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 (6 page)

BOOK: The City in Flames
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Chapter Fourteen
Bartering with the Farm Wives

My mother soon found a solution to replenish our provisions: making weekly trips on her bicycle to nearby villages, where she bartered for flour, eggs, and sometimes a big slab of bacon.

On one of our salvage trips into the ruins of the city we discovered a cellar beneath a bombed-out house. The cellar contained a huge pile of paper sacks containing a white powder. We decided to load our four-wheeled cart with several of the bags.

We were still not sure what exactly we had found. Tasting it was not an option. Once my mother decided that we had found laundry detergent, we returned to the cellar to load up whatever our cart could hold.

My sister soon regretted our find. As we pushed the cart up the hill to the cabin, one of the bags slipped off the cart and landed on her big toe. It took weeks for the nail to heal.

With an abundance of the white powder, my mother decided to do some bartering, especially after she was certain—after several loads of laundry—that she was dealing with laundry detergent.

This worked well. The farm wives were happy with their exchange until one day when one of the farmers realized his wife was washing laundry with fertilizer!

It was an honest mistake by my mother. She really did think it was laundry detergent and swore to its getting the laundry clean. Unfortunately, her bartering with “laundry detergent” had come to an abrupt end.

To the best of my memory, it took months to use up the remaining bags. Finally, after only a small amount was left and curiosity had gotten the better of us, my sister and I decided to find out if it really was fertilizer. So what better way than to sprinkle some of it on our own vegetable garden?

I don’t remember the exact results, but our father could never figure out why a certain patch of cabbage was covered with a white substance that burned little holes into the leaves.

Chapter Fifteen
Easter 1945: Where is the Easter Bunny?

At night, the front came closer with every hour.

It was difficult to keep track of the days without a calendar. Let’s see . . . the wind came from the west this morning, so we could hear the bells of the village church—it must be Sunday.

“Happy Easter, everybody!” my father jokingly commented as he spooned a piece of bread from his bowl of coffee. Our Easter dinner: imitation coffee or Ersatz with hard bread soaking in it.

“Remember how we used to hunt Easter eggs on this day?” my sister reminisced.

How could I forget that annual event! It was the same every year for as long as I could remember. Saturday afternoon we would leave the city, loaded down with knapsacks that held our provisions for the weekend. On holiday weekends, we always had something special to eat. Our family’s favorite meal consisted of wiener schnitzel and potato dumplings. Next morning at sunrise, my father snuck out to the garden to hide the eggs. By the time we awoke, he was back in bed. Sometimes he snored in his sleep, but other times he just pretended. That way he could overhear our whispered conversation:

“Hey, Rita, are you awake?”

“Hmm.”

“Think the Osterhase has been here?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you look and see?”

By that time, the rhythm of the snoring coming from the bed above us was cut off with a loud “Chrrrauh!” My mother had punched my father’s mattress above her to end the snoring.

When my father pretended to snore, it usually ended with a long, loud yawn, which let us know we no longer had to whisper. Then we heard movement. An arm reached down to pull back the window curtain.

“There it is—the Easter Bunny! Look, quickly!” my father would exclaim.

This was our cue to begin the egg hunt. The Osterhase long disappeared by the time we crawled out from our bunks, and we never got to see it, except once. The timing of my father’s Osterhase sighting coincided with the visit of a wild hare, which somehow made it into the garden despite the fence. Unaware of us, it sat there in a vegetable bed, munching away on our carrots. Although I expected the Easter Bunny to be pink, the sight of this long-legged, rather homely looking creature strengthened my sometimes-wavering belief in the existence of the Osterhase.

Now I almost longingly watched the fields and meadows, hoping to see a wild rabbit that would give this day at least some sign of Easter. But the wild animals we used to watch had gone. Some had been scared away by our dog, Flora, who constantly chased them without ever catching any. Others had been trapped by farmers for food.

“I wonder what next Easter will be like?” my mother pondered.

My father was about to answer when his eyes caught a figure nearing our fence. It was a German soldier. His helmet was tied to his belt, and his coat was loosely draped over his shoulders. The rifle he carried was tied to his back, with the strap crossing over his chest. This was no soldier out to fight a war. He smiled wearily when he saw us.

“I was hoping to find someone here,” he said.

My father walked up to the fence. “Where is the front?” he asked the soldier. It was odd for a single soldier to be in our vicinity. An entire company had passed through the day before, heading toward the southeast corner of the valley. He came from that direction.

“It’s down there someplace,” he said, motioning behind himself without looking back. Then, his voice subdued, he asked, “Do you have any civilian clothes I could borrow?” We told him we lost our belongings and were about to decline his request when we remembered our scarecrow.

“Help yourself,” my father said and motioned to where a weathered wooden stake, clad in a weatherworn assortment of rags, towered amidst rows of blooming strawberry bushes. Still there from the previous summer, it barely survived the winter’s icy snowstorms and tearing winds.

The soldier accepted our offer. Curiously, Rita and I watched from behind the curtain as he stripped his clothes to exchange them for the rags. After shaking off some of the hardened bird droppings, he slid into the baggy pants.

“What kept you out?” he asked my father.

“A kidney,” my father replied. “Had only one since I was fourteen.”

“You were lucky,” the soldier said.

He rid himself of his rifle and other war accoutrements while passing some bushes along the road. Soon he had disappeared into the distance.

“Look!” my sister said with a laugh. “Our scarecrow got drafted!”

The scarecrow in its new attire, the uniform of the Deutsche Wehrmacht, looked very real. Not real enough to scare the birds away—one had already landed on its extended arm—but real enough to cause trouble should the Allies see it.

“Get me some matches,” my father ordered me.

Hours passed. The bright afternoon sun now transformed into a glowing ball of fire that slowly lowered itself beneath the horizon. The shadows from the branches of the bulky cherry tree began to dance in the sand as the breeze grew stronger. The small pile of ashes amidst the strawberry bushes was picked up by a mild gust of wind, which carried it, along with fallen leaves and small debris, off on an unknown journey.

Moments later, artillery fire penetrated the peaceful quiet of the evening.

The scarecrow got drafted

Back to front

Chapter Sixteen
Liberation

The time had come! American tanks surrounded Würzburg. Only hours from now we would know our fate. Would it change for the better or for worse?

Even though it was clear that every effort to hold off the Allies was a lost cause and a waste of human lives, there were still some stubborn Nazis who thought they could save Würzburg, or Germany, or whatever was left.

Boom, boom!
The cannons echoed through the dusky sky. We ran for the dungeon, our shelter in the ground.

“Will they find us, Papa?” I asked.

“We are not hiding from them,” my father explained. “Only from their bullets.”

It was dark outside now. The wind shifted directions, and the thunder of guns grew fainter. Between short intervals of silence we could hear the rebellious growl of our empty stomachs. We wondered if it was safe to go back to the cabin.

The moon, high in the midnight sky, hid behind clouds chased by the chilling April wind. Occasionally its light reached the earth around us, but another cloud soon drifted over its path and left us in darkness again.

“Now,” my father whispered when another cloud enveloped the moon.

Hastily we crawled out of the narrow shelter opening.

“Keep down,” my father cautioned. We crawled back to the cabin on our hands and knees.

The guns subsided. The sudden quiet was eerie. What was happening in the city? Had the Allies left? Advanced toward the east? Fatigue and hunger won over our fears, and after a meager meal of stale bread and uncooked oatmeal stirred into water, we fell asleep.

The thunder of heavy artillery woke us at dawn. The windows shuddered, and the cabin rattled suspiciously with shockwaves in the air. Our cabin was in the midst of the battlefield.

It was impossible to go back to the shelter in the opposite corner of the garden.

Boom, boom! Boom, boom!
The cannons shouted. Our dishes fell from the cupboard and crashed into pieces around us. My father opened the door to grab an ax. Black smoke rose to the sky from behind the forest. Speedily my father chopped out some floorboards, enough to make an opening for us to climb beneath them.

The earth was cold and moist. As we descended to the floor below, a strong smell of mold greeted us. The space between the floor and the ground was, at most, an arm’s length. Barely enough to be comfortable. We covered the ground with our blankets, and then it was almost cozy. Then my father thought it would be safer for us to lie on our stomachs. And we couldn’t forget our helmets. By “helmets” I mean our entire stock of pots and pans, three in total. One short, we improvised even more. So what did my father wear? A colander that already had about three hundred holes. It was a funny sight, and in spite of our dangerous situation we had to laugh at ourselves. But at heart, we were scared to death. The field mice were scared, too, and they joined us under the floor – much to our dismay.

“I am thirsty, Mama!” I said.

“I am hungry!” my sister joined in.

We knew there was nothing left to eat in the cabin. But talking, we thought, made the time go by faster. The time passed, but ever so slowly. Then all became quiet.

My father lifted a floorboard. “It must be dark outside by now,” he said as he looked into the cabin. The moon had spread its beam over the ghostly land, but the cabin was dark. “Where are they?” my father wondered as he scanned the fields through the space between the curtains. Stiff and cold, the rest of us emerged from our confinement.

“I am hungry!” I cried. The hunger pains became stronger, making me dizzy when I tried to stand. An entire day passed. We hadn’t eaten anything in nearly twenty-four hours.

“I wish I was Flora,” my sister grumbled. “At least then I could stuff myself on mice!”

“I have an idea,” my father interrupted. Willingly we listened to his suggestion. “Remember now,” he warned us, “keep down at all times.”

Like snakes we slithered through the damp grass to cross a muddy bed along the fence. There was a space between the ground and the lower edge of the mesh wire. Flora dug it out one day when she spotted a rabbit in the field. No one dared to speak. Not even a whisper. Carefully, not making any noise, we crawled through the tight opening. The field on the other side of the fence had not been cultivated. Most of the land lay fallow. The farmers feared the enemy planes and guns and abandoned their ploughs. Straw stubble still stuck in the ground, and strewn among it were whole stems, still bearing wheat kernels from the previous harvest. Swiftly we gathered a bundle and retreated to our cabin.

“You’ve got to chew them real good,” my father explained. In the dark of the cabin we cowered around the pile of straw, searching for the kernels. The field mice must have gotten to them before us, for nearly half the straw held only empty husks.

“I could make some salad,” my mother suggested.

“With what?” my father asked.

“From dandelions,” said my mother.

“We can wait until morning,” my father decided. It was not wise to let anybody know that the cabin was inhabited. Our presence could easily be mistaken for that of German soldiers. If there were any Allied scouts in the area, they might throw a hand grenade and blow us all up.

Our worries and precautions were uncalled for, because the scouts didn’t arrive until the following morning. I was the first to be awakened by a strange noise. It came from the highway in the valley below us like an endless thunder: the sound of hundreds of tanks rolling toward the city. Würzburg was liberated!

Soon daylight came, and only moments later we had our first face-to-face encounter with our enemy. Across the valley, a hill caught our attention. We saw people coming out of the woods, heading for the clearing on the edge of the hill. No roads or trails crossed this particular part of the landscape, so we found it strange to see people around. Were they citizens from the village beyond the forest, running from the Allies? But they would have passed through their community by now.

The guessing came to an end when we noticed an American jeep slowly proceeding down our road. Soon another jeep followed; both carried mounted machine guns. Then came a tank with its guns fixed on our cabin.

“Take cover!” my father shouted excitedly. Instinctively we reached for our helmets. With our hearts pounding at twice their normal speed, we waited. And waited. We knew they would come soon. Our eyes were fixed on the window. Many thoughts raced through my mind.
What if they are hostile? Maybe they will kill us? Or rape us? Maybe take us prisoner?

Minutes seemed like hours. Then, there they were! None of us had seen them coming. We heard voices outside. Voices speaking in English.

“Hello! Anybody home?” Fear-stricken, my father opened the door. His knees were shaking, and he could hardly stand.

“Raise your hands,” my mother whispered from behind. Slowly he stepped outside. A soldier motioned for him to open the door entirely. Now they could see us, and we could see them. Three soldiers aimed their bayonet rifles at us.

Moments of silence passed. Then one of them, presumably the one in charge, stepped forward to ask, “Do you speak English?” In unison we shook our heads. So then he spoke in German, asking us whether we had any weapons. No, we didn’t – at least, not any more. There was a .45 around for a while, but my father thought it wiser to put it out of sight. So he buried it under the elderberry tree.

“Are there any German soldiers hidden here?” the soldier asked.

“Nein,” my father replied.

Then, with a smile on his face, the American asked, “Do you have any whiskey?”

At this point, we didn’t even have any water, so my father burst into laughter. We all joined in, including the three Americans. The tension passed. With friendly but firm words, the soldier advised us to raise a flag of surrender and at all times wear a white handkerchief. Before the Americans left, the soldier in charge pointed to the colander on my father’s head. “You can take that off now,” he said with a grin.

Immediately we began to construct a flag of surrender. Minutes later, a white bedsheet mounted on a broomstick and attached to the chimney, blew proudly in the wind.

A new phase in our lives had begun.

“You can take it off now”

Back to front

BOOK: The City in Flames
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