Chapter 11

Christmas Eve in the Military Hospital


All of the students now avoided Vera more assiduously. Even the two girls, Ilse and Marlene, who had friendly feelings toward her, were forced to conform. A spy—ugh!

Things went so far that children conversing with one another dropped their voices when Vera was nearby, since most of them were talking about the war, and what they had learned in letters from relatives at the front. Now they whispered to one another and cast apprehensive glances at the Polack. Was she trying to hear what they were saying?

The men and women teachers were friendly and warm to the homeless foreigner, who was so diligent in her schoolwork. Yet instead of following their teachers’ example, the children wondered whether they shouldn’t tell the teachers that Vera was a Russian spy. But no one dared to, even the cheeky Annemarie Braun.

For a long time, Vera had caused her no remorse. Quite the contrary, whenever she could she showed "the spy" her contempt. On December 1, when she went from one girl to another to collect monthly contributions for the Young Girls’ Helpers Society, Vera held out twenty-five pennies in her hand. Annemarie walked right by, as though she had not even noticed Vera’s gesture.

During the next recess, the dark-haired girl walked over to Annemarie’s desk. “I not yet paid,” said Vera softly, putting the money into Annemarie’s hand.

Annemarie allowed the coins to fall, as though they were glowing iron. “I won’t take anything from you. You don’t belong to our Young Girls’ Helpers Society. Only German girls can be members,” she said, looking proudly at her classmates.

 The girls laughed and nodded in approval. Annemarie had done right to show the spy what everyone thought of her.

Vera’s eyes filled with tears as she turned away.

Was she no German girl? Because she was German, she had to flee the Cossack invasion of her homeland. Her father was fighting for Germany as a volunteer, like the fathers of the other students. To be sure, she spoke Polish almost exclusively when she enrolled, but she had heard no other language from the family servants in Czernowitz.

Vera reflected and brooded, but could not understand why she was the only girl who could not join the Young Girls’ Helpers Society. Annemarie’s intense contempt had gripped her heart, leaving her depressed and sad.

This was the month that ordinarily brought joy to a child’s heart. But this year the beautiful month of Christmas had a more serious face. Every family had a beloved member who had been called to arms—on land, at sea, or high up in the air. And how cruelly war had robbed the people of their dear ones. The streets were filled with black-veiled women.

No wonder the children’s joy was subdued, more this year than in any other. Neither Annemarie nor her friends had written Christmas cards. Indeed, they had relinquished Christmas gifts, requesting that the money be used for packages sent to the front or provision of Christmas cheer for the wounded.

The Schubert Girls’ Lyceum had sent mountains of packages to the front soldiers. For months, industrious feminine hands had exerted themselves for the fatherland’s defenders. The girls had made thick carpets out of newspaper, to be laid on the bottom of the trenches to soak up moisture.  They had knitted warm, brightly colored “goldfinch blankets” from leftover wool, as well as stockings, shawls, head and chest protectors, wrist warmers and abdominal bandages in an unending stream. Every school in every German city had taken part. German women and girls everywhere labored loyally for the German soldiers.

The soldiers still suffered, on Poland’s icy plains, in the snow-covered forests of the Ardennes, in the glacial Carpathian Mountains, on the stormy Flemish coasts, and on the open sea. Doctor’s Nesthäkchen sent her Christmas packages primarily to the navy. From her stay on the Baltic, she knew what a nocturnal winter storm on the high seas was like. Every packet, bound with a black, white, and red ribbon, held chocolate, tobacco, and cigarettes.  Stockings were filled with apples, nuts, and gingerbread. Most important to the children, however, was the greeting card with each child’s address. The card identified to the soldier, who wore the stockings or head protector, the name of the person who had labored for many weeks to make the article of clothing. The thank-you cards from happy soldiers were a rich reward.

A huge packet was sent to Dr. Braun, although the entire Braun household hoped that he might be home on leave for Christmas.

Annemarie had an additional desire, and persuaded herself that Mommy would also come home for the holidays. How could she be away from her children on Christmas Eve? To be sure, Annemarie had been far from home in the children’s sanatorium, away from her parents, last Christmas. Somehow that didn’t seem so bad. But this year? No, no, mommy must be here.

Grandmother had more modest wishes. She would be happy if only she had some word of her daughter. Meanwhile, together with Fräulein, she worked to prepare a lovely Christmas Eve for her grandchildren.

Of course, all three children had said they didn’t want Christmas gifts. But where was there a grandmother who could allow her grandchildren to pass Christmas Eve empty-handed?

Christmas Eve of the Great War year settled softly on the furiously battling world. Was the bloody fight going on even today? No, the front was quiet everywhere. Instead of flashing grenades, lighted trees glimmered in the snowy forests. In the winter night, pious songs from rough male throats supplanted the clatter of machine guns. In the trenches, German soldiers celebrated Christmas.[1]

In the military hospital, Dr. Braun looked at his gigantic package from home with wistful eyes. How lovingly packed it was, how everyone in his family had worked to please him. His Nesthäkchen, what hadn’t she done for him? She had even knitted him a muff.

Doctor Braun smiled. His daughter had envisioned the field hospital to be a frozen place amidst the trenches. In fact, the rooms were comfortably heated. But the knitted objects would serve the wounded well after they had left.

How gladly Dr. Braun would have renounced all the gifts, if only he could hold Nesthäkchen on his knee. His gaze fell on the little black and white ribbon adorning his buttonhole. As a Christmas gift, he had been awarded the Iron Cross for his tireless work, which he performed day and night.[2] But where was the joy that this decoration should have brought? If only he could have shared the honor with his wife. In fact, he had no idea whether the news of his Iron Cross would reach her, or whether she had any news of him at all. Why neither she nor any of their English relatives had written was a mystery.

The doctor’s mind called forth memories of past Christmas Eves. He saw the tree sparkling with lights in the living room. He heard the rejoicing of his children.

Suddenly there was an ear-splitting crash, as a windowpane shattered. The instrument cabinet shook.  Pale-faced nurses and ambulance attendants tumbled into the room. “Doctor, a French flying bomb—it fell on our hospital. Luckily it didn’t explode.”

“Hooligans—even the Red Cross on Christmas Eve is not sacred to them,” said Dr. Braun indignantly, as he hurried off to tend to the wounded.

While the doctor in the far-off military hospital in France thought of home, Nesthäkchen was thinking of him. Her father had not gotten leave, to her boundless disappointment. But if she was true to herself, she would have been even more unhappy, because the hands of the white nursery clock went round and round, without any sign of mother.

It was already four o’clock. Nesthäkchen had to prepare for the presentation of gifts in the school turned military hospital. At four-thirty, the girls of the sixth class were supposed to assemble in front of the former Schubert Lyceum with their Christmas packages. Fräulein Hering was waiting for them.

Every class gave gifts to a different military hospital, and many also had gifts for war orphans. Every student was supposed to bring along gingerbread, an apple, and nuts. The children created magnificent colorful trays with these small contributions.

Annemarie’s eyes wandered around her room once more. Since her stay in the children’s sanatorium, she had become accustomed to never leaving her room without checking to see if she had left something lying around. No, everything was in order. In the far corner she had stacked the Christmas gifts and placed the empty dollhouse over them. Nobody would find them there.

Annemarie reached for the multitude of packets and packages. How could she carry them all? Hanne was still busy, and Klaus, who could have helped her, had gone with his teacher to another military hospital gift ceremony. Fräulein and Grandmother were trimming the tree in the living room.

Nesthäkchen was a resourceful girl. From her brother’s closet she took Hans’ roomy knapsack. Everything would fit inside it.

My goodness, it was heavy. But didn’t the soldiers carry heavier packs on their backs during their exhausting marches? Forward! Margot was certainly already waiting downstairs.

Annemarie’s friend, standing next to a white children’s wagon, was in front of the snow-covered fence that enclosed the flowerbeds in front of the building. Was Margot bringing along her little sister in the wagon?

Not at all. Annemarie had to laugh and Margot laughed along with her. The children’s wagon was piled with gifts. “Are you going mountain climbing, Annemarie?” said Margot, pointing at the knapsack.

Both girls struggled with their loads. But what was the weight of the packages in comparison to the exalted feeling of bringing Christmas joy to the wounded?

The girls gathered in the former school courtyard. Many of the smaller girls had used their doll wagons to transport gifts. In spite of the thaw, Hilde Rabe had brought her sled.

“What? Is the Polack here too?” cried Annemarie so loudly that Vera, standing next to her own gift basket, jumped.

Does Christmas Eve make people better? After all, everyone should only express love for her fellow man. Does this holiday soften the hearts of young girls?

Alas, the answer is no. The students of the sixth class, who felt such compassion for the wounded, themselves had wounded poor Vera with their hostile words and angry stares. Doctor’s Nesthäkchen was the worst offender.

“If Fräulein Hering knew what we know, she would certainly never take Vera into a military hospital. How easy it will be for her to spy there,” whispered Annemarie to her confidantes.

Happily, there was no more time to abuse Vera Burkhard. The children were led into the fir-decorated former school auditorium, where a tall Christmas tree twinkled and sparkled. On a long table under the tree lay the gift packages for the soldiers.

The girls felt pain in their hearts when the wounded, in their blue and white striped gowns, hobbled into the room on walking sticks or crutches, on the arms of nurses, or on stretchers or gurneys. Illness and misery confronted blithe youth.

The excited Margot reached for Annemarie’s arm. The two girls were overwhelmed by unspeakable pity for the severely maimed men, many of whom couldn’t even see the Christmas lights. Annemarie’s blue eyes filled with tears, and she felt deeply ashamed. Had self-pity not consumed her the whole day because she couldn’t celebrate Christmas with her father and mother? How lucky she was compared to these injured soldiers around her, who were also far from their loved ones on Christmas Eve.

Despite the suffering they had to endure, the men’s pale faces looked content and grateful. The German soldier shows his courage and sacrifice not only in battle, but also when confronting his relentless fate.

From the blazing Christmas tree, the wounded warriors gazed at the flocks of blossoming children surrounding them on all sides. The soldiers’ faces lit up. It was as though their own blond daughter or little sister at home was waiting to present them with gifts.

One of the doctors sat down at the piano and played Silent Night. The music lent enchantment to the unusual Christmas festivities. Deep masculine voices mixed with young girlish ones. Tears appeared in the battle-hardened warriors’ eyes, and no one was ashamed.

When the song ended, one of the nurses approached the girls. “So, children, now Santa Claus can pay a visit to our soldiers.”

“Sister Elfriede,” cried Nesthäkchen ecstatically. Before Margot noticed, Annemarie had hurried to the other side of the room, to a nurse with a kindly face and brown cap. “Sister Elfriede, don’t you know me anymore? I’m Annemarie Braun. You nursed me back to health in my father’s clinic when I had scarlet fever.”[3]

“Girl, how big and strong you are. I would never have recognized you.” Sister Elfriede happily squeezed the hand of her former patient.

All eyes were directed at the delightful blond girl and the joyful reunion.

The other children distributed their packages. Annemarie handed hers out with friendly words to each recipient. Soon, conversations had commenced between the girlish gift-givers and the recipients. The soldiers told where they had been wounded, and the children listened attentively.

Annemarie glanced worriedly at Vera. Would she pass on the information she got here?

Vera stood opposite Annemarie and a blinded soldier. The compassionate Vera felt drawn to the unlucky man, while the other children avoided any contact with him.

Vera proceeded to give the soldier a bag of gingerbread and marzipan. Annemarie hurried to intercede. Heavens, was the spy trying to poison German soldiers?

“You are a dear little girl,” Annemarie heard the blind soldier say to Vera. He softly stroked Vera’s lovely face, which he was unable to see. “Do you also have relatives at the front?”

“Yes, my papa,” Vera replied softly.

“Either the Polack is lying, or her father is fighting against the Germans,” thought Annemarie.

The soldier reached for a little bag that he had tied himself. “Here, little girl, I give this to you in memory of this Christmas Eve, which you have brightly illuminated for a blind man.”

Vera blushed with joy. But Annemarie stared balefully at Vera, dissipating her joy. Was Nesthäkchen envious?

Not at all. She was furious that the Polack, surely a spy, should enjoy such recognition. If the German soldier only knew the truth.

Fräulein Hering promised to visit the military hospital again with her students. Annemarie said goodbye to Sister Elfriede. The soldiers waved thankful greetings to their little benefactors.

On the staircase, Vera tried to approach Annemarie.

“Do you want the bag? Please, take it,” said Vera, shyly holding out the little sack that had been such a joy to her.

Annemarie was dismayed. She was a good child. Only false love for the fatherland had hardened her heart against Vera. But Vera’s touching words had undermined the artificial wall of contempt for her that Annemarie had built.

“I thank you. You did deserve this gift,” said Annemarie kindly.

Then Annemarie went home, arm in arm with Margot, Ilse, and Marlene. Vera followed by herself.

Vera was not sad. Indeed, she was happier than she had been in a long time. “Dear God, I thank you, because Annemarie was friendlier toward me than she has ever been,” she thought happily.

Annemarie too had feelings of satisfaction. Did these feelings come from the joy the wounded men had given her, or from her better treatment of Vera? Annemarie had no answer.

Bells rang out in the brightly illuminated Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. “Peace on earth,” they chanted. But when would peace on earth arrive?

[1] During the 'Christmas Truce' of 1914, soldiers on the Western Front laid down their arms on Christmas Day and met in No Man's Land between the French and German lines. They exchanged food and cigarettes, and played football. The cessation of violence was entirely unofficial and there had been no prior discussion: troops acted spontaneously from goodwill, not orders. The leaders on both sides, among them Winston Churchill, were horrified and demanded that there be no recurrence of such an event.

 [2] Note that this was an Iron Cross second class. A first class Iron Cross had a pin on the back, not a ribbon.

[3] Scarlet fever, a dreaded infection of childhood, occurred in devastating epidemics with a 30% mortality rate. Since the introduction of antibiotics, scarlet fever has become uncommon and for unknown reasons less deadly.