In blessed memory of Keith Ginther of Montana: “He’d seen the way the Jewish-American soldiers disappeared from the prison camps”
On Christmas Eve 1944, U.S. troops were in the freezing cold of the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge, waist-high in snow.
We have remembered and told that story on recent Christmas Eves:
I encourage you not only to read the posts and the comments, but also the comments to our prior Facebook threads [here and here] and our current Facebook thread [here] in which people recounted their family experiences.
We also previously remembered Christmas in German POW camp Stalag Luft 1, particularly Lt. Elroy Frank Wyman from Maine, murdered by a German guard.
An Unlikely Silent Night, as told by Keith Ginther
In preparing today’s post, I looked for something beyond the war stories.
And I found a story that took place while American POWs captured during the Battle of the Bulge were marched to Germany.
[German propaganda film][longer video here]
The story was told in 2011 by Keith Ginther of Montana, and was republished on his death in July 2014 by The Great Falls Tribune:
Quiet, dependable, faithful rancher Keith Ginther died Sunday in Choteau. His passing brought to mind this story, which we featured Christmas 2011. I had known him for many years in a vague sort of way. He never had much to say. And then at Christmas one year, he suddenly started talking. He seemed shocked later by all he’d reveled [sic] but proud to have told his story, too. — Kristen Inbody
Here’s an excerpt from his story (emphasis added):
In December 1944, Ginther became one of the 23,000 Americans captured or missing by the end of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s final and ultimately unsuccessful offensive on the Western Front.
He began a 150-mile march into Germany 67 years ago this month. He remembers feeling humbled in defeat, even more so as the POWs met German artillery pulled by horses or one truck pulling another on its way to the front….
The column of POWs passed through a countryside devastated by war and damaged by Allied bombing. At one village, the POWs had to clear rubble so German artillery could pass through. An American bomber pilot joined the prisoner ranks.
“The people seemed to be more hostile to airmen, whom they blamed for being bombed,” Ginther said.
Germans harassed the downed pilot. They’d rush the sides of the column, trying to grab him.
The villagers were starving, exhausted and angry.
When the hostility was at its worst, all the prisoners had reason to be afraid — though none so much as the captured bomber pilot.
Yet at that moment, an American in the ranks began singing “Silent Night.”
“Pretty soon the Germans were singing ‘Silent Night’ too, so it calmed things down,” Ginther said. “Halfway through the first verse, you could hear the German words, too.”
If not for the song, which for one moment brought a measure of peace to a one small corner of Germany, “I don’t really know what would have happened,” he said. “The guards would have tried, I guess, to protect him.”
Read the rest of Ginther’s memories at the link.
The Fate of Jewish-American POWs
This unlikely singing was but a fleeting moment of humanity, as Ginther recalled this:
And he’d heard about the concentration camps. He’d seen the way the Jewish-American soldiers — even just those who looked vaguely Jewish — disappeared from the prison camps.
“Germans figured out a certain percent would be Jewish, so they would try to figure out who they were,” he said. “If they couldn’t tell, they’d find troublemakers to weed out to make the quotas.”
That mention led me to more information about the fate of Jewish-American POWs:
About 350 American POWs who either were Jewish or appeared to be to their German captors were imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II, according to survivors who have begun telling their stories in a series of special reports on CNN.
Anthony Acevedo, a medic in the 70th Infantry Division during the war, was the first survivor to step forward with the grisly tale of the American soldiers held at Berga an der Elster, a subcamp of Buchenwald. After being captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Acevedo says he was sent to a POW camp near Bad Orb, Germany, where he was held with other American soldiers. About a month later, the camp’s commander told the prisoners to line up and ordered all of the Jewish soldiers to take one step forward. When few volunteered, Acevedo says, about 90 Jewish soldiers and more than 250 others the Germans thought “looked like Jews” were put on a train to Buchenwald. Acevedo, a Mexican American, is not Jewish.
And certainly non-Jewish American POWs were treated brutally as well. I learned for the first time of the Malmedy Massacre. Perhaps that is for next Christmas Eve’s post.
Keith Ginther’s Quiet Life in Montana after the War
Ginther’s Obituary states in part:
That seems to be a theme. So many didn’t talk about what they experienced.
Keith was born August 26, 1921 to Ernest and Lola (Burton) Ginther in Bartley, Nebraska. At age 8, he moved with his family to their new farm on Redwater near Richey, Montana. After graduating from high school, he joined the US Army in July 1942. Following two months of basic training he served as an MP and then went into Engineer training in the ASTP program. In October 1944, he shipped out to Europe with Co. G 422 Infantry, 106th Division and was taken prisoner on December 21st during the Battle of the Bulge. He was released from German Prison Camp as WW II was ending in May 1945.
After leaving the military, Keith rejoined his family who had moved to their farm near Fairfield, Montana. He bought 3 of the neighboring farms and, following the death of his father, managed the home place for his mother as well, in addition to his work, he also managed to serve in various positions with the Fairfield Cattleman’s Association, and as scorekeeper for the Augusta High Basketball team for many years. He even managed to slip away on the occasional trip to the mountains to hunt or fish, two things he enjoyed. In his later years, he became very active in the Teton Steam and Gas Association and served as Commander of the Big Sky Chapter of the Ex-Prisoners of War.
I’m glad that Keith Ginther finally did, may he rest in peace.
Featured Image: Sergeant John Opanowski of the 10th Armoured Division, emerges from a dug-out built under snow in the Bastogne area. The 10th Armoured Division and the 101st Airborne Division were pinned down in the Bastogne area by General von Manteuffel’s crack Panzer Divisions – the 2nd and the 116th.DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.