By Dan Shine
Sancta nox, placida nox
(Silent Night, Holy Night)
As has been previously stated on this page, Dad spent Christmas Eve 1944 in battle in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. That same evening, not far away in the high white forest, three American soldiers were lost and desperate: One of them was badly wounded and would likely die in the sub-zero weather if shelter could not be found.
Just when the situation seemed hopeless, and that they all might freeze to death, the smell of a wood fire came to them on the wind: They followed their noses to a solitary cabin in a clearing. They knocked, and when the door opened, they saw a woman and a boy, Elisabeth Vincken and her twelve-year old son Fritz. Their home in Aachen had been destroyed in the fighting, so mother and son had moved to this shelter in the woods, hoping to find refuge from the ravages of war.
The Americans explained their situation and asked for shelter for the night. Knowing that harboring enemy soldiers was a criminal offense and that she could be shot for it, Elisabeth still could not turn them away. She instructed them to leave their weapons outside in a shed, and they complied. The Americans entered and sat on the floor in a corner as Elisabeth went back to preparing dinner—now enough dinner for five instead of two.
Shortly there was another knock at the door: As Elisabeth opened it, she was shocked to see four German soldiers—her countrymen—at the door. They too were lost and freezing. Elisabeth explained the presence of the Americans in the cabin, and that this was Christmas Eve and there would be no fighting. If they wanted to stay, they would have to leave their weapons in the shed, as the Americans had. To her relief, they too complied, and she returned to her dinner preparation—now for a group of nine.
Now there were two little groups in the cabin: Americans huddled in one corner, Germans in another, and things were awkward for a few minutes. Then one German soldier, a medical student before the war, came over and tended to the wounded leg of the American. After that, the Germans began to sing “Silent Night,” but in Latin. Then they brought out a bottle of wine and the last of their food as a Christmas offering.
It was time for dinner, and Elisabeth said a prayer, asking God for one night of peace and that all those seated at the table would survive the war. By the end of the prayer, everyone was quite emotional. The rest of the evening went as a Christmas Eve should, peacefully and with a feeling of fellowship.
In the morning, the soldiers reclaimed their weapons, but not a shot was fired, not a cross word was spoken. The Germans helped create a makeshift stretcher for the wounded American, and gave them a compass so that they could make their way back to their lines.
And the erstwhile enemies departed as friends.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After the war, Fritz grew up and became a U.S. citizen, and one day he reunited with two of the Americans that he had met that long ago Christmas. One said to him, “Your mother saved my life that night.” For Fritz Vincken, “That moment was the high point of my life, having witnessed the great inner strength of one single woman. For it was she who by her wits and intuition prevented potential bloodshed and taught me the meaning of the words ‘Good Will toward Mankind’”
Christmas does strange things to people. Some fall in love, others simply set aside hostilities to bring about a small sliver of good will in an otherwise bleak world. Some figure out what being human is really all about.
And sometimes, a little peace and quiet, a little warmth, and the spirit of Christmas can change—or save–a life.