This Day in History: A little-known WWII Christmas Eve truce
On this day in 1944, the Battle of the Bulge is interrupted by a little-known truce deep in the Ardennes Forest. Four German soldiers and three American soldiers shared a cottage and a Christmas Eve meal, thanks to the bravery of one German woman.
“It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here,” she reportedly told them.
Elisabeth Vincken and her 12-year-old son, Fritz, had been staying in the cottage near the German-Belgian border. They were looking for safety, but now the Battle of the Bulge was raging all around them.
On Christmas Eve, they heard an unexpected knock on their door.
They were scared, of course. Who could it be? Elisabeth carefully opened the door, only to find two men and another lying wounded in the snow. They were American soldiers—not something Elisabeth would have wanted to find! The penalty for harboring Americans was death. But the Americans didn’t try to force their way into the cabin. They just “stood there,” as Fritz later said, “and asked with their eyes.”
What mother could resist? Those soldiers were so young, they were practically kids. “And that was the way Mother began to treat them,” Fritz wrote. The Americans had been lost, but now they were invited into the warm cottage. It was awkward at first, but the German mother and the American soldiers found that they could communicate in French.
Elisabeth and Fritz had been fattening a rooster, hoping that Fritz’s father would return. Now Fritz was sent to prepare the rooster. It was needed for dinner.
Just then, another knock came at the door. Four German soldiers stood there; they also needed shelter from the cold. Could they come in?
Elisabeth had to have been frightened. What would the Germans do when they discovered the Americans? But Elisabeth did what she had to do: She looked the Germans determinedly in the eye, inviting them in—but also warning them about what they would find inside. “You could be my sons,” she told the Germans, “and so could those in there. A boy with a gunshot wound, fighting for his life. His two friends, lost like you and just as hungry and exhausted as you are. This one night, this Christmas night, let us forget about killing.”
The Germans left their weapons outside. Elisabeth retrieved the American weapons and left them outside, too.
The room was tense—at first. But then the mood shifted. One of the German soldiers had some medical training, and he began tending to the wounded American. Another produced a bottle of wine and some rye bread. As they sat down to dinner, Elisabeth said grace. “I noticed that there were tears in her eyes,” Fritz later wrote, “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 . . . .”
The good will persisted into the morning. The men awoke, exchanged Christmas greetings, then worked together to build a stretcher for the wounded American. After breakfast, the Germans pointed the American soldiers in the right direction so they could find their unit. Then the two sides departed, each in a different direction.
The truce was over, but nothing could erase the hours of friendship that had existed in the midst of the horrific Battle of the Bulge. “God was at our table that night,” Elisabeth would say.
Many decades later, Fritz found two of the soldiers who’d taken shelter in his cabin. Naturally, that is a story for another day.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Primary Sources and Further Reading
Fritz Vinchen, Truce in the Forest (Readers Digest; January 1973) (reprinted in several locations, including HERE, HERE, and HERE)
Interview of Fritz Vincken, February, 1997 in Honolulu, Hawaii (by Joalena Ashmore, Senior at Kahuku High)
Jack Canfield et al., Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawai’i: Stories of Aloha to Create Paradise Wherever You Are (2003)
Lost: The Friends of Fritz Vinchen (Unsolved Mysteries episode)
Peter Caddick-Adams, Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45 (2014)
Rod Ohira, Fritz Vincken, bakery owner, dead at 69 (Honolulu Advertiser; Jan. 11, 2002)
Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a Joint German-American Military Ceremony at Bitburg Air Base in the Federal Republic of Germany (May 5, 1985)