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Christmas for Five

In 1944, Maclean’s war correspondent asks: What does Christmas mean in a world torn apart by the greatest war in history?


 

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WESTERN Front (By Cable)—Not many days hence the Christmas dawn will break over the Western Front and scores of thousands of Canadian troops will be awake to greet it. No one can say now where they will be—not even Montgomery. They may be dug in along the banks of a Dutch canal or they may find themselves bivouacked amid the charred framework of what was once a German town.

We know only thus for certain: they will be cold and wet, the surroundings will be cheerless; the men will rub the sleep from their eyes on this Christmas morning and they will say to one another, “Merry Christmas,” in voices not lacking a goodly content of irony. It cannot be otherwise, because they are fighting in northwestern Europe, where flood and desolation and the whipping wind that snarls out of the North Sea are constant as time and tide.

A few will gather together and greet the tender holiday in voices less churlish than the others. These would be the “originals”—the survivors out of the battalion of men who lived and trained for many months and then marched together into battle. They will momentarily be set apart from the newcomers who fill out the companies and platoons. The “Merry Christmas” of the originals will be mellowed by a remembrance of their friends who fell between the Normandy beach and the German frontier and by an awareness of the fate that willed their own survival. Good soldiers never linger on the tragedy of an old battlefield, save when they are touched by the magic of Christmas and for a fleeting eternity they are made soft and human again.

The old-timers - some of them as old as 24—will hover over a wood fire to warm their hands and their memories. They will smile, to be sure; but behind their weather-beaten cheeriness will lurk a smattering of bitterness. This is Christmas and they are playing Santa Claus to the undeserving world of their elders. They are too young to be playing Santa Claus, to be giving to others the priceless gifts of liberty they themselves have hardly had time to enjoy, and yet out of the cavalcade of generations moving endlessly across the face of time theirs has been summoned for the hardest task and the greatest sacrifice.

If, as the chaplains tell them, there is joy in giving, they have been bereft even of that pleasure. Since D-Day they have been facing the enemy, driving him back, maintaining contact and pressure and fire power, never pausing a moment to look back upon the quiet lands they have liberated, the families they have reunited, the hope they have installed in the citadels of misery.

This Christmas story then is for the soldiers. Each incident in it has emerged from the wake of the battle they have fought. It’s not a pretty story, but the degree of its ugliness becomes the measure of their achievement. If they could retrace their steps of the last five months they might find a thousand, nay 10 thousand, homes in which this story is repeated in varying mood and extent. Five homes will suffice.

About Françoise

In a village on the Normandy coast near Bayeux a middle-aged woman named Françoise lives quietly now wit h her husband and two boys. The husband makes his rounds as district tax collector; the boys, aged 14 and 10, go to school, and Françoise may be found humming these afternoons as she cleans her neat little white house. She is content; war and the Germans have fled the Normandy coast, and she is free to fling open the door and watch for her children romping home from school. Her family is safe and life is sweet again.

It was not always thus. Short months ago she died a little each time she heard the tread of a jack boot on the walk, and she was tortured with misgiving on countless nights as she waited behind bolted doors for her elder boy to return from Caen with a message from headquarters. Yes, Françoise was for two years underground chieftain of the district. This pretty housewife was so outraged by the appearance of Germans on the soil of her beloved France that she joined in the fight, and much of the information on German troop concentrations and coast defenses which came eventually to London originated in her little house.

“I am not a brave woman,” she told me one autumn day, “I lack the sang-froid to be really brave. Although I tried not to show it, I was panic-stricken all the time. I feared for myself but more for my boys. Even the little one carried messages for the resistance. 1 worried so much I became grey. You see?” She flicked her temples and smiled sadly.

It was on last Christmas Eve that her worry became panic. All through supper she had been disturbed by the tread of jack boots outside the house, and just after the children were put to bed a heavy knocking sounded at the door. Françoise stuffed her secret reports in a pocket, under her apron, then opened the door to admit a Gestapo officer and two soldiers. “Madame,” the officer said, “your black-out is faulty. We will examine the house.” Françoise saw through the thin excuse and she bit her lip to keep from crying. The men searched the house, found nothing and walked out.

“But from that, day on,” she told me, “I had not a moment’s peace. They suspected me. I knew it. But the work had to go on. 1 was followed everywhere. My children, even the little one, were followed. The net was closing on us gradually—and then came June 6. When our troops came through our village I wept all the tears I’d held back during the occupation. It was no longer necessary to be brave. I could be a woman again and have a good cry.” This Christinas Françoise and her family will sit in their little white house. No jack boots will sound outside their door. They will hear church bells and childish laughter; they will have been the gift of the Canadians.

Rogerof Le Havre

On Christmas morning some of our men-—those that can be spared from the battle—will forgather to sing hymns. The words of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” may sound incongruous against a background of medium artillery fire but there will IK; some to whom the hymn will recall an incident on the Seine.

Toward the end of August, while the German Seventh Army lay dying in the Falaise pocket, Canadian units pushed hard along the coast, through Deauville and Trouville, until they reached the south bank of the Seine est uary at the ancient fishing town of Honfleur. To the people of Honfleur liberation was bittersweet. They turned away from their celebrations and thronged the quaysides to look silently upon the great port of Le Havre, which sat inanimate as u picture postcard three miles across the estuary. In the clear August afternoon they could identify the buildings and dwellings of Le Havre--it was so near--and yet the port was still in the grip of the Germans.

Among those standing on the quayside at Honfleur was a young Frenchman. Roger was his name and he was no more than 22. All day he gazed with embittered eyes across the short stretch of water and it was only when night fell like a heavy black curtain over the Channel that he turned away.

For four years Roger had not been able to shake off the curse of the Germans. In 1940 his whole regiment was made prisoner and for a year he labored in a German work camp. In 1941 he escaped and for three months he rested by day and travelled by night along the weary route from Munich to his home in Le Havre. Here was happiness at last with his parents and his childhood sweetheart, Christiane; happiness but not freedom. Hidden and hunted he awaited the coming of the Allies. Weeks and months stretched into years. Christiane was troubled over his growing despair. Then one night when she came to his hiding place she was accompanied by a priest. By candlelight, in the damp of a cellar, Roger and Christiane were married.

Roger did not emerge from his hiding place until early in 1944. He had been warned the Gestapo were watching for him, but his desperation was greater than his fear. Christiane was in hospital having a baby; he could stay from her bedside no longer. He darted through the streets of Le Havre and was within sight of the hospital when the headlights of an automobile pinioned him against a wall. Once more he was a prisoner of the Germans.

This time they brought him across the Seine and put him to work on coastal fortifications near Ouisterham. There he remained until June 6. Now he was at Honfleur, gazing each day upon brooding Le Havre, praying for the time he would see the Tricolor raised on the citadel and the little boats would be moving across the mouth of the estuary.

The Canadians thereafter moved far up the coast, by-passing Le Havre and leaving Roger still sitting on the quayside at Honfleur. It was not until a few days ago that a service corps officer visiting the great Seine port came upon Roger walking benignly beside Christiane. Yea, she was pushing a perambulator.

“Found her,” Roger exclaimed, with the emotion only a Frenchman can muster. The day of the liberation I came across in a little boat, and I found her. Safe, Monsieur le Capitaine, safe and well. And the baby too. Safe and well safe and well.” He was almost hysterical.

Perhaps the Canadians will find it incongruous to chant “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” on Christmas Day when the clamor of war is sounding in the sky. But there will he a few who will remember Roger, and they will think of him on this day, and they will know that the divorcement between war and Christmas happiness is not altogether complete.

A Strange German

A year ago Major Ludwig Rethmeyer, German military commandant of Arras, sat in his office overlooking the great cobbled square of the old town. He was distinctly unhappy. His 53 years weighed heavily upon him as he pondered a document which awaited his signature. By a mere scratch of his pen 15 men and women of Arras would be marched into the courtyard of the military prison on the morrow and shot.

Rethmeyer didn’t like that. He prided himself on being the exception among German town majors in France. And indeed he was. Arras townsfolk considered him one of the most popular men in the community; they used to say he was more a Frenchman than a German. In his few months as town major the reign of terror launched by his predecessor had ceased. Death sentences had been cancelled. Sabotage had been overlooked. Rethmeyer was the only German who could walk the streets of Arras at night in perfect safety. This balding officer, forced out of retirement to do an administrative job, loved the French and hated the Nazis. Such miracles happen, even among Germans.

He read the death warrant over and over again; examined the evidence. Everything was in order. The Gestapo had seen to that—-the Gestapo he hated and feared so much. He examined the documents a long time, then summoned his adjutant. “Postpone t he executions,” he said brusquely. “We require more evidence.” The adjutant stuttered with surprise. Rethmeyer cringed a moment, then recovered. “Postpone the executions,” he barked.

In the months that followed Rethmeyer was a wretched individual. The Gestapo demanded reports on the execution and sent investigators to enquire why they were not carried out. Rethmeyer’s replies were vague, his excuses thin. His position became exceedingly dangerous; he was under suspicion.

On Sept. 1 our tanks rolled into Arras on the heels of the fleeing garrison. The local FFI rushed into the prison and released the 15 condemned. Thence they stormed into the major’s office. They found Rethmeyer seated at his desk and smiling. His staff had evacuated hut he alone refused to leave. Clutching a French flag he marched to the prison and there were many in the streets who knew him and cheered. “After the war Rethmeyer will he freed,” the townsfolk told me, “and he will live in Arras the rest of his life.”

This strange German will spend Christmas somewhere in an Allied prison camp. It will not he a gay place but from what the Arras townsfolk tell me Rethmeyer’s Christmas will be the happiest he has known in four years. He will he at peace with himself. And when I think of the gifts our troops have bestowed upon humanity, I think among others of Ludwig Rethmeyer and the salvation of his conscience.

Curious Souvenir

Early in September a Canadian column rumbled through the streets of Ghent. The troops, red-eyed with battle fatigue, raised their arms in greeting as liberated thousands lined the streets to fling out their cheers and their affection. A dispatch rider paused a moment by the curb to wipe the grime from his eyes; out of the crowd darted a black-haired dark-eyed gypsy-like beauty and she threw her arms about him and kissed his dust-stained face feverishly, fervently. The dispatch rider grinned sheepishly; the girl had tears in her eyes. He ripped off his divisional patch and gave it to her as a souvenir; she reached in her pocket and handed him a yellow Star of David —also as a souvenir.

He looked curiously upon this strange device. It represented a terrible saga.

The odyssey of the Scheinfeld family began in the City of Duisburg in 1938. The day after a band of Hitler youth smashed his shop and daubed swastikas on his door, Papa Scheinfeld gathered up his wife, his teen-aged daughter and his young son and took a short train ride into freedom. In Antwerp he began life anew with the sad resignation that had become a heritage of his race.

It was not for long. In 1940 Hitler caught up to Papa Scheinfeld, and Leon Degrelle’s Jew-baiting Rexists made Antwerp the most notorious of all Belgian cities. Wearily Scheinfeld packed his brood into a train and moved to Brussels.

They lived in a barn on the outskirts of the capital, and, thanks to their kindly Belgian neighbors, they had food and a degree of uneasy safety. Here they remained for two years, living stealthily by day and sleeping the sleep of the tortured by night. One summer’s afternoon in 1942 a German division moved into the area. And that night Pa$a Scheinfeld’s family, carrying their blankets ana oelongings on their backs, trudged out on the highway.

For five days they travelled the verges of the road, hardly daring to turn their eyes to look upon the German transport racing alongside. In Ghent they found lodgings above a low-grade café. There were other Jews in the district, hiding behind curtained windows on top floors. Through the daring of the Belgian underground a haphazard system of food distribution kept them alive.

One night during the winter of 1943 they were awakened by the roar of trucks and shouts in the street below. The café owner, a middle-aged woman whose husband was a prisoner in Germany, panted upstairs, shouting, “It’s a roundup. They’ve cordonned off the whole district and they’re searching every house for Jews. They’ve found dozens already. You must hide.”

Hide—but where? Yes, there was one place. A trap door in the ceiling led to an unused attic. Frantically they piled chairs on tables to make a rickety ladder and they relayed their belongings into the attic. Downstairs t hey could already hear the gruff voices of the storm troopers.

The wails and shrieks of other Jews being tossed into trucks tortured their ears. These were death cries. The trucks would take them to the concentration camp at Breendonck, thence in cattle cars to Poland and the gas chambers and furnaces.

Downstairs the café owner had opened a bottle of gin and was thrusting drinks on the storm troopers. It was a cold night, she was saying, and they should have a glass before going about their business. The vner. laughed and drank; the cries of the Jews outside filled the night, and the Scheinfeld family lay huddled in the attic a long, panic-stricken time until the sounds of revelry ceased and the last trucks rumbled out of the district.

When the Canadians entered Ghent the Scheinfelds were the only family of Jews left complete in the town. Christmas is not for them, but the spirit of the tender day embraces all creeds, good will toward men admits of no limits. On Christmas the prayers of these Jews, too, will seek to bless the men at the front.

I have written of a motley group indeed—the family near Bayeux, the youngsters of Le Havre, the German of Arras, and the Jews of Ghent. There is still another whose hour of liberation is part of the strange Christmas pattern the fighting men should know. He is a Prince—a Prince of the church.

A Cardinal Speaks

His Eminence Cardinal Van Roey of Belgium, Archbishop of Malignes, will be among those who offer up fervent thanks for the cold tired Canadians facing the enemy on Christmas Day. No less than the other less distinguished Europeans this great kindly man was a prisoner of German darkness.

Short hours after liberation he received me in his palace and his first words are among those I remember most vividly. ' “We thank your troops for liberating us as Belgians,” he said. “We thank you even more for liberating us as Catholics. If we had remained under German occupation the Catholic Church would have been suffocated.” Perhaps then when the wind that snarls out of the North Sea chills the marrow of the Canadians on the battlefield, and they greet the Christmas dawn with a strange desolation that stems from memories of other Christmas days in a dim and hardly believable past, perhaps they may find by some miracle an inner warmth.

For is not the day filled with the spirit of the One who made miracles out of the purity of His belief that it is more blessed to give than to receive?

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