Read The City in Flames Online
Authors: Elisabeth von Berrinberg
Tags: #History, #Europe, #Germany, #Military, #World War II, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)
THE CITY IN FLAMES
A Child’s Recollection of World War II
Elisabeth von Berrinberg
Copyright © 2013 Elisabeth von Berrinberg
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
Published by Berrinberg Publications, Minneapolis, MN
Cover design by Jeff Holmes
Illustrations by Paula K Yff,
Pictures from Wuerzburger Chronik, 1945. Copyright 1947 by Schoeningh Verlag. Reprinted by permission of Adolf Wolz.
Print book available from most online bookstores.
For information on obtaining interviews or permission for excerpts, contact the author at [email protected] or Sybil Smith, [email protected]
Chapter One – Warnings in the Night
Chapter Three – “Thank Hitler for It!
Chapter Four – February 19, 1945
Chapter Five – The Cabin on Nikolaus Hill
Chapter Six – Fyodor: A Russian POW
Chapter Seven – March 16, 1945: A Night in Hell
Chapter Eight – Search for Grandparents
Chapter Nine – Opa and Oma’s Survival
Chapter Eleven – Water: A Precious Commodity
Chapter Thirteen – An Odorous Adventure at Midnight
Chapter Fourteen – Bartering with the Farm Wives
Chapter Fifteen – Easter 1945: Where is the Easter Bunny?
Chapter Seventeen – The Metal Battle: The Catfight over an Airplane Wing
Chapter Nineteen – Our Communion Dresses that Fell from the Sky
Chapter Twenty – Käferles Suppe: Peas and Bug Soup
Chapter Twenty-One – Yellow Round Things: What Are They?
Chapter Twenty-Two – Satan’s Servants
Chapter Twenty-Three – Return to the City
Dedicated to all the World War II soldiers
who liberated us from the Nazis.
Many thanks to Sybil Smith of Smith House Press Publishing Consultants, a very patient mentor whose guidance helped me publish this book.
To editors Cass Erickson and Kellie Hultgr
en, who helped turn my draft into a piece of writing worthy of publication.
I am also grateful to intern Hannah Carpenter, who, fresh out of college, took on the task of putting the commas and hyphens where they belong.
To Carsten Gehring for his editing and computer skills and who is special because his family is also from my hometown in Germany.
Special thanks to Adolf Wolz, of the Schoeningh Verlag in Würzburg, Germany, for permission to use pictures from the book
Würzburger Chronik, 1945
To Paula K Yff for her delightful illustrations that captured the humorous side of our struggle to survive.
I also thank my twin sister, Rita Shannon, who reminded me of events that escaped my own memories.
And of course, my daughter, Lorraine, who chauffeured me to my meetings and presentations.
If I remember my first school day, it is only because that day also marked the beginning of World War II with the invasion of Poland. I was six years old.
Perhaps I was too young to fully understand the war’s impact on the world, but the imprint it left on Germany and consequently on my own life is still reflected in many of my values. While World War II brought victory to the Allies, it brought defeat to those who conspired it. Nevertheless, the rewards of war, however meager they may have been, also touched the defeated. They showed us the value of ordinary life.
War taught us gratitude. We were thankful for every night that passed without interruptions from howling sirens. If they did disturb our sleep and send us to the cold and moldy cellar, we were grateful to leave the cellar alive.
I felt hunger many times and will always remember its ache. Now I feel guilty whenever I prepare a meal. The potato peels I flush down the disposal are thicker than the ones we once dug out of garbage cans. The heels from loaves of bread are still tastier at the time I discard them than the moldy bread we devoured at many meals. Even the tough outer leaves of the lettuce in my refrigerator taste better than dandelions. Would I feel guilt had I not experienced war’s hardships?
War tore many bonds, but it strengthened the relationships that survived. Would I still be alive, had my mother not found the courage to distract a gunner pilot? She offered her life to save her children, a deed that only strengthened the bonds between us.
War also allowed us to experience compassion. A Russian prisoner of war, in spite of being our enemy, risked his life to save my family. And the Americans, whom we once called enemies, became the good guys to us. We even called some of them our friends.
One soldier stands out particularly in my mind. When first I saw him, I was performing my nightly chore of gathering dandelions for our rabbit. When he approached me, he handed me an orange, then turned around to return to camp. The next night he brought me a cream puff. I noticed a slight blush on his face as he handed it to me. I thanked him, but he just nodded, turned around, and walked away. I was certain he would come again the next night, and he did. It was a can of bread pudding he brought me then. I talked to him, hoping he could understand me. But he only smiled, and again I saw a blush on his young and gentle face. He bent over to help me fill my basket.
After that he never came back. Not once did he speak to me, and still, I remember him most of all. I remember his kind eyes and his warm smile. And wherever he is today, I want him to know that his gifts to me were the greatest reward of all. Did they not express his love? His love for all of mankind?
My family lived in a four-story apartment house that was owned by my maternal grandparents. At the beginning of the war, we had from four to five tenants who lived on the ground floor, second floor, and third floor. My parents, and my sister, Rita, and I lived on the fourth floor. My grandparents lived in a house next door. We were a close-knit family who loved each other very much.
One night, my mother’s voice sounded far away. “Wake up! Quickly!” Was I dreaming? But again I heard her calling. I pretended not to hear, and with a sigh I rolled over. Suddenly I was being shaken by two arms, and my feather bed was lifted and pulled away from me.
“Gee, Mama, why do I have to get up? I just went to bed an hour ago!” I complained as I glanced at the wall clock. The light was dim, but I could see that the clock’s hands had not yet reached midnight.
“The sirens!” my mother exclaimed. “Didn’t you hear them?”
“Hurry up in there!” yelled my father from the kitchen.
I searched for my socks. “Where are my shoes? I can’t find my shoes,” I growled to myself. Sleep was still in my eyes, and I could barely open them.
“Are you ready?” my father asked impatiently.
“In a minute!” I hollered back.
“Now!” came the voice from the kitchen. It was then that I heard the planes. With one shoe on my foot and the other in my hand, I stumbled down the three flights of stairs of our apartment building toward the cold and moldy cellar.
The year was 1945. The place was Würzburg, Germany. I was born there as the second of twin girls. I was twelve years old—well, almost thirteen—and half of those years I had been living in fear. It was on my first school day, September 1, 1939, that it all began. The invasion of Poland meant the beginning of World War II.
But now the war was nearing its end—at least so we hoped—for D-Day had passed and the Allied front was penetrating Germany.
Air raids had become a daily event.
Will they bomb us?
we all wondered many times as we sat, sometimes for hours at a time, in the cave-like shelter beneath the house. It was a safe place to hide while the bombers crossed over.
Which city will it be tonight? Nuremberg? Schweinfurt? Well, as long as it isn’t Würzburg!
we hoped selfishly.
I was proud of our beautiful city. Its numerous church spires reached into the sky, and its narrow streets still reflected the splendor of bygone eras. It looked so charming huddled into the wide valley of the Main River. On the hills surrounding the city grapes grew, which were used to make the unique and earthy-tasting Frankenwein, a favorite of wine lovers the world over.
Centuries had shaped this festive city, where kings and emperors had sojourned. In Würzburg, Tilman Riemenschneider carved his incomparable Madonnas, and Balthasar Neumann designed a palace for the prince-bishop.
Many students from the University of Würzburg rose to international fame. Sir Winston Churchill was one of them. Was this the reason Würzburg had been spared? There were rumors that no one would dare bomb the city where the great Churchill was once a student. Whatever reason the Allies had not to bomb Würzburg during all these years of war, it was fortunate for us. The city was spared until a month before the war ended.
But we still suffered. We felt fear and anxiety every time the sirens howled and every time the sound of airplanes reached our ears.
Maybe this time? Will they dive this time, to drop their cargo of death among our houses? Or will they continue on their course toward Nuremberg?
Then all we would feel was a gentle tremor in the ground, whereas only a hundred kilometers east of us, death was on its way.
What would happen, should they decide to attack us? The thought was frightening. Would we survive? Or would we burn to death, or suffocate on poisonous gases escaping from fractured pipes? How would it feel to be crushed to death by tons of steel and stones?
Dear God! Don’t let it happen! No! I am too young to die!
“Get up!” My mother tapped me gently on my shoulder.
“Is it over?” I asked, startled, as I jumped up from the corner in which I had curled up, my blanket tightly wrapped around me.
“Yes, of course it’s over,” my sister assured me, looking at me in surprise. “Didn’t you hear the all-clear sound off?”
“I was dreaming,” I said with a yawn.
My legs were numb from the long wait in the corner. Wearily I staggered back up three flights of stairs, stumbling over the blanket that slipped from my shoulders and now dangled between my feet, part of it dragging behind me.
The wall clock chimed twice. Two o’clock. Good! I thought. This meant school would start at ten tomorrow. Had the alarm ended before midnight, school would have started at eight as usual.
Sleepily I slipped out of my shoes and coat. Still wearing the rest of my clothes, I dropped into my soft bed.
“Thanks, Lord, for sparing us again,” I prayed, and minutes later sleep came to me.
Life became much the same for everybody, rich or poor, since money didn’t matter anymore. Ration stamps were essential. Those small sheets of colored paper printed with numbered squares became a treasure. They could not be replaced, should they be lost. If a person found a ration stamp and returned it to the address printed on it, it was a noble gesture, for many of us had become selfish and rude.
Each type of food had a different color of ration stamp. Meat stamps were blue, those for bread or other baked goods were red, milk stamps were pink, stamps for staple goods were orange, and vegetable stamps were, of course, green. Each member of a family received one set of ration stamps monthly.
Every year the ration amounts became smaller. In 1940, the amount of meat per person was four pounds per month. By 1945, the amount diminished to one pound per person. Bread had been cut to less than half the amount issued five years before. Some commodities, such as bananas, oranges, and other tropical fruits, had long vanished from the markets, and only on holidays like Christmas or Easter was a special distribution arranged.
Getting these rations involved long hours of waiting in line. Not only the special issues, but also even the smallest item sometimes demanded hours in line. You would often wait only to be told that the person in front of you got the last one. It was a strain to stand in line, and on hot days it was not unusual to see someone in the crowd suffer heatstroke or faint from exhaustion.
Electric refrigerators were unknown in those days. Perishable items had to be bought on a day-to-day basis. But even staple goods were rationed in such a way that daily shopping was necessary because some ration stamps were only valid on certain days.
We preserved food only by the means provided by nature. In cold weather we would set the pot of milk, after it had been boiled, outside the window. By the time it was needed, it usually had to be defrosted, and sometimes we just sucked on pieces of frozen milk that we had chipped off with an ice pick.
In the summertime we used the coal cellar to keep our food cool. It was a chore for my sister and me to bring food down to it and back up from it. Nobody ever volunteered, so we had to take turns, and sometimes, when both of us were too stubborn to go, we flipped a coin.
Equipped with a pot and a metal spoon, I would make my way to the dusty hole beneath the house. I would bang the spoon against the pot to produce a deafening noise. This was to scare the rats away.
Not everybody was lucky enough to have such a cellar, so they had to find other means of preservation. Many used wooden boxes lined with tin and then filled with ice—another item to stand in line for.
One of our tenants thought up a scheme to save hours of standing in line, not only for ice, but also for bread and meat. Supermarkets were unheard of then, so every shop specialized in different products. It was at the store that sold ice, though, where her scheme was uncovered.
After this lady learned that expectant mothers did not have to stand in line, she showed sudden signs of pregnancy. But her condition lasted only a few days. On the day she bought ice for her cooler, which she usually did once a week, she must have worn a loosely fitting dress. As she bent over to load a block of ice onto her cart, she suddenly “delivered” a pillow.
“There was a scene!” she recalled as she related the incident to my mother. “I was lucky they didn’t beat me up!” Curious inquirers who noticed her quick change to a shapelier waistline were casually informed that she suffered a miscarriage.
So the struggle dragged on day after day. If it wasn’t over a block of ice, then perhaps it was over a space in line at the butcher shop or the vegetable market.
There were three types of butcher shops. One was the regular butcher shop, which sold roasts of beef or pork. But one such roast cost most of the month’s meat ration stamps. If one wanted to stretch one’s meat rations, then one shopped at the second type of butcher shop. There, the meat was available for only half the stamp value: two pounds for one stamp. A terrific buy, if you happened to like horsemeat—and in those days, everybody liked it. The third type of butcher shop offered even better bargains. There, only one-fourth of the stamp value was needed. This shop sold meat from cattle that had to be done away with. A blackboard in the shop’s window noted the reason for which the animal was killed. Perhaps it had broken its leg or swallowed a nail. When an animal had tuberculosis or a rupture in its intestines, however, the meat was entirely exempt from rationing.
Occasionally such half-stamp sales were also conducted at bakeries, although only rarely. There simply was no such thing as day-old bread or yesterday’s rolls.
It is a European custom for a bakeshop to operate a cafe on its premises, sometimes with no more than two or three tables, though the shops are usually quite roomy and always busy. Wartime did not change this custom much, except that ration stamps were needed even to buy a cup of coffee. This could easily spoil an afternoon of kaffeeklatsch with a friend or neighbor you happened to meet. First of all, it wasn’t coffee from beans, but Ersatz, a substitute concocted from roasted barley and a dash of chicory. It tasted like nothing more than brown water. If you hoped sugar would improve its taste, the waitress could supply you with it, but not without clipping a 10-gram stamp of sugar off your ration card. If you didn’t have a 10-gram stamp, you would have to use a 500-gram stamp, and with a smile the waitress would return your change: forty-nine 10-gram stamps.
For some products other than food, a special
had to be obtained. This purchase permit entitled the lucky recipient to shop for a new shirt, pair of shoes, or dress, or, if they were especially fortunate, even a coat. Standing in line at the office that issued such permits by no means guaranteed that the applicant would receive one, though. The office kept close records on everyone, and if a person received a permit within a certain period, chances were he or she would be turned down.
Most children are rough on shoes, and my sister and I were no exception. Keeping them in shape was a task for my grandfather, because his talents for making old things new again extended into many fields, including shoemaking. One of his contributions was “tapping” our worn-out shoes. Since no leather was available, he simply nailed the rubber from an old bicycle tire over the holes. Of course, the nails could only be bought with a special iron-purchase permit.
We were growing fast, and our shoes did not contain our feet for long. But the solution was simple. With a pair of scissors, we cut off the tips of our shoes to make space for our toes. In the summer we walked barefoot, but on rainy days we had our
—wooden sandals that grandfather carved for us. They were a bit noisy on cobblestones, but they kept our feet dry.
Cigarettes were as scarce as everything else. Nicotine lovers would await their turn at the tobacco shop with anticipation. The lines there often stretched longer than those at the butcher shop.
My favorite pastime was to walk the streets, my eyes fixed on the ground in search of cigarette butts or the chewed-up remains of a fat cigar. I would gather them into my container, which usually was an old tin can, but sometimes it was my apron pockets—all kids wore aprons in those days. Then I would rush home to proudly present my finds to my grandfather. After spreading a newspaper on the dining-room table, we would carefully unwrap the tiny butts and shake the tobacco onto small pieces of paper, which my grandfather then artfully rolled into new cigarettes. The cigars he cut into shreds of tobacco, with which he stuffed his pipe. This operation would usually stink up the whole house. My grandmother, upon discovering he had used her best scissors for this smelly project, would throw open every window and door in the house in protest, regardless of the temperature outside.
Then it would be my turn to be scolded for supporting such a nuisance. After listening to a lecture on smoking, how it smelled up the house, ruined the drapery, and most of all, how it occasionally burned holes in the tablecloth (of which my grandfather usually knew nothing), I would promise to use my spare time for more creative projects. But soon grandfather’s tobacco ration would go up in smoke, and again, but ever so secretly, I would be on my way to collect a supplement for his pipe. He paid me with candies or other rare sweets, which my grandmother had acquired by way of her connections in hope that she could divert my grandfather’s cravings toward something less habit-forming. Every time my grandfather lit up a cigarette, she would shove a candy into his mouth. Soon it became obvious that he didn’t mind this extra treat, and to my grandmother’s horror, she discovered he had now become hooked on both.