Gestapo Christmas

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

Occupying German troops shop in Paris in 1940. (AP)

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, 1942

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.

We said good-night, they all shouted, ‘Thank you! Merry Christmas!’ and the door closed behind us. I started to blow my nose and was stumbling across the courtyard, where by prearranged plan we were supposed to conduct another ‘celebration,’ but the Lieutenant grabbed my shoulder and said, ‘No, Marvel, once is enough. You and I will never do that again. I can’t stand it. Didn’t you see how those men cried?’

The Captain of all the Gestapo prisons in Paris had sent me an invitation to the Christmas party he was giving for his staff, at the Cherche Midi prison.

When I rang the bell at nine o’clock that evening the guard peered through the little peephole and, after I gave my name, shouted, ‘Jawohl!’ The huge gate swung open. Another guard led me upstairs to the staff dining room. There, seated at a long table, were the Captain and his staff. They cheered me as I came in and showed me to a vacant seat on the Captain’s right.

In front of each place was a plate piled with chocolates, packages of cigarettes, and a small piece of evergreen. The little blond mess cook was busily running around filling the glasses with hot mulled wine. There was much laughing and joking back and forth across the table, and everyone seemed in high spirits when Captain L. stood up to make his speech. Previously I had seen him only under circumstances where he was brusque and short with his men. Now, however, he responded to their good spirits with a talk that radiated friendliness and warmth. He teased some of them about episodes that had occurred in the prison; he thanked me for the work we had done, particularly for the Christmas packages. Then he launched forth into a diatribe on the greatness of the German army, its eventual victory, and the necessity for personal sacrifices to bring this about.

There was much applause when the Captain finished speaking, and there was no question in my mind that he had the loyalty of all his officers and men. I was a little abashed when I was called upon to speak next. I had not expected to be asked, and had the most dreadful time getting into German a few thoughts appropriate to this evening. I knew that all these men were thinking of home as I was; although our reasons for being in the staff dining room of the Cherche Midi prison were widely separated, it seemed to me there were certain essential things of the spirit on which we could all meet, and this was my message to them.

No gathering of German soldiers would be complete without singing, and this evening was no exception—but the martial marching songs one is accustomed to hear as the army tramps from post to post were tonight forgotten for the charming old folk songs and lovely German carols. Every now and then one of the men would jump up to sing his favorite carol, or the particular folk song of his district. These were the songs of childhood that all of us, even I in America, had learned for very different Christmas Eves.

Friedrich, one of the guards from the second floor of the prison, raised his glass for a toast. He was a typical young German soldier, and had seemed unresponsive and curt when on duty. Now he seemed shy and hesitant, as he toasted all of us and said, ‘I am happy tonight, because today I was given the opportunity to distribute some packages to the prisoners in my cell block. In doing this I myself had the privilege of bringing happiness and Christmas cheer to those men, and I am so grateful for the chance.’ There was more cheering, toasts, bantering, songs. I was mellowing under the spirit of good will and thinking to myself, ‘This is like a bunch of American college boys’—when suddenly the atmosphere of the whole room cracked. Someone gave an order—they all jumped to their feet, clicked their heels, lifted their right arms in the Nazi salute, and sang the ‘Horst Wessel’ song. All the friendliness and good cheer that had pervaded the room just a moment before congealed, and I was appalled by the cruelty of the song and the vehemence with which it was shouted, rather than sung.

Directly after this Lieutenant X escorted me to the front gate. It was pitch-dark in the blackout, and almost time for curfew. The silence was overwhelming, as if mankind were waiting—just biding time. I thought of the effort on the part of everyone to remember the spirit of the evening, to express the friendship and love that signify Christmas. Then the sadness in my own heart reminded me of the bitterness and hate that had also had their place in the evening’s festivities. ‘Peace on earth, good will to men’—the words we had sung seemed as hollow as my footsteps on the still pavement. I wondered if it could, if it would ever come about—it seemed postponed so far into the future.