It was October 1945 when I reached Camp Peary, Va., a training camp for the Navy installed outside of Williamsburg. At the tender age of 18, it was the first time ever I had been away from my home and loved ones. I was homesick from the start.
Like so many others before me, I was very patriotic and wanted to serve my country. I had been taught to believe that all Germans were Nazis, and as the stories of the atrocities became public, I was filled with revulsion for the barbaric nation that had committed them. The very thought of the word “German” made me angry and I wanted nothing to do with that culture. They all were bad, or so I thought at the time. But the following story proved me so wrong about prejudging people.
During my years growing up, I served Mass daily until the time I entered the military. I volunteered to do the same for the chaplain at the camp as a way of overcoming my homesickness. Much to my surprise, when I first arrived, I saw men dressed in dungarees with “PW” in large yellow letters printed on their coats. I quickly learned, and reacted with horror, that they were Germans, captured
in the last days of fighting and sent to Camp Peary to do manual labor.
Imagine my astonishment when I found out that the chaplain was preparing a pageant for the midnight Mass at Christmas, and the leader of the choir was to be an elderly German prisoner who had been a music teacher in civilian life. The man had recruited his comrades to be in the choir and I heard them practicing in the late hours of the day. The old prisoner spoke a little English and seemed to get along well with the chaplain, but I wanted nothing to do with the Germans. For me, I still thought of them as Nazis.
As Christmas approached, I grew more lonely as I began to realize that it would be the first time I had not been home for this most sacred of events. I really think I might have gone off the deep end had it not been for an event that made me realize Christmas for all cannot be assigned to any one country.
While helping the chaplain prepare the crib for the birthday of the child Jesus late one night, I looked up and saw the choir director standing above me. I didn’t know what to do when he spoke in halting English and asked if I missed being with family. I think I muttered, “Yes,” and he simply said, “Me, too.”
Here was a man just like me, offering the hand of friendship to another human being. I didn’t quite know what to say, but my concept of the German people changed that night. I began listening to their rehearsals from afar and was amazed at the gentleness with which they sang the old traditional hymns
. Strangely, I began to feel a sympathy for these men.
When the big day arrived, I was the server at midnight Mass. As the priest reached the offertory, the old German led his choir in the most haunting and beautiful rendition of “Silent Night”
I had ever heard. It brought tears to my eyes as I recalled previous Christmases with family and loved ones. I also saw tears in each of their eyes. Suddenly, I realized that here were fellow human beings away from their home at Christmas and going through the same heartache as me. I think I bonded with the old man at that moment, and vowed to wish him a Happy Christmas after the service.
At the conclusion of the Mass, the old German stood before everyone and sang “O Tannenbaum.”
With tears streaming down his cheeks, he sang in his native German, but the message was loud and clear to me. I have never forgotten it and will never forget that lonely old man who was looking for comfort at Christmas.
I went up and embraced him after the song and he gently kissed me on the cheek and said in English, “Merry Christmas to you, my friend!”
Many yuletides have passed since that one so long ago, but the message from the Christ child has never been so clear as it was that day – “Peace to all good men.”
I learned a valuable lesson that Christmas – that we all are brothers. And I still recall with affection the old German who helped me celebrate my first Christmas away from home. I will never forget him!