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Authors: Elisabeth von Berrinberg

Tags: #History, #Europe, #Germany, #Military, #World War II, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)

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BOOK: The City in Flames
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Chapter Seven
March 16, 1945: A Night in Hell

The days went by fast. We had most of our clothing and some dishes in the cabin. Now we were ready for the bigger items, like furniture. We asked Andreas to lend us his horse team once more. A last-minute change, however, made it impossible for him to spare the horses that day. So we used the hand-cart again and loaded it with my mother’s sewing machine. Just then, an air-raid warning interrupted us, and we had to find shelter.

It was early in the afternoon when the warning sounded, but by the time we left the shelter the sun began to sink behind the roofs of the city. We did not speak much on our way up the hill. Everyone was busy with his or her own thoughts. I was looking forward to the halfway point of our trip because then we would stop to rest for a few minutes. This we had done many times before. We stopped there not only since we started evacuating, but also on weekends when we went to relax at the secluded summer cabin. But today we did not stop. My father was tense and nervous.

“Please, Papa! Let’s rest for a while!” my sister and I pleaded.

“Not today, girls!” my father said resolutely, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.

We tried to bargain: “Five minutes, maybe?”

But my father remained firm. He rushed us, as if he had an intuition that something was going to happen. So we kept on pushing the cart, sadly looking back to the spot where many times before we spent a few minutes stretching and taking in the spring air.

It was almost seven in the evening when the sound of sirens rang in our ears. Another alarm! The 335th since the beginning of the war. We were already going at a fast pace, but now we hurried and pushed the cart with all our strength. We all had the feeling that something was going to happen that night. There had been rumors that there would be another air attack.

At 5:30 p.m., 660 air wings took off from a base near London. Intercepted radio messages revealed at least one of their destinations: Würzburg! The fate of our city had already been sealed.

Hastily we pushed the cart over the last few meters, and the air began to swell with the sound of approaching airplanes. Hundreds of them. Slowly the sound drew closer and closer. Two-engine planes, probably Mosquitoes or Marauders. There was no time for us to waste. Drenched in sweat and breathless from exhaustion, we arrived at our gate. It was not safe to stay in the cabin, yet it was just as dangerous to lie on the ground, so we hid in what we called our dungeon, a four-foot-square manhole located in the northeast corner of our garden, put there to hold our water meter. We had to squeeze ourselves into it. We used it before when we were surprised by an alarm on a quiet Sunday afternoon, so we stocked it with some logs for seating. We left the cast-iron lid off, because the air supply in such a small chamber would not last long.

Now we heard planes directly over us! For four minutes they dropped thousands of orange-red flares. How beautiful and yet so cruel was the sight. It was just as if a giant Christmas tree, lit up with candles, was slowly descending from heaven. My father pulled the lid over the opening of our dungeon. Seconds later, it all turned into hell, four engine bombers filled the sky. For nineteen minutes, hundreds of airplanes dropped a total of four hundred thousand bombs.

The roar of diving planes, combined with the shrill whistle of falling bombs, brought upon us an unconquerable fear for which we knew only one cure: pray to the Almighty that He might spare us!

The impacts felt like an earthquake. Our shelter began to rock, and we had to hold on to each other to keep from being slammed against the walls. Our ears began to hurt.

“Leave your mouths open so your lungs don’t burst,” my father warned. Gradually the sound of planes faded into the distance. Then there was dead silence. My father opened the lid. And it was high time because we began to run out of air. He stuck his head out, and then quickly withdrew it. His face showed agony, and his voice trembled when he said, “Oh my God!”

My mother rose to look outside. Seconds later she cried out, and it took minutes to calm her. My sister and I started to cry, even though we had not yet seen what awaited us. Finally, we crawled out. If there is anything to which I could compare the sight, I do not know about it, for I have never seen such an inferno as what lay before us. The sky was lit by the flames that consumed what once had been a city. In 17 minutes, British Lancaster bombers destroyed about 88 percent of Würzburg—what centuries had built and generations had inherited. Standing there, helpless and still crying, we suddenly remembered that my grandparents were still in the house when we left the city. For them to have survived would have required a miracle, for the valley before us was burning in every corner. Every few minutes a blue flash extended from the flames into the sky, warning us that seconds later another time bomb would explode.

Smoke started to fill the air. The sound of collapsing buildings carried throughout the night on the wind that developed in the vacuum caused by the tremendous fire.

The narrow and otherwise quiet country road by our property suddenly came to life. Men, women, and children passed by in an endless stream, seeking refuge in a village a few kilometers west of our land. Most people were quiet because many were in shock, but the children cried. Some people limped, some trembled, and some carried others. Many wore no more than their sleepwear or blankets and bedsheets wrapped around them.

We sat by our gate, for we hoped we might find my grandparents among the passing survivors. Never ending was the stream of refugees, and the sight became more and more pathetic. Blinded by the smoke, scorched by the fire, they fumbled aimlessly forward.

A young girl pushed her grandfather in a wheelbarrow. The old man whimpered in pain, and the girl desperately tried to calm him. He wanted to scream, but his voice was hoarse from the dense smoke in the air and only moans came from his lips.

My father offered him some water. When he held out the canteen flask, he noticed pieces of clothing wrapped around the man’s arms. Blood was dripping from them. My father held the flask to the man’s mouth. Just then the old man started to slouch forward, and slowly he fell off the wheelbarrow onto the ground. The cloth around his arms came loose and fell open. He had no hands. He had bled to death.

My mother broke into tears again. “I can’t look anymore,” she cried. “I can’t stand the sight of it anymore!”

Some people stopped to rest, to sit beside us by our fence. They gratefully accepted the water we offered. The people on the road became fewer as the hours elapsed. But still no sign of my grandparents.

“Please, Lord! Please don’t let them die!” we prayed to heaven and cried. “Please spare them!”

When the last weary survivor passed by our gate, the sun had already risen.

The city of Wurzburg in ruins but a steeple remains untouched

 

Divine Intervention left Madonna and child unscathed

Back to front

Chapter Eight
Search for Grandparents

We left for the city, determined to find my grandparents. Soon we reached the asphalt road we traveled on the night before with our cart. The fear we felt then was replaced with desperation as daylight revealed the results of the previous night’s holocaust.

A new wave of refugees trekked up the hill, passing us on our way to the burning city.

“You’re crazy! You can’t go down there!” a man shouted at us in disbelief. “It’s hell down there,” he said, more to himself than to us, as he resumed his walk uphill. It was a great risk to enter the city, we all knew that, but we hoped that God was once again on our side and would let us find my grandparents—alive!

The smoke became more intense as we neared the foot of the hill. We crossed a small park near one of the bridges connecting the suburbs to the inner city. The bridges were still intact. A small calculation by the bombers, perhaps, as they might be useful for invaders someday.

We began to cough as smoke filled our lungs, and we had to don our gas masks. Everybody in sight wore one now; it would have been hazardous to go without one.

A truckload of German soldiers, also wearing masks, passed us on the bridge. A row of houses that collapsed into the street was still in flames. The truck could go no further. The soldiers dismounted and equipped themselves with shovels, picks, and other tools for use in rescue. Their leader saw us, and with a wave of his hand he motioned for us to follow them.

“Where are you going?” he asked my father with a frown.

“My Oma and Opa!” I exclaimed before my father could answer. “We’ve got to find them! Please can you help us?” The soldier turned toward me and said, “I am sorry, little girl, but we have orders, and they are to lay free the exit of the public shelter in the Adolf-Hitlerstrasse.”

“We are going toward Oberthür-Gasse,” my father interrupted. The soldiers were not familiar with the streets of the city, as they had come from a garrison in a nearby town. The two streets ran parallel to one another. My father led the soldiers toward their rescue mission.

“What a waste!” my father lamented as he scanned the fiery surroundings. The soldiers remained quiet; they were not allowed to voice their opinions, but their faces reflected their thoughts.

“This way!” my father said and pointed to the next corner, leading us into a narrow street. Mounds of stones and debris blocked passage, and the hollow structure of a burned-out house leaned dangerously to one side.

“Let’s try the next one,” my father suggested, gesturing to a side street ahead. But it, too, was filled with fallen debris, and burning lumber blocked off any remaining openings. A cry came from a cellar beneath one of the still-burning houses. There it was again! In minutes the soldiers cleared a window leading to the cellar below the street level. One of them lowered himself on a rope held by the rest of the soldiers. When he emerged, a child clung to his body. Nobody spoke—we were too moved.

“The rest are dead,” the soldier reported as he untied himself. The child was a girl, about seven years old. How she survived while the others with her had died was beyond our knowing.

With every step we took through this giant pile of stones and ashes, our hopes of finding my grandparents alive shrank more and more.

We reached the public shelter, which was the soldiers’ destination. Another group of military personnel already arrived carrying the bodies they found in the shelter to the street. An entire block was already lined with victims.

Our family occasionally used this shelter. It was only a block away from our house. We went there especially in the winter, when our own cellar became too cold.

Is it possible Oma and Opa decided to use this shelter last night? Dear Lord, I hope they didn’t!
I thought.

My mother must have had the same thought. “We are looking for my parents,” she said to one of the soldiers who emerged from the shelter, carrying a dead child.

“There are only a few bodies left down there, but they all look like children,” he said, breathing heavily as he lowered the lifeless bundle to the ground.

“This child,” I said as I stared at the little girl on the ground, “looks familiar.”

“It’s Ingrid!” my sister exclaimed. “Oh, Ingrid! Ingrid!” she cried to the little body, as if she could awaken it.

I looked over the rest of the bodies as I walked past them. “Oh God!” I cried. “Don’t let me find them here. No! Not here.” I reached the end of the lineup and turned around. Again, I looked over the lifeless remains before me. “Anneliese,” I said, recognizing another of my playmates. She, too, had died, like her little sister, Ingrid.

My father walked toward me. “The rest of her family lies over there,” he said, pointing to the other side of the street.

“Why?” I sobbed. “Why did they have to die? They didn’t hurt anybody.”

“Come!” my father said, his voice choked-up as he led me away, his arm around my shoulders. “We’ll go to our house now,” he added, turning to see if my mother and sister were following us. We were all in tears, even my father, although he tried not to show it.

More people looking for their family members came toward us, heading in the opposite direction.

“How does it look over there?” my father asked one of them, pointing to our street.

“It’s all gone!” the man said wearily. “I doubt anyone got out of there alive.”

“Oh no!” my mother said tearfully. “I won’t believe they’re dead. We must find them!”

Rubble cluttered the street, leaving only a narrow path. Soon there was no street at all—just piles of stones and smoking lumber between rows of ruins. Single file, we paced our way over mounds and climbed carefully around twisted beams of steel.

“Don’t touch them,” my father cautioned us. “They might still be hot from the fire.”

There it was! Our house—our family’s home for generations. Or was it a house? No! Only the four walls remained intact, though burned. The graceful furniture, delicate china, and polished silver were destroyed. A lonely chair leg peeked out from crushed stovepipes, broken tiles, and chunks of smoldering mattress.

“The cellar did not collapse,” said my father.

“Maybe they are still down there!” we all exclaimed. Feverishly we began to remove stones and dirt from the entrance to the cellar, but every time we pushed the rubble away, more came rolling down.

“It’s no use,” my father said as he brushed the dirt from his hands, which began to bleed. “We’ve got to get a pick and shovel.”

“Ja!
And perhaps some soldiers,” my mother said with hope in her voice.

We did not take the route by which we came. Instead we walked to the other end of our street, but soon reached a point where passage was almost impossible. Heavy, yellow-colored smoke rose from a cavity in the ground. It looked like something exploded there. The strange odor made us cough. Hastily my father buckled his gas mask back on his face and, still coughing, he motioned for us to do the same. We removed them earlier, because the hot air made the rubber stick to our skin, causing us to perspire.

Soon we reached the end of our street. We took a side street, which, if passable, would shorten our trip back to the shelter. We hoped to find some soldiers to help us, but they left. Only the dead remained, and a few more were added since we’d left. There was a woman with a dog on a leather leash still tied to her wrist and two men, one of whom lay facedown. Their clothes were half burned off their bodies.

“They must have found them in another shelter,” my father commented. “There was no fire in this one. They all suffocated from the smoke that entered from outside.”

“Let’s go!” my mother urged. “We’ve got to find help! Maybe on the Residenzplatz.”

The Residenzplatz consisted of a wide-open area that was used as a parade ground in bygone days. The plaza stretched out in front of a majestic baroque castle that also suffered. Black smoke still rose from one of its wings. Since the castle was a sturdy structure, it remained standing.

A mass of people occupied the plaza. Some were still there from the night before when they fled their homes, realizing escape from a caved-in house or a collapsed cellar was impossible. The plaza was free of danger from falling beams and whirling stones. Could Oma and Opa have had the same thought and left the house or cellar before the exit was sealed off? We quickened our steps, jumped over one last pile of debris, and ran toward the crowded plaza.

“Oma! Opa!” my sister and I called out, searching the crowd. Faces blackened by smoke still reflected horror and shock. Some people lay on the ground, too weak and exhausted to stand any longer.

“Mutter! Vater!” my mother called. A woman approached us. “They are here,” she called out to my mother. “I saw them.” She pointed in the direction of where she had last seen them. Only then did we recognize the woman as one of our neighbors. Her appearance had changed.

“They’re alive! They’re alive!” my mother shouted in excitement as she turned toward us to reassure us of what the woman said.

My sister, staring in the opposite direction, suddenly ran, her arms waving in the air, as she yelled as loud as she could, “Oma! Oma! Over here!”

I had not spotted my grandmother yet, but I ran across the cobblestoned ground as fast as my feet could carry me. I stumbled but quickly recovered my balance and continued my pursuit. But now I lost sight of my sister. My parents followed behind, out of breath from running after us. Then I saw my sister walking toward us with two weary figures beside her. It was them! My grandparents! We barely recognized them at first. Their eyeglasses were gone, their hair and eyebrows had burned off, and their clothes smelled of a sickening odor. My sister recognized my grandmother from a distance only by the color of her sweater. My grandfather stood right beside her. He was clad only in his pajamas and house slippers, without his mustache—it, too, had been singed away. He looked eerie.

But they were alive! We embraced them and stood in silence. No words could express our feelings at that moment. Our eyes filled with tears once more, but this time they were tears of joy. Our search ended and our prayers had been heard.

I raised my eyes to the smoke-filled sky and whispered, “Thank you, God!”

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BOOK: The City in Flames
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