Long, long ago there was a pretty little village in Germany named Dinkelsbühl. The village is still there, but it might not have been if it hadn’t been for the children.
About the only thing that made Dinkelsbühl different from the surrounding villages was its children’s choir. The schoolmaster, who loved music, taught the children many beautiful old hymns and folk songs. The choir often gave concerts in the village square, to the delight of the villagers.
In those days there was a very long battle going on in Europe called the Thirty Years’ War. Big cities, towns, villages, farmhouses, and barns were burned. The crops in the fields were burned, too, which was very foolish, because everybody has to eat, even the enemy.
Dinkelsbühl was tucked away in the hills, and the people hoped it wouldn’t be noticed. But it was. Seven times enemy soldiers tried to climb the thick, strong village walls; seven times the people of the village managed to keep them out. Life was very hard, and the villagers were running out of food.
But whenever the children sang, it seemed that someday everything would be all right. So the schoolmaster kept on teaching them songs, and the children kept on singing, for it helped them forget how hungry they were.
One day when another army attacked the town, the people of Dinkelsbühl—sick and starved and tired of all the trouble—were almost ready to give up. But their king had promised that help would come as soon as he could send it. So once more, when the enemy commander called for them to open the gates, the villagers shouted, “No!”
The attacking army had a battering ram, a long, heavy pole that was ironclad on one end. When a group of soldiers ran with it, the battering ram could break open very strong gates and even knock down heavy walls. The enemy commander, irritated by the refusal to open the gates, told his men to get ready to use the battering ram.
The mayor of Dinkelslbuhl, with the key to the gate in his pocket, put his eye to a peephole and saw what was happening outside. When he turned around to his people, his face looked sad and frightened. “We cannot keep them out any longer,” he declared. “Perhaps they will not deal harshly with us if we open the gates ourselves. If we do not, they will surely burn everything, for they are coming in this time and we cannot stop them.”
No one disagreed, and it was absolutely quiet behind the mayor as he turned toward the gate and fitted the key into the lock. Sadly and slowly he turned it. The gate swung wide. Then into the stillness came a soft little voice—then another, and another, and still another, until the music rose in a chorus that even the soldiers could hear above all the noise they were making. Slowly the children of Dinkelsbühl, ragged and pale, their eyes big with hunger and fear and hope, squeezed past their parents and marched toward the commander and his men. The children’s voices were shaking a little, but they sounded clear and brave just the same. “A mighty fortress is our God!” they sang. “A tower of strength ne’er failing!”
A few of the older villagers joined in, and then a few more, and soon they were all singing. The schoolmaster sang loudest of all, and tears were running down his cheeks. He was sure they would all be taken away, and in his heart he was saying good-bye.
Suddenly the littlest singer, much too young to know he ought to be afraid, broke away and ran toward the soldiers. One of the older children reached for him, but he dodged, laughing, and ran straight into the enemy commander’s arms. The singing stopped. A great gasp went up, and somebody began to cry.
The commander lifted the little boy up until they were looking right into each other’s eyes. “I lost one like you,” said the commander softly. The little boy did not know just what the commander meant, but he knew it must be something very sad, for the officer’s cold blue eyes were filling up with tears.
“Don’t cry,” whispered the little boy.
Quickly the commander set the child down and gave him a rough little push toward the gate.
“Be in peace!” he shouted at the villagers in a loud, harsh voice to cover up his feelings. Then he shouted at his men, too, and they lined up and marched away. Behind them they could hear the whole village singing again the grand old hymn the children had chosen.
The war kept on for a long time, but nobody ever bothered Dinkelsbühl again. And every year thereafter the people of Dinkelsbühl have celebrated with singing, dancing, and a play about what happened on that long-ago day when the children saved their village with a song.