During late December 1944, the German counteroffensive in the West, known as the Battle of the Bulge, was in full swing. The important crossroad town of Bastogne, held by the 101st Airborne, had been surrounded by the Germans. Meanwhile, Europe was in the midst of one of its coldest winters in decades.
The Vincken family, which lived in the German border town of Aachen, planned to move from the town, which had been partially destroyed by the Allied bombing, to a hunting cabin in the Hürtgen Forest. The cabin was frequently used by Hubert, the father of the family.
Hubert, unaware of the upcoming German counteroffensive, sent his family to the cabin believing that they’d be safe. His wife Elisabeth and their 12-year old son Fritz stayed in the cabin while the father was ordered into the Civil Defense fire service in the nearby border town of Monschau about four miles away.
As the fighting raged nearby, Elisabeth and Fritz huddled together listening to the booming guns and aircraft flying in the darkness.
On Christmas Eve, the two were spending a quiet night alone because Hubert was unable to make it to the cabin.
Then they heard a knock on the door. Blowing out the candles, Elisabeth stepped outside to find three men. One of them was seriously wounded in the leg. The men were American soldiers who had been lost and were seeking some shelter, especially for their wounded friend.
Fritz remembered some 30 years later that the armed Americans could have forced their way in but were standing back and asking with their eyes, despite the fact that no one could understand each other’s language.
“Kommt rein,” Elisabeth said after a long pause, “Come in.” The soldiers carried their wounded comrade inside and placed him on Fritz’s bed. The men couldn’t speak German but Elisabeth and one of the soldiers spoke some French. She and Fritz set about trying to warm the freezing men and tending to him.
During the fighting, the men said, they’d been separated from the remainder of their battalion and had been wandering in the forest for three days. Fritz remembered that the wounded man was ghostly white and had nearly bled to death.
The family had been fattening up a rooster named Hermann (after Hermann Goering the head of the Luftwaffe, and Hitler’s number two in the Nazi hierarchy, for whom Elisabeth had little regard). The plan was for the rooster to be a Christmas Day meal for the Vincken family. But the Americans’ arrival had changed things.
Soon the smell of roast chicken and potatoes permeated the small cabin. But suddenly, there was another knock on the door. There stood four German soldiers. Elisabeth knew that what she had done, opening the door to the enemy, was considered high treason and could lead to the family’s execution.
“Froehliche Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas), the soldiers said. “We have lost our regiment and would like to wait for daylight,” a German corporal said. “Can we rest here?”
Fritz remembered his mother being calm despite the panic that was enveloping them both. She told the German soldiers that they were welcome to enter and warm up and eat. “But,” she added, “we have three other guests, whom you may not consider friends.” Summoning up her final courage she was resolute. “This is Christmas Eve, and there will be no shooting here.”
The Germans asked if there were American troops inside.
“This Christmas night, let us forget about killing.”
When the German corporal hesitated, Elisabeth added, “Please put your weapons here on the woodpile, and hurry up before the others eat the dinner!”
The German troops agreed. Soon in the cramped cabin, the American and German soldiers were literally rubbing elbows while the food was cooking.
As Elisabeth and Fritz set about fixing the meal, one of the Germans began inspecting the wound of the American. While the German wasn’t a medic, he had studied medicine before being drafted into the army. He told the other Americans that due to the bitter cold, the wound hadn’t become infected.
The corporal had a bottle of red wine and a loaf of rye bread that they all shared.
Amazingly, the soldiers relaxed and ate in peace.
Around midnight, Elisabeth asked them to join her to look up at the Star of Bethlehem. The soldiers all stared in silence at the brightest star in the sky. For the briefest of moments, the war was forgotten.
In the morning, the wounded man was fed some broth and the remainder of the wine as well as the family’s last egg. The German soldiers rigged up a stretcher made up of wooden poles and the Vinckens’ best tablecloth. The German corporal gave the Americans a map and a compass and explained to them how to find their way back to the American lines.
Elisabeth gave the troops their weapons back and the men all shook hands before disappearing in opposite directions. Elisabeth and Fritz opened the family’s old Bible and turned to the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men who came bearing gifts. The story’s last line stuck with Fritz “…they departed into their own country another way.”
The Vincken family survived the war. Hubert and Elisabeth would pass away in the 1960s. Fritz immigrated to the United States and became a baker following his father’s steps. Fritz eventually opened a bakery in Hawai.
For years, he tried to locate any of the American or German soldiers that had gathered in the family cabin. But he had no success. Even President Reagan mentioned the story of the Christmas Truce during a speech he gave in West Germany in 1985.
But with the help of the U.S. television program “Unsolved Mysteries,” Fritz finally managed to locate and meet with one of the American soldiers in 1995. The story was featured on an episode of the series on March 24, 1995.
Ralph Henry Blank had been the wounded soldier. At the time of the episode, he was living in a nursing home in Frederick, Maryland. He still had the German compass and map. Upon meeting Fritz he said, “Your mother saved my life.”
Fritz eventually was able to locate one more of the American soldiers, but none of the Germans — they had probably been killed in the fighting.
Fritz Vincken died in 2002. The courage and Christmas spirit of his mother had brought a little bit of peace to soldiers in the largest engagement in the history of the U.S. Army.
A film was later made of the short Christmas Truce. You can watch a segment of it below:
If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.
— Ronald Reagan