Silent Night, Holy Night - A Christmas story from a German Ex-Prisoner of War




It is December 1946, early afternoon on the day before Christmas. I am a prisoner of war in a labor camp in Russia. It is the second Christmas away from home. A few other German prisoners and I are outside to decorate a giant spruce tree in our courtyard. We are spraying water on its branches. The water freezes immediately in the minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit. It creates beautiful crystals and other bizarre forms.  Not far from us, we see a group of men coming out of the kitchen. Just as they are leaving, a potato tumbles out of one prisoner’s pocket. It rolls right toward a guard. The guard picks it up and looks at the man. He searches the other men and finds more potatoes. He calls the warden who seems to have been waiting for another opportunity to make our lives even more miserable. He is in full rage and orders the men to take off the winter coats and boots. The prisoners follow his order. They are thrown into an outer cell – exposing them to the elements. We try to convince the Russian warden to let the men free, at least for Christmas. No luck.

The sun is setting and with her the last bit of warmth. The sky is clear. It is going to be a cold night. We are thinking of the men outside and decide to celebrate Christmas Eve outside with them. All men go outside and form a circle around tree. We light a few candles. It feels almost festive. And for a minute we all forget where we are. Our thoughts are with our families and friends. We are no longer in prison. The Russian warden storms out. He is furious and demands everybody to go back inside. No one moves. He screams again and orders us to go inside immediately. Guards sprint to the scene. Guns are pointing at us. Our German captain tries to reason with the warden. The warden is too enraged. He yells to the guards to prime their guns. Time stops. Thousand thoughts run through my mind. I don’t want to die. Not yet. I am barely 20 years old. I want to live. As I am thinking that, a faint melody breaks the silence. Someone in the midst of us started singing “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Another man joins in and then another and another. By the second verse all seven hundred prisoners pour their hearts into this song. The song transforms my fear into love. It touches the guards who lower their guns. It melts the fury on the warden’s face. We sing the last verse. Then the last tone dissolves into the night. We are back in prison again. Completely changed by this beautiful tune and to everyone’s surprise, the warden releases the men from the outer cell. They are still alive. We take them inside and give them warm cloths. We pray and thank God. Tonight we will sleep in heavenly peace.

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Background: This story is based on a true story from a German ex-prisoner of war. Erhard Schlueter was drafted shortly before the end of World War II. He was not even twenty years old at the time. The Russians captured his division in 1945. He had to spend several years in Russian captivity. The Russians released him eventually. Erhard decided to write about this experience after the fall of the Iron Curtain (see German cover of book below. English translation exists too).