Ecumenical Christmas 1916

Stefanie Riedl-Ruczkowski
Sophie A. Welisch, PhD., Trans.

Published in the Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia,
Vol. 12, No. 4 – Winter 1989, pp. 17 – 21.

Posted with permission of the AHSGR and the translator, April 14, 1996

(This essay, written by the author as a Christmas letter to her friends and acquaintances in 1974, was translated from the German and edited by Sophie A. Welisch, PhD. Born in Bukovina when it was still an integral province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mrs. Riedl-Ruczkowski was active in Church affairs in her native village of Gurahumora and served for may years as president of the Marianische Kongregation (Marian Congregation). In 1940 she participated in the en masse voluntary transfer of the Bukovina Germans to the Reich, eventually settling in Knittelfeld, a small village in Styria, Austria, where she lived until her demise in 1989.)

When four candles on the Advent wreath burn
To signal the birth of our Lord
Our hearts to our dear ones return
With feelings of love and accord. 1

What shall I give you? I have nothing. All my dreams have evaporated with time and circumstances. But still there is something I would like to place among your Christmas gifts: it is to share with you the experiences of a Holy Night that can best be described as “ecumenical.” I, therefore, ask you to leave your comfortable chairs and travel with me on the wings of time. Our trip will take us far to the east, beyond Hungary and across the Carpathian Mountains to Bukovina, my homeland. As the third generation in the land, we had attained a comfortable standard of living.2 But no sooner had our community begun to flourish than the fury of the First World War (1914-1918) engulfed us, ravaging not only the countryside but also undermining the future basis of existence of the younger generation.

In 1916, one day before the feast day of Corpus Christi (celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday), the Russians invaded my hometown of Gurahumora.3 But first our own people plundered it in order that nothing of value should remain for the enemy. Loudly the drums rolled, signaling the draft for all males between fourteen and sixty years of age and the surrender of cattle, grain, horses, wagons, copper pots, mortars, church bells, and yes, even linens from our closets. The people stood by, helpless and perplexed. Then an officer came riding up and shouted, “Don’t give them anything. You will starve. Hide what you can, especially food. You have at least that much right to live. Drive the cattle into the forest.” Then he dispersed the plunderers.

If everything was used for the benefit of the fatherland, I cannot say, but for our war losses we received receipts which were supposedly redeemable after victory. Every who had money and status fled the area. But there was no room for the others. They were sacrificed, driven back, as the bridges were blown up and the warehouses burned. Nor did we have much time to fully comprehend our situation. We could already hear the thundering of cannons and the whirring of shrapnel through the air. We sought shelter in a root cellar above which my father had placed air iron block. The trees which, with their branches, caught the bullets and deflected them from their targets, also offered protection.

After about two hours the Russians arrived. Fresh from battle, with partially blackened faces, frothing at the mouth, and red-eyed, they searched first for soldiers. Then with a cry of “hurrah” they stormed the town to celebrate their victory. For three days they had free reign. Our own people had taken everything but the whiskey. And under the influence of liquor these foreign hordes turned into hyenas. To make matters worse, the mayor had fled instead of surrendering the key to the town to the commandant and raising a white flag which would have placed Gurahumora under the latter’s protection. In the absence of an official surrender, the town was declared hostile and treated accordingly: the people were tortured and its buildings burned. I don’t want to elaborate on all the atrocities but only on two, one of which has etched itself into my soul as if it had just happened yesterday.

At daybreak my father hurriedly hid my mother under the veranda. No sooner had he completed this task than the plundering, thieving gangs appeared in the streets. If no one was in a house, they burned it; if someone was there, he was tortured just short of death. Most women had fled into the forest or were hiding in the irrigation ditches. And since the invaders found practically no women, they beat the other residents of the house to unconsciousness, then with a kick pushed them together in a pile and threw all sorts of objects at them. During the second night they threatened my father so much that he almost lost his reason. I believe this shock later caused the stroke which left him with painful after-effects and contributed to his early death.

Some twenty men entered the house, locked the door, and after encircling my father with guns and bayonets, yelled, “money, woman or shoot!” He had no money. The little he had left he had buried. They ripped off his shirt and for about an hour they slowly jabbed at him with their bayonets. My father was as white as chalk, with beads of perspiration streaming from his forehead, yet he defended himself as best he could. He could speak a little Ukrainian, but it availed him little. “You sell cattle, you have money. Crown or woman!” He stood like Jesus at the pillory. Finally near collapse, he murmured, “You can kill me, but I have no money.” At this moment a woman’s scream pierced the night air and the soldiers could not get out of the house fast enough to pursue it to its source.

My mother, who had heard our heartrending cries and believed us dead by now, couldn’t get out of her hiding place. With her fingernails she began to loosen a stone in the wall. Nothing mattered to her any more. A neighbor responded to her lamentations and calmed her: “They’re alive! But there is a fire on the other street. We have to be careful.” Sure enough, the wretches had torched a housing complex. Apparently the woman had escaped and this was their way of getting revenge. Imagine, all houses of wood with shingles of small dry boards! Like brilliant fireworks the flaming shingles flew through the air in our direction. My father had hardly had time to recover from his shock when the fire blazed toward him. After wrapping up my brother in a blanket, he placed him in a currant bush and put in my hand a stick with a rag with which to attack the burning shingles. A breeze arose. The shingles flew even higher carrying flames with them. All seemed hopeless. The night was as bright as day as other soldiers streamed out of town and, thinking the enemy had returned, led the first group away. A woman in the neighborhood gathered together all the children, and they prayed the litany of the Virgin Mary under the open skies. It was terrifying as the plea, “Holy Mary, pray for us,” resounded through the night. And lo, a storm arose, turning the wind in the other direction, toward the forest. Thunder rumbled as a shower drenched the land and extinguished the flames.

In the rectory the priest was threatened with the noose if he failed to produce nine Jews. It was simply grotesque; there is no other way to describe it. By this time you are probably wondering what all this has to do with Christmas. But you will soon find out. Finally the general who commanded the next wave of Russian troops arrived and put an end to the atrocities.

We had to register for work and always be at our posts, the worst of which was the digging of trenches for the front. After about three months, things quieted down. The war had come to a standstill since the Carpathians served as a natural barrier. There was only one narrow pass through the mountains and here thousands lost their lives. In our town a first aid station was set up for the wounded while the facilities of the high school and other public buildings were used as a hospital.

Soon the specter of hunger stalked the streets and misery could be seen in everyone’s face. With the approach of winter, conditions became even more harsh and grim.

And then Christmas arrived.

Quartered in my grandmother’s house was an officer who had his own personal cook and secretary. Two Russian doctors were living with us at the time. We were glad, since the infantrymen in the area were always full of lice, which they passed on to us gratis. With every change of troops, the house had to be deloused with boiling water. After the doctors left, the officer told my father to accommodate his men, about fifteen in number, who worked with him in a warehouse which stored reinforcements for their compatriots at the front. They seemed like decent chaps, and we could at least look forward to an end of constantly housing new troops with the inevitable lice. And so it came to pass that we were relegated to the kitchen which we had to share with the officer’s cook, a Pole from Russian-Poland. This man treated my mother well.

My father asked the officer for some food, which he offered to buy. Although the officer agreed, nothing came of it. For better or for worse, we struggled to survive. Then a small miracle happened.

The officer remembered that we celebrated Christmas earlier than did the Russian Orthodox, and he asked my grandmother, whom he called “Babushka,” when the holiday fell.4 “Today is Christmas Eve,” she replied. “Your son-in-law asked me for something,” he retorted, “and I shall comply with his wishes forthwith.” Calling his secretary, he handed him a slip of paper for the warehouse. It was not long before three soldiers arrived like the Three Kings of old, with bread, meal, oil, meat, liver, tea, and sugar, explaining that the officer had sent them and wished us a merry Christmas. Then they vanished. We were speechless, with only my mother reacting swiftly. “Go,” she told my father, “and pay them. I don’t want anything from these people.” He went. But soon he returned with the money and remarked, “The officer doesn’t want money but rather that we invite him. He wants to see how we celebrate Christmas.” It was 9:00 a.m. My mother was enraged and flatly refused, telling Father to return everything, and so forth.

My father uttered not a word but sat motionless in his chair. Bewildered, my mother said nothing more. Then Father observed quietly: “Are you quite finished? We must invite him no matter what happens. We are at his mercy. He can even send me to Siberia as he did a neighbor who had angered him.” Mother conceded, but she cried, “How will I be able to finish all this work in such a short time?” The cook then entered the room and asked what reply he should relay to the officer. My father explained the situation to him. “If that only problem, no worry,” the cook answered. “I help. But no refuse officer. No good. We easy finish by 6:00 p.m.” Mother agreed, but again she held a trump card in her hand. “If I go along with this, they must all be invited, also those here.” Father would extend the invitations. The officer was astounded. “Is this the master of the house?” Father nodded amiably, but he still had to meet Mother’s conditions. The officer laughed (as did my mother): “All should celebrate together!” His eyes then became moist. “Fine,” he said, “tell them and send me the cook.”

As Father relayed the information to the soldiers, they couldn’t believe their ears. They should all sit together at the same table with the officer. Happiness and impatience mingled in their faces as one of them then went along with the cook to confirm the invitation. “Yes,” the officer noted, “the lady of the house wants us all to be together. And this it shall be, but don’t embarrass me. You are soldiers of a great people who also know what culture means.” The cook got blanket access to the supplies in the warehouse but he also wanted to be included. That issue was also favorably resolved.

We then proceeded with the preparations. My brother went to get Grandmother while two soldiers brought in two large crates. The cook respectfully asked Mother to let him take over and to help only if he requested her to do so. A large cauldron of warm water was set up in the courtyard. Everyone had to wash his hands and was assigned tasks: boning the herring, cutting the onions, breading the meat, and so forth. Mother had to make a yeast dough. Two men went into the forest for wood and fir trees. Father, serving as interpreter, gave them a sleigh since it was snowing and wheels were of no use.

Everything went like clockwork. By 4:00 p.m. the food was ready. I brought a small tree to which the soldiers fastened candles with wire. From paper that came with the box of sugar, I wrapped up sugar cubes for trimmings. The soldiers assisted and were remarkably adept at it. All were suddenly transformed into ordinary human beings. One came into the room with straw from which he made chains. At 4:30 the cook told Mother to get dressed (he wanted her out of the kitchen). Father brought out a hanging lamp and they gave us oil for it. We had illumination! Otherwise we used only a small candle since there was no oil to be had.5 The kitchen was emptied, with sack and pack taken over to the soldiers. Only one chest and a table remained behind. Boards were used to extend the length of the table which was then covered by a bolt of new linen. Fir trees stood in the corners of the room and on the table were a single platter and bowl plus spoons, knives, forks and glassware. A roll in the midst of fir twigs served as a candlestick while a few apples and oranges added color to the surroundings. My father asked what was still missing. “A large candle.” They also brought this, inserted it into a bottle, and put it on the plate which contained the hosts.6 At 5:30 p.m. Mother’s relatives began to arrive; aunts and cousins with guitar, violin, and harmonica. They were speechless. Only one aunt complained, but Father said it could not be otherwise.

The other invited guests also came. Mother was a different person. She wore a fine red woolen blouse with a white stand-up collar and delicate lace frill. Her hair was pinned up and she did not use the dark powder which the women were applying to make themselves less attractive. It all seemed like a dream. As Father offered the officer the place of honor, he invited him to choose a lady to sit next to him. Although there were three lovely young girls present, he nonetheless went to Babushka, kissed her hand, and escorted her to the table. After all had taken their places (there were thirty-one in all), they sang a Christmas carol. The soldiers brought out their balalaikas and the Christmas festivities began:

After the large candle was lit and the lamp was burning low, Father arose from his seat. He recited the Lord’s Prayer to the midpoint and the guests completed it in Latin, which surprised us. They even knew the Hail Mary. Then, breaking the hosts and giving each guest a piece, Father wished them a safe return to their homeland. From the flame of the large candle he in turn lighted everyone’s small candle. Caroling accompanied by instrumental music followed. To the trained ear, our music no doubt sounded off-key and out of tune but to the Lord it was a community of brethren.

Then followed the culinary delights. There were vodka, baked herring, fish salad, borscht (beet soup), warm patties of fish and liver baked in yeast dough, and red wine. Mother surprised us with her pastries (Schneeballen) dipped in boiling oil which, sprinkled with sugar and filled with marmalade, were both pleasing to the eye and to the tongue. Grandmother had made them while Mother was dressing for the occasion. From the warehouse came a ten-liter flask of wine.

The evening passed with conversation carried on by hand and foot. It was a happy crowd, all filled with love which generates its own warmth. Love is the only foreign language that all men can understand. Then the Christ Child came and brought my brother a hobbyhorse, which I had exchanged for my beautiful doll. But he was still too small to sit on it alone. And another surprise followed: everyone received a chocolate bar, the men cigarettes, and the women a comb and soap. The officer gave my father a silver coin, an Austrian crown. The soldiers, who were good singers, soon mastered Stille Nacht (Silent Night), Oh, du Fröhliche (O sanctissima) and Auf, auf ihr Christen (Up, Up Ye Christians). They sang beautifully in Russian, better than we. They had good voices. Everything seemed so out of the ordinary, well beyond the humdrum of everyday experience.

Mass was held at 6:00 a.m. rather than at midnight, since there was a curfew in effect until 5:00 a.m. With a knock at the door, a messenger announced: “Greetings, dear people, it is time for mass. I will lead the way. Whoever wants to attend, come along. No one need fear, since I have permission for all.” Again it was necessary to provide a Russian translation, and the officer replied that he would also like to go. But first it was necessary to draw the festivities to a close. “Please, master of the house, give me the hosts in order that we can conclude the evening in a worthy manner.” Father extended them to him. All arose and prayed. He divided the hosts among the group and then all kissed each other in the Russian manner (three times on the cheeks in rotation), also my father. Then they thanked us, stating they would never forget this night.

After we were all dressed for church and went into the courtyard, we found soldiers there who were heating up the cauldron. Mother ran back to the house and begged the cook to give them something too. Grandmother then carried my sleeping brother back home with her.

Outside the snow lay knee-deep and had first to be cleared away. Snow shovelers, including women and children, had already reached the main street. The officer called the guards, informing them that the women and children were to return home. There were about twenty. Moreover, each was to receive a loaf of bread, two tins of food, a pound of sugar, tea, and a ruble. He would pay for it and clear it with the commandant. “Women’s work is in the hospital, not in the streets or in the trenches. Today you shall have a holiday. We are soldiers of the great Russian people and also know how to be magnanimous.”

The church was dark and cold. A solitary candle burned on the main altar and at the stations of the cross since there was no other illumination. But there were many people at the service including children, old men and frightened women. The men played Auf, auf ihr Christen on shawms (early wooden instruments with a double reed; a forerunner of the modern oboe). Then the priest read the gospel: “Today in the city of David a Savior is born to all the people,” which also doubled as a sermon. “We have suffered much. Let us trust God and pray for peace, amen.” This was his shortest sermon ever. After the blessing, the officer and his men went to the creche, followed by all the other soldiers. The people made room for them, anxious to see what would transpire. Then they sang and played “Silent Night” and other carols. After leaving a gift at the creche, they departed, as the people waved to them.

The priest greeted the soldiers outside the church and wanted to invite the officer, but he declined. “Tonight I have learned that one is truly a man when one hears the call of God and follows Him, irrespective of the nation to which one belongs or the belief to which one adheres. God is present where there is love. And I would not want anyone to take this vision and experience from me or talk me out of it. I must go. Duty calls. I am a soldier,” He took his leave but was no longer the same person.

We later learned that the soldiers were a group of students from St. Petersburg who had enlisted in a medical unit in order not to be sent to the front. The cook, a theology student, was a poor boy who had paid for his education by working as a butler in a rich house, which explains his culinary skills.

When we returned home, we found everything in order. The soldiers were gone. It all seemed like a dream. Even the snow had stopped falling. But the sky was gray and dark. We were at war.

That was the ecumenical Christmas celebrated in 1916 at Glasberg in Gurahumora in my native Bukovina.


  1. Wenn am Kranz brennen die vier Kerzen
    Und ankündigen das Kommen der Heiligen Nacht
    Wird mit Sehnsucht im Herzen
    An der Lieben gedacht.
  2. Here the author uses the oft-cited axiom, “for the first settlers there was death (Tod); for the second, need (Not); for the third, bread (Brot),” characterizing the very difficult pioneering conditions they encountered in the undeveloped lands of the East.
  3. The Russians achieved a military breakthrough in Bukovina early in the war. By September 20, 1914 they had captured the provincial capital of Czernowitz in northern Bukovina, only to lose it again by October 21. For the next three years the front vacillated, now to the advantage of Russia, then to the advantage of Austria, until the Russian Revolution. By the late fall of 1917 the Russian war effort had disintegrated, only to he finally terminated on December 9, 1917 when the Bolsheviks agreed to an armistice.
  4. The Eastern Church follows the Julian calendar (Old Style) rather than the modified Gregorian calendar (New Style) used in the West, according to which Christmas falls about two weeks later.
  5. Gurahumora had no electricity until the early 1930s. When finally the opportunity for electrification was within reach of the villagers, some, especially the older generation, resisted it, fearing it would be a fire hazard. For others the cost was prohibitive.
  6. Unconsecrated hosts were obtained by the parishioners from the priest for a modest contribution. On Christmas Eve the head of the family broke them, offering a piece to each person at the table. For a discussion of Catholic customs in Bukovina, see Sophie A. Welisch, “Faith of Our Fathers: Ethos and Popular Religious Practices among the German Catholics of Bukovina in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia 11, No. 2 (Summer 1988): 21-28.