Authors: Elisabeth von Berrinberg
Tags: #History, #Europe, #Germany, #Military, #World War II, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)
“It was just like any other night,” my grandfather began after he settled into the broad sofa at my aunt Katrina’s house in one of Würzburg’s suburbs. He held a cup of hot peppermint tea between his still-trembling hands. He took a sip and out of habit wiped the spot where his mustache had been. With a grimace he withdrew his hand because the spot was still sore.
“It will grow back,” my aunt Katrina assured him, and she dabbed the area with a soothing salve. My grandmother sat beside him. A bath refreshed them somewhat, but fatigue still marked their faces. Cuddled in my aunt and uncle’s bathrobes, they were ready to tell us about their ordeal.
“I guess you’ll have to put up with us for a while,” my grandfather concluded with a look at his oldest daughter Katrina.
“Of course you can stay with us,” my aunt assured him. “Where else would you go?” My aunt was right. The cabin was no place for my grandparents. It was a little safer in the suburbs than on Nikolaus Hill, and their house was spacious enough for two more people.
“Are you sure you feel like talking?” my mother asked, concerned.
“I don’t think I can sleep yet,” my grandfather argued mildly and held out his cup for a refill. “It was just like any other night,” he began again. “Just another alarm, we figured.”
“Father was in bed already,” my grandmother joined in. “He didn’t feel well, so I told him to lie down and I would make him some tea.”
“Never had a chance to drink it,” Opa recalled.
“Did you go to the cellar?” my father asked.
“Yes, we did,” my grandfather continued. “No sooner were we down there than the bombs began to fall. First in the distance, then closer. A direct hit made the walls sway. When the lights went off, we panicked. The heavy cellar door broke from its hinges and slid down the stairs, leaving a mound of rubble. Then there was darkness.”
A shiver raced down my spine. I often envisioned a scene like the one my grandfather described. “How did you get out?” I asked.
Grandfather continued, “We heard a crackle above us and smelled fire. Smoke drifted down. We knew remaining there would mean certain death.”
“We broke through the thin wall that separated us from the shelter of the house next door,” Oma explained. “But debris blocked the exit. We entered the shelter beyond that one by breaking through one of the emergency exits, but there was no escape from there either.”
There was a short pause. Then my grandfather said, “I was almost at the end of my strength, but there was one more wall we had to break through to get to the public shelter beyond. But it looked empty. The people using it must have left in a hurry because there were suitcases and bags of clothing left behind. A baby carriage was tipped over on its side, and infants’ toys were strewn beside it.”
Oma joined in again. “We even found a baby bottle half filled with milk.”
“What happened next?” my mother asked.
After another sip of tea, my grandfather continued, “The shelter looked safe, so we decided to stay and wait for the fire outside to die. But then an explosion in the opposite corner of the shelter tore away a huge steel door. The impact knocked us to the ground, and for a moment we lost our breath. Smoke came billowing in. We had to leave fast.
“We quickly unbolted the steel door on the other side of the shelter. Then we found ourselves in a little garden surrounded by stone walls with a wooden gate. Flames devoured a pavilion and a wooden table and chairs. On the other end of the garden, there was a stone cherub glowing in the light of the flames, and a small cistern containing animal waste for fertilizer. Off to the side, a door led to the house, or what was left of it—as well as the stairs that led to the shelter from which we emerged. There was no escape in that direction.”
My mother, apparently familiar with the garden, asked, “Did you leave through the gate then?”
“Yes, but not for a while,” my grandmother said. “The gate was just barely burning, but it was locked. So then we sat on the ground and awaited our fate.” Her voice trembled, and her eyes filled with tears. Without words, my aunt handed her a handkerchief. After a short pause she continued, “By then, daylight had begun to break.”
“There was no ladder, and the table and chairs were too burned to be of use,” Opa now recalled. “We searched for some kind of tool that would help us break open the gate, but all we could find was a pair of rusty pruning shears.
“But then we had another idea. Why not speed up the fire on the wooden gate? It was already burning slowly on the upper corners, but the metal trimmings retarded the flames. The best way to burn an opening would be from the bottom up.
“With the pruning shears, we picked up some of the burning lumber from the pavilion and set it under the gate. Time was running out. The smoke became more intense, and the house adjoining the garden was ready to cave in. It did not take long to set the gate on fire. It was already hot from the heat around it, so in seconds the entire gate was engulfed in flames. This was more than we counted on, and now there was no time to waste. But if we went through it at this point, it would mean our deaths. We had to wait until the opening became large enough for us to pass through without getting touched by fire.
“The firestorm became stronger, sucking up loose debris and whirling it into the air. Then our glasses were sucked up by the vacuum.
“We were about to give up again when another idea came to mind: the blankets. We found them in the last shelter and decided to take them with us. On our hands and knees, we crawled toward the cistern. Our eyes hurt from the smoke, and even breathing became hazardous. But only a few more inches and we reached the cistern in the ground. We dropped the blankets into the basin to let them soak up the manure. A swarm of flies burst aimlessly around us, hitting our faces. The blankets quickly soaked up the heavy liquid, and the weight of it had us struggling to retrieve them from their bath. The smell was sickening when we wrapped them around us.
“Now we were ready to exit through the furiously burning gate. We could only open our eyes for seconds at a time, though even then we saw an endless blur. Without our glasses, we were blind. We crawled toward the gate. We could only hope that whatever was on the other side was more bearable. ‘Lord, be with us,’ we prayed before we rose from our hands and knees and blindly ran through the fire. Not a minute too soon did we reach the other side. The house caved in, sending huge stones and burning pieces of lumber into the garden. Our hair had burned away, and pain overcame us. With what little strength remained in us, we made our way to the plaza . . . ,” slowly my grandfather’s voice trailed off, “and that’s where you found us.” His tired voice now turned into a soft whisper. Seconds later he entered a deep and restful sleep.
The cemetery near the eastern edge of the city became the center of activity.
We never noticed the sunny sky. Less pleasurable thoughts occupied our minds when we returned to the still-smoldering ruins of the city to pay one last tribute to those who had lost their lives a few nights before.
The resting place of the dead had not been spared from destruction. Tombstones lay overturned, some broken into pieces, and grave markers were strewn about. Flowers and greenery that had formerly decked the graves were now wilted and forlorn, covering the aisles and paths.
“Look!” my sister said, pointing at a piece of bone that stuck out from a pile of dirt. The bomb damage was heavy in this section. Deep craters caused by demolition bombs exposed the aged remains of skeletons. Entire graves had vanished.
“Even the dead cannot rest in peace!” my mother lamented.
“I hope ours is still there,” my father said doubtfully, referring to our family plot. The section where it was located was sealed off by ropes tied to the trees. A piece of cardboard with a hastily written message,
was nailed to a nearby tree.
“What kind of danger?” I asked my father. He was spared an answer. A man with a shovel mounted over his shoulder like a rifle approached.
“There are duds in there,” he informed us. “One of them went off this morning,” he added to convince us it was not safe beyond the ropes.
“Let’s get out of here,” my mother said. The day before she had seen a wagon, drawn by a team of horses, set off such a bomb. A farmer helped some citizens salvage belongings that had not been completely destroyed. Just as he was leaving the city, the entire load, the wagon and horses, was thrown into the air.
“It just tore them into shreds,” my mother recalled with a shiver.
We continued walking aimlessly. Was this the same Friedhof, or court of peace, I had so often visited? Although I was too young when my brother died to remember his funeral, I made weekly visits to his grave for years. He died at the age of nine from a leak in his intestines. Led by my mother’s hand, I carried flowers from the fields and meadows we passed on the way to trim his resting place. I remembered the many funeral processions I witnessed, the mourners all dressed in black, and the women’s faces enveloped in veils to hide their tears. At a calculated pace they followed the coffin carried by somber-looking men clad in dark suits and hats. A small group of brass musicians led them toward the burial site.
But what I witnessed now bore no resemblance to my memories. The graveyard was swarming with people. Many of them were digging holes. Not big holes, just something deep enough to hold whatever was used in place of a casket. A water bucket, deformed and rusty, stood near the edge of a freshly dug hole. A wrinkled newspaper was tightly wrapped around its contents. A man bent over to collect some of the wilted flowers strewn about, and with loving care he arranged them on top of the bucket. Then he slowly lowered the bucket into the ground. He whispered words of prayer as he returned the earth to the hole. He picked up the grave marker beside him; with his pocketknife he made one last adjustment on its newly inscribed words before he sunk it into the ground.
“Hier ruht in Frieden—unser Sohn Thomas,”
it read in white, painted letters. Underneath were the freshly carved words, “und seine Mutter, Maria.”
A woman passed us. The cart she pulled held an oval-shaped laundry tub. A lifeless limb protruded from beneath shreds of scorched burlap.
“Can we help you?” my father asked in sympathy. She did not answer. Apathetically she raised her hands to decline his offer and quietly continued her journey.
A young soldier pushed his bicycle up the road. A cardboard box balanced on the frame of his bike. Carefully, so as not to drop his load, he steadied the box with one hand while he steered the bike with his other hand. As if he could read our thoughts, he stopped to say, “It’s my baby!” He nodded toward the box.
“I am sorry,” my mother said.
“I haven’t found my wife yet,” he said.
Not knowing what else to say, we stood and stared at the box. Slowly, the soldier continued up the road. “My baby! My baby!” he wept. I fought back tears, but like acid they burned my eyes and face. Won’t they ever stop? I remembered my grandmother saying, “If you run out of tears, you have run out of faith!”
A steady line of trucks rumbled toward the cemetery. Just outside the gate was a narrow, wooded park. Men with shovels clustered around a huge hole in the ground.
Piled up in the hole were hundreds of bodies. A truck backed up to the edge. The hydraulic lift was set into motion, and another load plunged into the hole. The truck moved away, and the workers mechanically swung shovels filled with a white compound, a disinfectant, until a layer formed over the bodies. A layer of dirt followed.
The next truck in line rolled up. With jerky movements the bin rose to empty itself. When the truck finished dropping bodies into the hole, one body remained. Caught on a metal hinge, it hung in midair. A worker poked at it with his shovel, but it would not come loose. Another man walked up to it. He dropped his shovel, and together the two men pulled on the corpse. The driver shifted gears to pull away from the hole. One of the men shouted for more gas. The driver stepped on the accelerator. The body fell at their feet. Lifting it by its arms and legs, they swung it back and forth. “Hoooh-roock!” someone yelled. Like a sack of flour, the body fell through the air, with arms spread as it plunged into the pit.
My eyes had become immune to the sight of death, but my stomach revolted against the odor of decomposing flesh. I had to fight back the nausea. I quickly ran to some nearby bushes.
“I want to go home,” I pleaded with my father.
the overseer yelled at the workers. Another truck approached the pit. The whining hum of its hydraulic lift was carried off by a mild breeze, and in the distance we could still hear the truck ridding itself of its cargo.
Nearly five thousand citizens lost their lives. When the pit was full, it held three thousand and nine of the bodies. Sixty-two of them were our friends and neighbors.
Our hopes of living in the cabin only temporarily vanished. Now that we lost most of our belongings, we had to face the fact that the cabin would be our home indefinitely. Perhaps for months, maybe even for years to come. What did the future hold for us? Was it death? Perhaps from another air attack? As it turned out, we lived there for more than two years—from February 19, 1945, to just before Christmas in 1947.
“How many potatoes do we have left?” my mother asked as she prepared to fill a pot from the nearly empty sack.
“I’m afraid this is it,” my father said, pointing at the sack.
“Remember? We never got the rest,” I joined in. “The horse wagon was supposed to bring them up here!”
“That’s right,” my mother recalled, “the fire probably made baked potatoes out of them.”
At most there was a week’s supply, and potatoes made up most of our diet. It was too early in the season to harvest any fruits or vegetables from our own garden, which had been neglected lately anyway. The city’s traffic, commerce, industry, and economy were at a complete standstill. We never had electricity in the cabin, so we didn’t miss it. But the candles—how many were left? Would they last? But even candles were dispensable. Water, however, was essential.
Höchberg, the village about three kilometers west of our land, was our only hope. A wooden barrel in the garden that caught rainwater now became our means to haul water from the village up to the hill.
The village square was crowded. It looked as if the entire population of Höchberg was gathered in front of the fountain. The village’s utility centers suffered, and the spring fountain had to provide water for everybody. The fountain pumps occasionally lost pressure, and then only a trickle of water ran from the spout.
Every other day we left for the village to fill our barrel. While my sister and I waited in line at the fountain, my mother waited her turn at the grocery store. Whoever was first to accomplish their chore waited by a bench near the edge of the village.
Climbing the hill from the west was not easy. Bumps and stones in the dirt road made the cart tilt and spill the precious liquid, so that sometimes only half the water remained by the time we reached the cabin.
“No bath tonight!” my mother would conclude. But this was all right with us. A cold bath gave us no joy. Sometimes, when we made the trip alone, we did not always notice the big stones in the road.
One time we returned with no water at all. But that time it wasn’t bumps and stones that rid us of our load, but bullets from a machine gun.
“He wore a red scarf!” my mother exclaimed, running across a field to come to our assistance, a pair of field glasses still dangling around her neck.
“Who wore a red scarf?” my sister and I asked. Still shaken from the sudden attack, we sat on the edge of the road. Though more amazed than scared by what happened, we waited for our mother to reach us.
We had been only a short distance from the cabin when a single plane, as usual out of nowhere, attacked us. Our ears, trained to be alert to any noise like the engine of an airplane, picked up its approach. The short ravine lined with blackthorn bushes ahead was a good hideout. Leaving the cart behind, we ran toward the dense scrub to conceal ourselves from the plane. A flock of birds took noisily to the air.
“They could give us away!” I said as we crawled deeper into the bushes.
“Don’t be silly!” my sister answered. “They know where we are. Where else is there to go in the middle of a country road?”
With our cart abandoned on the road, we awaited the attack. But none of the bullets came near us. The plane targeted the water barrel instead. Full of holes, the barrel leaked its water onto the ground.
“Fink!” my sister shouted, waving her fist at the plane, which had long disappeared into the clouds.
My mother, who had also spotted the airplane, quickly scanned the road through her binoculars. The rolling hills partly obscured her view, so she could not see us from her vantage point. But when she saw the plane dive toward the ravine, she knew that was where we had to be.
“The pilot,” she answered our question now, “he wore a red scarf.”
It didn’t matter to us what color scarf the pilot wore. We were too tired to care at that point, but my mother was trying to tell us how low the plane was flying.
“I yelled at him and waved at him,” she continued, still excited.
“What did you tell him?” my sister asked, trying to keep a straight face.
My mother was not short of an answer: “I told him that he couldn’t shoot at you, that you were only a couple of innocent kids. ‘Here!’ I told him. ‘Shoot at me if you have to shoot somebody, but leave my children alone!’”
My mother meant what she said. She stood out there in the open, waving at the pilot in desperation, hoping to save us from death. Only God knows what the pilot thought when he saw my mother standing there in the middle of an open field, waving at him.
A thought occurred to us as to why only our water barrel was attacked, while we got away with only a few tears in our skin from the thorny bushes. After several mishaps at the fountain, we brought along a piece of unused stovepipe, complete with a curved knee. We used this to guide the water into the barrel without having to lift it from the cart. Lifting a hundred-liter barrel full of water was too strenuous for undernourished girls.
A barrel mounted on a cart was quite innocent-looking by itself. But with a stovepipe attached to it, it may have resembled a piece of artillery from the air.
So now that our water barrel had suffered from a case of mistaken identity, it was no longer of any use to us. We had lost not only our water supply for the day, but also our means to carry it in the future. One more hardship was added to our lives.
Water barrel artillery