It is Christmas Eve 1944 in western Germany. The German army is making one last desperate offensive to stave off defeat in the Western theater. Using cloud cover which grounded Allied air power German tanks took American troops by surprise routing or capturing thousands of soldiers. The German assault through the forest was relentless.
Three American soldiers, one of whom was badly wounded, were separated from their units during the assault and were wandering around the Ardennes Forest looking for the American lines. The sounds of battle were all around them and on Christmas Eve they didn’t know what to expect when they came upon a cabin in the Hürtgen Forest.
A mother, Elisabeth Vincken, and her young son Fritz lived in the cabin. They had been forced there by the Allied bombing of their hometown of Aachen. When the soldiers knocked on the door the family blew out the candles and answered the door. Two American soldiers stood there motioning to their wounded comrade. Elisabeth invited the soldiers in and began to care for the wounded man. All three were on the verge of freezing as they had no winter clothing and their feet were turning blue.
Fritz was sent to fetch the rooster that the family had been fattening for a Christmas feast that they were hoping that his father would arrive home to partake in. It was apparent he would not make it despite being only four miles away in Monshau. One of the soldiers, Jim, helped to cook the bird while the other unwounded soldier, Ralph, sat with the wounded man Harry. Bedsheets were ripped up to be used as bandages.
But there was another knock at the door. Again Fritz went to answer the door expecting more American soldiers but no, this time there were German soldiers. Harboring the enemy was treason and the family could be shot so it took no small amount of courage for Elisabeth to wish the men a Merry Christmas. They too had been separated from their units and wanted to wait in the cabin until daylight to find them. She welcomed them in and promised a fine meal but told them she had three other guests who were not their friends and asked only that there would be no shooting.
She explained that there indeed were American soldiers inside, lost just like the Germans. Anyone of those young boys could have been her own son and with one fighting for his life she could not turn them away when they were hungry and exhausted as well. It was Christmas Eve after all. She told the soldiers to put their weapons on the woodpile and come in. After a few seconds they did. The American soldiers then gave their weapons to Elisabeth.
To say that the tension was thick was an understatement but more potatoes were added to the stew. Harry groaned. Elisabeth asked if any of the Germans were medics. They said no, but one had studied medicine before the war. He was asked to check Harry. He found that thanks to the cold his wound had not become infected but he had lost a lot of blood. He needed rest and food. One German soldier had a bottle of red wine and another had a loaf of rye bread which they added to the meal. All shared the meal, enemies hundreds or thousands of miles from home in a temporary armistice in the middle of one of the largest battles in world history brought together by fate. After the meal everyone except for the wounded Harry went outside to stare at the Star of Bethlehem. For a brief moment the war was forgotten.
In the morning Harry was becoming stronger. A makeshift stretcher was fashioned for him using the family’s best tablecloth and two poles. Then something unexpected happened. The leader of the German party produced a map and told the American soldiers how to get back to their lines and just as importantly where not to go. The Germans gave them the map and a compass. Their weapons were returned to them, the soldiers shook hands and went off into the forest in different directions.
And now as Paul Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story. Fritz and his family survived the war. He eventually moved to Hawaii opening a bakery. He tried in vain to locate any of the soldiers involved to corroborate the story. He published his story about it in the Reader’s Digest in the 1960s to no avail. In the 1980s U.S. President Ronald Reagan heard about it and mentioned it in a speech to give an example of peace and reconciliation. That may have been the end of it except an elderly veteran in a Frederick, Maryland nursing home had been telling the same story to anyone who would listen.
He had a German compass and the map. His name was Ralph Blank. Fritz flew to Maryland to meet him in a tearful reunion after which he said he could “die happy.” The meeting was recorded as part of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. One of the other American soldiers was also located before he passed but none of the Germans could be found. Fritz died in 2002 but the story was made into the film Silent Night to show that humanity can be found in even the most trying of circumstances. The forest can do some amazing things. That and a strong woman with the Christmas spirit.