It was no way to spend a Christmas.
The picturesque Ardennes Forest, the lush woods that spanned between France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, had suddenly become thick with combat.
On Dec. 16, 1944, Hitler wagered his last, desperate gamble in the west, launching his Ardennes Offensive, Operation “Watch Upon the Rhine,” with the object of retaking the port of Antwerp in a brutal series of assaults that took the Allies by surprise.
On Dec. 24, the Wehrmacht had reached the high-water mark of their advance. And deep in Nazi-re-occupied territory within “The Bulge,” the Vincken family were about to become protagonists in one of the more miraculous incidents of the war.
It began when three American troopers unexpectedly showed up at the family’s cottage near Hurtgen.
The trio had obviously been in recent combat and had gotten separated from the rest of their unit. One of the soldiers bore a serious wound in his leg. They asked, in halting French, for shelter from the winter’s night. The mother, Elisabeth Vincken, took pity on them, bringing them into the house, and fixing up more portions of the family’s precious food so that they could have a hot meal.
Then, an ominous knock sounded at the door. Outside, were four more soldiers—this time Germans on patrol.
The implications for the encounter were terrifying. To harbor enemy soldiers was a death-penalty offense in Nazi-occupied territory, the sentence to be carried out immediately and without appeal. Further, Hitler had ordered that no prisoners were to be taken during the Ardennes Offensive. It had been exactly a week earlier when, at the battle’s inception, SS troops of Kampfgruppe Peiper had brutally slaughtered almost 100 unarmed, surrendered, American soldiers at Malmedy.
It seemed a grim certainty that anyone found in the Vincken home would be gunned down without mercy.
Elisabeth Vincken, however, was made of sterner stuff. She had already decreed in her heart that no one would die that night. Not on Christmas Eve, the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace. Not her family. Not the Americans. Not the Germans.
And she said as much to the German patrol outside, quickly hatching a plan some might call audacious, others foolhardy: She invited the Germans inside for Christmas dinner, but only after they had stored their weapons in an outside shed.
At the same time, the Americans’ weapons were likewise stored away. And so, Axis and Allies met for an uneasy Christmas truce in a remote cabin in the Ardennes, enforced solely by the formidable will of an Alsatian housewife, as the maelstrom of war continued around them.
As all 10 of them dined, the ice was slowly broken between German and American. While the Vinckens procured a rooster (named “Hermann” in sardonic mock-tribute to Hermann Goering) to add to the feast, the Germans offered some wine and their ration rye bread, and one of the GIs shared instant coffee he had been saving. One of the German soldiers had been a medical student before the war and tended the wounded American.
The assembled shared in a reading of the Bible before retiring for the night, enemies peacefully laying down their heads next to one another.
The next morning, Christmas Day, found the opposing sides parting, if not as friends, at least as no longer enemies. As fellow human beings.
A stretcher was made for Herbie, and the Germans gave the GIs a compass and directions back to the American lines.
And that was that.
All so simple, and yet a Christmas miracle.