And so Christmas came.
Even in our hopeless situation, everything possible was done to prepare
at least a little joy for the holiday. From airfield "P", an order
came to the barracks to pick up the few Christmas supplements which could
The vehicles sent by our division, which I was leading, became stuck on the way back in meter-high snow. Our attempts to free them loose on our own power were futile. Back in the division, outside in the snow-covered trenches, my men waited longingly for the bit of schnapps, the few cigarettes, and -- who could blame them -- perhaps even a bit of mail from home.
Every effort to free the supply trucks proved fruitless. I made my way to one of the nearby command quarters, where I was able to obtain a tractor. When I returned to the convoy after approximately four hours, I found that one of the drivers had frozen to death. He was crouched stiff and rigid, in one of the corners of his vehicle; he did not live through the night of Christmas Eve, 1942.
The holy night sank upon the frost-stiff, peaceless land. The silver light of the moon in the clear night sky bathed the white of the steppes in a soft glow. An extremely unusual, holiday-like quiet reigned on all fronts. Only a lonesome shot here and there reminded us that men had been driven into this peaceful land against their wills, by a single merciless order from their superiors, and pitted in a showdown to the death against other men who were simply defending their own land. In the bunkers, in the fox-holes, even in the very front trenches, a melancholy Christmas spirit was diffused throughout. It affected even the most hardened soldier, translating into a deep depression.
Whenever even two or three of us, bitterly serving our country alone and independently, came together, we spoke of this most beautiful festival which was being celebrated at the very same hour in our homeland. No one would have ever dreamed that the lost ones in the Stalingrad pocket could be able to conjure up even a modest joyful holiday spirit. And yet, we were not completely forgotten.
From our neighbors to the left came the news that the meager Christmas supplements had indeed succeeded in arriving to the unit in time. Everyone received something -- a few cigarettes, a half a bar of chocolate, some schnapps and, for the lucky ones here and there, a letter or even two from home. At that time, everyone who was lonely and unengaged gathered together in the foxholes, deep in the earth. Some of them stayed only long enough to warm themselves and then, with a silent handshake, went forward again to relieve comrades. Wherever there was a bunker, a small ceremony of sorts was going on.
I was one of the lucky ones who was able to celebrate a bit with my comrades. Presents were given out, and a pair of candles lit. One of us spoke a few words about our homeland, the country that we loved, and about our relatives and friends. He also spoke of the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ, encouraging and reminding us -- even in our hopeless situation, even in this era where peace among men seemed to be forbidden -- to look for and find a bit of peace in our hearts. The celebration led us inside ourselves, to that special love which transcends time and space and is universally available, even in these hours of hardest sacrifice which would claim many of our lives. These hours of togetherness signified our one simple need to feel, just once, the almighty strength of God, the security of his inexplicable ways, to grab hold of Him and entrust ourselves completely to Him.
For the youngest one in our division, it was the first Christmas away from home ever in his life. He sat lost in a corner and began to play the ever-beautiful "Silent Night" on his accordion. Others chimed in cautiously. I took my violin in my hand and played as well, trying to express all the pain, longing and emotion in my heart.
Three Russian prisoners, who from the beginning were witnesses of this small celebration, wiped tears from their eyes and emphasized again and again that they had never experienced anything so emotionally gripping. Perhaps they were only surprised that they were even allowed to be a part of this togetherness; a togetherness which they had never known before.
And yet no one could find any real joy in it. The uncertainty of the future lay like a nightmare heavy on our souls, and on this very night, the holy night of the year 1942, wounds were opened which seemed to scar over all time with the depth of their painfulness.
I crept outside alone, and held a spiritual heart-to-heart talk with my loved ones out under the stars. I also communed with all those who now lived among the stars, who would be steering the fate of our lives in the coming year. This was a fact I knew full well in those hours.
The sky over Stalingrad burned blood red. Searchlights beamed questioningly though the black night, and the rumbling of engines at airfield "P" was heard from afar. Airplanes were flying without interruption, even at these late hours. Many wounded men had the good fortune on this night to be carried the many miles back home -- yet many more were called by the Grim Reaper to a different home. They either froze to death, bled to death, or were hit by gunfire.
Then, shortly before midnight, a Russian surprise attack tore though the silence. Lively, ever-growing volleys of fire, rat-a-tats of machine guns, and between these, the dull rumbling sounds of continuing artillery fire all led us to fear the worst. Our little bit of Christmas spirit vanished in a single moment. Everyone was in the highest state of emergency alarm.
Tank engines were fired up even as our first infantry units began streaming back. As brave as they were, it had been impossible for them to stand their ground and fight against the all-out Russian offensive. We, too, left our bunkers hurriedly and rushed out to help our comrades in the difficult struggle. Finally, after a long bloody fight which lasted until the morning of the first Christmas day, everything became quiet again, and we took up our old positions in the trenches.
But Death had again taken numerous sacrifices. Many of those who had just hours before held the images of their loved ones, their wives, their children before their eyes now lay dead on the snow-covered battlefield.
And no one in the homeland knew anything of our fate. It was strictly forbidden to write home about our true situations, and even the news of the encirclement itself was kept top secret. It was released by the German headquarters to the public only in the middle of January.
editor's note: Upon hearing these words
of the story-teller, I remembered once meeting a young woman who had lost
her husband one year on Christmas Eve. She told me how, in the middle
of the festivities, she had suddenly received a clear premonition that
at that very moment, something had hit her husband. It was like a
sharp jab of pain -- at least she felt it to be so -- and then all at once
she knew clearly that he was gone. People can make of this story
what they will, but the fact is, that the official news of her husband's
death stated that he had fallen within the exact same hour.
I was also reminded of another emotional story. A long time after the tragedy in Stalingrad had come to an end, news was released of the existence of a picture of the Madonna in the encirclement. This picture had been sketched that Christmas eve in 1942 in charcoal on a huge map of Russia by the chief medical doctor, Dr. Kurt Reuber, for himself and his buddies. The sketch was named "the Christmas Madonna of Stalingrad," and the news thereof went clear around the world. Her story was known in every bunker; ours as well as theirs. One writing "The Madonna of Stalingrad" published by HUH. Noelke, Hamburg, describes this exquisite scene: "Men came in to the bunkers for protection against the cold and enemy fire, under the shadow of death. Thus assembled together for a lonely Christmas celebration, they would stand as if in shock, pensive and emotional, silent in front of the picture of the mother sheltering her child in her billowing mantel."
This, then, was our Christmas.
That morning we asked our clergyman in gray robes to perform a holy Christmas
service. Our emergency bunker then became the location of a gripping,
unforgettable experience. The empty table became an altar, on which
a tiny tallow candle was lit. Lost in pensiveness, our small flock,
which had grown together into a deep community, celebrated the Christmas
mass. The words of the priest planted once again the message
of God's love in our hearts, and touched us deeply.
In those days, in those hours, the belief of we Christians in our God was strengthened even more. And only through peace with God, which had been promised though the message of Bethlehem to all men and for all time, were we able to bear the uncertainty which lay before us. No one was forgotten. "This peace," said the priest, "I will this peace to the wounded as well, that they may then close their eyes in the mercy of God."
In the mystical mood of those moments, focused inside ourselves to the depths of our hearts, we received the Holy Communion, the bread of life. For some, it would be the last time for several years; but for most, it was the last time in their lives.
One of the men had an especially hard time concealing his deep emotions. He had just returned to the camp from close to the front line with a severe throat injury, and had difficulty holding himself upright. His eyes, however, were lit up with a quiet glow, betraying his complete happiness. His face still showed traces of the recent battle; his hands were white and lifeless with cold. And this hour was fated to serve him as a guiding light into the next world, for he would be the first one to lay down his life a few days later in the street fights of Stalingrad.
Upon my return to the homeland, I brought the news of his death to his wife, who, like so many others, had still been waiting for him to come home. In the midst of all her pain, it was a consolation to her to know that her husband had left her for eternity in the Grace of God.
The year 1942 came to an
end. People everywhere spoke of the New Year, which could only bring
a turn for the better. Not one of us dared to believe this wholeheartedly,
and yet we clung like drunkards to this last great hope. It couldn't
really be true that our Germany, our Fatherland, would sacrifice us like
this to such destruction. After everything we had gone through, we
were still hoping for a rescue from the outside.
Rumors spread that German units had already reached "K" with their tanks. In a few days, we would all be free. How gladly we believed all these lies! We poor blind ones rejoiced like children, unaware that this joy was at the same time a dance of death, from which we would soon terribly awaken.
We began to sense this on the very same night. Heavy Russian bomber attacks on all fronts lasted several hours, shaking the earth and transforming the steppes into a bubbling, boiling cauldron. The response from the German side was weak, and our desperate lack of munitions was becoming clearer and clearer.
After the New Year came, the massive surprise attacks and bombings increased, and the provision of supplies by air worsened steadily day by day. The wounded became so numerous that air transport of even the most severely injured was not fully possible. Continuous fighting and single offensive attacks on all fronts lead to a significant decrease in the size of our pocket in the first days of January.
The military successes of the Russians had much less effect on the morale of the troops in action than did the now-apparent lack of munitions on the German side and the obvious manifold superiority of the enemy. The Russians had rallied with their strongest units at our borders for what for them would be the decisive battle.
The horrible cold and complete lack of provisions undermined our power to defend ourselves. We had too little winter clothing, and cases of frostbite rose in unbelievable numbers. Doctors and other health personnel were few and far between.
In Stalingrad, there was bitter street fighting raging at the Traktorenwerk, Red October and Red Barricade factories between German troops and the civilian factory workers, who had organized themselves into a band of freedom fighters and contributed a significant measure of support to the Siberian elite troops.
Civilians fled or were driven from their homes, painting an especially shocking picture. With their few possessions, women and children in rags, they searched in vain for some sort of shelter.
And we were not able to help them. They lay down on the steppes in complete misery, somewhere in the snow, and fell asleep weary with exhaustion, never again to awaken. The laws of war were bitter and hard in those days, on both sides.