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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Berlin – the last battle in Europe during World War 2

Brandenburg Gate at the end of WW2

The inner city as seen from the Brandenburg Gate at the end of WW2

Seventy years ago, on the 16th  of April 1945,  the final stage  of the war against the Nazi Regime in Europe had begun. It is known as the Battle of Berlin.  I think, it was more a dangerous mopping up of  the remnants of a bad regime that had only spread “blood and tears” across a continent. Why it came to that, will be still discussed in a thousand years. Perhaps this is the only legacy of a regime that called itself “The Thousand Year Empire”. It lasted only twelve years.

Germans are such proficient people that it takes a mighty effort by others to undo or to rectify a situation created by them.

During the next few days, I will write about my own experience during those fateful days when death was stalking us all in Berlin. I was was lucky enough not  to have experienced a traumatic event. Those accounts will also contain a short diary  written by my mother.

In English, there is the word “Downfall” for this period. But the Germans have another word for it, “Untergang“.  It is more the sinking of the regime, a “Götterdämmerung” of Wagnerian proportions. It is the total destruction, the submerging and burying  of all remnants of the regime. After five-and-a-half years of war, Berlin was not recognisable anymore.

Anhalter Bahnhof (train station) around which one of the heaviest fighting took part

Anhalter Bahnhof (train station) around which one of the heaviest fighting took part

Out of ruins always something new grows. Over time and more historical events, Berlin was reborn because it was and is, a resilient city. I had my own personal rebirth on my tenth birthday. More about it in a later post.

At the time, I lived with my mother and a great-aunt. My father was in the army trying to stop the Allies in Italy.  And we had no news from him for months. My two sisters were somewhere totally unknown to us. The Red Army was coming and for the second time I heard the distant rumble of the artillery.

The stage was set for the final assault on Berlin.