CHRISTMAS 1944 in Berlin

Ilse Shaffer, a former missionary now with the Lord, grew up in Berlin during World War II and wrote about Christmas 1944 in that city. How prone we are to look back at all the people in Nazi Germany as “the enemy” and never consider the plight of Christians there.  (Note: The “Christmas Trees” she mentions was the ironic label given by Germans to the incendiary markers dropped by Allied planes to target an area for the bombers.)

Would there really be Christmas again? Was this the time to celebrate? Where did all the people live that one saw in the streets, the overcrowded streetcars and buses? (So many buildings were destroyed.) Our army in the east was defeated. The Russians were in East Prussia and the Allies were getting close to the western border. We could no longer trust our news, but we knew the end was not too far away.

And now Christmas was approaching, the celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace; my heart was bitter toward God. What did it mean this Christmas message: “Peace on earth?” There was no peace. This was the sixth Christmas since the war began, and still no peace. Where was God in all the destruction, the dying, the bombing? We saw the first refugees from the east, pulling a little cart with their few possessions, walking in this cold winter, walking, walking, walking, telling us horror stories of murder and rapes by Russian soldiers. “Peace on Earth”??? What would the next months bring? The bombing had not stopped; it got worse, day and night, day and night.

There were no lights in the streets, not many goods on the shelves, only at night the sky was lit up by the “Christmas Tree” bright lights that came down from heaven. The U.S. bombers were coming. If those lights shone over us or near us, we knew we were the targets of their bombs. We better get ready for it. We had not seen any Christmas trees for sale; we had better forget about Christmas. Then, the last day before the holidays my father had found a big branch of a tree about three feet tall. We rejoiced. What shall we do with it? Cut it up, put it in a vase? I found a big flower pot, filled it with sand, cut off the lower branches which I fastened to the trunk to make it look like a tree. The main branch was not quite straight. So I took a walking stick from my father, stuck it in the sand in the flower pot and gave the branch more support. It looked more and more like a Christmas tree. The clear old ornaments were fastened to the branches. There was our Christmas tree!

I cannot remember any presents. My mother raised rabbits, at least one gave its life so we could enjoy meat, but the real Christmas to us was when we all walked to church and heard the Christmas story. How different it sounded this year. Mary and Joseph, tired and hungry, could not find a place to live—so many people’s homes were bombed, they could not find a place to live—God understood. The baby Jesus had no bed, slept in a manger—our soldiers had to sleep on the floor, on straw or hay. God understood. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus had to leave in a hurry, fleeing Herod—whole families: we saw grandparents, mothers and children, fleeing from home—God understood. How close God was—He was rejected, poor, in danger. His suffering had begun with His birth. He was one of us. Peace, the peace of God, filled our hearts. Christmas took on new meaning—He understood.

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Savior of the Nations, Come

Savior of the nations, come,
Show yourself, the virgin’s son.
Marvel heaven, wonder earth,
That our God chose such a birth.

Not by human power or seed
Did the woman’s womb conceive;
Only by the Spirit’s breath
Was the Word of God made flesh.

Mary then was found with child,
Still a virgin, chaste and mild.
God had favored her with grace
To receive the Prince of Peace.

Christ laid down his majesty,
Passed through dark Gethsemane.
Though he left his Father’s home,
Christ now sits on God’s own throne.

Christ in glory intercede
For your creatures’ suffering need.
Let your resurrecting power
Soon complete the victory hour.

Praise to you, O Lord, we sing.
Praise to Christ, our newborn King!
With the Father, Spirit, one,
Let your lasting kingdom come.

Text: Ambrose, 4th cent., and Martin Luther, 1523;
Translation. Calvin Seerveld, 1984