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 (7 page)

BOOK: The City in Flames
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Chapter Seventeen
The Metal Battle: The Catfight Over an Airplane Wing

Flowers of various sorts were blooming in the fields, the fruit trees were beginning to show their harvest, the vegetables were sprouting, and even the weeds were growing in abundance. Summer had arrived.

The front had passed us. It was east of us now, making its way to Berlin.

What a beautiful feeling! To walk about without fear of bombs, or the machine guns of low-flying planes. Now we could watch planes pass over us and perhaps even wave at them. I recalled the time when my mother waved at a pilot out of desperation, pleading with him not to shoot us.

The black tar paper on our roof had long been in need of repair. The crows picked holes in it, and whenever my father sealed up the holes, the birds picked new ones.

My father grew weary of sleeping with an umbrella every time it rained through the night. Sometimes he would place a pan on his stomach—mostly during thunderstorms, when the rain was especially heavy. But the steady drip, drip, drip kept all of us awake. That is, all of us except my father; one rainy night, after he had fallen asleep, he turned over. My mother’s resulting protests convinced him to resort to the umbrella.

The holes in the roof eventually outnumbered the available pots and pans we had to set under the leaks. Since there was nothing else for us to do on rainy days, my sister and I invented a game, “Catch the Rain.” With a coffee cup in each hand, we leaped from one end of the cabin to the other, calculating the timing of each drip so it would land in the cup. For every drop we caught, we gave ourselves a point. To make the game more interesting, we decided to do it to music. The old hand-cranked gramophone, a bit outdated, but still in working condition, supplied us with a variety of tunes. Amongst them were songs sung by the much-celebrated voice of Enrico Caruso and “Schmaltz Hits” and “Who Rolled the Cheese to the Railroad Station?”

It was a challenging game, and we were almost sad when the tar paper was replaced with metal from a plane that was hit in a dogfight with a German aircraft. It happened during our hibernation beneath the floorboards. A neighbor witnessed the scene. He claimed to have seen one of them go down, but he couldn’t tell which one.

Afterward, the sun brought it to our attention. It caused a bright glare, a reflection we could see whenever the sun struck the bright object in the distant field at a certain angle.

“It must be that plane that crashed,” we figured, and soon we set out to investigate. Getting close, we had our doubts about whether it was a plane and not another dud. The bulky mass rested in a vertical position, part of it penetrating the earth. We had seen our share of bombs, not only as they fell from the sky, but also at close range in Nazi exhibits, where they were set on pedestals as if they were art. We soon realized this was not a bomb.

Black letters and numbers were stenciled on the olive-green paint that coated the metal, a heavy aluminum. None of the writing made any sense; it was foreign to us.

“Just what we need for our roof!” my mother exclaimed.

“Where is the rest of it?” I wondered, scanning the area. There was no trace of any other debris. It was only part of a plane that we found, probably a wing tip, from what we could tell by the shape of the metal.

“We need tools to pry it loose,” my mother said.

Equipped with a spade, to dig out the embedded part, and our clothesline, with which we planned to tow the wing away, we returned to the site. A figure moved about the pile of metal. It was a woman, a stranger to us. We knew everyone who lived on the hill. Judging by her movements, we knew her intentions were the same as ours. The moment she saw us, she took on a defensive position.

“That’s mine!” she shouted from a distance.

“Nein,” my mother replied calmly. “This belongs to us. We were here first. We just had to leave to get some tools.”

The woman shouted back, “I was here before, too, and now I am back!” Had she been there before, she, too, would have brought back some tools. Instead, all she came with was a small wicker basket partly filled with some wild herbs.

“Look,” my mother said in a subdued voice. “There is plenty for all of us. We could divide it somehow.”

“It’s mine!” the woman insisted, and with that she walked toward my mother and slapped her in the face. My mother, not prepared for such an attack, lost her balance. But just as the woman swung out to strike a second blow, my mother regained her balance. And so it began: both women pulling each other’s hair and shouting obscenities at one another until they were both out of breath.

“Hooh!” came a voice from behind. It was a farmer pulling his team of horses alongside the scene of the battle. A big grin spread over his face. “Who won?” he asked, laughing thunderously as the two women readjusted their hair and wiped the dirt from their clothes.

My sister and I explained the situation.

“This is my land,” he said. “Anything on it belongs to me—”

“It’s mine! It’s mine!” the woman interrupted, yelling in rage.

“Get off my land!” the farmer ordered her. His fist tightened around his horsewhip. “Get off my land!” he repeated, his face grim. A swarm of curses and other foul language rang in the air as the woman stomped away, shaking her fist as she turned around to throw another curse at the farmer.

“Madwoman,” the farmer said to himself, dismounting from the wagon.

“Let’s go,” my mother said. And, to the farmer, “I guess it does belong to you.”

“What would you use it for?” he asked.

“It’s our roof,” my mother began, and soon she had the farmer listening to a story that was probably the saddest he had heard in a long time. “It’s almost like sleeping under open sky,” she said.

“As I was saying,” the farmer said, “anything on this land belongs to me, however,” he paused to light his pipe, “I don’t have any use for an airplane wing at this time.” He laughed.

So there it was. A new roof, constructed from the wing tip of an airplane. How fortunate for my father. No longer did he have to sleep with an umbrella, nor did he have to balance a cooking pan on his stomach anymore.

As for us kids, it was less fortunate, for how were we to kill the time on rainy days now?

Back to front

Chapter Eighteen

Fraternizing with Germans was not encouraged amongst the Allied troops, and sometimes it was even forbidden. But as time passed, the regulations were less strictly enforced until finally they were lifted entirely.

It didn’t take us long to make friends with the soldiers, especially after we offered to do their laundry. A cousin of ours spoke English. With a note he wrote for us, we approached the soldiers of the camp on the hill. “Have you any laundry to be washed?” it read. Word got around quickly among the troops, and soon we had so many customers that the entire family was involved in our laundry operation.

First, we had to have soap and brushes, so the soldiers supplied us with them. Our swimming pool—well, our pool anyway, it was big enough to swim one stroke—became our oversized laundry tub. Water was available again via pipelines from the city. The long board from our teeter-totter, a plaything we had long outgrown, was placed across the pool and used as a scrubbing board.

Since the washing was done in cold water, a thorough overnight soaking of the laundry was necessary. Each morning at sunrise we assembled in the pool. Submerged to the waist, we waded amongst floating uniform pieces: T-shirts, shorts, and socks. Everything had an olive-green color, even the towels and handkerchiefs.

Ironing was a time-consuming project, which took three of us to perform. Without electricity, the only way to heat up an iron was to put it on the stove. With the temperatures of thirty degrees Celsius outside, it was forty degrees inside the cabin. After we lit the stove, the temperature increased to about fifty degrees Celsius.

There were two irons. One of them was a vintage tool from a time closer to the year of my grandmother’s birth than my own. We heated it on the stove, though the traditional means was filling it with smoldering charcoal.

Once our project started, it became necessary to work as a team, and a typical day of ironing proceeded in the following manner.

“Ready?” my mother asked, placing herself in front of the garden table, padded with a couple of blankets and a white bedsheet—formerly our flag of surrender. The clean clothes lay beside her, ready for pressing.

“Ready!” my sister confirmed, and she ran from the cabin with an iron. After placing it before my mother, she returned to the cabin to pick up the other iron. If it was the antique one, she had to use potholders to hold onto it, for the wooden grip had long since burned away from its handle. By the time she reached my mother again, the iron she used was ready for reheating. We repeated this procedure continuously, and only seldom was it interrupted.

Meanwhile, I busied myself with breaking wood, small twigs, and branches from pine trees, to fuel the stove. We also used pinecones for fuel. However, we saved our logs for the cold season to come.

While sitting in front of the stove and stuffing it like a hungry mouth, I stripped off my clothing. By the time I heard the much-awaited words “switch jobs,” I wore nothing more than my underwear. With a sigh of relief, I took a plunge into the sudsy but refreshing pool water before I took on the job of iron carrier.

By the time the last piece of uniform passed under my mother’s tired hands, she, too, was no longer dressed. Even the bathing suit for which she had exchanged her earlier attire had become unbearable.

“Wasser! Wasser!” she moaned. This was a cue for me to perform another one of my tasks: keeping my mother cool. Placing myself on a stool in front of her, I gave her a shower by squirting her with the laundry sprinkler.

“More! More!” she said and quivered in anticipation while I refilled the bottle with the garden hose. The refilling progressed slowly, so I resorted to the quickest method available and aimed the entire water hose at her. One time this method created a disaster of which I have still painful memories!

I placed the hose on the ground, and while I went to turn it off, the hose suddenly snapped up, spraying the pile of pressed and folded uniforms. Panic-stricken, I raced for the knob, but in confusion I turned it to full blast.

Until then, I thought I was familiar with the entire vocabulary of German curse words and other profanity. But the words I heard that day taught me otherwise.

As I fled from my pursuing mother, my foot hit a sharp stone. She decided that was punishment enough because it took days before my swollen big toe fit into my shoe again.

When the time came to deliver the laundry, it was a day full of anticipation. Our rewards made it worth all the hard work and sweat (and pain) we suffered. Cartons of cigarettes—a hot item on the black market—fruit, chocolate candy, corned beef, and many more goodies filled our baskets upon our return.

Soon we recuperated from the previous wash day, and we would again leave to collect a new load. When one company moved on, another one would take its place, and we made new friends and customers.

After practicing the pronunciation of the words on our note, we soon approached the newly arrived troops. After exchanging a few greetings, ever-so-proudly showing off our English we asked, “Have you any laundry to be washed?”

Back to front

Chapter Nineteen
Our Communion Dresses that Fell from the Sky

A religious holiday was only a week away—what better time to wear our white communion dresses? They were among the few items of clothing we brought to the cabin before the bombing on March 16, 1945.

We celebrated our first Holy Communion in April of 1942. Our grandmother prepared a Festessen for which our Aunt Katrina offered one of the geese she bred. Gänsebraten became a rare commodity for city folks, but Aunt Katrina lived on the outskirts of the city, where it was permissible to keep farm animals. She had chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, and even at one time, a pig. I still remember the day when my mother and grandmother were summoned to help grind the meat, which was then stuffed into the cleansed intestines to make sausages.

Grandpa, a retired civil servant with connections, managed to secure some wine to go with the meal. And from another one of his connections he hired a carriage, complete with a white horse, to bring us to the church.

But now it was 1945, and my sister and I were almost teenagers. Our communion dresses turned into dresses with miniskirts, we had grown so much. This was not an issue. Short skirts, long skirts—most people were wearing hand-me-downs because new clothing was not yet available. What did become an issue was the fabric from which our dresses were made.

The day arrived, and we donned our outgrown dresses. The chapel was on the opposite end of Nikolaus Hill, and to reach it, we had to pass the nearby army camp.

We had long before befriended some of the soldiers. We passed them every day on our way to the forest to gather firewood. When we stopped to say hello, we were usually rewarded with a candy bar or whatever they were willing to share.

As usual, today we stopped to talk with the soldiers. While we spoke with one of them, another soldier approached us from behind. He touched the sleeve of my dress, and with a frown on his face he asked,
“Woher hast du das?”

Why would he want to know from where my dress had come? A little startled, I shrugged my shoulders.
“Ich weiss nicht!”
I answered.

He spoke a few words in English with the other soldier, and then walked away without another word to us.

Back at the cabin, we told our parents what took place at the camp. My mother showed concern. “I don’t want you to pass by the camp anymore!” was all she said. But we wanted to know why.

I remembered the day a seamstress came to our house to sew the communion dresses. She usually came about once or twice a year to help with alterations or sewing new garments. My mother unrolled a white linen tablecloth to reveal the fabric for our dresses. Suddenly the conversation turned into whispers. What exactly was said, I do not know. But the shock on the seamstress’s face told us something strange was going on.

Now our mother decided we were old enough to learn of the enigma surrounding our dresses. She told us that Grandma bought the fabric from a farmer on the black market. He casually mentioned that it came from a parachute. After the transaction was completed, he said, “There was a dead soldier attached to it!”

We never knew what happened to the soldier. And it is just as well. Whenever I look at the photograph of our first Holy Communion, I am reminded of the horrors war brought upon us. It will forever stay in my memory.

Communion dresses from the sky

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BOOK: The City in Flames
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