The Battle of the Bulge had not gone well for a California kid named Ralph Ellis, who, like countless others in the fog of war, had lost track of his outfit. He was in awful shape, as so many were when the Hitler sprung an immense December surprise and bullied their way through Allied lines in France and Belgium. Ellis was alone, wounded, frozen and famished, hiding out in an uninhabited house in a town pummeled--for the second time--by the Nazi advance. He thought he was dying.
He had found his way to Wiltz, a tiny town in a tiny country, Luxembourg, a nation that found itself in the bloody heart of the biggest battle on the European front. Wiltz, like the entire country, had been occupied early in the war, then freed when the Allies snatched it back. Then, in December's blizzards, Hitler decided the only way to win was a desperate attack in the unforgiving cold. The Nazis returned.
Confusion?--all over. Death?--everywhere. Positions?--insanely scrambled. Thousands got lost, like Ralph Ellis. The U. S. sustained 75,000 casualties at the Battle of the Bulge, 20,000 American "boys" never returned. Hiding in a house in Wiltz, Ralph Ellis, some might say, was among the lucky ones.
I have no idea what abject hunger feels like, but Ellis was feeling it. And his feet weren't just cold, they were frozen, literally frozen, pain unlike any I've ever felt. And he was alone.
On the street below, he heard voices, people speaking in German. He'd known for a day or two that he was behind enemy lines. He leaned out simply to see. Two civilians were talking to two German soldiers. He leaned out farther. It seemed unreal. The Germans had a cart full of schnapps.
One of the civilians just happened to look up. She saw him.
Ralph Ellis heard footsteps on the stairway. She'd seen him all right. The door opened. They pointed to each other--"Meisy," the woman told him. He knew it was her name. "Louis," she said, pointing at the man.
"Ralph," he said, pointing at his chest.
Meisy and Louis engineered a way to get him out of that abandoned house and into the warmth of the basement grocery store Meisy ran and where she lived. Louis played nurse, cut off one of Ralph Ellis toes with a razor blade. Had to. But Ralph Ellis was regaining strength. He was alive, still suffering but alive, dressed in Meisy's son's clothes, sitting in a rocking chair, when one day the Germans came in. In a second, they were in the back room, where they told Meisy they were going to sleep in her place.
"That's impossible," she told them. She said she had only one room and that was already full with her and her nephew here in the rocking chair.
They wore the uniform of the SS. They pointed at Ralph Ellis and asked him why a young man his age wasn't part of the war effort.
Meisy stepped between them, told them the boy was sick--were they blind? Couldn't they see that much?
"Let him talk for himself," the SS said.
Meisy told him her nephew couldn't speak because he'd been hurt in one of the American bombings. And then, or so the story goes, she just turned furious. "And don't think you're going to stay here either," she told them. She said she had nothing for them or for her to eat. "And somewhere in Germany you too have a mother, don't you?"
At that the SS cowed, nodding.
She had a son in the war, she said, and pointed at a picture of her boy in a German uniform, then steered them both back out into the store. "Just what would your mothers say?" she scolded, then gave them each an apple. "That's all I can give you."
They actually cowered. "We didn't mean anything," they said when they took the apples and left the store.
Ralph Ellis said nothing but never forgot.
* * *
Luxembourgian-Americans will, this summer, celebrate the 150th anniversary of their arrival in Siouxland, May, 1870. Many of the festivities, however, have been canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It's unlikely, I suppose, that any of the celebrants could count Meisy from Wiltz as a distant relative. The Iowa Luxembourgians were here more than a half century before the Battle of the Bulge.
But if I were one of them, I'd try to find a way to tell the story anyway or at least stories of what Luxembourgians have done, stories of what we all could be. That the rest of us aren't dying behind enemy lines doesn't mean we don't need Meisy, and tales of astonishing selflessness.
Lord knows, we do.
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