your circumstance may be. — ASSIST News
About the writer: Chaplain, Major James F. Linsey, USA (Ret.) is the chief editor of the Modern English Version and the New Tyndale Version Bible translations. An ordained minister with the Southern Baptist Convention, he is the founding president of Military Bible Association, the mission of which is to raise funds to donate copies of The Military Bible and The Leadership Bible to the troops. He is a highly sought after speaker for conventions, seminars, and churches. He can be contacted at: [email protected].