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.
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.
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
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, 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
Anhalter Station at the end of the war
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
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
The fighting is over. Soviet soldiers can relax among the debris