Rejoice our freedom to sing ‘Silent Night’ in Iowa

One of the more gripping, inspiring Christmas stories I’ve ever heard doesn’t involve Tiny Tim and a bunch of lame ghosts.

Or Jimmy Stewart and a town called Bedford Falls. (With apologies to Denison native and Academy Award-winning actress Donna Reed, who was more stunning on a black-and-white screen than any modern 3D-produced actress.)

Or that kid who wants a BB gun.

That’s fiction.

Maybe it’s all the yellowed papers I’ve gone through to research some recent history-minded stories here, but my heart this holiday season goes back to Christmas Eve in 1944 in war-torn Europe — on a train full of Allied prisoners of war.

The real meaning of this holiday never seemed more clear to me than it did on Page 243 of historian Stephen Ambrose’s book, “Citizen Soldiers.”

This Christmas story concerns Private Vonnegut.

After his fighting group was forced to surrender, the Germans marched the POWs some 60 miles to Limburg. There, they were marched to railroad yards and loaded on to 40-and-8s, French rail cars from World War I designed to hold 40 men or eight horses.

There was no water, food or sleep, Ambrose wrote.

In Vonnegut’s car, half the men had to stand so the other half could sleep.

There they stayed for days, according to Ambrose.

In one of those cars, a man began singing.

“He obviously had a trained voice; he was a superb tenor,” Private George Zak recalled.

He sang “Silent Night.”

Soon, others in the car took up the song.

It spread through the cars.

The German guards even joined in.

But suddenly, in the middle of the song, the air-raid siren went off. The Royal Air Force started bombing the train, not knowing it carried Allied prisoners of war.

Many men died.

Eventually the bombing stopped.

“Hey,” someone called out from one of the railroad cars. “Hey, tenor, give us some more.”

A voice from the other end of the car responded: “He ain’t here. He got killed.”

“So it went on the Western Front during the Christmas season of 1944,” Ambrose wrote.

With brave Americans again giving life and limb, this story is particularly timely, and should give us all pause as we have the free voices to sing “Silent Night.”

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