Friday, 27. April 1945

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

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

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

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

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.

Saturday, 21. April 1945

Seventy years ago, on the 21. of April, we knew the end for the “Third Reich”  was near.

On the day before it had been Hitler’s birthday. Who was celebrating? We don’t know.  My mother did not go to work anymore. Public transport was sporadic or non-existing. Every night we had air raids. Nobody knew by whom. The rumor mills were working overtime. The government released extra rations, and we were queuing for hours  for very little. The Russians were coming and the people were afraid as they feared the revenge of  wronged people.

Our apartment building had its own air raid shelter, but my mum was still not allowed in with me. We were banned by the other tenants because years earlier we children had been too noisy. So every time the siren went, we had to walk along  the street to a public shelter at the printer’s union building.

Building of the Printer's Union

Building of the Printer’s Union today

My mother started to write a diary. And this is what she wrote:

Day 1,  Saturday 21. April 1945

“Since 2.0 pm today, Berlin is under siege!  (Martial law has been declared. berlioz)

A peculiar, faint feeling overcomes us all when we realise that our Reich’s Capital – our beloved Berlin – is about to face a great and all deciding ordeal. Victory or destruction! Life or death! For better or worse! What will the end bring?

As from 6.0 pm, we are supposed to behave as if in an air raid, i.e. we have to gather in the air raid shelter or bunker (a curfew has been declared. berlioz). Often the dull drone, fading in the distance, of the artillery firing on Berlin. Soon, from hour to hour, the detonations become more audible. But it really doesn’t frighten us, because we are used to much larger shakes and hits during the air raids.

All public services, as well as the  privately employed population,  have closed their offices and workshops. A great mass of people is  on the move. All people hurry to their homes, as each one still has to make some important and final preparations in their households. At all grocery stores, long queues  have formed. Some last shopping has to be done before we can disappear into the nether world.

We too, my son Peter (9 years old) and I are at the ready with our luggage. My Aunt Mietze (Marie) too, 72 years old, belongs to our little group. We are taking our places, in the Printer’s Union building, a few houses up the street from our block of flats, in Immelmannstrasse (now Dudenstrasse). The air raid shelter is still without lights. Power has been cut deliberately.

Solemn and calm greetings are exchanged. In time, one by one, here and there candles or kerosene lamps are being lit.  Warm and cosy sleeping places are being prepared. We are having our evening meal in the manner of nomadic people at about 20.00 hours. Soups and other warm drinks are being poured  into cups from Thermos flasks  Our ready made sandwiches taste, despite our troubles and distress, really excellent. For a while, softly spoken conversations follow. Even those cease soon. Peter, wrapped up in warm blankets, is already asleep.

At about 22.00 hours, we are being woken by the sirens! AN AIR RAID !!

(It is the first air raid by Russian planes. The last Western air raid was on the 18 April. berlioz)

Our neighbourhood remains untouched this time! And as it remains calm, we decide, at 1 o’clock in the morning, to go back to our own flat.”(Apparently ignoring the curfew. berlioz)

Because of our closeness to the Tempelhof Airport we always felt safe. The Allied bombers seemed not see it as a target.

Sunday, 22. April 1945

The calendar says it was Sunday.  I have to confess,  the weekdays were meaningless at the time.  I can’t remember when the newspaper stopped either. During the last few weeks, the newspaper was reduced constantly in size. Four pages became two and eventually the paper had only one sheet. What did the paper tell us.? It told us where the front was.  By now   the Red Army was closing in on three sides. It was clear even to us, that they were going to encircle Berlin to cut it off from the West. Any relief  for the beleaguered city could only come from there. Our needs were immediate. Some food was still available and extra rations were announced over the radio. Sometimes, only selected shops would have a particular item and long queues would form.

Here is how my mother saw the day:

Day 2 Sunday 22. April 1945

“It is Sunday! After being awake half the night we finally got a few hours of good sleep. Suddenly, rumours are spreading like wildfire throughout the apartment building: There are to be extra rations of meat, legumes, coffee and other groceries. The sale is supposed to start as from 11 o’clock on. Peter has already, at 10 o’clock, taken his place in an endless queue at the butchers. Every hour or so we are swapping places with each other so that we can have a rest or something to eat. It is a cold and rainy April day. Now, after 6 hours queuing, we are exhausted and we are cold right through to the bones. We are giving up queuing for the day and console ourselves with more luck for tomorrow.

The activities of the artillery have somewhat lessened. Only towards the evening it is getting more livelier. But as from today, we are allowed to stay in our  building’s air raid shelter. This is much better because we are able to go back to our flat to fetch something when and if the need arises.

Some of the occupants of the upper story flats have already arrived. Today we are especially brave as we go after a while into the flats to be able to sleep in our own beds.

According to an OKW (Supreme Command of the Army) statement the enemy is now at Lichtenberg (approx. 8 km as the crow flies.berlioz).”

This was the block of flats or apartments where I grew up

This was the block of flats or apartments where I grew up

The small green door, then black and of better design, led to a hallway and to a courtyard. The shop on the right used to be our greengrocer where we often queued for hours to get  potatoes or some veggies.  To the left of the door can be seen a  window.  This used to be a barber shop before the war. When Herr Vogel, the barber, died  the shop was converted into a room.  Herr and Frau Vogel were the parents of our  caretaker. The next shop used to be a shoemaker who was not only repairing our old shoes but was  making new ones if we supplied the leather. For instance from an old handbag. He was not only paid with money but also in kind.

The other tenants have relented and allowed  us back into the air raid shelter. I  must have looked harmless being without my sisters.  I would not say “Boo” to anyone. My mother was my God. At that stage of my life, obedience to her was the only object of my  life.  In the evening, when we moved into the communal cellar, that was the air raid shelter, my bed was on a two seater kitchen bench. Even for me, it was too short. My mother made it comfortable with lots of cushions and blankets. We were right in the middle of it. The other people took their places along the walls of the cellar.

Entrance door

Entrance door (photo with the  courtesy of NotMs Parker)

The hallway to the court yard  (phot with the courtesy of NotMs Parker)

The hallway to the courtyard  (photo with the courtesy of NotMs Parker)

In the photo on the left, you can spot  four bricks made of glass on the ground. They were there to let some light into the cellar. But it was next to nothing. After one walked through the hallway one saw the courtyard.

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

The courtyard, then there was no greenery and the walls  looked black from the grime of years of neglect.

We lived in the apartment in the corner on the ground floor. In the flat above us  my  maternal grandparent lived  before they passed away. This courtyard played a big part later after the Russians arrived.