Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

Gestapo Christmas

At the height of World War II, an American tries to bring holiday cheer to the enemy.

[IN June 1940, Josiah P. Marvel flew to France to join the American Friends Service Committee in Europe. For a year Mr. Marvel worked in occupied France, bringing such relief as he could to the colonies of child refugees near Biarritz, the British civilian internment camps, the Jewish internment camps, the canteen for Belgian refugees near Bordeaux, and distributing milk and clothing in the Zone Interdite. He was the only civilian who had permission to visit the Gestapo prisoners in France last year.—The Editors]

ABOUT the middle of last December, I was asked by the officers in charge of one of the Gestapo prisons, the Cherche Midi, to work with them on a Christmas party for the prisoners, to he held on the afternoon of the twenty-fourth. The German guards made a survey of all the prisoners, and we finally had a list of about one hundred men and fifty women who were completely out of touch with their families and never received any mail or parcels. These were prisoners of all nationalities.

On the morning of the twenty-fourth they lent me one of the Wehrmacht trucks, and with three soldiers we drove down to the Marche des Fleurs to buy the Christmas trees. We did the usual bargaining, and because of my escort I had to reassure the reluctant French tradesmen that the trees were for the prisoners, and not the staff. We bought a tree for each of the large dormitories on the first floor, as well as one for each floor in the main prison. It was practically impossible to find any trimmings, but on returning to the prison we sent some soldiers out to get what they could in the way of decorations.

I brought presents for each of the one hundred and fifty who had no family connections, and enough oranges and apples for all the four hundred and fifty prisoners—which was a special treat, because fruit is not on the prison diet and may not be sent in from the outside.

The women’s packages contained flannel nightgowns, soap, toothpaste, and other practical articles which they lacked completely (toothbrushes, underwear, and the like). The men’s parcels contained shirts, underwear, socks, toothpaste, and so forth, according to their individual needs. For the twenty-nine British there was Christmas fruitcake. To get this I had given a baker two litres of my own supply of olive oil, which he traded for butter to bake a cake large enough so that each man could have a good-sized piece, When I gave it to them their joy and surprise were unbounded, for none of them had dreamt of having even a crumb of the cake which to them so represented an English Christmas.

I asked the guards on each floor to help me, and by five o’clock everything had been given out. Then I went dorm to one of the big dormitories for the ‘party.’ It was along room with double-decked blinks down either side and a rather wide passageway through the middle. In the centre of this were a table and some benches. As we came in the sergeant in charge of the room shouted, ‘At attention!’ and the eighty men in the room sprang to their feet in two rows down the centre. It was a grim beginning for a festive occasion. They were ordered ‘at ease’ and stood stiffly during the ceremonies.

The plan had been for the officer in charge of the prison to speak, as well as the Minister from the German Embassy, and they had also asked me if I wouldn’t say something. I could not imagine what one could say to a group of men in a Gestapo prison on Christmas Eve. I looked at the men and saw only hopelessness and despair in the eyes of every one—and yet I was to bring them ‘cheery’ greetings. The Lieutenant had confessed to me that morning how much he hated his job, how much he wanted to be home with his own two children for Christmas. Now he hesitated, cleared his throat, and finally began:—

‘Men, we are all of us away from our homes tonight. I am away from my wife and children, and you are away from yours. It is an unfortunate circumstance that has brought you here, but tonight is Christmas Eve, and we must all join together and each one of us remember what Christmas means to him. You have done wrong—that is why you are here. I hope you will never again have to spend a Christmas Eve in jail. However, we must all be gay tonight and make each other happy.’

He concluded by thanking me for the work I was doing in the prisons, for the Christmas trees, the packages, the fruit. The French prisoner who was ‘chairman’ of the room thanked the officers for the permission to have the party, the Lieutenant for the kind words he had spoken, and me for the things I had brought. There was a dreadful, awkward pause after this. The Minister from the German Embassy had not arrived, and so I realized that I was next. I swallowed, gulped, grabbed hold of the table nervously, and blurted out a few incoherent phrases, everything I had wanted to say dying on my lips.

When I had finished they applauded. There was another dreadful pause. The Lieutenant asked nervously, ‘Can’t someone sing? Let’s have some music. Come, let’s be gay!’ They pushed forward a young Frenchman who in a beautiful clear voice sang ‘Noel.’ It took me back to the Christmas Eve after the Armistice of 1918, when, under such different circumstances, I had knelt with hundreds of others at midnight in St. Sulpice and Clément of the Paris Opera had sung that same carol. When the young prisoner finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The Lieutenant called again for a song, everyone hesitated, and then he asked if someone couldn’t sing ‘Stille Nacht.’ A German Jew stepped up—a short, stubby man, unshaven, without a tie, who from tenseness and nervousness was digging his fingernails into the palms of his hands. He sang the song with such feeling and emotion that when he finished the room was completely dissolved in tears.

Presented by

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In