Truce in the Forest
It was Christmas Eve,
and the last, desperate German
World War II raged
around our tiny cabin.
there was a knock on the door...
When we heard the knock on our door that Christmas Eve in 1944, neither Mother
nor I had the slightest inkling of the quiet miracle that lay in store for us.
I was 12 then, and we were living in a small cottage in the Hürtgen Forest,
near the German-Belgian border. Father had stayed at the cottage on hunting
weekends before the war; when Allied bombers partly destroyed our hometown of
Aachen, he sent us to live there. He had been ordered into the civil-defense
fire guard in the border town of Monschau, four miles away.
"You'll be safe in the woods," he had told me. "Take care of
Mother. Now you're the man of the family."
But, nine days before Christmas, Field Marshal von Rundstedt had launched the
last, desperate German offensive of the war, and now, as I went to the door,
the Battle of the Bulge was raging all around us. We heard the incessant
booming of field guns; planes soared continuously overhead; at night,
searchlights stabbed through the darkness. Thousands of Allied and German
soldiers were fighting and dying nearby.
When that first knock came, Mother quickly blew out the candles; then, as I
went to answer it, she stepped ahead of me and pushed open the door. Outside,
like phantoms against the snow clad trees, stood two steel-helmeted men. One of
them spoke to Mother in a language we did not understand, pointing to a third
man lying in the snow. She realized before I did that these were American
Mother stood silent, motionless, her hand on my shoulder. They were armed and
could have forced their entrance, yet they stood there and asked with their
eyes. And the wounded man seemed more dead than alive. "Kommt rein,"
Mother said finally. "Come in." The soldiers carried their comrade
inside and stretched him out on my bed.
None of them understood German. Mother tried French, and one of the soldiers
could converse in that language. As Mother went to look after the wounded man,
she said to me, "The fingers of those two are numb. Take off their jackets
and boots, and bring in a bucket of snow." Soon I was rubbing their blue
feet with snow.
We learned that the stocky, dark- haired fellow was Jim; his friend, tall and
slender, was Robin. Harry, the wounded one, was now sleeping on my bed, his
face as white as the snow outside. They'd lost their battalion and had wandered
in the forest for three days, looking for the Americans, hiding from the
Germans. They hadn't shaved, but still, without their heavy coats, they looked
merely like big boys. And that was the way Mother began to treat them.
Now Mother said to me, "Go get Hermann. And bring six potatoes."
This was a serious departure from our pre-Christmas plans. Hermann was the
plump rooster(named after portly Hermann G ring, Hitler's No. 2, for whom
Mother had little affection) that we had been fattening for weeks in the hope
that Father would be home for Christmas. But, some hours before, when it was
obvious that Father would not make it, Mother had decided that Hermann should
live a few more days, in case Father could get home for New Year's. Now she had
changed her mind again: Hermann would serve an immediate, pressing purpose.
While Jim and I helped with the cooking, Robin took care of Harry. He had a
bullet through his upper leg, and had almost bled to death. Mother tore a
bedsheet into long strips for bandages.
Soon, the tempting smell of roast chicken permeated our room. I was setting the
table when once again there came a knock at the door.
Expecting to find more lost Americans, I opened the door without hesitation.
There stood four soldiers, wearing uniforms quite familiar to me after five
years of war. They were Wehrmacht¡ªGermans!
I was paralyzed with fear. Although still a child, I knew the harsh law:
sheltering enemy soldiers constituted high treason. We could all be shot! Mother
was frightened, too. Her face was white, but she stepped outside and said,
quietly, "Fröhliche Weihnachten." The soldiers wished her a Merry
"We have lost our regiment and would like to wait for daylight,"
explained the corporal. "Can we rest here?"
"Of course," Mother replied, with a calmness born of panic. "You
can also have a fine, warm meal and eat till the pot is empty."
The Germans smiled as they sniffed the aroma through the half-open door.
"But," Mother added firmly, "we have three other guests, whom
you may not consider friends." Now her voice was suddenly sterner than I'd
ever heard it before. "This is Christmas Eve, and there will be no
"Who's inside?" the corporal demanded. "Amerikaner?"
Mother looked at each frost-chilled face. "Listen," she said slowly.
"You could be my sons, and so could those in there. A boy with a gunshot
wound, fighting for his life. His two friends¡ªlost like you and just as hungry
and exhausted as you are. This one night," she turned to the corporal and
raised her voice a little, "this Christmas night, let us forget about
The corporal stared at her. There were two or three endless seconds of silence.
Then Mother put an end to indecision. "Enough talking!" she ordered
and clapped her hands sharply. "Please put your weapons here on the
woodpile¡ªand hurry up before the others eat the dinner!"
Dazedly, the four soldiers placed their arms on the pile of firewood just
inside the door: three carbines, a light machine gun and two bazookas.
Meanwhile, Mother was speaking French rapidly to Jim. He said something in
English, and to my amazement I saw the American boys, too, turn their weapons
over to Mother.
Now, as Germans and Americans tensely rubbed elbows in the small room, Mother
was really on her mettle. Never losing her smile, she tried to find a seat for
everyone. We had only three chairs, but Mother's bed was big, and on it she
placed two of the newcomers side by side with Jim and Robin.
Despite the strained atmosphere, Mother went right on preparing dinner. But
Hermann wasn't going to grow any bigger, and now there were four more mouths to
feed. "Quick," she whispered to me, "get more potatoes and some
oats. These boys are hungry, and a starving man is an angry one."
While foraging in the storage room, I heard Harry moan. When I returned, one of
the Germans had put on his glasses to inspect the American's wound. "Do
you belong to the medical corps?" Mother asked him. "No," he
answered. "But I studied medicine at Heidelberg until a few months
ago." Thanks to the cold, he told the Americans in what sounded like
fairly good English, Harry's wound hadn't become infected. "He is
suffering from a severe loss of blood," he explained to Mother. "What
he needs is rest and nourishment."
Relaxation was now beginning to replace suspicion. Even to me, all the soldiers
looked very young as we sat there together. Heinz and Willi, both from Cologne,
were 16. The German corporal, at 23, was the oldest of them all. From his food
bag he drew out a bottle of red wine, and Heinz managed to find a loaf of rye
bread. Mother cut that in small pieces to be served with the dinner; half the
wine, however, she put away¡ª"for the wounded boy."
Then Mother said grace. I noticed that there were tears in her eyes as she said
the old, familiar words, "Komm, Herr Jesus. Be our guest." And as I
looked around the table, I saw tears, too, in the eyes of the battle-weary
soldiers, boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home.
Just before midnight, Mother went to the doorstep and asked us to join her to
look up at the Star of Bethlehem. We all stood beside her except Harry, who was
sleeping. For all of us during that moment of silence, looking at the brightest
star in the heavens, the war was a distant, almost-forgotten thing.
Our private armistice continued next morning. Harry woke in the early hours,
and swallowed some broth that Mother fed him. With the dawn, it was apparent
that he was becoming stronger. Mother now made him an invigorating drink from
our one egg, the rest of the corporal's wine and some sugar. Everyone else had
oatmeal. Afterward, two poles and Mother's best tablecloth were fashioned into
a stretcher for Harry.
The corporal then advised the Americans how to find their way back to their
lines. Looking over Jim's map, the corporal pointed out a stream.
"Continue along this creek," he said, "and you will find the 1st
Army rebuilding its forces on its upper course." The medical student
relayed the information in English.
"Why don't we head for Monschau?" Jim had the student ask.
"Nein!" the corporal exclaimed. "We've retaken Monschau."
Now Mother gave them all back their weapons. "Be careful, boys," she
said. "I want you to get home someday where you belong. God bless you
all!" The German and American soldiers shook hands, and we watched them
disappear in opposite directions.
When I returned inside, Mother had brought out the old family Bible. I glanced
over her shoulder. The book was open to the Christmas story, the Birth in the
Manger and how the Wise Men came from afar bearing their gifts. Her finger was
tracing the last line from Matthew 2:12: "...they departed into their own
country another way."