It was Christmas Eve, 1944, and 12 year-old Fritz Vincken was with his mother in a hunting cottage in the Hurtgen Forest, near the German-Belgian border. A charming cottage in the snowy woods seems like a wonderful setting for Christmas, but it was 1944 and the last German offensive of World War II – the Battle of the Bulge – was being waged all around them. Fritz’s father sent his family to the cottage before the battle erupted, thinking it a safe place, away from the city where Allied bombs were falling. The father was serving in the Civil Defense fire guard just four miles away, and the family hoped he might join them, if briefly, for the Christmas holiday.
There was a knock on the door, and when Fritz answered it, he found three lost, cold American GIs on the doorstep, one of them seriously wounded. Fritz’s mother took charge of the situation, letting them in, despite the risk it posed to the family for providing aid and comfort to the enemy. She began preparing a meal, which included cooking the rooster they had been saving in hopes father would come home for the holiday.
With the pleasing aroma of chicken and potatoes wafting through the cottage, there came another knock on the door. Expecting more lost American soldiers, Fritz answered and instead found four German soldiers seeking shelter for the night. She invited them in for warmth and a meal, but first warned that there were other “guests” whom they would not consider friends. They were immediately on alert. Before they could respond, and as only a mother could, Frau Vincken ordered the soldiers to place their weapons on the woodpile and come inside before there was nothing left to eat. “It is Christmas, and there’ll be no shooting here,” she stated. After issuing the same decree to the American GIs, she collected their weapons as well.
The tensions of this uneasy truce began to ease as this unlikely group shared a meal. The ranking German soldier had studied medicine before the war and began to tend to the wounded American. Another German had a bottle of red wine that he shared with everyone. At midnight, Frau Vincken ushered the group outside to look at the Star of Bethlehem. There was no peace on earth, but there was peace in that little hunting cottage.
The next morning, the truce continued. The Americans and Germans conferred with each other about the best way to return to their respective lines. When the ranking American suggested he would lead his men to the nearby town of Monschau, his German counterpart dissuaded him by saying “we have retaken Monschau”. A stretcher was improvised for the wounded soldier, and they shook hands before departing in opposite directions. As they left, Frau Vincken got out the family Bible and read the story of the Wise Men, quoting Matthew 2:12: “…they departed into their own country another way”.
Even for armies, each believing they are fighting for the noblest of causes, there is a bigger picture. The soldiers in this story weren’t guilty of treason or lacking in devotion to their cause. They simply had the wisdom to recognize that at that moment, there was something bigger going on than the war. Extending the battle to that tiny hunting cottage was not going to change its outcome.
There is always a bigger picture. I know I’ve had times in my career, when I’ve been too eager to climb the corporate ladder or achieve some milestone, that I’ve lost perspective. I’m not talking about being a workaholic, but of being too focused on the temporary. The reality is that none of today’s great human institutions, corporations, the buildings that house them and the assets on their balance sheets will exist forever. No one on their deathbed will wish they had spent more time at the office.
Fritz Vincken wondered what happened to those seven soldiers after the war ended. Fifty years after their meeting in that little hunting cottage, this story was featured on an episode of the television show “Unsolved Mysteries” and Vincken learned about Ralph Blank, a veteran who served with the 121st Infantry, 8th Division. The two met in January 1996 at the Northampton Manor Nursing Home in Frederick, Md., where Blank lived. During the reunion, Blank told Vincken, “Your mother saved my life”. Vincken said that hearing those words was the high point of his life. “Now, I can die in peace. My mother’s courage won’t be forgotten and it shows what good will will do.”
Fritz Vincken died on December 8, 2002, 16 days before the 57th anniversary of the night that “God came to dinner”.