On this Memorial Day, I want to show a cherished family artifact from WWII. The Cigarette Box of Heilbronn was handed down from my grandfather who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. It is a carved wooden cigarette box with a nice “automatic” dispensing feature.
It sat on my grandfather’s end table the whole time I knew him. It was always of great interest to my child's eyes. Seeing my mother’s name and grandmother’s name so nicely painted on there fascinated me.
Heilbronn 1945 was painted on the top, but I ignored that and was always drawn to my mother and grandmother’s given names. They looked so perfectly painted on the box. Now when I look at I notice all the imperfections that must exist given the circumstances of its construction. It is the circumstances of that construction that I memorialize now.
My grandfather never talked about the war. Unfortunately, the horrors of it were always there deep in his eyes. This is a hard thing to explain, but when you love someone and they love you much goes completely unspoken. I am unable to articulate exactly what he communicated, but he had been damaged. He had made a great sacrifice and seen much too much.
If you read up on the Battle of the Bulge, you can understand he might have seen some very nasty action. The Allies felt the Ardennes was not under direct threat, so they placed many green American troops there. When the panzers came rolling out of the fog, it was the first combat many of these American men had ever seen. My grandfather was one of those green American soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge.
As I grew older the significance of the cigarette box became more obvious. It was the only war story my grandfather would gladly tell. He would tell the story of the German prisoner of war who made it for him. He felt great affection for this German soldier. His message out of the war seemed to be quite clearly “Love your enemy”.
The circumstances of why it was constructed and gifted to my grandfather were never actually made clear. My grandfather was an especially nice prison guard was the closest I ever got to an answer. That he would sometimes give them extra food or blankets. I never asked too much more because it seemed so much like him. My grandfather was always helping people or stray animals. That he was an especially compassionate prison guard seemed reasonable.
Clearly, this cigarette box had great value to him and he was proud to have had it gifted to him. It was SO obvious. After he died, I started to do some research. I found some stories about Heilbronn being one of the worst American POW camps. Apparently, German soldiers were happy to be captured by the Americans because we were usually well supplied with food and such.
However, some camps were not so friendly. Some camps were notorious for having “fight clubs” where the German POWs were forced into fights so the guards could bet on them. I found some indications Heilbronn was one of those camps. It made me all the more interested in the WHOLE back story of how this cigarette box came into being. Especially, since my grandfather used to joke his dark Portuguese skin had him placed in the black regiments at times.
Every few years I put together a video or a podcast or something about this WWII artifact. I hope someday maybe just maybe some person in Germany will know who made this cigarette box. They will know their grandfather was at Heilbronn. They will know their grandfather was a master craftsman. They will recognize the work and they will remember their grandfather told them about a friendly American prison guard named Tony.
This particular podcast is a video so you can see the box and the craftsmanship.