Pauly the Car

19/05/2015
Our  little car at a time of wellbeing

Our little car at a time of wellbeing

We have a little car which was nicknamed by my sister Ilse on one of her trips to Australia, “Pauly” (actually “Paulchen” in German).

We have owned the car for fifteen years now and it never caused us any problems or breakdowns. It went and went and went…

When Ilse named the car, she advised us, never to talk bad about it in its presence. She seems to think, cars have a soul and can easily be offended.

Last weekend was my 80th birthday and I had a really good time. Our son Martin had even flown in from Melbourne for the weekend. He had to fly back on Sunday and we offered to take him back to the airport and daughter Caroline home to Sydney.

The only way out from Wollongong, which is practically just a few meters above sea level, is up a steep road, Mount Ousley Road, across the Illawarra escarpment. It was only constructed during WWII by the Americans with their “can-do”  attitude.

While going up the steep hill, Caroline was driving,  the car seemed a bit sluggish. With four adult people on board, it did not seem unusual. But, we started to discuss the car’s age and Caroline suggested we could buy another car. Maybe not a new one, but at least a well preserved and reliable second-hand car.

Just seconds after discussing this, and not remembering Ilse’s advice,  the car showed severe signs of illness. It lost power and no amount of gear-shifting would help. Soon enough, belching smoke poured out everywhere and we feared the engine could blow up. Our car looked more like an old steam engine than a 21st Century automobile.  We decided to pull up at the turn-off to the Clive Bissell Drive where there is a convenient parking area. We thought of letting the car cool off and then continue.

Caroline did not trust “Pauly” anymore and rang a friend who lives in a neighbouring suburb. He came  and Martin made it, just in time, to the airport.

I set off, full of optimism, that I would be able to nurse the car home. But it was not to be. Our talk about getting another car had offended “Pauly” too much and after about a kilometer the car stopped.  We rang the automobile club and organised the tow away  to our car repair station.

While my first eighty years ended on a high note, the second eighty years started not so well. See how the next eighty years go. And next time we talk about a new car we will make sure “Pauly” will not hear us. I have the feeling it is on its last leg.

Happy Birthday

13/05/2015

I’m eighty today and I hope, I have a great day with my family. I  remember a few of my birthdays along the line, but none more so than my tenth birthday in May 1945. 

I lived in Berlin with my mother and a great-aunt. The war in Europe had just finished and the fighting had stopped. A  difficult peace was just one week old. It was springtime and all the trees were in full bloom, compensating for the destruction of the city for all to see. The month of May was always my favourite and that the war ended just in time for my birthday doubled the pleasure. Finally, we could sleep through the nights again.

Early in the morning a cousin of my mother, Aunt Hildegard, who lived only two buildings further down the same street, came for a quick visit to check on our well-being. The two women chatted and exchanged the latest news from the neighbourhood. To my disappointment, my birthday was not mentioned with one syllable.

When Aunty was on the way out in the hallway I ran after her and grabbed her by the hand and told her full of pride, that it was my birthday. She apologised and promised to come back in the afternoon with a present. I liked that idea – but not my Mum. She had overheard us and told me I had practically invited Aunty. That is what we should not do during the difficult times we were living under. There would not be anything we could offer any visitors. She was really angry.

Later, I thought, ‘Today will be the best day of my life’, as I rushed out of the family apartment. to explore the surrounding streets. I liked to watch the activities of the Russian soldiers who were everywhere. That my mother had roused on me in the morning, for something minor, as far as I was concerned, was already forgotten. The Soviets had introduced Moscow time and we had to advance our clocks by two hours. In the courtyard, I met up with a girl who lived in the same building as we did. She was the same age as I was. We went to the backyard, picked up two discarded broomsticks and started to pretend shooting at Russian warplanes that were crossing the sky. The girl soon got tired of this game and went home.

Only then, I became aware of a Russian motor lorry in one corner of the backyard. I saw two soldiers sitting in the back of the vehicle. I approached the lorry in case I could get something from the Russians, who mostly liked children. When they saw me coming they motioned me to come closer. I did not hesitate. I found them drinking something and noticed that they had a bottle in their hands.

‘Kleb – bread?’ I asked them. I was surprised when they handed me a large enamel cup filled to the brim with vodka and they indicated to me, turning their hands up at their lips, to drink.

‘Oh, no,’ I thought and told them in Russian, ‘Njet! – No!”

One Russian got out his pistol, loaded it through and held it against my right temple.

‘Dawai’ – ‘come on’, one said angrily and motioned again for me to drink.

I shook my head and refused. I thought of my mother and how she would be angry with me again. She hated me doing something silly someone else asked me to do. Surely, coming home drunk I would cop a beating from her. I had been in trouble that morning and that was enough.

‘No vodka for me, thank you very much,’ I thought.

The urging became stronger and the pressure of the pistol started to hurt as the soldier pressed it against my temple. NO WAY, would I drink that stuff.

“Njet !” I said to them again. At that moment, I was not able to discern whether they meant it or whether they wanted to pull a practical joke on me. I decided that I would rather get my brain blown out than face my mother’s fury again.

But fate took another turn and help was at hand. Just then, a Russian officer appeared and came towards the lorry. He saw at once what game was being played out. He started to shout at the two soldiers and they removed the pistol from my head. The officer, grabbed my shoulder, to comfort me. He was very angry with the others. I did not understand a word that was said.

After a while, the officer stopped arguing with the soldiers and waved to follow him. He spoke half Russian and half German and made it clear, that he would give me something as compensation for the ordeal I had just gone through. We walked into the entrance hall and went straight to the first door. The door was shut, so the officer knocked and as there was no answer he just pushed his weight against it and the door flew open. We both went inside and explored the kitchen. Nothing of value was to be seen. The people, who had lived there must have left before the fighting started and the Russians arrived.

The Russian opened the oven door of the kitchen stove. And lo and behold, there were two large trays with yeast cake. I noticed that they were old and smelled slightly stale. The Russian offered me both cakes. I took them with thanks and walked, balancing the large trays, the few meters to our apartment.

In the meantime, while I was away and nearly had my brain blown out, visitors had arrived. All women, of course. The cousin of my mother brought a jar full of nougat. One of my Godmothers had made the dangerous trip from another suburb using the underground train that was running again for the first time. A neighbour had called in as she smelled the freshly brewed coffee that had been hidden to be used on a day like this one. They were all chatting and smoking. When I entered the smoke filled kitchen with the cake a great cheer went up.

For the first time, these brave women must have felt the worst was over,  and there was hope again for a better future, even if that prospect was only enhanced by stale cake. The women became animated in their conversation. I was happy that I brought that little cheer into their lives. Standing beside my mother and leaning my head on her shoulder,  I was hoping for a cuddle.

I did not tell them about the threat with the pistol.

Day One after “Zero Hour”

09/05/2015

The day on which we came out of the dark world of the air raid shelter and back into daylight was Wednesday, the 9th of May 1945. As I mentioned before, after living in the cellar for days on end, the days of the week had no meaning at all. Nobody would give a fig of what day of the week it was. Abnormality had become the norm.

Bombedout people in the streets of Berlin 1945

Bombed out people in the streets of Berlin 

It was more important to us, that the fighting was finally over and we were allowed to be on the streets of Berlin for an extended time. There was still a night curfew in place, but we could, if even only for a short time, resume life. The most important question was, where would the next meal come from?

Most of the women were with their children on their own unless, of course, they had been sent to the countryside. My two sisters were somewhere in the former Reich. My mother had no idea where they were. And in regard to the men, there were only a few on the streets and those were too old to even serve in the ‘Volkssturm‘, a kind of “Dad’s Army” without the laughter.

My mother had heard, that there could be some food items in cold storage in warehouses at ‘Gleisdreieck’, a station of the elevated train system. It was said, because of the cut in power supplies, that the warehouses could not be kept cool anymore and the stored foodstuff would only get spoilt anyway.

Nothing was sure, but rumours were getting around like wildfire. The fear of the Russians was still great, but dissipating. Slowly people calmed down somewhat. At least the weapons were quiet now and the howling of the dreaded ‘Stalinorgel’ had ceased.

Russian soldiers loading  "Katyusha" rockets for lunching.

Russian soldiers loading “Katyusha” rockets for lunching.

Hunger had become the dominating urge and some found it unbearable, especially if they refused food from the Russians. The fear of death was pushed slowly into the background.

We, my mother and I, had survived the air raids and the storm on Berlin by the Red Army – just so. Artillery grenades had hit our building and none of the apartments had any window panes left.

On the other side of the street were garden allotments where the fruit trees were in full blossom at the time. It was a beautiful sight as if mother nature wanted to compensate for the folly of mankind. Every day we had to go there and fetch water from the pumps. There wasn’t any town water anymore. Sometimes the Russian soldiers worked the pumps for us.

At the suggestion of some people a few women decided they would go on a reconnaissance mission to find some food or anything useful. Mr. B was the only man who accompanied us. He had been discharged from his military unit. It made his wife decidedly happy that he had come back from the war, so early in the piece. He was uninjured at that.

He was convinced that he could give the women, and me as the only child in our little group, some protection. We set off in what turned out to be beautiful Spring weather. We went through the “Viktoria Park”, passed the two air-raid shelters where today’s children are tobogganing in Winter without having any ideas what is underneath them.

Along Möckernstrasse, we crossed the heavily bombed out Hagelberger Strasse. At the corner of Yorkstrasse, we got to the freight depot and climbed onto the railway tracks to check out a freight wagon we had spotted in the distance. Between the rails, we spotted a dead Russian soldier. He must have been one of the last of the fallen.

The old freight depot at Möckernstrasse

The old freight depot at Möckernstrasse

I was curious and keen to see what he looked like. There he was as if sleeping, without any visible injury. His mouth was open and flies came out of it and buzzed about into the balmy spring air.

My mother called out as she wanted to inspect the freight wagon. When we came closer, we noticed its doors were open and the wagon was full of birdseeds which had spilt out of the wagon and onto the ground.

I was delighted as we had a budgerigar at home and not much to feed him with it. On top of it, we could have used the bird seeds as a means to bargain for food for ourselves. Just at that moment we heard the “tack, tack” of a machine gun. The grown-ups got frightened and my mother called out for me to leave the wagon at once. She promised me, that we would stop on the way back and grab some of the seeds then. Before I jumped off the wagon, I saw a brand new shoe-brush. I grabbed it and it was very useful to us for many years to come.

The machine gun stopped firing, but we left the rail yard anyway. There weren’t many people about. Many were still careful and dared not coming out yet. Soon we arrived at the “Landwehrkanal” (a short-cut canal for the river Spree) and found the bridge there, with its back broken, resting on the bottom of the canal. Ruins were everywhere. We turned left because we wanted to get to the cold storage at “Gleisdreieck”. “Gleisdreieck” has its own history as a triangle rail junction.

Where  "Möckernbrücke" used to be was only a shuttle serve by boat.

Where “Möckernbrücke” used to be, there  was only a shuttle service by boat.

Today, I’m not sure why we, in the end, did not go there. Perhaps other people warned us that the Russians had taken control over the warehouses and would not let us near it anyway.

While Berlin was starving, the foodstuff was rotting in the warehouse. Later in June, former members of the Nazi Party had to clean out the warehouses. The rotten meat was disposed of  in another former bunker in the Viktoria Park. The stench was bestial.

Back to our walk which led us to “Schöneberger Brücke” which was still intact. We could see, that on the other side at the “Hafenplatz”, heavy fighting must have taken place. Dead soldiers, of both sides, weapons and other devices were everywhere.

Constantly, the adults were calling me to keep walking. They weren’t so keen, as I was, to explore and examine what I saw. One of the dead was especially grotesque. I could not recognise whether he was a German or a Russian soldier. His body was bent from being burnt in the front but not in back. Most likely he was caught by a flame-thrower. His lower body was exposed and he held an unburned piece of paper for cleaning purposes in his hand. I still have not forgotten this horrible sight and a mother, somewhere, was waiting in vain for her son to return.  

At the corner of the “Hafenplatz”, the Russians had set up a checkpoint. At the kerb, a group of male civilians were standing about. When we reached the post the Russians asked Mr. B. to stand aside. They were not interested in the women or me and they demanded that we move on.

The man stays here!” they said and emphasised that all the men were required for clean-up work only.  Mrs B. was beside herself and wanted her husband back. The Russians weren’t nasty just insistent and tried to calm Mrs B down. They explained there was no need to worry, “only rabota (work)” was their mantra and he would be home in the evening, they assured her.

When we finally moved on Mrs B. was heartbroken. We knew Russians could act arbitrarily. She saw her husband never again. Years later she received the bad news that he had died in a Siberian labour camp.

We walked on and soon reached “Askanischer Platz” a large square at the “Anhalter Bahnhof”, formerly Berlin’s largest and most famous railway station. Heavy fighting had turned the whole area into a heap of rubble. All buildings were destroyed. The station building looked like a ruin of ancient times. In the middle of the chaos, I saw a destroyed German half-track vehicle with a large red cross. I could not see any other heavy equipment but lots of thrown away rifles and bazookas.

The Anhalter Station in all its glory in 1910

The Anhalter Station in all its glory in 1910

Anhalter Station at the end of the war

Anhalter Station at the end of the war

What is left over today from the glory days.

What is left over today from the glory days.

The adults were by now downcast, first because of the incident with the Russians and then because of the unimagined destruction. They were numbed by their experience and seem to have had forgotten why they had left in the morning in the first place.

We walked along “Saarlandstrasse” (today Stresemannstrasse) and to my amazement saw on both sides of the road many Soviet T-34 tanks as if parked. On closer inspection I noticed they all had large holes where they took a hit from the bazookas.

Soviet tanks during the battle

Soviet tanks during the battle

Only sixty years later I was to learn (“BERLIN – The Downfall 1945”, by Antony Beevor) that a group of volunteers from the Nordland Division (mostly Scandinavians) of the SS had hunted down the Soviet tanks and transformed the area into a “tank cemetery” (their words).

From then on we only wanted to get home. We walked past the “Belle-Alliance-Platz” (today Mehringplatz) once one of the prettiest urban squares in Berlin since before the turn of the century. The square (actually round) was totally devastated from the bombing and the battle. Only in the middle of it was the “Peace Column”, with the Angel Victoria still standing on the top, as if it wanted to make a mockery of all the destruction around her. 

When we got home we had not much to show for our pains. I had the shoe-brush only. In the meantime the Russians had cooked another warm meal for the house community. At least we could be thankful for that.

Soviet soldiers ladling out soup to hungry Berliners, May 1945

Soviet soldiers ladling out soup to hungry Berliners, May 1945

The fighting is over. Soviet soldiers can relax.

The fighting is over. Soviet soldiers can relax among the debris 

The Train Is Running On Time

04/05/2015

Monday morning, the train had just departed with its cargo of listless passengers, who were still tired from their weekend activities. The Station Master returned from the platform into his office, did his entry in the train register book and looked towards the ticket window as he heard the sound of running feet in the waiting room.

There was a young woman, still panting from running to the station, and demanded to know,

“Was this the 7:16?”

“Yes, it was,” the Stationmaster answered. 

“How come you let the train go early?” 

“I didn’t. The train was on time and it departed at 7:16 as per timetable.” 

“This is unbelievable. The train is always running late and I’ll be late for work now, because of you,” she said in an angry voice and added, “I wish, for once one could trust the trains. But no, it is running on time when one expects it to be late.” 

She bought a newspaper at the newsstand and sat down to wait for the next train. She opened the paper up and there it was, the headline screamed at her in big, fat letters:

STATE RAIL TIME TABLE IN SHAMBLES

“You can say that again,” she mumbled to herself.

The Russians are here!

02/05/2015

The Red Army was in our street, but the war was not over yet. We often refer to members of the Red Army as “Russians”, but in fact they could be members of many different races and nations that were part of the Soviet Union. The fighting went on in the city and Hitler was not dead yet.

Only one side of our street was built upon.  On the other side was a colony of garden allotments, so popular in Berlin.

This was  the Tempelhof site of our street in 1942

This was the Tempelhof side of our street in 1942

Part of our street on the Kreuzberg site in 1938

Part of our street on the Kreuzberg side in 1938

There, among the allotments they installed a battery of Katyusha rocket launchers  (called by the Germans Stalin’s Organ).  They made a terrible howling noise as one after the other rocket left for its target. It is a sound nobody, who ever heard it, will forget. They were fire spraying monsters.

"Katyusha" rocketluncher somewhere in Berlin during the final battle

“Katyusha” rocket launcher somewhere in Berlin during the final battle

During the first days of having arrived the soldiers were for the women a cause for alarm. They were looking for women.  Rape stories abound. Here is what my mother had to say:

Because of a German-Polish woman, Frau R., who lived in our apartment building and could converse in Russian, our apartment building was spared any rapes. Often Frau R. had to appear at the Kommantura to interpret when a dispute arose.

When people became aware of an attempted rape, they called Frau R., who either was able to talk the offending soldier out of it or alerted some officers or other soldiers. That’s where her help was invaluable.

Offending soldiers were often beaten by their comrades or had their identification confiscated. This was especially harsh, as they could be picked up by the Military Police and accused of being deserters.

As soon as the Russians occupied our street, it was made clear to us, that if a shot should be fired from the building the whole building would be demolished.  We were always afraid that some idiot would still be trying to fight for the “Final Victory”.

So one morning we were told by a Russian soldier, that, in fact, that had happened.

Nobody had heard a shot, but the fighting was not over yet and shells flew in both directions over our house. A German shell hit the building in our courtyard and for the second time the whole courtyard filled with dust and debris. A gentleman who lived on the 5th floor was killed outright by a shrapnel. The Russians built a coffin for him and buried him and two of their comrades in front of our balcony.

Our balcony (the second from the right)

Our balcony (the second from the right)

With all the noise of the ongoing battle, it was not surprising, that we had not heard the shot. We were informed that the building would be destroyed,  and we were not allowed to leave the shelter. People that came down to the cellar informed us that the Russians were laying cables for fuses. The house was going to be packed with explosives and blown up; and that was it. Then we heard a big rumbling noise and a crashing of wood and then stillness. But no explosion. After a while someone dared to go up the stairs and investigate. No one stopped him. He came back with some amazing news: The Russians had put up a ‘Gulaschkanone”(a field-kitchen) !

The Russians put it up to cook for their soldiers and for us, the hungry people who had no means of buying any food at the time. Even then, some of the Germans complained that the Russians would not give us anything that was not stolen from us Germans in the first place. They cooked for us, and we loved the tucker they provided for us. We had at least one hot meal a day.

The courtyard, then there was no greenery and the wall all looked from the grime

The courtyard as it looks now. In 1945 there was no greenery and the walls were full of grime.

The “Gulaschkanone” was put up in the middle of our courtyard. We could observe, from our kitchen window, when the soup was ready and it was time to queue up for the dishing out. The “enemy” looked rather good from our glassless kitchen window. Here is my mother again:

The Russians collected a small table from me. On it, they cut the meat into smaller pieces. I received about 2 kg of veal. Often Peter too, received from the Russians lard, cake and pasta. They liked children a lot.

This way we were able to improvise and supplement our food and we did not starve for very long.

to be continued…

Friday, 27. April 1945

27/04/2015

Finally, the war came to our street in earnest. Meaning,  units of the Red Army occupied our street and the surrounding area. Around the corner the 8th Guards Army under General Chuikov. established its headquarters. This is how my mother saw what happened that fateful day:

“Day 7 Friday 27. April 1945

Naturally, it was another restless night. One knew, we have reached the end of the line – it was all about our  freedom now! Obviously, not many people from the building had actually come to sleep in the cellar.  We can not really sleep, our nerves are too much on edge. Sometimes we shut our eyes. But each crackling of small arm’s fire, or any other noise,  and  our heads are up. Then again, there is a deadly, frightening silence. Outside now, there is no sound or step.

But this silence is for our ears and hearts doubly alarming !!!

Suddenly, a rumbling noise comes closer and closer. Between 3 o’clock and 4.30am Russian tanks roll through Immelmannstrasse.  Always in the same, heavy dull, but rattling way. Then we hear horse drawn carts moving. Then the first steps. One can hear strange voices and sounds coming through the open cellar windows.

Oh! How frightening to hear, these strange Russian sounds! Our thoughts: “What do they want from us strangers, our poor little tribe of people? Are they bringing peace and quiet? Or Violence – Rape – Death ???”

Our nerves are nearly bursting. Suddenly, all the tenants of the building are together in the air-raid-shelter, everywhere, where one’s eyes are gliding, one can see pallid faces.

Then fast and heavy steps come storming down the stairs. The door flies open – our hearts stop for a moment – three Russians are standing in the cellar – they smile. As if on  command, we all get up from our seats and raise  our arms in a gesture of  surrender.

They kept shouting – “Russki good! Russki good!” Our strongly beating hearts slowed down a little bit. The Russians came to every person and demanded all jewels, rings and watches.

“Uri, Uri, Uri” they called out again and again. Within five minutes, they had taken all jewellery from us. My wedding ring I had hidden in my mouth and could, therefore, save it.”

From here on, there is no more original diary kept on a daily basis. What comes next is what my mother had added to a hand written copy of her short diary. It is, in fact,  a synopsis of what happened after the liberation by the Russians. I will write about it  in  a separate blog.

For me, and I suppose for everybody else, this moment, when the three soldiers entered our cellar, became a defining moment in my life. We had no idea what would happen next. They could have thrown in a couple of hand grenades or killed us with their machine pistols they had slung around their bodies. But nothing like that at all. Like Mum said, they smiled.

We had heard so many horror stories about the Russians, they were Untermenschen, so barbaric were they, that we had to make war on them. We were not encouraged to expect any mercy from them. And now they were here. I’m not sure whether anybody in that cellar was thinking how the Russian people must have  felt when the German Army invaded their country.

This was here and now. I concentrated on the first one. You could see he was dressed differently from the other two  soldiers, and in charge of them. He was dressed in a black leather jacket and cap, clearly one of those dreaded Commissars, the worst of the lot we were always told.

His gaze went round the room, maybe looking for German soldiers that were hiding among the women of Berlin. Then he spotted me! In two, three steps he reached me and put his hand on my shoulder and pushed my raised arms down and said: “You don’t need to surrender. Russians don’t make war on children!”

Don’t ask me what language he was speaking, it was angels music in my ears. So, for me the war was over.  I loved Russians ever since. What if he had shot my mother in front of me? Would I hate Russians now? A personal experience  can determine our behaviour for the rest of our lives.

A new reality opened up in that dark, badly lit cellar. To the  word “Uri,Uri” which meant watch, we learnt fast the next command, “Frau, komm”. This was something the women dreaded most of all. Even as a nine-year-old I had an idea what it meant. When our leaders start a war they don’t consider all the consequences. We were told we had to fight the Bolsheviks, now they were in Berlin and were taking our women as a reward or trophy. The Commissar, or political officer, did not steal anything from the people in our cellar.

The war was not over. We still could not go into our flats which were open to all comers as the windows were blown out and the doors were off the hinges. Like the penguins, we huddled together. There still was safety in numbers. Alone in our apartments, we would be on our own.

It was only the beginning of a new time and we looked forward to those new times with trepidation.

Thursday 26. April 1945

26/04/2015

I do not know when and how my mother found  the time to write these notes. During the day she was out organising anything useful and trying to extent our lives another day. In the evening we were in the air raid shelter and had only candle light. Perhaps she was writing while I slept the sleep  of the just.  This is what she wrote  on the 26. April:

“Day 6 Thursday 26. April 1945

Today we are moving by daylight with our provisions into the air-raid-shelter.  A frightened resident of the building spreads the instruction that all alcoholic beverages should be consumed, poured out or otherwise destroyed so they would not fall into the hands of the enemy.

Well, it seems the situation is slowly becoming serious. But – what is the result of this instruction ? A brainless group of people which senselessly and without understanding pour the  good drop of alcohol into the sand. Some are gathering up courage and take the bottles to their flats and hide them in safe places. The connoisseurs pour  half a bottle down their throat. For sure, this time without much appetite or pleasure.

I, too, am rushing back to the flat and hide here and there three small bottles of liqueur. A fourth  I’m taking back with me to the shelter, as one should have at least something for the odd occasion where a bit of spirit is asked for.

Midday, the news filters through that the Russians are already on the tarmac of the Airport Berlin-Tempelhof ( we lived only 300 m from the airport entrance.berlioz). But, one would be able to get some food items from a warehouse, for instance,  potatoes, bread, semolina, flour etc. Now, we women are on the move! We are not shirking the shellfire, we are only thinking of getting the provisions. Three times I’m going on this dangerous mission.

The especially good food has been taken already. I still can gather approx. 20 kg potatoes, 1 1/2 kg sauerkraut, 1 1/2 kg jam and 1 kg barley.  The barley, I must confess, I took  from a woman’s pram, in which she had many kilos of it. In this case, I called it self-preservation. In the end, I dared myself into the big airport building to look for bread. But the stores were all cleared out by looters. It was high time to return home.

The machine gun bullets were flying all around us. I felt like a front line soldier. I had to take cover constantly. When it was quiet for a moment I jumped up and ran across the road or to the next doorway. When there was a whistling sound I bend down and ran for dear life around the next corner. When a shell exploded people threw themselves on the ground or pressed themselves tight against some walls.

This was the greatest fear I ever had to cope with. But I reached our own shelter unscathed. I was so hot and excited that the sweat poured down my cheeks. My face looked blue for 2 hours.”

 

There is even some humour and irony  in her notes. The situation is becoming “serious” she writes. Of course it is serious if you have to pour schnapps down the drain.  What she did was “self-preservation”, but  the other people were looters. I remember a conversation my mother had with an old man, after one of her missions.  He informed us, that an army under the command of General Wenck was on its way to relieve Berlin and to chase the Russians out of the city. To my horror, I heard myself saying, and I was just  one month short of being   10 years old, ‘The only army that is coming is the Red Army”. Indeed, they were coming closer by the minute.

In the same conversation, the old man said, that the Allies, after their victory, would occupy Germany for fifty years. This time span seemed enormous at the time, but it turned out to be pretty accurate.  Germany was only reunited and an independent country again in October 1990.

But the Russians were not in our street yet and anything could happen.

Wednesday, 25. April 1945

25/04/2015

First the entry my mother made in her diary for that day.  Events were definitely heating up:

“Day 5 Wednesday 25. April 1945

Early in the morning out off bed at once.  There will be an extra ration of Schnaps: 1/2 a bottle of Korn ( Vodka) plus 1 kg of sugar per head. The bombardment is becoming shorter and louder. A sign that the enemy is coming closer. Everyone is getting more restless.

Around lunchtime a piece of shrapnel went into the apothecary ( at Manfred-von-Richthofen Strasse) and killed the pharmacist outright ( we lived near the airport and many streets around there had names of famous WW I pilots. berlioz). We knew him quite well.

From our building, two bodies were taking away. They were Herr Wagner our greengrocer and a child. The relatives have to dig their graves – very creepy indeed. In Katzbach Strasse lay 5 dead soldiers, they have been hit by shrapnel  We now have to go more often into the shelter to seek cover.

In the afternoon, a grenade slammed into the fourth story, Nr. 28. The whole courtyard is covered in a cloud of dust. From now on hit after hit all around us and we have to seek cover in the air-raid-shelter.

In the evening, Russian bombers attacked our district (Kreuzberg) for 2 hours. Our building suffered extensive damage from the percussion of the explosions. The entry door to the flat, the kitchen door and the French doors to the balcony were almost torn from their hinges.

One is becoming depressed and weary. Everyone is crouched on his or her chair with morbid thoughts. They are all very much afraid. Sleep is out of the question, only at about 3 o’clock in the morning dare we sleeping  in our beds.

At 5 o’clock heavy artillery fire awakens us.”

We might get more and more  restless, but when it comes to sugar, even I can be spared and sent on an errand. “Go and get the sugar”, said my Mum and I did not question her. The front line could be in the next street. The day before the front  was only 2 km away. But for sugar there is no tomorrow. I could not go to a local shop but had to walk about 1.5 km  over a very long railway bridge. My Mum had no idea about the strategic value of such a bridge – and neither had I.

Spring in 1945 was especially beautiful as if nature wanted to compensate for the foolishness of men. Maybe nature wanted to tell us, “STOP all this nonsense and enjoy ME”. The weather was mild and flowers and blossoms everywhere. I had to walk through the Victoria Park, named in honour of Vicky ( daughter of Queen Victoria)  our former Empress). I was not in a hurry and looked around in the park, as I liked the trees and all stuff green.

Coming out of the park and back into the street  I noticed it was very quiet and hardly any person in the street. Everyone was probably queuing somewhere or sitting in their shelter reciting “Our Father…..”.

Monumenten Brücke today. Cars even park on the bridge. Then I could no people nor cars

“Monumenten Brücke” today. Cars even park on the bridge. Then I could see no people nor cars (google street view)

After about 250 m I approached the bridge. The bridge is very long, as underneath is a very wide railway corridor with many tracks leading south, from two railway stations, out of the city. I was always proud of the bridges across the railway as my father had told me, his father, my Grandfather, had built them all. My Dad liked to exaggerate in those things. He meant Grandad took part in building them. Perhaps Dad was showing his pride.

So, I walked over the bridge, no soul was to be seen. I know now that in those times all bridges were wired for demolition in case the enemy wanted to use them. But then, I was oblivious of that fact. When I reached the middle I looked to the north were the Anhalter Bahnhof was. I heard machine gun fire and saw puffs of smoke where artillery shells hit buildings, all the while grenades whistling over my head as they headed for the inner city. So, that was where the enemy was and the battle raged.

This was my view from the bridge, albeit not that close. The city centre was pulverised.

This was my view from the bridge, albeit not that close. The city centre was being pulverised.

Coming off the bridge I had maybe another 100 – 150 m to walk. I arrived at the grocery store without any trouble. Not many people were in there and no queue outside. Soon the lady behind the counter asked me my wishes….. Then it happened! A whistling sound and a mighty explosion followed, the whole apartment building was shaking in its foundations. We thought the whole building was going to collapse. Everything was instantly covered by a big white cloud of dust. The woman behind the counter came out and grabbed me and we rushed into the air raid shelter in case more shells would hit the building.

But that was it. The dust settled, the people quietened down  and we left the shelter. There was debris everywhere, everything inside the building and outside on the street was covered in dust and debris. We went back into the shop and the kind lady handed me the sugar with the words,’ Here, you earned it!’

I left the shop and went on my way home. Once again, I went over the bridge. But this time I noticed, high in the sky, a Russian fighter plane. It just circled around in the blue sky. He had no worries as the German Luftwaffe did not exist anymore.

But he had the order to keep an eye on the bridge, in case one of those fanatical Hitler Youth attempted to blow it up. That was his mission and by jolly, I fitted the bill and he was coming down on me.

The plane dipped down and I could hear the howling sound as it headed towards me. I started to run as I did not have the other option, to fight. I was running towards the end of the bridge where there were buildings providing cover.

I think, I was lucky that the plane came from a very great height as he must have been watching  a second bridge a further 500 m west – made famous later in Wim Wender’s film “Wings of Desire” – plus he did not want to be in the firing line of the artillery shells that were hurdling for the city centre.

I ran and I ran, clutching my sugar. Coming towards the end of the bridge I spotted a woman heading for the same thoroughfare to a warehouse. All the time  that whining noise was  increasing as the plane came closer and closer. The woman and I just reached the building at the last moment, with its thoroughfare for shelter.  The pilot started to fire his machine gun and the bullets hit the cobblestones. The plane was right in the middle of the street, between the houses at the height of the third story. He pulled his plane up  just in time or he would have crashed into the pavement himself.

I sheltered in this doorway as the plane dived  towards the street.

I sheltered in this doorway as the plane dived towards the street.

When the dive-bomber was gone we continued on our own,  separate  ways.  I don’t think anything was said by both of us. I was soon home and handed  over the sugar. I told my story but no one made a fuss and soon it was forgotten – it was just one of those things. But it is still remembered seventy years later.

My mother mentioned the death of our  pharmacist. I think it was the same day my Great-aunt Mietze came home (I have no idea why she was out and about) and reported that she saw people cutting up a dead horse in front of the pharmacy.

Two elderly people cutting up the horse. In the background one can spot the main entrance to the airport

Two elderly people cutting up the horse. In the background one can spot the main entrance to the airport.  In the right upper corner one can see our  local cinema, “Korso”

This photo is taken from the same spot as the dead horse

This photo is taken from the same spot as the dead horse not necessarily on the same day, because the Russians seem to have arrived.

We had the feeling it could not take much  longer before the soldiers of the Red Army would arrive.

Tuesday, 24.April 1945

24/04/2015

My dear mother wrote:

Day 4 Tuesday 24. April 1945

“We are up since 6 o’clock. During the night there was an air raid for one hour ! Russian fighter aircrafts are over Berlin. Our borough is unscathed.

Russian plane over Berlin. The destroyed building can easily be spotted.

Russian plane over Berlin. The destroyed buildings can easily be spotted.

From 6.30 till 11.30 we were waiting to get 1/2 kg of meat, also we received 30 gr coffee and one loaf of bread.

Just now, we hear that the Anhalter Railway Station  and the Görlitzer Railway Stations are in the hand of the enemy (approx. 2 and 4 km away, but in different directions. berlioz). One can hear intensified artillery fire. and easily distinguish our own heavy Flak. From time to time we can hear targets being hit nearby and observe some aerial combats. And while queuing and shopping we have to take cover from time to time. One is always amazed how people adjust to the prevailing condition and their thought processes quickly find a way to prolong their lives.

The 4th Day passed without any special events. (Shades of ‘All Quite on the Western Front? berlioz)”

It has come to this.  The war was coming closer and closer, the bombardment of the city has intensified and my Mum says, “…the day passed without any special events .” 

While we were queuing for the meat we witnessed some aerial combat. We were waiting at Hefters in Boelkestrasse (what an irony the street is named after a famous air combatant in WW I) close to our Parish church. We heard the sound of the two planes approaching. A Russian fighter  plane was following an ME 109. The German plane tried to shake the Russian by flying around the church which is  actually a  round building.

The Church on the Field of Tempelhof

The Church on the Field of Tempelhof

Quickly they were around and disappeared behind the trees and buildings. But we could hear the onboard cannons of the Russian plane and shortly after a loud explosion as the ME 109 crashed, and exploded  into the nearby hospital a few streets away. Only this year, while researching another story about the hospital -where I was born – I learned  that four  people died in that incident. On that day, my Mum  came home from a warehouse, obviously looting it, with a large soup tureen full of jam.

 Aerial combat, people taking cover, the enemy fighting with the remnants of the German Army in house to house combat and my Mum says no “special events”.

Even during  the  war we can become blasé. Or is this a defence mechanism?

Monday, 23. April 1945

23/04/2015

My mother wrote:

Day 3: Monday 23. April 1945

“Today the ‘queuing fun’ continues. From 10 am to 4 pm, once again we queued in vain. Later there is butter for free. 1/2 kilo per head, but no luck here either. Just when we were about to enter the shop the supply runs out.

So, slowly we are becoming weaker from hunger – the cold – and tiredness. Let us hope that we get through all this. The shelling is getting louder, but people are getting dulled. We will see what the day brings tomorrow.”

As usual, my mother and I  exchanged places in the queue. Often the  queueing  went on for hours.

My mother’s diary is not really comprehensive and I must say so much is missing and I saw the world around me differently from the way she saw it. Different impressions are often the result.

On that particular day, we were hoping to get “our” butter ration as long as we waited long enough.  For me, all this waiting among the old people was an experience in itself. “Old people” because younger persons were either working or helping out at the front. Not to speak about the men that were in the army and were just now defending Berlin against the onslaught of the Red Army. And for a nine-year-old boy all people are “old”. For me, it was interesting to listen what they had to talk about. Some were fearful and others were stoic. Whatever will be, will be!

In those days, the  butter did not come conveniently prepacked in 1/2 kilo portions. It came in  drums and the grocer had to weigh every portion himself.  This was a very slow process done with a wooden spatula.  The People  owning  the shops were usually very old people who should have been retired a long time ago.

On this particular day, we inched our way towards the shop door. Just at the moment when I reached the door and the butter seemed to be in reach a motor lorry of the Waffen-SS stopped at the kerb.  Heavily armed soldiers jumped off and entered the shop. I could not hear all the conversation that took place, but one word I could understand, “Requisition”. That was the end of our  dream to have some butter. It wouldn’t have been much anyway,  but  every scrap of food was important. as regular supplies were not available anymore.  The soldiers carried out a few drums of butter, threw them into the lorry and disappeared. The people in the queue grumbled and went home. They were probably  thinking if  their own  soldiers  were stealing from  them,  what could they expect from  the Russian soldiers who would be, most likely, out for revenge?

 In those days people, when they departed, did not say, “Goodbye” or “See you later” but said. “Bleib’ übrig!”. This is very difficult to translate and the meaning is obviously to stay alive and survive, but actually   wishing you to be at least one of the few who was still alive, after  the battle was over. The feeling of this being the “endgame” was in the air.


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