Authors: Elisabeth von Berrinberg
Tags: #History, #Europe, #Germany, #Military, #World War II, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)
Life at the cabin became routine. My father worked for the Americans now, repairing broken windows in the formerly Nazi-occupied buildings that served as headquarters for the Allies.
In the cellar beneath those buildings, the Nazis hoarded commodities no longer available to citizens without ration stamps. Sacks of sugar were piled up on shelves there. A fire must have melted the sugar, because the sacks contained only hardened brown globs. After gaining permission from the Allies to salvage whatever was still edible, my father chopped off chunks
of caramelized sugar.
There were also sacks of dried peas. They had been spared from fire damage, but tiny bugs floated to the top of the pea soup my mother made. After scooping them off, then stirring up the soup to make the peas release more of their inhabitants, we were able – albeit reluctantly – to fill up on what we called “Käferles Suppe.” Bug soup tastes okay if you are hungry enough.
Then there was the bread. Round loaves of
so called because it keeps longer than regular bread. Unfortunately the
could not withstand the cellar’s moisture and grew moldy. But we removed the moldy parts and ate the rest.
One item my father brought home is still in my possession. One of the soldiers at headquarters was to be shipped out. Faced with limits imposed on what the soldiers could carry with them, he offered my father a small China teapot he “found” in an Italian villa before he was transferred to Germany. My father gave it to me as a keepsake on the day I left for America with my husband.
I am sure its value could be enormous because a self-proclaimed expert told me it came from a dynasty of a bygone era. But it sits on the mantel above my fireplace, where it shall remain while I am still alive.
One day, a truck loaded with crates of fruit and vegetables for the nearby army camp passed us on our way up the hill. The driver gave us a friendly wave and a sample of his German, asking,
to which we replied, “Fine, zank you!” He quickly turned his attention back to the road and the nearing summit. When he shifted gears, the truck jerked, causing one of the crates to fall off. Even if he had noticed the crate’s fall, the driver could not have stopped or his truck would have rolled backward. With a crash, the crate landed at our feet. The fruit rolled and bounced downhill with us in hot pursuit.
“What are they?” we wondered, after we gathered whatever didn’t get away from us. They weren’t lemons—that much we could tell. And though we hadn’t seen oranges for some time, we knew these were not oranges. We peeled them, licked them, and bit into them, only to spit them out again.
“Mama will know,” we decided. But where to put them? We had no purse or bag. When we finally arrived at the cabin, we looked like a pair of overgrown packrats. We stripped off our knee-high socks and filled them with the yellow round things. But the socks couldn’t hold all of them, so we stuffed the rest into our clothes. Our skirt pockets were too small to hold even one, but our sweaters had plenty of space to be filled, especially since nature had not yet provided us with certain endowments.
Now our mother performed a thorough examination of the fruit. But she, too, had no name for them. In the end, we squeezed them, diluted the juice with water, sweetened it with saccharin, and drank it. Eventually, a neighbor told us it was grapefruit!
Then there was peanut butter, that brown sticky stuff that stuck to our gums. At first we thought it was some kind of shoe polish, but with our ever-present appetites we eagerly tasted anything we could find.
Our biggest supply of food came from the garbage cans of the army camp near our cabin. There we discovered such delicacies as the necks, gizzards, and wings of chickens and, on one occasion, a turkey carcass with lots of meat left on it.
Our stomachs, used to less culinary varieties of foods, such as potatoes and bread, with the occasional vegetable stolen from some farmer’s field, could not handle the richness of the chicken soup we had one day. We spent the following day trying to beat each other to the little outhouse behind the cabin.
During one of our garbage collections, a soldier noticed us.
“Is this for your dog?” he asked me, after I withdrew a half-filled can of beans from a barrel. I didn’t understand what he said, so I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Nix versteh. Nix versteh English.”
“Hmm.” The soldier pondered for a moment. But then he had an idea. “Is this for your . . . your woof-woof?” he said and smiled after getting on his hands and knees to imitate the four-legged animal.
I exclaimed, finally understanding. “Nein,” I said and shook my head. “Our dog eats mice. We eat this.” I gestured at the can.
“Come!” the soldier commanded.
With mixed feelings, we followed him toward the entrance of the mess hall, a barrack set up near the roadside.
“Wait here,” he said as he motioned to us that we should go no farther. For a moment he disappeared into a side chamber. Upon his return he presented us with a loaf-shaped can. “Corned Beef” read the label. The words didn’t have any meaning for us, but we knew it had to be something good.
we called back as we ran toward the cabin, and again, “Vielen Dank . . . eh, zank you very much!”
We barely believed our eyes when we saw the can’s contents. Meat! Good, clean meat! Fresh from a can instead of a barrel in which flies and other insects dropped their eggs.
Not always did we encounter soldiers as good-hearted as the mess-hall cook. We actually expected to be treated with hostility and a certain amount of contempt by the Allies and were, therefore, pleasantly surprised when we experienced kindness. But when we were treated rudely, it made us somewhat sad, as on the day we dug for food in a huge hole in the ground near the woods.
A soldier walked up, threw a whole chicken into the hole, and walked away. This was odd behavior. Why did he throw it in there? Why couldn’t he just hand it to us? Slowly we walked toward the spot where the chicken had landed. This was what he was waiting for! Quickly he turned around to walk back to the hole. With a big grin on his face, he unbuttoned his pants and exposed himself to urinate into the hole, aiming right for the chicken. We couldn’t believe our eyes.
My sister and I looked at each other. Our faces turned white, then red. We didn’t speak, we just ran. How he must have hated the Germans, to show it with such an awful gesture!
If some of the troops showed hostility toward the Germans, no one blamed them. Many of us deserved it. Being German felt like being of a savage race—the child of a nation without a soul. Our minds had been poisoned by a man who exploited a people still hungry from the Great Depression.
The life he promised was supposed to be different. “In time, the faces of your cities will change, and you will not recognize them,” he proclaimed. Well, that’s one promise he kept. The bombs did change our cities beyond recognition. But still, Germans continued to listen. Mesmerized by his speeches, they would cling to their radios to absorb the words of their leader.
“Silence! Our Führer is speaking!” one would hear, should one dare to speak above the transmitted voice. What fools we were! How naive and gullible! How could it happen that an entire nation was lured into his trap?
“We didn’t know they killed them,” was the answer of my elders whenever they were asked about the Jews whose lives ended behind the walls of Dachau. Perhaps they spoke the truth. The vast majority did not know what transpired behind those walls.
We had a tenant who was a confirmed Communist. Buchenwald was the camp where he spent many years of his life. Then, one day, he was sent home on furlough. During his stay at home, he worked his trade as a baker. He spent many hours in the cellar beneath the house with the rest of us. He was a trustee, he told us, when asked about his leave from the concentration camp. I also overheard the word Spitzel. Upon inquiring, I learned it meant “informer!” He was to spy amongst us and identify those who might find the courage to voice their suspicions. Then he was to report them. Never once did he speak of torture and killing!
Could it have changed the fate of his fellow prisoners? Could it have changed the course of the world, had he spoken out? Not likely. It would have meant the end for him and nothing more. When the masses finally awakened, it was too late. They had kept their minds closed for too long.
The Allies came, and suddenly there weren’t any Nazis. No one freely admitted that they belonged to the party. Those who did had nothing to lose anyway. My grandfather, a passive member of the party, paid his dues once a month. The swastika pin that proved it had long since vanished from his lapel. The last I heard, it fell into the river as he leaned over the railing on a bridge one day.
“So you didn’t know what was going on in Dachau?” the Americans asked the Germans. “Well, we will show you then!”
They transformed a school building into a movie theater, and they forced us, including the children, to watch film footage of the concentration camps. We saw the bodies piled high and the gas chambers on the screen. This was proof of what the rest of the world already knew. Perhaps many suspected what happened in the concentration camps, but they either didn’t care or were powerless to stop it. Newspaper headlines everywhere shouted in many languages: “Murderers!”
How we must have looked to them! Guilt and shame assailed us. What were we guilty of? It was the Nazi leaders, the SS or SchutzStaffel, who were the executors. They were the murderers! All we were guilty of was ignorance. But will the world ever forgive us? Even centuries from now, history will talk about us. And generations yet to be born will learn about the Nazis, the SS, and the millions who died at their hands.
The SS! It might be forgotten what these letters stood for. But it will never be forgotten that the men who wore them on their uniforms stood for something against all the principles of humanity. Against all the laws of God!
The SS. Could it have stood for Satan’s Servants?
We had become used to life at the cabin. Winter came and went twice before the house in the city was rebuilt.
The ruins of my grandparents’ two-story house were my mother’s inheritance, and the proceeds from the sale of our ruined four-story apartment house were divided among her siblings.
By Christmas of 1947 our father decided that we could move to our house in the city. It still needed a staircase to the second floor, so we used a ladder instead. There was no furniture either, so we slept on the mattresses from the cabin on the half-finished floor. But at least my father kept his promise that we would celebrate Christmas in our new home.
was a slight exaggeration. A pine branch hung on the wall, decorated with some store-bought pretzels. A tin filled with chocolate candies, another find for 300 Reichsmarks on the black market, was a treat for all. I don’t remember the meal we had, but after my parents both dozed off, my sister and I were curious about the candies at the bottom of the tin. Were they the same as the ones in the top layers?
Carefully, one by one, we lifted the tiny paper cups and spread them on the floor. They were all the same. No variety. Just candies filled with a sticky liquid. When my mother, who was still napping, decided to roll over, she landed on the precious sweets. It must have been the fact that it was Christmas that made her refrain from her usual selection of swear words.
Shortly after the holidays we were informed that our school was ready to conduct classes. Our parents tried some homeschooling, but without books it was mostly hands-on learning. Hiking in the forest, we learned to tell a pine tree from a spruce, and an oak from a beech. It was a fun way of learning about nature. We even learned to grow green beans by sticking beans into the ground beneath our mesh-wire fence at the cabin. Canning them, stuffing them into beer bottles with rubber and porcelain caps secured with metal clasps, was boring, though.
Little by little, life in the city returned to a makeshift existence. Stores were rebuilt, the streets cleared of debris, and the streetcars were back in operation.
Sadly, some of the ruins had been untouched for many years, as their owners perished in the bombing. If there were no next of kin, then by law the authorities could not touch the property for thirty years. Only then could they raze the ruins and take possession of the lot.
War changed our lives, putting us through hunger and fear. But some good came out of it.
We were freed from the grasp of a madman whose delusions convinced him he could change the world. And by the grace of God we became friends with the Allies, whom we called enemies shortly before.
But were those drafted soldiers really convinced their mission would bring a solution? Did bombing cities full of innocent women and children achieve anything? Unfortunately, it still happens.
My life changed when I fell in love with one of those soldiers. It was in 1954, when a veteran of the Korean War ended up in a division stationed in my hometown. With my limited knowledge of the English language and his equally limited German, our courtship was enriched by the help of a German/English dictionary and by a friend of the family who offered to serve as a translator and chaperone. When the time came for my beau to ask my parents for my hand in marriage, it was again with the help of a dictionary.
I still remember clearly. My mother had already retired when my father summoned her to the kitchen. In her nightgown and cap, she and my father sat across from us at the kitchen table. Then, with trembling hands, my friend began to leaf through the pages.
Darf ich Ihre Tochter heiraten?”
My parents had trouble understanding him, so I repeated his request: “He wants to know if you permit him to marry me!” After a long silence, my mother began to cry.
He felt bad, so he asked if that meant yes or no. “Ja?” he asked again, and my parents gave their blessing. He quickly became part of our family.
This marriage business involved a lot of paperwork, but finally in November of 1955, I was on my way to board a military transport ship that brought me, after nine seasick days, to the land that was to be my new home.
I could see the Statue of Liberty in the distance, and in my mind I envisioned her waving at me to say, “Welcome to America!”