This article was published Dec. 24, 1964, in the Honolulu Star Bulletin. From my point of view, it is a “feel good” article. One can raise all kinds of questions about how the mother and son got from Aachen to the Ardennes during the height of the Bulge. This may be a story that has a ring of truth to it, and one can hope it was one of those very rare humane events that actually happened during those difficult and miserable days and weeks in 1944-45.
Joe Thimm K/395
with Cobey Black
Dear Cobey Black:
There is a Christmas story I want to tell you. About an ice-cold winter night and a small cottage. About seven hungry, weary soldiers and a fat rooster named Hermann. And about a brave woman and a 12-year-old boy. This story is true. The woman was my mother and the boy was I.
It was the 24th of December, 1944.
One week before, Field Marshal von Rundstedt had started his last strong offensive and we were caught in the middle of it. My family had lived in Aachen, an old city on the border of Belgium that became the first German town conquered by American troops. Our house was in ruins after heavy bombing and my mother and I found refuge in the small cottage in the Ardennes Forest where my father and his hunting friends used to stay on weekends.
There was little to remind us of those peaceful days during the last months of 1944. Day and night we heard the terrible sounds of bitter fighting. My mother was all alone with me at her side, for my father was drafted for civil defense and my sister worked in the Red Cross hospital. Our food supply, to say the least, was discouraging, but Mother hopefully prepared for a reunion, eyeing the rooster I had caught on a foray. She called him Hermann and although she never said why, I knew she was referring to Hermann Goering, for whom she had no warm feelings.
One week before the Holy Night, hell broke loose. The air was filled with explosions and up from the valley came the frightening sound of machine gun fire. The weather turned to real winter. We were cut off from the outside world and by noon of Christmas Eve we had to accept the bitter fact of a lonely Christmas. Hermann had another week to live and we sat down to a dinner of oatmeal.
At that moment I could hear some noise outside, quiet human voices. Mother blew out the little candle and we waited in fearful silence. There was a knock, careful and full of anxiety, then another. My mother went to the door. I slipped behind her and when she opened it there were two men in the doorway, like phantoms in the endless white background. They wore steel helmets and my mother asked them where in God’s name they’d come from on a night like this. One answered in a strange language and pointed to a third man, sitting in the snow.
We knew by then they were American soldiers.
My mother paused. She realized very well how dangerous the situation was, but yet, they stood there and asked with their eyes. And there was a man lying in the snow, more dead than alive. “Kommt rein,” said my mother. The soldiers carried in their comrade. He was badly wounded, with a bullet through his upper leg. As soon as he was on my mattress, he went to sleep. One soldier had a little knowledge of French, which my mother spoke well, and from him we learned about the German offensive and how he and his comrades had lost their battalion and wandered for three days in the snowy Ardennes Forest, hiding from Germans.
We relit the candle. It was warm in the cottage and now, after the soldiers had taken off their heavy coats, they looked like big boys. And that was the way my mother treated them. “That boy is half dead and needs good food as son as possible,” she said to me. “Go get Hermann and six potatoes.”
Before long there spread a very tempting smell throughout our little rooms and all of us sniffed loud and longingly while Hermann changed into a fine, wholesome chicken stew. We sat down like a big family, when suddenly again there were footsteps outside. By this time we did not worry too much for we expected to find another bunch of Americans, who had turned out to be wonderful guests. Without hesitation, I rushed to the door.
There were soldiers, four of them, but with one look I realized that they wore the uniform familiar to me after five years of war. They were men of my people. Germans!
I was almost paralyzed with fear, for though I was still a child, I knew the harsh law of war and that sheltering the enemy was high treason. While I stood still and stared, my mother came outside and took the situation in her hands. I had always looked up to my mother and was proud to be her son, but she rose to be my hero in the following minutes. It was, if I may say so, her finest hour. “Frohliche Weihnachten,” she said, wishing them a Merry Christmas and inviting them in to dinner. The soldiers sniffed with enthusiasm. “We also have other guests whom you may not consider friends but this is Christmas Eve and there will be no shooting around here. Place your weapons in the shed before the others eat all the stew. You are young enough to be my sons and you must do as I tell you.”
She then turned to the American boys whose hands were on their guns and asked them to hand them over to her. They obeyed and she locked their arms in my father’s desk.
The whole group assembled around the small table and looked at each other suspiciously. “Quick,” she whispered to me, “get the rest of the potatoes and more oats. These boys are hungry and a staring man is an angry man. After we have them full, they will become friends, you watch.” Already, when I returned, one of the Germans, a medical student in private life, was looking after the wounded American, assuring him the cold had prevented infection.
The tension among them soon disappeared. One of the Germans had a loaf of rye bread. An American had instant coffee, real coffee! Then Hermann was ready and my other said grace. There were tears in her eyes and as I looked around the table, the battle weary soldiers were filled with emotion and their thoughts were many, many miles away. Now they were boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home.
Shortly before midnight, my mother went to the doorstep and asked us to join her to look at the Star of Bethlehem. It was a wonderful winter night; fresh snow had fallen and we heard no sound except artillery far away. We looked at bright Sirius, which was our Star of Bethlehem that night, and no one said a word. We all had our private thoughts and we all dreamed of a time when there would really be peace on earth.
The boys slept on their heavy coats and the next morning came soon enough. The sick boy felt much better. The German soldiers wished their new friends, “Merry Christmas!” and the Americans answered, “Frohliche Weihnachten!” Since the wounded soldier could not march, the others made a stretcher with two sticks and my mother’s best tablecloth. The German soldiers then advised the Americans how to find their unit, for at that stage of the battle, the Germans were surprisingly well informed. After this, my mother gave them back their weapons. My mother? At that moment she had become the mother of all of them and again she was in tears. “Be careful boys. I want you to come home some day where you belong. God bless you all!”
The soldiers shook hands for the last time, then marched away in different directions.
This, Cobey, is the story. I wanted you to know. It happened 20 years ago today, but there will be forever a light of hope in my life when I remember the Star of Bethlehem that shone on Christmas Eve, 1944, right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge.