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)
As the years passed, the morale among the Germans had fallen, and many who believed in Hitler’s lunatic ideas now joined the skeptics. Though they wouldn’t dare admit it, they no longer praised him or believed in his insane ideas. My grandfather was one of them. Though a passive member of the party, he defended Hitler’s actions even when the average citizen did not approve of them. Nobody would dare to publicly reveal their disapproval, though, because this would mark them a traitor, for which the penalty was life—or was it death?—behind the barbed wire of Dachau. No one could be trusted, so discussions took place in whispers, or best at home, where no one could eavesdrop on us.
At our house, it became a routine. On cold Sunday afternoons in winter we gathered together, usually at my grandparents’ house, across the courtyard from our house. There we would sit around the lace-covered table and enjoy home-baked apple strudel. My grandmother poured Ersatz into delicate, hand-painted cups, which had in better days emitted the inviting aroma of real coffee. Sugar, too, was a rare commodity and used sparingly, so we used saccharin to sweeten our coffee. When my grandfather, the lover of sweets, complained about artificially sweetened food, my grandmother would usually reply with her favorite answer: “Thank Hitler for it!”
This would start an argument that lasted way beyond the kaffeeklatsch hour, sometimes extending into the evening. Occasionally it would be interrupted by an air-raid warning, which would leave my grandmother triumphantly repeating “Thank Hitler for it!”
My father disagreed with my grandfather when it came to Hitler, and my grandfather would try to change his mind. When he failed to convince my father, my grandfather would usually call him a Communist who didn’t know any better.
My father was not a Communist and did indeed know better. He was a man of logic. And though not politically educated, he relied on his power of reasoning. Many men, like my grandfather, were blinded by the power wielded over them and misguided by ruthless leaders who became murderers of their own kin.
I loved my grandparents as much as I loved my mother and father, and though I was too young to understand the arguments about Hitler, I knew my grandfather was a kind man. And when he became angry at my father, I sensed he argued in compassion, to convince my father that he was wrong.
How could he know that it was he himself who had been misled?
It was practically impossible to keep up with the air-raid warnings, so the German authorities provided a system by which one could determine how acute or immediate the danger was. The newspaper printed a map to be clipped and kept for orientation. The map showed Würzburg and an area of about a 100-kilometer radius. When enemy airplanes approached that area, there was acute danger. Radio stations broadcast bulletins with information on the course and the estimated number of airplanes involved. They also named cities in danger of being attacked. If Nuremberg was among them, it meant immediate alarm for us, because their course would bring them directly over our city.
It was the evening of February 19, 1945, when a voice announced over the radio, “Single enemy airplane in the vicinity of Frankfurt. Course: east. No immediate danger is expected.” This was good enough for us. No sirens had sounded yet, and we were hoping they never would, since we were ready to retire.
My father, however, had different ideas. “Let’s wait a little while yet,” he suggested. “If there should be an alarm, we at least won’t have to leave our warm beds.” He was right. It had happened so many times before, and it was an awful feeling. Just when you were all cuddled up in your cozy bed, ready to go to sleep—or worse yet, if you were already asleep—there they were again, those howling, monstrous sirens sending their fearful warnings across the sleeping city.
Well, still no sirens that night. No further warnings on the radio, either.
“I’m sleepy, Papa. Please can I go to bed?” I said.
“Psst,” he interrupted me. He lifted his head from the newspaper and listened intently. My heart pounded, and I held my breath.
“What is it, Papa?” I whispered, frightened.
“Turn the lights off, quickly!” he ordered me.
Hastily I reached for the switch. I still couldn’t hear anything except my pounding heart. My mother was napping in her chair. A book slipped off her lap and fell noisily to the floor.
“Quiet!” my father urged in a hushed voice.
My mother, awakened by all this, said, “How come it’s dark in here? Brr, I feel a draft; have you got the window open?”
My father would not answer. His head was between the blackout window shade and the open window. Now we all heard it: the sound of a single airplane coming closer. Suddenly the steady hum of the plane’s engine changed its pitch. The aircraft was diving. My father had survived four heavy bomb attacks in other cities, making him the veteran in our family. When he heard that sound, he knew what was going to happen.
“Run!” he yelled at us, almost screaming. “Run for your lives!”
The room was still in darkness, but now more than ever I wouldn’t dare turn the lights back on. I fell over a stool.
“Where is my coat? I can’t find my coat,” I cried. I fumbled around in the dark, feeling my way to the door. I touched a briefcase, which I grabbed, but still no coat. I started slowly for the cellar. I had walked these stairs countless times, so I should have found my way in the dark easily. But fear and panic disoriented me, and I ran head-on into a wall.
I was approaching the second floor when suddenly there was a deafening noise. The entire staircase shook, and glass flew from the windows. Part of a window casing fell on top of me, but I was too terrified to feel any pain. The impact of a bomb that hit three houses away made our own house shake in its foundation. Huge chunks of plaster broke away from the ceiling and crashed all around me. The force of the bomb’s impact pushed the right side of my body against the banister. I grabbed hold of the steps after the banister gave way, and the briefcase slipped out of my hands.
“Oh, dear God,” I whimpered, “don’t let me lose that briefcase. It contains all our valuable papers and money.” I sat in total darkness, feeling around for the briefcase. Now cold winter air rushed through the hole in the wall where a window had been shortly before. Broken glass covered the stairs. I found a shred of stiff paper, the remains of a window shade, and with it I swept away some of the debris so I wouldn’t trip and fall.
Until that moment, I hadn’t thought about my family. I knew that Rita, my sister, had run out the door before I did; she must be in the cellar by now. But what about my mother? My father? On my hands and knees, I started back up the stairs, calling for them: “Mama! Papa! Hurry!”
My father was in the hallway on the third floor, and my mother was still in the kitchen, desperately searching for the briefcase.
“Forget about the money and papers!” my father shouted.
“I got it!” I yelled upstairs, even though I didn’t have it anymore. Again I started for the cellar, though not without warning my parents about the loose banister on the second floor.
It was on the ground floor that I found the briefcase. A small beam of light coming through the open door of the cellar lit up the spot where the precious case had landed. It was leaning against the wall, just like it had been neatly put there.
“Thank God!” I said aloud and picked it up just in time to hand it to my oncoming mother.
We had just reached the last step of the cellar stairs when a second bomb hit. This one landed half a block away on the other side of our house. It must have been twice as big as the first bomb. The impact was so tremendous we thought the bomb had hit our house. The canned goods on the cellar shelves came tumbling down, hitting some of our tenants before crashing to the ground. Instinctively we braced ourselves against the rough, moist walls of the cellar to await another hit. My grandmother, her rosary between her folded hands, had already been engrossed in silent prayer, but now she fell to her knees, and the other women joined her and prayed aloud. The men, too, joined in, their hands folded as they stood against the wall, ready to drop to the ground should another bomb fall from the sky.
After we had been in the shelter for about an hour, my father and a few other men felt it was safe enough to emerge and see what was happening outside. Just then we heard the all-clear sound in the distance. Our own neighborhood alarm system must have been damaged in the attack, for we never did hear it.
Then everybody felt brave enough to go upstairs. Both entrances to our street were blocked by flames bursting from the roofs and windows of the houses that had been hit. People filled the street, and everyone was in a panic. There were people trapped in the houses, but the heat was so intense that no one dared go near. A fire truck was on its way, someone said. But would it come in time?
Sparks and burning debris flew through the air, carried by a breeze that swept through the cold February night. This created a new danger. The fire could spread. People started evacuating rapidly. Featherbeds flew out of windows. Suitcases tied to ropes were lowered to the ground, and baskets filled with fragile objects were carefully carried to the center of the street.
Nobody dared to sleep that night. When we finally returned to our apartment, morning had begun to dawn. What awaited us made us forget our sleepiness. Every window was broken, and a cold draft filled with the smell of smoke had settled in the house. We tried to look over the rooms for damage, but the electricity was out, so we had to wait for the morning sun.
When I entered my bedroom, a chill came over me. There in my bed, right on the pillow, rested a stone too big for me to lift. It had broken out of the wall. Our house had been in the family for many generations; it was built from natural stones of various sizes. The one in my bed was about two feet square.
Despite the terror and sadness of that night, my sister and I couldn’t help but laugh when we saw our naked Christmas tree.
“What’s so funny?” my father asked in a somber voice, sticking his head through the living-room door.
“Look at it!” My sister laughed as she pointed to the tree.
The naked Christmas tree
The tree leaned against one of the walls, its branches stripped of needles, which now covered the floor, table, and chairs. Some even made it to the kitchen, where they had settled on top of the potato soup in the pot on the stove.
The tree’s decorations had vanished too. Only pieces of string dangled from this skeleton, the sad remains of the symbol of Christmas, the season of peace. It was late February, and we still had our tree. Why we kept it that long, we didn’t really know ourselves. It was as though we had known that this would be the last Christmas we celebrated in this house.
After looking over the rest of the damage, we realized it was impossible to live there without windows. So we prepared to move to our summer cabin for what we hoped would be a short stay.
Our cabin was located on a hill southwest of the city. The Nikolausberg is one of the highest hills in the Franconia region.
My father’s hobby was growing things. By “things” I mean anything that would grow in the ground. Our land was planted with apple, pear, peach, cherry, and plum trees. A large strawberry patch was bordered with bushes of gooseberries, boysenberries, and raspberries and beds of beets, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, and numerous types of flowers. There were also pumpkins, cucumbers, beans, and lots of weeds.
The cabin, covering a 10-foot square, was built with overlapping lumber and topped with a wooden gable. Black tar paper waterproofed the roof and the weather side, on which evergreens had spread their creeping leaves.
The interior was simple. Four bunk beds lined one wall; the first one was level with the floor, and the fourth was surrounded by ceiling beams. The two windows faced opposite directions: one to the south, the other to the north. Below the latter was a wooden board fastened on hinges. It served as a table at mealtimes but folded down to make space when not in use. The east wall held the door and a row of nails that served as a clothes-rack. A small wood-burning stove and a faded, blue-painted cupboard with a couple of drawers beneath it completed the furnishings.
As a whole, the cabin resembled a toolshed more than a cottage. But it was only meant to be an overnight shelter, a place to spend weekends in the summer. It was not ideal for sub-zero weather, snowdrifts, or long, cold nights. But this was February, and spring was on its way, so we didn’t worry about winter, which was almost over anyway.
Our new home on Nikolaus Hill
Twice a day, we loaded our four-wheeled cart with our household goods and took them up to the hill. After three days we had not made much progress. The cart was small, and many more trips were necessary. My father, a craftsman, worked during the day and could help us only with the second load, which we timed to be ready at the end of his work day. This load was always heavier, because one more adult on the team made a difference.
Our muscles were sore from the strain of the last few days, so we were relieved when Andreas, a family friend who owned a farm, offered us one of his wagons, complete with horses and driver.
Throughout the war, a substantial number of prisoners of war worked for the Germans. Farmhands, for example, were mostly POWs. One such prisoner, a Russian, drove Andreas’s wagon. His name was Fyodor, and I shall never forget how he risked his life to save ours.
It was during our second trip with the horse wagon that we became the targets of an air attack. Just as we reached the peak of the hill, we left the wooded area to cross a field. Out of nowhere they came: planes! One? Two? Three? I don’t know how many—I was afraid to look up—but it sounded like twenty.
They came down fast. Then, almost in unison, they fired their machine guns. The bullets hit the dirt road, leaving a cloud of dust that stopped abruptly as their trail crossed into the muddy field and toward us. Then two strong arms pulled me from the wagon. I heard words shouted in a language I did not understand. Then a spray of bullets hit the wagon.
“Oh God, why?” my mother pleaded. “Why do we have to suffer like this?”
I, too, pleaded with the Almighty, although in silence because fear left me mute.
The planes vanished from the sky; only a distant hum remained in the air. When it, too, faded away, I opened my eyes and found myself lying under the wagon, my face and clothes covered in mud. I looked around and found my mother and sister in the same position. Now Fyodor bent over to look at us; his face was beaded with sweat, and his eyes expressed concern. One by one he pulled us out from under the wagon. With his handkerchief he wiped the mud from my face. His gestures were accompanied by a swarm of words, which I could not understand, but I am certain they expressed his concern for our well-being. My mother in turn spoke a few words of gratitude, which he probably didn’t understand either. He must have known their meaning, though, for my mother kept shaking his hand.
During the attack, after he helped us into the shelter of the wagon, he stood there, an open target, as he tried to calm the horses, which were bucking frantically. Miraculously, no one was hurt, and not until a long time after the incident did we learn why this might have happened. Like all prisoners, Fyodor was wearing a coat marked with the letters
. Could those three letters have saved our lives? The planes were low enough to enable the pilots to read them, and of course, they wouldn’t shoot an ally.