Remembering

On the 1. September 1939,  seventy-eight years ago, WW II began. I remember the day like yesterday. There was nobody in my family then as old as I am now. Had there been such a person, this person would have been born in 1857; a number that was as ancient to me then as must now be the year 1939 to the present generation of children and teenagers.

The Nazi Government of Germany started the whole thing and it turned out to be a disaster for the world, and the Germans were on the wrong side of history.

Even a neutral observer today can see that it was wrong to start that war. It was a war of aggression and as such reprehensible. The people are never asked whether they want such a war.

When my wife and I demonstrated against the Iraqi War at a peaceful rally in Sydney the participants were called ‘the mob’ by our warmongering Prime Minister. Nobody behaved like ‘The Mob’ there. As far as I could see they were all respectable human beings. They were just sick of the rhetoric of the Western leaders.

Today’s generation knows nothing about WW II and not much about the Iraqi War. It was started by US President George W Bush and it became the cause of the terrorism we are battling today. There was never a Nuremberg War Tribunal for Bush, Blair and Howard. Come to think of it, Nuremberg would be the right place for a permanent War Criminal Tribunal.

Now I am an old man. Recollections of my life are floating in and out of my memory. So many people are now dead who I once knew. There must have been hundreds. Those people were once real to me like the people that are part of my life now. My maternal grandparents were the first to pass away. Where did they go?  Children would go straight to heaven if they died, I was told. But where did the older people go when they died? Apparently, they went to the cemetery which we visited regularly. Later, on such a visit to the cemetery, we children discovered a children’s grave adorned by an angel figurine. Another illusion was destroyed.

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My maternal grandparents in 1922 on the occasion of my parent’s engagement

The day my Opa died I looked up to the sky for a sign that he had arrived in heaven. But it all looked too ordinary; puffs of white clouds moved across the blue sky. Perhaps the air was clearer than usual. Was that the sign I was looking for? Granddad was actually my first body I was allowed to see. All was so quiet as his body lay on a bed. The adults were whispering as if they were afraid he could hear them.

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We lived in the ground floor apartment (right in the corner) and my grandparents above us on the first floor. The boy in the picture is our Great-Grandson Lucas during our visit to Berlin in 2016. Lucas is standing in the same spot my Grandfather walked over five generations before.

During the war, I saw enough bodies to fill half a cemetery. They did not look as peaceful as I remember my Granddad. Some bodies looked grotesque and would not have wished their mothers to have seen them in their final agony.

One of the most memorable experiences in this regard was the death of a seven-year-old girl who was run over by a tram. I knew her from my way to school and I wrote a partly fictional account of the day of that tragic event. I only saw her tiny legs sticking out from underneath a blanket a kindly person had thrown over her.

I  think, I wanted to write something differently when I started this post but it seems my memories took me on an unexpected path. That is one of the characteristics of remembering, one can drift, dreamlike, from one memory to another.

Despite everything, I sort of like my memories. I always tell myself there was nothing traumatic because nobody made a fuss about it. We always got on with it. Memories have shaped and formed us into the persons we are today. But we will take them to our graves and this seems to be a pity. Why can’t we end up sitting on a cloud and remembering things? We would have a lot of time doing it.

Three years ago we went to the theatre in Sydney and saw Maxim Gorki’s “Children of the Sun“. I had completely forgotten about it and can’t even remember it after FaceBook reminded me of it. Apparently, we had a nice day in Sydney and my wife even published a post on her blog about it. Regrettably, she did not write anything about the play.

I know what the play is all about and realise we are all “Children of the Sun” in Western societies. We are all blind to the realities that surround us. When Gorki wrote his play in prison, he had enough foreboding of the time ahead; just waiting around the corner was the WW I.  I have now the same foreboding of the future that awaits my grand- and great-grandchildren.

Similarly, written a few years earlier, was H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. He even looked further ahead. Today,  we live “Eloi” like and could not care much for the wage-slaves in China, Bangladesh or Indonesia. Our beliefs in a technologically advanced future, in which “AI” will help us to survive, will only create our own “Morlocks” in our own image.

Today arrived the news as to how the political and financial elite is cheating on their tax liabilities. It is so disgusting as they are treating us all like mugs. They are mocking the multitude and their laughter of derision can be heard as they count their ill-gotten billions. The late Australian billionaire Frank Packer was ridiculing and challenging the questioners at a parliamentary inquiry by stating he would be a mug paying any more tax than he needs to. Indeed, the logic cannot be challenged but the tax laws could be changed. This proves tax laws are made to favour the rich and to disfavour the rest of us.

But is has been like this all through the centuries. The contemporary, political elite has learnt the lesson and they know now how to delay, but unable to avert,  the day of the reckoning for a while yet. But the revolution will come and it will be as horrible as any revolution before. We are literally dancing on a volcano and the climate change is making sure it is getting even hotter.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said in a conflict between reason and will, “will” will always win.  So, the prospect that mankind can solve its conflicts and problems in a “reasonable” manner, is pretty slim. We are stumbling from crisis to crisis and keep dancing until we fall flat on our faces.

I wish I could be more optimistic but the experience of my life does not allow this. There are good and reasonable people among us but they are not running the show. Barack Obama is such a person but when he entered the Oval Office to start his presidency and said, “Yes, I can!”,  all his advisors shouted in unison, “No, you can’t!” He had high hopes and expressed it in this way,

“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

I wish I could share his optimism.

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This baby vine leaf is full of hope. It does not, and will never, know that it is only part of a process.

Back to the Future

“Back to the Future”, everyone knows that title from the film trilogy  by Robert Zemeckis with Micheal J. Fox in the starring role. It is with a rather quiet satisfaction that I can say, I thought of the title already in 1977  before anybody thought of the film.

 

The title came to my mind for a diary I was going to write about my first trip back  from Australia to West-Berlin.

Germany, and with it West-Berlin, had experienced an economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder) and I wanted to see those changes.

 

 

I bought a big, fat copy book. Its title is still  the only written evidence  of that trip. Actually, it is no evidence at all, just a thought bubble.

 

Now, thirty-eight years later, it came to my mind again, as my wife and I, plus a large number of my family are preparing for another trip to that beloved city of my personal history.

 

Berlin has undergone another tremendous change from the time the Wall came down. That event changed the whole world by accelerating globalisation.

 

In the meantime, the youth of the world has discovered Berlin and they are  moving in great numbers  to the city at the river Spree. Berlin is a modern city but not a mega-city per se. It has still a human scale  to it.  It is a far cry from “Metropolis” the famous film by Fritz Lang. It is a much more laid-back, creative city now than was envisaged during the Twenties.

 

For me, the journey back will be my tenth one. I always have to catch up  with what has happened. Only in this way can I keep up with its latest development. So, it is  really a trip to the future as I have not experienced the developing city. I’m playing catch-up with the immediate past. Every time I go there a new future is awaiting me.

 

Last time, four years ago, were there,  we had a good time. This time, we go there with our three surviving children and some grand- and great-grandchildren.

 

Will they notice the unique Berlin sidewalks? Will they see the bullet holes in the masonry of many buildings? Will they fall over the “Stolpersteine (stepping stones)” let into footpaths to remember the Jewish citizens who have been taken to the extermination camps during the black days of Nazi regime?

 

Berlin, like no other city, has shaped the 20th century and we are still living in the aftermath of it. I’m a child of the 20th century and all that happened to that city is ingrained into me.  What I know now  made we wary of politicians. When I see or hear  one,  I smell a rat. The next disaster is just around the corner because of them.

 

When I’m there, I’m fully there and Australia  seems to be a memory only.  This time, it will be summer in all its glory when we get there. Berlin is a green city and most of the streets are tree-lined and the city is surrounded by forests, rivers, and lakes in a landscape shaped by the receding Ice Age twelve thousand years ago.  There will be plenty of opportunities for long walks, outings, river cruises, and to refresh memories.

 

Some of those memories are three-quarters of a century old. Like we, as children, being banned from the main air raid shelter for being too noisy. Grown-ups, who were afraid of the falling bombs,  could not stand the singing and playing of innocent children. Who would have thought then of the year 2016? That would have been the  far-off future, yet  I’m living in that future now.

 

People are being made to feel afraid again; this time by politicians who would like to stay in power. If I could speak to the people of the nineteen-forties, I would tell them of the future and how good everything would be. But for us, the people living now, we have new fears. Fears of others and fears of a future of unimaginable heat and rising sea levels. Our present fears  were not even dreamt of  then.

 

Then we were told, by the politicians of the day, to be afraid of the Bolsheviks and the hordes from the East. Now we are being told to be afraid of asylum seekers, and refugee who come by boats. We are being told that they are illiterate, take our jobs, and they live on welfare. We are being told that the ravages of climate change  are just a load of crap. Climate change does not fit into the electoral cycle.

 

What would  the people, living then,  have thought of a description of the second decade of the 21st century?  Then we lived at the edge of death from the bombs and starvation. Death was a constant companion. Today we ignore the real problems and indulge in imaginary ones.

 

What does the future hold for me? The short-term future looks good, as I’m preparing for my trip to Berlin.  The long-term future is promising me a cool grave and a peaceful eternity. For mankind, as a whole, I can’t predict anything. But, I would like to hear from a time traveller how the future is panning out in seventy-five years from now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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 was trying to prolong our lives another day. In the evening we were in the air raid shelter and had only candlelight. 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, even 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 a good drop of alcohol into the sand. Some are gathering up the 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 drop 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 main 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. Still, I’m able to 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 tightly 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 here have names of famous WW I pilots. berlioz). We knew the apothecarz quite well.

From our building, two bodies were taken away. They were Herr Wagner our greengrocer and a child. The relatives have to dig their graves – very creepy indeed. In Katzbachstrasse lay five 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 grenades slammed into our buildings 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 our 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. People are all very much afraid. Sleep is out of the question, only at about 3 o’clock in the morning dare we go to sleep in our own 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 and 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 250m I approached the bridge. The bridge is very long, as underneath is a very wide railway corridor with many tracks leading south, from two major 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 building was going to collapse. Everything was instantly covered by a big white cloud of dust. The woman rushed out from behind the counter 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 golly, 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.

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 by me more than 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 here

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 aircraft 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 during 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 fourth Day passed without any special events. (Shades of ‘All Quiet 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 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 chasing a ME109. The German plane tried to shake the Russian by flying around the church which is a round building, actually.

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 into and exploded a few streets away at the nearby hospital.  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 a war, we can become blasé. Or is this a defence mechanism?

Reminiscences of an aged Person

Solitary Tree by Caspar David Friedrich

Solitary Tree by Caspar David Friedrich

I’m an aged person. I say this deliberately, as I do not consider myself an old person. In a couple of months, I’ll hit eighty. One would think a person of my age would know where he or she, comes from. I’m not so sure this applies to me. I’m still trying to find my way in an uncertain world. It is the journey that counts and the way we behave on that journey.

The other day on the radio (yes, I’m that old fashioned) I heard someone say she had to disappear for a year, to find herself. It struck me then, that I had never done this. My life always depended on others. Everything I ever did was with someone else in mind.

If I disappear for a year now, my loved ones will say, I’m selfish or even stupid. What would I achieve? Find myself? More likely I will lose myself. It is myself whom I stare at, every morning, in the mirror. Warts and all, as the saying goes.

With having made only a few real decisions I was formed, mainly, by circumstances and became the person I am today Still, I am happy with my life as it turned out to be.

More drifting than steering, and like an old boat, I have collected a few barnacles of personal history I can’t get rid off. Neither should I. Those barnacles are part of me now, they are part of my skin. So to speak.

With my eightieth birthday comes the seventieth anniversary of the end of WW II. Anybody who lived through that catastrophe is a marked person. I can’t see any “free will” at work anywhere. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his novel “Slaughterhouse Five” that the universe is structured such, that every moment is a “structured moment”. Meaning of course that nothing could have been done to alter a certain outcome. We act, or do not act, as we must.

Buddhist urge us to be more accepting, but some of us are structured that way, that we can’t be accepting. The struggle against fate is stressful. Leaders try to change fate and sometimes seem to be successful. But I want to suggest, that they are better in coming to grips with the underlying structure. They see light, where we see only shadows.

When I turn eighty, I will publish a post about my tenth birthday, That day is more vivid in my mind than what happened to me last week.

In the meantime, I will do a bit more aging. Luckily, my wife and I are able to age together.

ZEN_12_600

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.

My  First  Railway Journey. Part I

This is the first instalment to a page I’m creating and it is called

“My Year in “Friedland” (Land of Peace)”

My year in “Friedland” started with my first railway journey in nineteen-forty-four one early  January morning. The good thing about the morning was,  that we had been able to sleep through the night, without being disturbed by the air raid sirens.  The RAF stayed at home that night. They probably did not like loading bombs into their planes during the Winter weather.

The bad news was that I was sent away from Berlin and from my beloved mother. I was freezing and shivering while my mother helped me getting dressed.

“Hurry up and don’t muck around”, she said. ” The train will not wait for you!”

I was still sleepy and had no plans to muck around at all and asked her, while still yawning: “Do I really have to go?”

“What silly question is that? They have  searched long enough  for a place were  they would send you to,” said my Mum as she put a shawl around my neck. “You know quite well that all the children are being sent away. The girls are in East-Prussia and you are going into a home in Silesia.”

 

“But I don’t want to go into a home!” I tried to say it defiantly.

“What you want will not be debated,” said my Mum firmly, ending all discussion about it.  For breakfast I had a slice of bread with “ersatz” honey and a cup of “ersatz” coffee.

 

“Why do we call it ‘ersatz coffee’? What then  is proper coffee?”

“Don’t ask silly questions. It is bean coffee, of course.”

“What is bean coffee?”

“Coffee we could buy during peace time.”

While I was busy chewing my sandwich, I decided that I really liked “ersatz” honey.  Peace time did not need to be explained to me. It was the time before the air planes came and dropped bombs on us. The whole building would be shaking. Next morning, on the way to school, the air would smell of burnt paper and wood. One could find shrapnel from the Flak and incendiary bombs the “Pommies” had dropped.

Then I  heard the voice of my mother:

“Don’t day dream. We have to leave shortly. It is already 6 o’clock!”

Mum had packed my suitcase  the evening before. Everything was ready. We could go. I put on a winter coat and gloves against the biting cold. Mum took the suitcase and soon we were on the street. It was still pitch dark and bitter cold. But what could we expect in January.

There was no snow which I yearned for in winter. It wasn’t far to the subway station “Flughafen” (Airport). Walking down the stairs I loved the smell from the subway tunnel that wafted towards us. A long tunnel, in a quarter circle, led to another staircase. I could see one train departing and quickly disappearing in the tunnel. Mum bought tickets for us which we handed to an employee who in a disgruntled mood punched holes into them. We then walked down the second set of stairs.

The station platform today as seen from the top of the stairs

The station platform today, as seen from the top of the stairs

“You watch where you’re going,” Mum called out as I stumbled a bit. “If you keep this up you might end up in hospital instead of Silesia.”

Wouldn’t that be better,  I thought. Mum would visit me there and bring me presents and sweets. I was once in a hospital with Scarlet Fever and could observe  the passing of trains from my bed all day. In the evening for super I was given sandwiches with liverwurst and sweet peppermint tea. I liked that very much.

“Watch out, the train is coming,” I heard my mother say. A stream of air,  pushed by the train into the station cavern, engulfed everyone at the station. Like a monster, with two enormous oval eyes,  the yellow train swept out of the tunnel and came suddenly  to a full stop. We opened the two doors and and entered the carriage. The station attendant called out with a mighty voice: “Stand back!”. Hearing this, nobody would dare rushing the train. The door shut  immediately and the train accelerated to a high speed  while disappearing  into the dark tunnel.

We had found two seats and sat down side by side. I looked around and noticed that nobody looked up to take any notice of us. Nobody spoke, it must have been too early for that. Even though they had been able to sleep through the night without an air raid they seemed nevertheless  happy to continue their night rest here on the underground train.

I was thinking of yesterday, when one of my godmothers came to help with the necessary formalities with the authorities. First they went to the police to report my change of address.

The white building used to be the police station in 1944

The white building used to be the police station in 1944

It had to be done as the police always wanted to know were people were residing. Then we had to go to the office where the ration cards were issued. My mother would not be allowed to receive the ration cards when I was not living with her in Berlin any more. Everywhere people  made remarks that I would now go on a long journey. Perhaps they would have liked  to go away themselves from the grey and dark city.

“Well,  you will be able to sleep through the nights,” they all said with a sigh. In the end we went to the Jugendamt (office for Children’s  Affairs) to get to know Frau Fischer, the lady who would accompany me on my long train trip.

“We will get along fine with, Peter, won’t we?”  she asked me. I did not dare saying anything and only nodded. To me she  looked like an old dragon or a teacher. Which was very much the same to me anyway. And who would take the fight up to a dragon. Only Siegfried (a legendary hero) would dare.

At   Hallesches Tor station we had to change trains. We climbed many stairs to get from the underground to the elevated train.

From the underground...

From the underground…

...to the elevated train station

…to the elevated train station

Mum walked slowly, but steady, so she would not get out of breath. I was always afraid she would die when she beat me with the carpet beater. She would only stop when she completely run out of breath and sunk on to the bed almost unconscious. Usually it took a long time before she could breathe  normally again.

“You will kill me one say,” Mum said then. I did not want that at all and felt for ever guilty. What could I do not to enrage her? I wanted to be good at all times, but something happened that made Mum angry. Soon we would have to part and her life would be much easier.

The elevated train arrived and we could continue our journey. I liked the Hochbahn  (elevated train) because from above I could observe  the traffic, the buildings  and the people below. With a bit of luck I was able to see into the windows of some apartments to see how other people were living.  This interested me a lot. I thought perhaps I could see whether other children were beaten too.

Once I saw a man hitting the table with a fist while a woman was standing beside him. But on that morning it was too early. All windows were still covered for the black out.

The train arrived at Prinzenstraße Station.  I knew the street because  the previous summer I had wagged  school one day to see the Circus Sarrasani which was in town. I had heard so much about it.

In front of the circus tent I saw an elephant for the first time in my life.  He was tethered  with a heavy chain to the ground and was moving his head and  trunk from side to side.  On the way back I stopped at the Hertie department store to look at the latest war books in the book department.

The old pre-war Hertie store

The old pre-war Hertie store

I had started to read “proper” books only during the last year. By “proper”, I mean books that were written for adults and not particularly for children. We children were encouraged by the school  to collect “Altpapier” – second hand books and old news papers –  for recycling. We were told this way we would help the war effort. But I sorted the books out and kept the ones I wanted to read myself. Yes I know, this meant I was a book thief too.

Kottbusser Tor. “Next station we have to get off,” I heard my mother say. It was still dark. But soon, by seven o’clock, children would have to walk to school. No school for me on that day! Suddenly our train arrived at the station Görlitzer Bahnhof.  From there it was only a short walk to the large railway station.

Elevated train station Görlitzer Bahnhof today.

Elevated train station Görlitzer Bahnhof today.

Görlitzer Bahnhof during the 1920ties

Görlitzer Bahnhof during the 1920ties as seen from the elevated train

The damaged station building after the war

The damaged station building after the war

There it was like a mighty castle.  Cars and taxis arrived bringing people who wanted to catch one of the trains. Others came with trams. There was a lot of activity in front of the station building. It was bitter cold.

Mum carried my small suitcase. I only carried my school satchel on my back. When we came closer to the pillars in front of the station building I could recognise my beloved uncle Alexander. That  made me really happy when I realised that he must have got up early just to see me  to say “Good bye”. I would not have expected such a gesture from anyone.

“Hi, Peter, are you looking forward to the long train trip?” And, before I could say anything, he added, “You will get a lot to see. Perhaps even mountains.” Mum and uncle shook hands.

“When will the train depart,” he wanted to know.

“Five past seven,” answered Mum. Suddenly I could see Frau Fischer from the Office for Children’s  Affairs, the one I had met the previous day. I did not like her as she tried  to be overly  nice to me. She walked up to us and said: “There he is, our little man. We better get onto our train!” After a short exchange of words the lady took my suit case off Mum and took my hand and said: “Lets go then. We don’t want the train to leave without us. Do we?”

Oh, yes, I would have loved that very much. I did not like her artificial friendliness.

I could not remember later whether Mum gave me a kiss or not, because she surprised me by giving me ten fifty Pfennig pieces, saying: “Don’t lose them. You might want to buy something with it.”

And with that I and the lady hurried along the train. There were several platforms in which trains were waiting to depart. The steam engines hissed and snorted like impatient horses who could not wait any longer  to leave the claustrophobic city  behind for the the vastness of the countryside.

Mum and my uncle did not come to the train. I assumed they did not want to spend money on platform tickets. The lady from  Children’s Affairs looked at the carriage numbers. The clock in the middle of the platform showed it was exactly 7 o’clock. Still the Sun had not risen. Finally we reached our carriage with our reserved compartment. The lady helped me to get into the carriage. We walked along a long narrow corridor till we reached our compartment. Our carriage was a 3rd class carriage and we had to sit on a wooden bench. Nobody else sat in the compartment and all through the long journey nobody joined us either.

It was comfortable warm in the compartment and I took off my gloves and coat. My companion stowed my things on to the luggage rack above the seat. Shortly after that we could hear an announcement over the loudspeaker. I did not understand anything. Some people hurried past our window, doors were shut and the train, after a slight jolt, started, almost imperceptibly, to move out of the huge hall into a cold winter’s  morning.