“Child Labour” in the “Land of Peace”

From time to time, during my stay in “Friedland, we children were given jobs to do. Be reminded that I was eight when I arrived there. I don’t mean to complain about the work performed. I was used to helping my mother or my greataunt when I was still at home. Here in the boy’s home,  we all thought it alright that we were asked to perform some tasks. We accepted, that adults could boss us children about and give us chores to do. This was the order of things.

During school holidays the staff must have thought we are getting bored. One day a week was cleaning day anyway. All the windows were opened and the fresh air was let in. In winter, the air was not only fresh but freezing cold and I hated it when I did not get warm. Then, some of us were given a bucket of soapy water, a hard brush to scrub the floor with and a floor rag to soak up the excess water. The floor was made from white (!) timber and it had to be scrubbed white.

It was hard work. My little hands could hardly hold the brush as I tried to scrub the grime off the floorboards. The knees hurt. We soaked up the water with a cloth (Ger. Scheuerlappen – floor cloth) and wrung it into the bucket.

Another job I had to do was shovelling rotten beets. After the harvest, they were stored in a warehouse up to about 50cm high. But in winter they froze and after thawing they were giving off a horrifying smell akin to faeces or rotten corpses. That was not nice work at all. I have no idea why they got us, the children, to do the job. I suppose, there was a shortage of labour due to the war.

But this was not the worst job I had to perform. Every few months we had to empty the sewer pit. We only had the use of one outdoor toilet. One for about thirty boys. Right in the beginning, I was warned by the other boys not to sit for too long on the toilet as there were water rats that liked to nibble the little boys’ genitals. That really put the fear into me.

When the day came to empty the pit we each got a bucket.  One of the bigger boys had a scoop on a long handle and scooped the effluent up and poured it into a 10 ltr bucket. The buckets were heavy to carry. The content spilt all over our legs as we walked across the road and up a slight hill to the veggie garden where it was poured onto the garden beds as fertiliser.

But there was a rather pleasant job too. Every Thursday evening we all walked to the local bakery to collect our weekly supply of bread for the home. Each one of us had to carry a large, round loaf of bread, about 2 kilos heavy, back to the home. Usually, it was already dark and under the cover of darkness, I dug a hole in the side of the bread. First I broke off a piece of the yummy crust and then with the finger I was able to extricate some of the still warm dough. I have no idea whether any other of the boys did this. It was not talked about.

We had to do our own beds too and once in a while we had to change the sheets and the covers too. It is rather difficult for an eight-year-old to manage to get a huge, heavy feather quilt into the cover. But we learnt to do it. It set me up for life and I’m still doing it nowadays.

Today’s children don’t seem to do chores. They are sitting forever on their backsides and are staring at their phones or tablets. It is said they are smarter nowadays. Smarter in what, I wonder?

Even from an early age on I always had to help out at home. Running errands for my Mum was done without any questioning. I, for my part, was proud helping my mother and I wanted to please her.

In the home each boy got a little veggie patch to look after. There was no compulsion and I can’t remember that I was very diligent looking after it. Except for a few carrots, I did not harvest anything else.

There was a report the other day which stated that children who are encouraged to do chores are later, as adults, more successful. But how do you define “successful”? It is said they are able to cooperate with others. Perhaps this is what I have learnt. I’m certainly not angry that I was asked to do some work. I never had a choice.  but did not resent it either.

Perhaps I am successful in the sense that I’m not complaining about my lot. I take life as it comes and I go on with it.

 

 

 

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Oleg’s Story

Oleg was watching the news. What he saw on his TV screen disturbed him greatly. Sometimes he was shaking and sometimes a tear or two rolled down his cheeks. He was near the end of his life and the present should not aggravate him that much. But he did care about his former homeland, the Ukraine.

 

What was unfolding there brought back bad memories and opened up old wounds, he thought had healed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. For the first time in a long time, his homeland had become an independent country.

 

And now this, he thought. First the Crimea and now the East of the Ukraine. Where will it all end, brother will fight brother. He was almost ninety-five. But the memories of the bad old days were still fresh. He grew up with his parents in the Western Ukraine but shortly after he was born his homeland was hit by the man-made famine, caused by the Bolshevik government confiscating all agricultural produce. They only survived, because of his father’s ability  to outsmart the food inspectors. But the hatred of all Russian was inculcated in him from then on.

 

When Oleg was eighteen he was drafted into the Red Army. In December 1939, he was on the Karelian front fighting in the terrible Winter War. Perhaps, fighting was too big a word. It was more hiding from the Finnish who adapted to the snow and ice better than their Soviet enemies. Oleg and his comrades didn’t dare going outside unless it was unavoidable, like going to the latrine. Many of his comrades did not come back. Finnish sharpshooters had their rifles trained on the toilet door. It was a short war and he survived.

 

Less than a couple of years later, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Oleg and his unit were near the border and he was taken prisoner during the first week. He was not unhappy about it as he did not need to fight for the hated Soviet Union anymore. He thought, his people would welcome the Germans anyway.

 

The Germans found out quick smart that there were Ukrainians among the prisoners of war. They offered them work in Germany which was much better than starving to death in the prison camps.

 

Oleg wanted to survive and was sent to Hamburg to work as a shunter in the world’s largest shunting yard. He met people from other European countries working there. The yard master wasn’t a bad chap. As long as one did the job properly all was okay. He was a good and fair man.

 

One day, after the terrible air raid on Hamburg in 1943, Oleg was called into the office of the yardmaster. An officer of the German Luftwaffe was waiting in the yardmaster’s office.

“What now, do I have to go back to the POW camp?“ he wondered. The officer smiled at him and asked him how he would feel joining the Luftwaffe as a helper with an anti-aircraft unit. He reminded him that as a Ukrainian he would surely hate the Russians and their allies, the Western powers, who were helping the Russians to win the war. “And that, we don’t want to happen, do we?“ He asked with a sly look.

 

And so it happened. After a short training, he found himself on one of the Flak towers on top of the air raid bunker near the Berlin Zoo.  There was no time to get bored. American bombers attacked during the day and British bombers during the night. They were housed in the confines of the bunker.

 

As Oleg was remembering all this, he was thinking, what a miracle it was that he survived at all. Towards the end of April 1945, the war entered its final stage as the Red Army was storming towards Berlin for the final showdown. Oleg’s unit ran out of ammunition at the flak tower and he was ordered to report to a new command centre in the city. The Red Army had entered the outer suburbs already and was pushing from all sides towards the city centre. How you get, in a chaotic, ruined city, to the place you have been ordered to? Public transport had come to a halt. The dreaded military police patrolled the city looking for soldiers who were AWOL or plain deserters. Corpses were hanging from lamp posts, people were queuing for some groceries and artillery projectiles were crossing the sky looking for a target. The smell of fire hung in the air.

 

For a Ukrainian it was a doubly dangerous place. Germans could take him for an infiltrator working behind the front line. Anyway, where was the front? It could be just around the corner. If the Red Army turned up they would shoot him instantly. Oleg was  a traitor as far as they were concerned.  After a short rest behind a burned out tram,  he continued his odyssey. He made it to his destination. The headquarter was near the Reich Chancellery and when he arrived the non-commissioned officer, after checking his papers asked him, ”You are speaking Russian? General Krebs needs someone who can help him out. Good luck !”

 

Oleg was instructed that his job was to listen and observe what was being said at a meeting with the Russians. It was already dark when a convoy of several cars set off to somewhere unknown to him. They drove along the devastated Wilhelmstrasse towards Hallesches Tor. During a short stop, white flags were attached to the cars. Oleg was in a Kübelwagen at the rear. The big shots travelled in their Mercedes. At the Hallesches Tor Oleg could make out the silhouette of the elevated train he had used often when he travelled across the city to meet his Polish girlfriend, Irenka. Here, heavy fighting took place, Russian soldiers stopped their convoy of cars and after a short conversation, Russian Jeeps led them to their destination in Tempelhof. It was not a romantic setting. It was the final curtain in the destruction of the Third Reich. Explosions could be heard and flares went up, eliminating the dying city in its death throes. T 36 tanks were moving towards the centre. Berlin was a hell hole and Oleg could not believe that he was there. It was truly a surreal situation. He would have preferred to be with Irenka. The Polish woman, he had befriended while stationed in Berlin, worked for a German butcher and had often brought him some small goods.  At they drove through  the night he was wondering whether he would  ever see her again?

 

When they arrived in a small side street, someone pushed a briefcase into his arms so he would look official. The talks went on for hours. Oleg learnt that Hitler had committed suicide the previous afternoon. The Russians acted like they knew. But he could overhear a phone conversation in which this important message was passed on to someone along the line. The Russians wanted the Germans to capitulate unconditionally, but General Krebs said, that  wasn’t why he came. A truce, yes, but not more than that.

 

Next morning, on the first of May, they returned to the smouldering city centre but not before the Russians took photos, for posterity, of the Germans while they were waiting for their transport back.

 

After a quick meal of black bread and jam, he went back to the non-commissioned officer for further instructions. He told him. “Corporal, you are in luck,  that comes from associating with the big guys. Krebs was happy with the information you supplied and as he is aware of your precarious position being Ukrainian, he has ordered to give you a travel pass out of this doomed city. ”He handed him a  piece of paper and said, “Good luck and survive.”

 

The travel document directed him to Potsdam, but unknown to the Sergeant and Oleg Potsdam had fallen to the Red Army days before. He was on his own.  A group of German soldiers, some from the Luftwaffe like him,  were holed up in an once stately hotel. He joined them when they told him they were trying to break out and go to the West. They felt, that becoming prisoners of the Russians would do their health not any good. Oleg agreed. They decided,  they would take a slight detour through the suburbs as on the main roads they would only meet with Russian tanks. Still, as soon as they hit the road they had to fight their way out. All the buildings were damaged and it was convenient to use them for cover.
In one of the doorways, they found a group of SS soldiers, real desperadoes, some of them from the Nordland Division, mostly Norwegian and Flemish. The soldiers of Oleg’s little group had told him they had been fighting the SS too but now that they met those members of the Nordland Division they agreed to combine forces. The chances of breaking out of the encirclement were enhanced with them. After a couple of engagements with the Russians, they were able to get through the front line.

 

Two days later, they reached the American front and they surrendered. That was the end of World War 2 for Oleg. He never found Irenka again and got married in Australia to a Ukrainian woman. Now he was a widower and he had never expected to worry about his homeland again. But there it was, Ukrainians were fighting Russians in the East of the Ukraine. It was painful for Oleg because, despite his animosity towards them, he regarded them as brothers. But then, brothers could be the worst of enemies.

Happy Birthday

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”

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 Russians are here!

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…

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.

As a Hitler Youth in the “Land of Peace”

The home belonged to the Inner Mission of Germany. This mission was part of the evangelical church. I will deal with my religious life in the home in another post.

We all know in 1944 the Nazi regime in Germany was on its last stretch. But in

Friedland, this “Land of Peace”, we did not notice. It was the duty of all children from the age of ten to join the Hitler Youth or the Deutsches Jungvolk. Before that age one could volunteer to join the Pimpfe, a sort of pre-Hitler-Youth. I did not volunteer, but had no choice at all. All the boys at the home joined. There wasn’t any debate about it.

Each Wednesday evening we had our “day of duty”. When it was dark we stayed indoors and instruction regarding the Nazi Party and its leaders were given in the common room. Naturally, a large photo of our Führer was on the wall. It appeared that he looked at any observer, no matter from which angle the observer looked. There were also some pictures of Jesus Christ on other parts of the wall.

In no time at all I knew all about the birthdays and life stories of our leaders. Don’t ask me now, because now I only know something about Hitler’s life. I did not mind those lessons. What I did not like was when we went outside onto a football field and received drill instructions. We turned right and left, we marched, did sit- and push-ups; we were ordered to run and stand at attention. Anybody who has military boot camp experience knows what I’m talking about. We learnt all the military songs that were in vogue. They were drummed into us. Often the weather was miserable and a strong wind blew over the field. Except for the drill I must confess I liked a lot of this activity.

Normally the Hitler Youth wore a uniform, but we did not have any. This did not stop them from using us as if we wore uniforms. We learnt to draw maps of the environment so we could make reports to our leaders. From time to time we went out into the parks and forests to play manoeuvre-like games were we could use our new learnt skills. A few years later all this would have been handy on the Eastern front. But the war was over a year later.

During the summer the Nazi Youth organisation set up a large coming together and march-past of all the units of the province, at Falkenberg, now Niemodlin ( pol., engl, germ). After a walk of 8 km to the railway station and a train ride we arrived at Falkenberg, a town in a festive mood. Drums, pipes and flags were everywhere. We assembled at the beautiful town square. We boys were all excited and marched to the athletic field. There, some big shots in uniforms made speeches. After it was all over we went home again. It was a long and exhaustive day.

In late summer of the same year we were once again sent to Falkenberg. This time to see a film. It was the film “Münchausen“. It was especially commissioned by the government as a project for the 25th anniversary of the UfA (German film company). It was also the first German colour film. By the time it reached us, it was already a year old, but I did not know that at the time. The showing of the film was arranged in a large hall. I’m not sure, but it could have been in the town hall. There were hundreds of people and the hall was filled to capacity and the walls were adorned by many large Swastika flags. As we were waiting before the start of the movie suddenly there was a commotion and it was announced that the Gauleiter for the region of Upper Silesia would enter the hall. We all jumped up and and shouted, “Sieg Heil”.

Of course the Gauleiter gave a rousing speech of which I can’t remember a word today. I’m sure it ended with, “Heil Hitler”. The lights were dimmed and we saw a newsreel first. What I remember of this newsreel is an item where they showed a night air raid on Berlin by the RAF and how the air defence operated. Search lights scanned the sky and the Flak was firing its deadly grenades up into the air. This was done with an over the top commentary as was the norm during the war. For me as a boy from Berlin it was suggesting that Berlin would be safe even so my mother had written to me that there were now daily air raids day and nights.

The main feature was enjoyed by all, but when I saw the movie on the internet a couple of years ago I found it rather mediocre. Seeing a film, for the first time in colour, that day was a special experience for us. We would have talked about it for days.

All the indoctrination did not turn me into a proper Hitler Youth, because I did not like the military drill at all.