When the singing stops on Christmas Eve in bombed-out Europe: Sitting at my computer in Philadelphia, looking back


Die schönsten deutschen Weihnachtslieder—The most beautiful German Christmas songs

I have not lived in Germany for a long, long time. However, here in Philadelphia, quite far from the land of my birth, when I turn on my computer every December and search YouTube for “Deutsche Weihnachtslieder”—German Christmas songs—my screen fills with a little church in the mountains of Bavaria, where I grew up during World War II.

Snowflakes fall down onto my laptop, church bells start ringing, and a children’s choir sings carols in my mother tongue—and then, something hits me hard every year.

The world of my childhood suddenly seems whole and perfect for a few seconds—a few minutes, maybe—with the illusion of peace, harmony, and goodwill for all.

But then, reality hits me.

After the bombardment of Wuppertal, only ruins remained. Remscheider General-Anzeiger, 1945.

After the bombardment of Wuppertal, only ruins remained. Remscheider General-Anzeiger, 1945.

Days in bombed-out Europe

In 1945, millions of Europeans who lived in London, Rotterdam, Warsaw, Dresden, and other cities that had been bombed into ruins were either killed or trapped in basements—with relatives desperately digging through rubble, trying to find survivors.

World War II had thrown millions of people out of their homes all over Europe and turned many survivors into refugees without money, jobs, or hope. Countless people lived in refugee camps, bunkers, in the streets, or in overcrowded places.

My father, a young journalist and war correspondent, aged 31, was missing in action.

In 1948, an old relative invited my mother, my little sister, and me to share her small, one-bedroom apartment with two other families in Wuppertal, a city near Düsseldorf and Cologne. When we looked out the window, blackened ruins of a once-large apartment building stared us in the face.

My grandparents lived in a large apartment building in Wuppertal that looked very similar to this photo of bomb-damaged buildings that had somewhat survived.

My grandparents lived in a large apartment building in Wuppertal that looked very similar to this photo of bomb-damaged buildings that had somewhat survived.

When the singing stops ​on Christmas Eve—year after year

As children, we did not understand the horror behind the destruction. We rejoiced when we heard my mother’s little brass bell that let my sister and me into the festively-decorated room, when we saw the Christmas tree with all its candles burning—initially puzzled why our old, beaten-up tin bucket filled with water was sitting next to the tree—and when we began to sing Christmas songs with our mother and our two grandparents.

Soon, my grandmother stopped singing. She took out her little handkerchief and sobbed. Two songs later, my grandfather stopped singing, too. He rubbed his eyes with his big hands, pretending that he had some dust in his eyes. It took me some years before I realized why they stopped singing: both my grandparents had lost their only son, drafted at 17, killed in Russia.

PictureAt Eternity's Gate. Old man grieving with his head in his hands. Vincent Van Gogh, Lithograph, 1882.

At Eternity’s Gate. Old man grieving with his head in his hands. Vincent Van Gogh, Lithograph, 1882.

However, my mother, my sister, and I kept singing.

My father had disappeared in the Soviet Union. None of us knew for many years after the war that Russian partisans had thrown a Molotov cocktail under his car and blown him and his driver up in the summer of 1944. My mother, unaware that she already was a widow, yet filled with fear and apprehension, stopped singing and started to cry.

In spite of all the tears, my little sister and I kept singing, no matter what. We both wanted to save Christmas—Heiligabend after Heiligabend. The same scenario repeated itself every year, way into the 1950s.

Burning candle on a Christmas tree.

Burning candle on a Christmas tree.

Each Christmas song in Philly brings back the sorrow and the joy in the ruins of Europe 

My grandparents died many years ago. My little sister, Birgit, who became a librarian and an astrologer in Munich, died way before her time from breast cancer, shortly after the publication of her first book: Of Fairy Tales and Greek Myths–presented from a literary and an astrological perspective. My mother, broken and burdened by the loss of her brother, her husband, and her daughter, cried often. A year later, she followed them into timelessness.

The Astrologer, my play about my sister. Image: Book opening to the Zodiac signs.

The Astrologer, my play about my sister. Image: Book opening to the Zodiac signs.

And now, a writer and retired professor, I am sitting at my computer in Philadelphia, writing new articles, stories, and plays, and listening with joy and sadness, both tinged with the emotions of those annual family events when we sang Christmas songs in bombed-out Wuppertal during that postwar period. Each December, whether I want it or not, each song brings back lost time and memories of events past.

As in all the years before, I fight tears, aware that after all these many decades, I’m still allowed to re-live those Christmas evenings of my childhood whenever snow falls gently onto my computer screen and a children’s choir in Bavaria sings Weihnachtslieder, courtesy of YouTube.​

Kinderchor Neubeuern, Bavaria.

Kinderchor Neubeuern, Bavaria.

Christmas wish: May those who come after us ​do a better job than we did

One thing I know, even when all those of us living today have gone for good, “Stille Nacht,” “Silent Night,” and all the other old Christmas songs will live on—provided we do not destroy our world.

Fröhliche Weihnachten, merry Christmas, and a heart full of hope.

​One day, may those who come after us, doing a better job than we did, hand over permanent peace as a present for the generations to come—not just for Christmas, but for life.

Picture Destroying the earth by Elke Colangelo Picture Holding the earth, trying to keep it alive.
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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com