- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2010

This time of year, people may e-mail each other a story about a “golden” tablecloth from the World War II years.

It looks like an urban legend but, as I discovered at the Library of Congress last year, it is probably grounded in truth.

I went to the nation’s library to read the December 1954 issue of Reader’s Digest, which has the story of “The Gold and Ivory Tablecloth” by the Rev. Howard C. Schade, pastor of the First Reformed Church in Nyack, N.Y.

“At Christmastime, men and women everywhere gather in their churches to wonder anew at the greatest miracle the world has ever known,” Mr. Schade wrote in his Digest article. “But the story I like best to recall was not a miracle - not exactly.”

Mr. Schade’s story begins with a young pastor and his wife taking over a rundown church in an unknown town near a river valley. One stormy December night, rain soaked through the church’s exterior and caused a chunk of wall right behind the altar to fall out. It left a “ragged hole.”

“Thy will be done,” said the shocked pastor.

“Christmas is only two days away,” gasped his wife.

That afternoon, the dispirited couple attended an auction, where a gold-and-ivory lace tablecloth was put on the block. It was a magnificent item, nearly 15 feet long, and the pastor, suddenly inspired, bid $6.50 and took it back to the church. He hung it over the hole in the wall, and “the extraordinary beauty of its shimmering handwork cast a fine holiday glow over the chancel.”

About noon on Christmas Eve, the pastor opened the church door and noticed a middle-aged woman at the bus stop. He knew the bus wasn’t due for 40 more minutes, so he invited her in. She said she lived in the big city, but had come to town to interview for a governess job with a local family. She didn’t get the job because of her imperfect English.

After offering a prayer in the chancel, the woman noticed the pastor straightening the tablecloth on the wall. She drew near it in disbelief. “It is mine,” she said, showing the surprised pastor the monogrammed initials buried in its folds. “It is my banquet cloth.”

The woman explained how her Viennese husband had had the beautiful cloth made especially for her in Brussels. Life was good until the Nazis took over, and the day came when she let her husband put her on a train to safety.

He was supposed to follow with their possessions, but he never came, and she later heard that he had died in a concentration camp. She deeply regretted ever leaving him. “Perhaps all these years of wandering have been my punishment,” she said. The pastor tried to give the woman the cloth, but she would have none of it, and left the church.

At that night’s holy service, the tablecloth veritably danced in the candlelight before the churchgoers. One man in particular - the middle-aged town jeweler - couldn’t take his eyes off it.

“It is strange,” he told the pastor after the service. “Many years ago, my wife - God rest her - and I owned such a cloth. In our home in Vienna, my wife put it on the table … only when the bishop came to dinner”

When the pastor revealed the woman’s visit earlier that day, the man couldn’t believe his ears. “Can it be? Does she live?”

Story Continues →