Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A TEN-CENT CHRISTMAS GIFT THAT CHANGED LIVES



            The phenomenon military historians label “Total War” was introduced in World War I and characterized much of WWII, with long-range aerial bombing campaigns which virtually erased such geographic novelties as borders, fortresses and defensive redoubts. Such adjectives as impregnable and unassailable no longer had real-world meaning. Most of all it meant that civilian populations differed from combatants mostly in their inability to fight back, or in many cases even to sustain themselves with the basics of human sustenance. In much of Nazi Europe’s cities, civilian factory workers lived along the edges of the very manufacturing centers which they served and the very facilities the bombers sought to destroy.
            Along with Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Darmstadt, the city of Kassel has the distinction of being one of Germany’s targets most severely hit by Allied bombers. Located in the Hesse region of west central Germany, Kassel was headquarters to the Fiesler aircraft plant and the tank-producing Henschel factory, as well as being a key rail transportation hub. Particularly devastating was the night of October 22-23, 1943 when 569 Royal Air Force bombers dropped 1800 tons of high explosives, including incendiaries, on the downtown area. The resulting firestorm killed 10,000 people – mostly civilians – with flames still burning one week later. More than 150,000 were left homeless so that by the time the U.S. 80th Infantry Division liberated the city after bitter house-to-house fighting, with even more devastation between April 2-4, 1945, the population was only 20% of that in 1939.




 A 1947 snapshot reveals residents of Kassel clearing the wreckage in city center. The U.S. Marshal Plan would bring much-needed assistance in returning the ancient city to normal.



            My dear and patriotic Utah friend Barbara was born in the midst of war to a Kassel family whose home – built a decade before the Columbus voyage – had been repeatedly damaged by bombs that obliterated 90% of their city’s center. Her father had been missing and presumed lost since his U-boat had blown up and sunk off the coast of Norway and she and her twin brother Rolf , lived with their mother and maternal grandmother who had weathered the loss of many relatives. For a while Barbara’s grand-mother had worked as the only female trolley car driver in all of Germany during the war years.
             Even after the war’s end and life under the occupying Americans began, surviving amid the ruins of a city where hunger and misery were constant companions was a daily test, with garden produce and wheat cereal making up their greatly reduced diet. By 1947, still with no knowledge that their father and one shipmate had indeed survived the sinking of their vessel and been imprisoned by the British, the approach of Christmas held little promise for the family.
            It was a cold and unpromising Christmas Eve as the children and their mother and grandmother walked homeward. A large American car began to pass before suddenly stopping nearby. As they watched, a tall woman with long blonde hair and a stylish red coat – probably the wife of an American officer – exited the rear passenger door and approached the family group. Smiling, she presented them with a small handheld gift, kissing them each on a cheek, before driving away into the gathering gloom.
            The recipients of the strange “angel’s” gift found themselves in wondering possession of four chocolate Hershey bars. Returning home, their Christmas Eve celebration saw the mother carefully break the first Hershey bar into four equal pieces, each of them marveling at the sweet creamy chocolate marvel which they feasted over ever so slowly. For Barbara it was the first taste of chocolate in her four-and-a-half year life, and one she would never forget. For most of the next week, they would follow the same routine until all four bars had been shared in a communion-like ceremony, an image of the kind blonde-haired American in the red coat an enduring part of what would be a lifetime Christmas memory.
            In time, the hearts of the family –including the father who had survived the war and come home – softened to the point that a former American missionary had their blessing when he courted and won the heart of their Barbara. This year, as in each year since, the first Christmas gift under Barbara’s American tree will be a be-ribboned package containing four Hershey bars.

Friday, December 5, 2014

1914 – CHRISTMAS IN “NO-MAN’S LAND”



            Because of the passage of as many as four generations of time, and since we live within the shadow of more recent world-changing events, that “quotation mark” of history known as World War One – and to earlier generations as The Great War – receives little modern-day attention. Because I grew up in the home of a wounded veteran of that war, it still looms large in my view of much of the unintended consequences which are still with us today. In setting a background for today’s story which took place exactly 100 years ago, allow me a paragraph or two of history.
            The German High Command began its invasion of France in August, 1914 with a wily attack through the Belgian-French border with two Armies, following the Schlieffen Plan, with the objective of driving rapidly south to a largely-undefended Paris, thinking to win and end the war in 41 days, with 1st Army on the west and 2nd Army the east of the two-pronged assault. As it turned out, von Kluck’s 1st Army allowed a 30-mile gap to open giving the Allies an opportunity to attack his right flank. On Sept. 6th, 1914 – 37 days into the invasion – the exhausting 1st Battle of the Marne was underway. By its end, the Germans had been stopped, but each side had lost 250,000 killed and wounded in a month-long campaign which had seen more killed per-day than any battle of that immensely costly war.
            WWI would cost Germany 2,800,000 dead (4% of population,) France 1,700,000 (4.4%,) U.K. Commonwealth 1,200,000 (2+%) and the U.S. joining the Allies in 1917, 117,000. All together, the war would leave 16 million dead and more than 20 million wounded. With 1 million widows and 3 million orphans, Europe would lose much of a generation, with years of depression and economic suffering to follow.
             After the 1st Marne, the Germans would entrench along the Aisne River with orders to hold at all costs, thus instituting the trench warfare which would dominate the rest of the war.
            Christmas Day 1914 dawned with a cold damp fog and ground frost covering much of the “No-Man’s Land” between the parallel trenches of the two sides. The English were first to hear the singing: Oh Little Town of Bethlehem in German rising from enemy trenches a hundred yards away. One daring patrol crawled out of the Allied trenches to find a wooden sign: WE LEAVE OUR WEAPONS – YOU LEAVE YOUR WEAPONS!  “It must be a trick” most Tommies thought. “Those people hate us.” But songs and hails of “Merry Christmas” in German, French and English persisted. First one daring soldier, then another ventured forward from each side, followed by many more. Those watching warily soon joined their comrades, shaking hands, exchanging greetings and even slapping backs – like old friends meeting after a long absence. Chocolate bars were traded for chewing gum, cigarettes for English beer, and odds and ends of value exchanged merely as gifts of good will and the spirit of Christmas.


            One of the most repeated stories is that of the football (soccer) games which apparently broke out at a number of locations where anything that could be filled with straw or rags and kicked around served as the object of friendly competition. All of this Christmas activity didn’t just happen at one location, but played out along more than 100 miles of opposing trench lines as enemies celebrated together. 


  Enemy soldiers share a smoke during the spontaneous Christmas Truce of 1914.

            The story of the Christmas Truce to the British, and the Weihnachtsfrieden to the Germans has been recognized over the years as a moment of “humanity” in the midst of bitter struggle; an enigma; even perhaps a miracle. My own view is somewhat simpler: Wars are given birth by politicians, planned by Admirals and Generals and self-perpetuating staff members, and fought by common soldiers, sailors and airmen whose ties to home, faith, families and the values which shaped them are never completely extinguished - even in the harsh realities of a battleground. I continue to believe that the best which lies within us as members of the human race has the power to overcome the very worst against which we might come to face.
            This year – 2014 – will see the story of the Christmas Truce played out on stage, on the screen, in churches and schools and in the home living rooms of remembering people across Europe on the 100th anniversary of what took place in “No Man’s Land” that long ago Christmas night.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

RELISHING THE TASTE OF SUMMERS PAST



            As temperatures drop and the arrival of winter storm clouds underline the inevitable change of seasons, we watch as snow covers last year’s garden patch, now just a colorful memory. As a young lad who enjoyed the arrival of winter, I took special comfort in the knowledge that now, at last, we could start opening those colorful Ball jars slumbering on basement shelves which had been “out-of-bounds” for weeks or months. Of course we had already made a dent in the rows of “common” preserved garden vegetables in their own quart jars, such as beans, corn, tomatoes, beets, English peas and such. It was the pickled preserves that seemed to us kids to be the “jewels” of canning times, partly because we all played a part in the work that went on in a kitchen filled for days with the mouth-watering scent of vinegar, spices, and savory seasonings.
            It seemed to me that it was usually a Saturday night, as an accompaniment to tuna salad and Dutch-fried potatoes that Mom would say, “Oh I think we need some pickles to complete the table-setting.” Since our family was equally split between Pepper Relish - an amalgam of chopped cabbage onions and peppers – and Mom’s three-generation-old specialty, Chili Sauce; a thick sweet-sour tomato, pepper and onion wonder simmered for hours with a potpourri of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and mace tied in its cheese-cloth cloak dangling from a cotton cord. (Perhaps you can tell where my vote lay!)
            Pickled preserves were held in special esteem in my growing-up household, and my wife’s New England genealogy fortunately was not only parallel, but only added some new dimensions to my own – much to the benefit of our offspring who carry on the tradition. In fact our extended family (now embracing 4 generations,) value one favorite above all others, and that is a version of Corn Relish which was born in our own Vermont kitchen nearly 50 years ago.
            I was four years old when our family visited some old friends at their seaside cottage in South Carolina while we were breaking in my Dad’s brand new 1937 Oldsmobile. During our stay, I was often left in the care of the household Maid – a wonderful young black woman named “Dolly”- who became my constant companion as she went about her duties, one of which was preparing and putting up a batch of pickled watermelon rind. Somewhere we have an old photo of the two of us holding hands. Ever since that experience, putting up my own Watermelon Rind Pickles (a highly labor-intensive endeavor) is an almost spiritual experience for me every summer.
            Among the extraordinary output of our old-time family pickling enterprise, I learned to love Pickled Beets and Onions, Green Tomato Piccalilli, Bread and Butter Chips and of course my father’s incomparable German-Style Dills.  Since we always raised our own bed of dillweed, we also“dilled” Green Beans, Carrot Sticks, and Mixed Vegetables (cauliflower flowerets, whole pickling onions and tiny cucumbers.) There are so many ways of pickling cukes, from Mustard-flavored to Sweet Baby Gherkins, the variations are almost unlimited, and always worthwhile. I like to try something new each year.
            I don’t have enough space to expand the subject matter to include Chutneys and Ketchups, but I must at least refer to the magic of Pickled Seckel Pears, Spiced Peaches and Apple Chow Chow to say nothing of the importance of sugars in producing such standbys as Mincemeat, Devilled Ham and other Potted meats. And I would be derelict if I failed to mention preserving with a salt and spice pickling brine; my perennial favorites being Corned Beef and Sauerkraut. (By the way if you add a smoking stage to a finished, black pepper-wrapped corned beef you can end up with an outstanding Pastrami!)



 A display of pickles in a country Farmers’ Market suggests the almost limitless possibility for pickles and relishes to make the coldest winter tolerable.                                                                                       Al Cooper Photo