“Basically, there are families and generations of families around today who owe their existence to George,” Lion explained. “Merg” is the true story of the grandson of Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German migrant who amassed a vast fortune from inventing the linotype machine, a hot metal typesetting system that revolutionised printing.
When George was born, 21 years after the death of his grandfather from TB, “he was the only male heir to this vast fortune,” Lion explained. He enlisted in the army after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and, after finishing his studies, found himself in the 28th cavalry reconnaissance squadron. He and his team were stationed in the town of Eschweiler in the north of Luxembourg for a month.
“Because George spoke German, he was able to speak to everyone and was immediately embraced,” said Lion. A daily church attendee, the local priest allowed Merg and another soldier to live at the presbytery. He even dressed up as a helper with a local dressed as St Nicolas, distributing sweets to local children. “Everybody loved this guy,” Lion explained.
But after a month in the town, the Battle of the Bulge broke out. Eschweiler was surrounded by the German army and while fleeing, Mergenthaler and his colleagues drove into an ambush. “The driver was killed instantly. The others were pinned down and couldn’t move.” According to Lion’s research, Merg leaped into the Jeep and sprayed cover fire at the occupiers while his colleagues escaped. Many believed he died after being shot there.
A photo shows George Mergenthaler in uniform. Photo from Peter Lion's archives.
However, Lion has unearthed testimonies showing he was taken prisoner and shot during interrogation. His body was later found under a crudely constructed rock tomb. “The people of Eschweiler were heartbroken,” Lion said. They carried his body in a coffin through the town, reburied him in the cemetery next to the remains of the church, and notified his family.
“The Mergenthalers were so moved, they offered […] to assist in the rebuilding of St Maurice Church.” The church still stands today and has a mural behind the altar, depicting Jesus feeding the masses with the help of an apostle dressed in an army uniform. The windows are also dedicated to Mergenthaler, his family and the US army.
Lion began working on the book some ten years ago after hearing the story from Richard Brookins, the American GI who dressed as St Nick for the children of Wiltz during the winter of 1944. Lion immortalised this heart-warming story in the book “The American St Nick”, published in October 2015, which was adapted into a documentary by the WWII Foundation. Brookins, who returned to Wiltz almost annually for the St Nick celebrations, passed away in October 2018, aged 96.
To mark the 75th anniversary, Lion published an updated version of this book with TFE Publishing. “Merg” is published in English by History Publishing Company.
Lioin will visit Luxembourg as part of the Battle of the Bulge commemorations. Click here to find out more.
This article was originally published in the November 2019 edition of Delano Magazine.