On the first Christmas morning of World War I, a rare moment of peace occurred on the Western Front when soldiers from both sides laid down their weapons, emerged from the muddy trenches and spent a few hours singing carols, playing games and exchanging small gifts.
That morning back in 1914 is known as the World War I Christmas Truce, a short-lived yet historic moment of compassion in a gruesome war, according to the Smithsonian. But when it comes to World War II — an even larger, uglier war — stories of kindness between Allied and Axis powers are not as familiar.
That’s what local filmmaker Stephanie Manesis is trying to change with “Compassion on the Battlefield in WWII,” the working title of her 26-minute documentary highlighting courageous acts of compassion in the Second World War that “speak to the human spirit that exists in mankind, even when thrust into the most horrific circumstances,” the film description says.
“The battlefield is not all about the horrific killing we hear about,” says Manesis, who has been working on the film with her team at Zenlily Films since 2012. “Every once in a while, there are these isolated stories of compassion between enemies, and I want people to remember them.”
Once it’s finished, the film will feature six World War II veterans and three experts from around the region.
The filmmaker’s interest in war was sparked at a young age. Her grandfather was a World War II veteran and her father worked as a Navy physician in Camp Pendleton, Calif., during the Vietnam War.
Manesis pursued French studies in college and graduate school, which further stoked her interest in World War II. Her idea for the documentary came about when she heard two first-person stories about compassion between Allied and Axis powers 20 years ago.
She says the first story was from a retired German captain in her neighborhood who told her about troops sharing water and cigarettes in the North African desert. The second was from a German exchange student she met whose father would have died if an American soldier hadn’t dragged him closer to the German camp to receive medical treatment after being wounded on the battlefield.
“(Those stories) really got me thinking that if two men are on a battlefield and they’re supposed to kill each other, but they choose to lay down their weapons (instead), that tells us a little about peace,” Manesis says. “If we can better understand (how this happens), we can better understand how to get out of war.”
Manesis originally planned to write a book on the subject, but after some encouragement from a friend, she decided to make a film — even though she didn’t have prior experience in filmmaking. So far, Manesis has interviewed five World War II veterans and two experts. She found the interviewees through a combination of research, mutual connections and serendipitous meetings.
One veteran is Maurice Bonemeyer, a 93-year-old retired dentist living in Fargo who served in the 99th Division for the United States Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was captured and imprisoned by the Germans for six months, but shared a touching story about a German soldier who helped liberate him and other troops. He was only 20 years old.
“You can’t even describe it,” says Bonemeyer, his voice cracking with emotion.
His story and those of his fellow veterans are what inspire Manesis to finish the film.
“You feel incredibly honored that they’ll talk to you about it, but they’re really painful stories,” Manesis says with tears in her eyes. “A lot of times, they tell (me) stories that their families have never heard.”
Manesis has raised more than $20,000 for the documentary so far, with AMVETS as one of her primary donors. She also received a grant from The Arts Partnership, but fundraising for the film has been “no easy feat,” she says.
Her team has one day of filming left with Lt. Col. David Grossman, author of “On Combat and On Killing,” when he is in Bismarck in February. They’ll also film a veteran’s first-person story that day.
Manesis hopes to raise the $3,000 needed for the final interviews by Dec. 31 and the remaining $35,000 to write and finish editing the documentary as soon as possible “while the veterans are still alive,” she says.
After it’s complete, Manesis plans to air the film on Prairie Public Television and enter it into film festivals. Her long-term goal is to find a corporate sponsor to get the film into the hands of every history educator in the country “to honor the lives of those who served and the redemptive powers of compassionate humanity.”
To donate to the project or find more information about the film, visit www.zenlilyfilms.com or call Stephanie Manesis directly at 701-237-4788.
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, December 10, 2018.