A Christmas angel
A young mother had chills when I recently shared my dad's angel story, inspiring me to share it with you.
Angels are everywhere at Christmas. An angel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would have a holy Child. Another appeared in a dream to her fiancé, Joseph, telling him to stand by Mary. Angels told shepherds about the newborn Saviour lying in a manger. But angels aren’t just for the distant past. They can show up today, exactly when we need them. We’re encouraged to be kind to strangers, who might actually be angels. This is my father's real life encounter with an angel. - Irene Plett
In 1945, I met an angel. He didn’t have wings or look different than any of us, but he was there for a miracle that saved my life.
I had been drafted into the German army at the tail end of the Second World War, when the Germans weren’t doing well. We were captured right after we got to the front.
The Americans put me and my friend, John Wiens, into a shelterless camp for prisoners of war in Bretzenheim, Germany. They kept thousands of us squashed like sardines, on muddy farmland surrounded by barbed wire. We were divided into twenty-four barbed-wire pens, each with about 3,000 men in it. For three months, we had next to nothing to eat and only a cup of river water each day to drink. Our only roof was a wool blanket I’d received -- another miracle that happened earlier -- which kept the downpours from drenching us.
I didn’t know why I was in that torturous place, but I believed in God’s power and leading. When people around me every day were dying or losing their minds, I didn’t expect to survive either. It was my faith that kept me alive and kept me sane.
A wonderful memory stayed with me, of my mother and her sisters singing beautiful Christian songs in the evenings. The governing Communists of the Soviet Union prohibited any expression of faith, preaching their atheist agenda, but the danger never stopped my mother from reading the Bible and singing songs of faith.
I was grateful for the New Testament that my sister Anna gave me. She told me, “I think you need this more than I do.” When we were first processed by the American guards, the guard tore up all of John’s family photos and threw them on the ground. I was next, and showed them my New Testament. The guard must have known what it was, because he let me keep it, and let me pass.
I shared my New Testament with other prisoners who were hungry for the faith I had. Sometimes someone would borrow it for a couple of days, and I thought I’d lost it. With 3,000 men in our section, I couldn’t find the one who’d taken it or even remember who it was. But the little Bible would always come back to me, the whole time I was there.
I especially remember sharing my faith with Johann Loewen, a tall, strong man who gave his life to Christ when we knelt in the dirt together to pray. What a joyful experience in that dark place!
A German officer from outside warned us about plans for the prisoners in our section. "You’ll be shipped from here to Paris, and from Paris to Russia, because all of you are Russian citizens." We’d been lumped with soldiers from the Vlasov Army, who were considered traitors to Russia. Although we were born in Russia, we identified more with our German heritage and were now German citizens. We were terrified of being sent to Gulag prison camps or simply executed if we were sent to Russia. We knew many who’d suffered that fate, but thus far we’d managed to escape.
Our angel helped us to escape again.
One morning, as John Wiens and I were standing there, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked back at this man in a German uniform whom I’d never seen before, but who knew my name. He said, “Peter, we have to get out of here!”
I said, “Yeah, but how?”
He pointed to the fence and said, “Do you see what I see?”
I looked and said, “I see a hole in the barbed wire!” It was incredible. The two foot (60 cm) diameter hole looked as if it had been precisely cut with a torch. We had no idea how it got there, but I believe that God put it there.
The man said, “That’s where we have to go through! Just wait.”
He told us that his name was also John Wiens. “I’ve just come back from the Russian front,” he said. “Someone I met there told me, ‘If you ever need help, go to my parents at Jettingen bei Augsburg, in Bavaria.’ That’s where we have to go.” He handed me a piece of paper with the name of the community (now Jettingen-Scheppach).
People were shot for even approaching within six feet (1.8 meters) of the fence. But after a while, a black cloud appeared over us. Then the cloud burst and it began raining so heavily that we couldn’t see the guards with the machine guns. We knew they couldn’t see us either! This man told us, “Now we have to go through.”
I crawled through the hole in the fence, the two John Wienses following me. Although the space was tight, we weren’t even scratched. We went into the main roadway that passed through the middle of the camp.
We saw a German guard there; they used Germans to keep the peace. It seemed that because of the downpour, he didn’t want to stop long, but asked, “And where do you want to go?”
I had a ready answer: “To Jettingen bei Augsburg!”
He told us, "Oh, that’s Bavaria. The Bavarians are in number 18. Run there and report! Hurry!"
It was still pouring rain and the guards couldn’t see us when we ran to number 18. At the gate, a German guard asked, "What do you want here?"
“Well, we want to go to Jettingen bei Augsburg, in Bavaria.”
"Okay, come on in!” Maybe because it was raining so hard, he didn't want any trouble either. He added, “Go to that tent and report.”
At the only tent in the whole camp, German guards were sitting at a desk and writing, while people reported there. He said, “Go and report at that desk.”
I was first in line. When the guard asked, “Papers please,” I showed him my passport and army papers. “You want to go to Jettingen bei Augsburg?” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” I said.
“Have you got somebody there?”
“Yes,” I said. I didn’t know who it was, but there must be somebody there.
“Okay,” he said, and handed me a form that he’d filled out. I didn’t know what it was, but later we realized we'd been given release papers!
My friend John Wiens was next. After he reported, we looked around, but our new friend had disappeared! Three of us had entered the tent, but he was nowhere in sight. I believe he was an angel sent by God to save us!
The guards told us to go and lay down in the outdoor area, saying, “Wait until you’re called.”
After three days, we were called and put on the train to Augsburg. We were on the first train with 3,000 people who were freed from the prison camp! The Bavarian section was the first to be released.
I didn’t know then, but Jettingen bei Augsburg was the birthplace of an officer who tried to kill Hitler. Col. Claus Schenk, Graf von Stauffenberg (Count of Stauffenberg), hid a bomb in a briefcase and left it under a table where Hitler was meeting. The plot failed and the Colonel was shot. But maybe naming Jettingen as our destination didn't hurt when it came to our release!
The others in our original section were sent to Russian prison camps. I heard what happened to them a couple of years later, when I met another former prisoner. Fritz Schulz, a farmer I worked for in Buchholz an der Aller in West Germany, had been right across the roadway from our section. I asked, “What happened to the Vlasov Army?”
He said, “The French army came and took them all out of there and shipped them to Russia. But the day they found out that they would be sent to Russia, over three hundred committed suicide.”
I heard about one survivor years later when I ran into Peter Loewen in Vancouver. Peter was the cousin of Johann Loewen, who accepted Christ when I shared my faith with him. He told me that Johann had died, but had often shared his faith with others. He survived the camp, and was sent to a Russian Gulag, which he also survived. He eventually immigrated to Germany, where he was buried in Epe. I was so glad that I could show him the love of the Lord, which he could then share with many others. That faith must have helped him to survive, just as it did for me.
Prisoners were held at Bretzenheim long after the war was over, so I was fortunate to get out at all. Erich Werner, who wrote his memoirs of the camp, was there for over three years, until December 1948. The way he describes his early time there is exactly the way it was for me.
Years later, the pastor of our church visited my home. Wes Dahl of the South Langley M.B. Church said, “You know what? I’ve shared your angel story with lots of people!” It was striking that he called it my angel story. But there’s no doubt, that’s what it is!
But not the only one!
- Peter Plett, with Irene Plett, writer
Further reading on the Bretzenheim Prisoner of War Camp:
My father talks about daily life and death at Bretzenheim