Behold! From above rang a sound like sweet harps and a wondrous song echoed from the hills. To the boy it seemed like God's angels were singing. He stood up, listened and spread out his hands. The wind subsided and not the slightest gust blew. The song sounded indescribably sweet in the stillness of the forest. He began to understand the words:
Oh you who are in greatest need,
Take comfort, for God's dear son indeed,
Is given to you as savior.
Trust in Him, let spirits soar,
Through Him goodness shall be restored;
He loves you as his own life.
Then quiet returned except for the soft strumming of the harp. Awe swelled within good Anton's heart. "Oh," he said. "This is what the shepherds in Bethlehem must have felt as they heard the heavenly choir on that holy night. I will summon my courage and take heart. Certainly there are good people in the next village who will take me in. I can only hope they will sing as beautifully and be as good as the angels!" He picked up his bundle and ascended to the higher ground where he had heard the singing. He had barely passed the bushes when he saw a bright beam of light. He approached a house standing alone in the woods. He knocked twice, then a third time at the door. He heard many happy voices within but no one answered. He tried to open the door, which was only secured by a handle. He entered, fumbled through the dark passage and sought the drawing room door. He finally found it and made his way inside — and stood there astonished. The bright glow of many candles greeted him. It was as if he was looking at a paradise in heaven.
In the corner of the room between two windows someone had built a beautiful spring landscape in miniature. It contained a mountainous region with high, moss-covered rocks, green pine forests, country cottages, lowing sheep along with their shepherds and a tiny village up on the peak. In the center of the landscape was a grotto in which one saw the Baby Jesus, His holy mother, noble Joseph, praying shepherds, and jubilant angels on high. The entire panorama sparkled with a wondrous glow. It was covered in numerous, twinkling little stars. Even the leaves on the trees and moss on the rocks shimmered as if kissed by dew on a spring morning.
The inhabitants of the house were gathered around the beautiful scene of the Baby Jesus in his crib. At the side sat the father with a harp on his lap. On the other side stood the mother with the smallest child at her shoulder. Two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, stood between the parents gazing at the savior in the crib. Their hands were raised in similar fashion to the tiny shepherds kneeling at the manger.
The father plucked the harp and the mother sang with an angelic voice the song Anton now knew so well. The two children joined in with their sweet, clear voices while the father accompanied with his pleasant bass singing and harp playing. The closing verse of the lovely tune resounded:
And should a child come to your door
Reject him not because he's poor,
Show him loving kindness!
Give thanks to God with all your heart,
Let the child come to your hearth
Feed him and keep him warm.
Anton continued to stand before the open door, the latch in one hand, his hat and staff in the other. His eyes were fixed to the beautiful manger scene.
With mouth agape he listened to the song and the harp playing. No one noticed him. But then the mother felt the cold air pushing through the open door and looked. "Good God," she exclaimed, "How did a child get here in darkest night through the dense forest? Poor child, have you lost your way?"
"Yes," Anton replied. "I got lost in the forest." All now looked to the door. The two children felt true sympathy for the lost boy but shied away because he was a stranger. With the small child in her arms the mother approached and asked Anton in a friendly manner, "Where did you come from, little one. What's your name and where are your parents?" "Oh dear God," Anton said with tears in his blue eyes, "I no longer have a home. My name is Anton Kroner. My father died in the war and my mother died last fall in true sorrow and misery." Anton related the story of how he had come to the forest and gotten into trouble and then how he had heard the singing and found his way to the house. He would have continued but his voice failed him because he was so cold. In the warmth of the room he felt the depth of the cold. He shivered from the frost and his teeth chattered.
"Oh, poor Anton," the mother said. "You can barely speak because of the cold, and you must be very hungry and tired. Lay your bundle down and sit by the fire. I will get you some hot soup and some leftovers from dinner."
The two children, Christian and Katharina, gently took his hat, staff and bundle. Anton felt happy and at peace. "What a beautiful thing you have in the corner of the room," he said. He had looked at it all the time he was eating. Now he sprang up and the two children followed him.
"Do you know what it all means," Katharina asked. "I know," said Anton. "It represents the birth of Jesus." "But that's not the real Baby Jesus," Katharina replied. "Jesus is no longer a child. He went back to heaven a long time ago." "I know that too," said Anton. "Do you think I'm a heathen? It's been two thousand years since Jesus was a child in a manger. What we have here was made so we children could better understand the birth of the savior. That there is the town of Bethlehem, right?" Katharina nodded. "See," said Anton, "I know all that. I'm not as dumb as you think."
The children laughed and now showed Anton all the small details they thought were important. "Look here, Anton," Katharina said. "The beautiful white sheep here with the curly wool, and the two little lambs nearby. See how the herd grazes about while the shepherd plays his flute. He sleeps at night in a humble red hut on wheels."
"And do you see," spoke Christian, "how the tiny brook rises from the rocks like a silver thread and flows to the clear sea? Look, two white swans with curved necks swimming and looking at their reflections in the water." "There," said Katharina, "walks a shepherd girl on the steep path
down the mountain carrying a covered basket on her head. There are probably apples or eggs in it that she's taking to the manger." "And look," said Christian, "There's someone pushing a handcart up from the ravine. There's a sack in the cart but who knows what's in it." Thus the children entertained themselves and no small detail from the tiny snail crawling on the rocks to the colorful shells on the sea shore escaped their attention.
"Now that's all very beautiful," Anton said, "but the most beautiful sight of all is the divine child! It pleases me the most that for the sake of the child here depicted our heavenly Father has save me from dire distress!"
The man in whose house Anton found such warm reception was a forest ranger. As the children chatted with each other he sat in his armchair by the fire and seemed deep in thought. His wife, with the youngest child in her arms, sat next to him and after a while she asked, "Why are you so quiet? What are you thinking about?" "I'm thinking about the last verse of the song we just sang," said the ranger. "You have just done as the song instructed and given a poor child food and warmth. But I think we can still do more for him."
The wife understood her husband, looked at him warmly and said, "You think we should take in the child? He seems gentle and innocent and is certainly the child of honorable parents. I think that a table where five people eat can certainly accommodate a sixth." "You are a good, kind woman," said the ranger as he caressed her hand. "God will reward you and what you do for this orphan child will benefit our own children. But first the child must prove he is worthy of our charity."
"Anton, come here!" the ranger called out loud. Anton came and stood before him steady and upright like a soldier standing before his officer.
The ranger began, "Your father was a soldier and died for his fatherland. For you this is tragic but for him it is wonderful and praiseworthy. But tell us something else about your parents. Where did they live before the war? How did your father perish? How did your mother die? How did you come to our forest. We'd like to know."
Anton told his tale: "My father was a sergeant-major in the Husar regiment. The garrison was stationed near Glatz in Silesia. My mother was a diligent seamstress. She earned a lot of money because she was quite talented. One day my father came home and said, 'War has been declared. We must leave tomorrow morning.' He was a brave man and knew how to control himself, but mother was overcome with terror and cried bitterly. She didn't want to let him go. His departure would be very hard on her. After much pleading he decided to take us with him. We moved far, far away. All at once it happened. The enemy advanced. My father and the Husars had to engage them. Mother and I remained behind. It was really terrible for us off in the distance hearing the dreadful gunshots. We cried and prayed for as long as the shooting went on. Luckily father came back unharmed. The fighting occurred more often. Then one day after a battle a Husar returned to the village with father's horse and said he was badly wounded. He was half an hour away from the village and was about to die. Mother and I rushed to his side. He laid beneath a tree. An old soldier knelt by him and held him gently in his arms. Another two soldiers stood close by. My poor father had been shot through the chest and already looked as pale as a dead man. We saw that he wanted to say something but he couldn't speak.
"He looked at me with pain filled eyes, then looked at mother and then looked to heaven. A few moments later he died. His body was buried in a nearby churchyard. Several officers and many soldiers accompanied the body. They paid their final respects and gave him a gun salute at the gravesite. Many soldiers wiped their eyes as they left the grave. Mother and I were drenched in tears.
"Mother wished to return to her homeland. We still had a few days of travel when mother became sick. With much effort we eventually reached a small village. No one would take us in. We finally found cover in a barn. Mother got sicker by the hour. The wife of the farmer who owned the barn brought some soup in an earthenware bowl and said to mother, 'You're very sick but I have other things I must do.' She left then came back with an old stall lantern in which burned a little oil. She hung it on a hook, bade us a good night and did not trouble herself with us again. I remained alone with my mother. I sat near her on a bundle of staw and cried. Around midnight she turned paler. She took my hand and said, 'Don't cry, beloved Anton! Stay happy and good, pray, keep God before your eyes and do no evil so God will give you a new father and mother.' After she spoke these words she looked to heaven for a long time. She silently prayed, blessed me with her dying hand, then perished. I couldn't do anything but cry. The farmer and his wife had promised my mother they would take me in and treat me as their own child, but after three weeks had passed they sent me on my way, saying I had already eaten up three times as much food as my mother's small bequest had provided for me. I intended to go back to Glatz and my schoolmates but the farmer didn't know which way it was back to Silesia. I wandered back and forth through the countryside and begged. What else could I have done?"
The forest ranger spoke, "As far as I can tell, you have very respectable parents, dear Anton. Do you have anything in writing to back this up? 'Yes, I do!" said Anton, who took a packet from his bundle and handed it to the forest ranger. I contained his parent's marriage license, Anton's birth certificate and his father's death dertificate. The death certificate had been issued by the field chaplain. In his own hand the colonel of the regiment had attached a beautiful statement concerning the bravery and selfless actions of the departed sergeant-major and the flawless character of his widow.
"Very good," the forest ranger said. "Now tell me Anton, would you like to stay here with us?" "There is no place on earth I'd rather be," responded Anton. "Your wife is just as kind as my mother was, and I like you too since you have a moustache just like my father's."
The forest ranger laughed and stroked his moustache. "Then lad," he said. "You will stay with us. I will be your father and my wife will treat you as a mother would. But you must be a good son to us, be kind to your new siblings and never do them harm. From now on you are my son Anton!" The boy stood in amazement then looked at the ranger with eyes wide open to see if he was serious. He was so accustomed to harsh treatment at the hands of so many people that he could scarcely believe the ranger wanted to take him in as his own child. "How about it, Anton?" said the ranger as he reached out his hand. "Shall we shake on it?" Anton broke out in tears then extended his hand to the ranger. He kissed the wife's hand and greeted the two children then the smallest child as though he did not know what it meant to have siblings.
Go to pages 44-48
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks