Hurtgen Forest, Germany, December 1944
Each Christmas Eve, my father would tell us again of Christmas truce of the Great War. It was one of the only parts of the war he spoke of at all, a story kind enough for small ears and for his own battle-scarred heart.
Those nights around the fire, he would make us feel the first terrifying steps into No Man’s Land, testing the truce…and then of shaking hands and playing soccer with the young men who you knew would try to kill you again the next day. He spoke of the drinks, the cheer, and most of all, the singing. Each country sang in their own language, and after some of the French launched into a boisterous “Noel,” my Papa began his favorite carol, with the rest of the men of his regiment joining in once they recognized the beloved tune.
Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
A song from a simpler time, first performed at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve in a small village church, sung now over the bloodied, disease-ridden trenches, in hopes that there would be another silent night again. Soon.
“It was beautiful,” Papa always said, “and it was brave.”
All of this, of course, makes for very good stories and very bad war policy, which is why such truces were banned from then on. The ban continues in this new war, I’m sure, though I am not on the front lines to know. My husband might be, tonight. He is a baker—or was before our bakery was bombed to pieces three months ago. Fritz and I moved to the hunting cabin in the woods, while my husband stayed in town to rebuild. He was supposed to be here for Christmas, but it seems something has kept him from us. I pray it’s the weather or an emergency shipment of bread to the troops, rather than being caught in the battle rumbling these past few days.
When he comes, I’ll tell him about the celebration he missed last night, Christmas Eve. It started, as it must have the first Christmas long ago, with a knock at the door.
Only there was no Holy Family waiting when I opened it, but two exhausted soldiers pleading to me in another language. They were young—so young—barely older than Fritz. Another, wounded and still, lay on the ground beside them. I listened to their repeated question, looked more carefully at their uniforms, and my breath caught in my lungs. American.
How much of my life have I longed to be brave? All of it, I think. That’s why I would ask Papa for more stories from the war, because he was a hero to me, and I, as a woman, felt I could never be as brave as I wished to be.
And yet I fled to the hunting cabin when my home was bombed, and I begged my husband not to join the Wehrmacht, and my sole act of political resistance was naming our most hated rooster Hermann after Hermann Goring, Hilter’s right-hand man. Some bravery.
For a moment, these thoughts taunted me, until I heard Fritz’s uncertain voice behind me. “Mama? Will we let them in?”
And I thought of Papa’s truce and felt a strength I didn’t know I had. “It’s Christmas, Fritz. Of course we will let them in.”
The Americans spoke no German, and I spoke no English, but we knew enough French to get by, and in any case, it doesn’t take much language to communicate welcome. Or hunger or frostbite, for that matter. Inside, I snapped out orders like a commandant—stoke the fire, peel potatoes, tear the old bedsheet to make bandages. While I myself took an axe out to the coop behind the cabin. Hermann the rooster would not live to see the new year.
Not long after, the stew still simmering, there was another knock at the door. Fritz ran to look out the window before I could stop him. His urgent whisper told me what was happening, and I had a moment to think through the situation, sharp and clear like frost, taking all the details in.
The Americans were huddled by the fireplace, still holding their guns. Hermann Goring was roasting in the oven. And German soldiers were at the door.
As I walked to the door, I thought of Rahab in the Bible, and I thought of those in town in the early days accused of assisting or warning the Jewish families when they were supposed to be sent away. So many were women.
Were all of them as terrified as I was? As worried for the lives of their children? As tired of war and violence?
I went to the door. The German soldiers, four of them, also young, though you noticed first the drawn lines of exhaustion on their faces that aged them by decades, waited expectantly, asking for shelter. They too were hungry and tired and cold. I explained, shakily, that they were welcome to what food we had and a place to stay, then warned them, “But there are also men here who you will not consider friends.”
A moment passed as they understood what I must mean, perhaps noting the thick bootprints in the snow leading up to the cabin.
I waited for them to remind me that the penalty for aiding and abetting the enemy was death. Instead, their corporal’s reply is one I will tell each Christmas Eve as long as I live: “It is the Holy Night, and there will be no shooting here.”
Silent night. Holy night. All is calm.
No, not quite. I was not calm, even after I made both Germans and Americans leave their weapons outside, under the lean-to that housed the firewood, even after they sat on the benches around the table eyeing each other warily, to eat together.
It was not much of a Christmas. Six potatoes and a watered-down chicken soup in a sparse hunting cabin in the middle of the snowy woods, a battle going on not four miles away.
But I said grace in German and French, and when I looked up, I saw tears in those boys’ eyes, German and American both.
They spent the night, sleeping not in heavenly peace, but at least in the quilts we had managed to save from the rubble of our bombed-out home. In the morning, the German corporal gave the Americans directions to their lines and a compass, and then they went their separate ways.
Maybe they are safe now, each among their own fellows, ready to fight again…and kill each other.
Ah, what can we do against such darkness? Fritz is almost a man. He may ask me someday.
And I will tell him: we open our door and give what we can, like the innkeeper in Bethlehem. We cannot always create peace on earth, but we can choose peace in every small way God sets before us. That is all we can do.
And it will be beautiful, and it will be brave.