What more profound compassion at Christmas than to enemies in the midst of war
Three American soldiers, one badly wounded, were lost in the snow-covered Ardennes forest. They wandered for three days, unable to find their unit. If shelter was not found soon, the injured soldier would most likely die.
Lost, cold, and in pain, with the sounds of war exploding everywhere, the thought of returning home to family kept them going. Eventually stumbling upon a small cabin in the middle of the woods, they knocked on the door.
When Elisabeth Vincken and her 12-year-old son Fritz heard the knock, they were terrified. Elisabeth cracked the door open, shocked to see three enemy soldiers on her doorstep.
Upon viewing the injured man, Frau Vincken’s compassion welcomed them inside. She had little – a single chicken was all she could produce for the war-weary soldiers – but willingly offered them all she had. As the chicken roasted in the oven, there was another unexpected knock. Her son opened the door, assuming there were more lost Americans. The four men standing outside the cottage were not Americans. They were Germans.
The punishment for harboring enemy soldiers was death. Elisabeth, fearing for her life, pushed past Fritz and stepped outside.
The German soldiers explained they were lost and hungry and asked for Christmas Eve refuge in her home. Elisabeth told them they were welcome to share what little food she had but warned she had other “guests.” The German soldiers sternly asked if they were Americans.
Frau Vincken nodded. “Es ist Heiligabend und hier wird nicht geschossen,” she said. “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.”
She told the German soldiers to leave their weapons outdoors and then invited them inside. The tension in the air was palpable as the German and American soldiers stared at each other.
What happened next can only be described as a Christmas miracle.
One of the German soldiers, a former medical student, noticed the badly injured American soldier. The German had compassion towards his enemy and offered to tend his wounds – a simple act of kindness that eased the tension. The American soldiers began to converse using what little German they knew.
Frau Vincken finished preparing supper and motioned for everyone to sit at the table. As they said grace, the exhausted soldiers forgot about the war – if only for a moment. Several of the soldiers – both American and German – had tears in their eyes as they ate their humble Christmas dinner. That evening, enemies declared an informal truce as the spirit of Christmas filled Frau Vincken’s tiny home.
The next morning, the German soldiers provided directions to the American front lines – and provided the Americans with a compass. They shook hands, thanked Frau Vincken for her hospitality, and went their separate ways.
With carnage all around them, the Spirit of Christmas proved to be a more powerful force than the hatred of war.
James C. Roberts
American Veterans Center