Adapted from a story by Rod Ohira
Fritz Vincken owns a bakery just outside of downtown Honolulu. He dispenses warmth and a smile along with hot buns and fresh bread to his loyal customers. Fritz has lived in the Hawaiian islands for many years now, and when he first arrived he was enchanted by the kindness and goodwill of the Islands' people. When asked, however, he admits that for him, the ideal of aloha was first learned long ago - when he was a lad of twelve.
The setting was on the other side of the world from Hawai'i, on a harsh winter night in the Ardennes Forest near the German-Belgian border. It was December, and two months had passed since Hubert Vincken brought his wife and his son Fritz to a small cottage in the Ardennes Forest for their safety. The family's home and its eighty-eight-year-old bakery in Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle) had been destroyed in a bombing raid.
"We were isolated," Fritz recalled. "Every three or four days, my father would ride out from town on his bicycle to bring us food. When the snow came, he had to stop." His mother was concerned that their food was in very short supply, as the war seemed to be moving closer to their cottage of refuge.
By late December the cottage was no longer out of harm's way. German troops surprised and overwhelmed the Allies on December 16, turning the Ardennes Forest into a killing field.
On Christmas Eve, Elisabeth and Fritz tried to block out the distant sound of gunfire as they sat down to their supper of oatmeal and potatoes.
"At that moment, I heard human voices outside, speaking quietly," Fritz remembered. "Mother blew out the little candle on the table and we waited in fearful silence.
"There was a knock at the door. Then another. When my mother opened the door, two men were standing outside. They spoke a strange language and pointed to a third man sitting in the snow with a bullet wound in his upper leg. We knew they were American soldiers. They were cold and weary.
"I was frightened and wondered what in the world my mother would do. She hesitated for a moment. Then she motioned the soldiers into the cottage, turned to me and said, 'Get six more potatoes from the shed.'"
Elisabeth and one of the American soldiers were able to converse in French, and from him they learned news about the German offensive. The soldier and his comrades had become separated from their battalion and had wandered for three days in the snowy Ardennes Forest, hiding from the Germans. Hungry and exhausted, they were so grateful for this stranger's kindness.
A short time later that evening, four more tired soldiers came to the cottage. However, these men were German.
"Now I was almost paralyzed with fear," Fritz recalled. "While I stood and stared in disbelief, my mother took the situation into her hands. I had always looked up to my mother and was proud to be her son. But in the moments that followed, she became my hero."
"Frohliche Weihnachten," Elisabeth said to the German soldiers, wishing them Merry Christmas. She then invited them to dinner.
But before allowing them in, Elisabeth informed them she had other guests inside that they might not consider as friends.
"She reminded them that it was Christmas Eve," Fritz said, "and told them sternly there would be no shooting around here." These soldiers, still mere boys, listened respectfully to this kind and mature woman.
The German soldiers agreed to store their weapons in the shed. Elisabeth then quickly went inside to collect the weapons from the American soldiers and locked them up securely.
"At first, it was very tense," Fritz said.
Two of the German soldiers were about sixteen years old and another was a medical student who spoke some English. Although there was little food to offer, Elisabeth knew that everyone must be very hungry. She sent Fritz outside to fetch the rooster he had captured several weeks earlier.
"When I returned," Fritz recalled, "the German medical student was looking after the wounded American, assuring him that the cold had prevented infection.
"The tension among them gradually disappeared. One of the Germans offered a loaf of rye bread, and one of the Americans presented instant coffee to share. By then the men were eager to eat, and Mother beckoned them to the table. We all were seated as she said grace.
"'Komm, Herr Jesus,'" she prayed, 'and be our guest.'
"There were tears in her eyes," Fritz said, "and as I looked around the table, I saw that the battle-weary soldiers were filled with emotion. Their thoughts seemed to be many, many miles away.
"Now they were boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home."
Soon after dinner, the soldiers fell asleep in their heavy coats. The next morning, they exchanged Christmas greetings and everyone helped make a stretcher for the wounded American.
"The German soldiers then advised the Americans how to find their unit," Fritz said. "My mother gave the men back their weapons and said she would pray for their safety. At that moment, she had become a mother to them all. She asked them to be very careful and told them, 'I hope someday you will return home safely to where you belong. May God bless and watch over you.'"
The soldiers shook hands and marched off in opposite directions. It was the last time Fritz or his mother would ever see any of them.
Throughout her life, Elisabeth Vincken would often say, "God was at our table" when she talked of that night in the forest.
Fritz eventually came to live in Hawaii and continued to carry this childhood lesson of brotherhood in his heart. He realized that being kind to one another and seeing beyond differences is a un iversal value, but he was surprised to discover that Hawai'i actually had a word for this ideal - aloha. When he thinks of aloha, he remembers that night long ago when everyone was welcome at the table.
For a theatrical version of this story, watch the Hallmark movie "Silent Night" with Linda Hamilton, who portrays Elisabeth Vincken.