- Contributed by
- People in story:
- myself, my brothers and parents
- Location of story:
- Arnstadt in Thüringen, Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 November 2004
The story of a German child towards the end of the war. ( An excerpt from my childhood memories which I have written for my English children and my friends.)
Until now, 1944/45 children had been largely unaware of the war. Mothers were inclined to hide their worries about fathers at the front and worries about shortages from their youngsters. But I slowly became aware of hushed conversations and serious faces; words like:" Dieser schreckliche Krieg!" this terrible war, were heard more and more often. Children at school reported their fathers had fallen at the front or gone missing. Then also the people of Arnstadt, a small town in Thuringia, began to hear the sirens, this horrendous, penetrating rising and falling sound, announcing advancing aeroplanes, Flieger. The noise paralyzed me with fear. The alarms most often sounded at night, when we were already in bed. Woken up from first sleep, shaking with anxiety, we would go down into the cellar. When it became a regular occurrence, my mother placed a suitcase in our Kinderzimmer , into which, in three neat piles, our day clothes were folded. When the sirens sounded, we rushed downstairs. My mother would bring our baby brother and the suitcase, so we could get dressed and not get cold. Every German house had a cellar. Each party in the house had one for coal and one for storage, where the housewives kept their preserves of fruit and vegetables. Down there was also the communal wash house with the huge copper kettles, where the sheets and table linen were boiled, when it was Große Wäsche, Big Washing Day. The area where we sat during Fliegeralarm was the passage in the middle, between all these little units. Benches and folding beds appeared over a time. My brothers often went back to sleep but I clung to my mother, listening to the low rumble of the planes overhead and her soothing voice. Countless times they went by and dropped their loads on big cities or industrial areas far away. The siren would tell us eventually that all was fine for the moment, and we could go back to bed.
On the 6th of February 1945 the sky was cloudless, deeply blue with a brilliant sun, a crisp breezy winter's day without snow or frost. We were already back from school, when the sirens howled. My mother took us down into the gloomy, stuffy, badly lit cellar. She wore her fur coat. I was huddled against her, when we heard the planes overhead, lower than usual, then there was crashing in the distance. I was whimpering with fear. A stranger entered the cellar and reported bombing in the vicinity. The lights failed, then nothing, an absolute vacuum.........................
I thought I was dying. I felt no pain, I had no fear. But I knew we had been bombed. It had happened after all, although my mother had promised me that nothing would happen to us in such a small town as Arnstadt! Now I was going to die.
I was covered in loose rubble to my chest, I could feel the softness of my mother's fur coat, the air was heavy with mortar dust, it was difficult to breathe. I could see very little. Far fom dying I was waking from unconsciousness. I was trying to pull myself out from underneath the broken bricks. I succeeded. I noticed my mother's face, all covered in blood, I saw an arm poking out from somewhere, broken walls which I grabbed for support. Bricks fell on my feet, there was no feeling. Walking was tiresome. I registered a bony bulge on my right lower leg moving with my every step. It did not hurt, but I acknowledged that this was a fractured leg. I scrambled towards the dusty daylight and screamed for help. I was indeed the first person taken out by the Luftschutzwache, the black clad older men, who had volunteered for rescue work. In the arms of one of the men I was taken to a nearby factory site. A rough piece of wood was bandaged against my broken limb. Where was everybody else, where was my mother? "Ich will zu meiner Mutti, ich will zu meiner Mutti!" I kept repeating, "I want to be with my mummy!" A dull ache began to creep into my leg. Nobody else was brought to the factory. I kept crying for my mother until the men decided to carry me to the Lazarett to which all the other survivors had been taken. My mother was there, injured and stunned, for once completely unable to give comfort. The ache in my leg became a nagging pain. It got worse, then I could feel or think of nothing but this awful pain in my broken leg. We were eventually taken to the main hospital, but were separated, my mother going to the women's ward and I to the children's. I was put in a bed with the window to my right side. After a while they brought in my brother Hartwig on a bed, his left leg strung up in some contraption and a bandage around his head. He was placed on my left side. He appeared to be sleeping. When he stirred I called out to him: "Hartwig, we have been bombed!" "Yes", he answered and sank back into unconsciousness. He did not wake up for another day. He had a two finger wide, deep dent in his forehead, just under the hairline, a depressed skull fracture. I spent a restless night, because my leg could not be dealt with until the next day, there were so many more urgent cases. I was taken to the theatre and a Schimmelbuschmaske ( like a tulle covered strainer) was put over my face through which some horrible smell filtered into my mouth and nose. I was asked to count. I counted to eleven, then I thought I could count to twenty, but I just didn't feel like it. I woke up in bed with the unpleasant taste of ether in my mouth and a plaster on my leg, from below the knee to just above the toes. The obliquely fractured tibia had been re-aligned, and I was painfree.
At some stage my mother appeared in a drab coat and a headscarf knotted over the top of her head like a turban, and on crutches. She had suffered a fractured pelvis and deep lacerations in the line of both eyebrows. She told us that Ernst, another o f my brothers had broken his arm, which was now in a sling and that he was in the Children's Hospitel, as was eight months old Jan. Miraculously he had been found uninjured amongst the rubble. The cot in which he had been sleeping had been totally destroyed. He cried for 24 hours, but then became the sunshine of the nurses.
In all, eleven people died in our house that day, yet we, the largest family, all survived. One of my father's patients died in the cellar, as did the mother of another. The bomb had entered the building not from above but, owing to the strong wind, from the side, where the stairs were, the entrance to the cellar and the cellar room itself. The downstairs flat had also been badly hit. All in it perished, including an evacuated boy of eleven, who was staying with his elderly aunts because his home town was regularly being bombed. It had been thought that he would be safer in Arnstadt! His name was Wolfgang; he was nicer than my brothers, I thought at the time. He suffered severe head and eye injuries and died in hospital. He would not have seen again had he survived. His younger brother Werner was left an orphan, his father having been killed at the front; his mother died under the bombs in his hometown.
My father, a children's doctor who had been called back from the front to see to the children at home, had left the cellar to go upstairs and was in the flat listening to the latest radio reports, when the bomb struck. He was stunned and fell to the floor. When he was able to collect himself, his first thought was of his family, but when he ran out of the flat to go to the cellar, he found the stairs had collapsed, and he could see no safe way down. He went into the children's room and in his anxiety climbed onto the balcony rail and jumped across to the flat roof of the practice building. From there he slid down to the yard. Knowing that such athletic feast was not normally in my father's capability, I could hardly believe it, but the fact is, he did it! He was uninjured, but deeply shocked.
At 12.07 our living room Junghans clock with the golden roman numbers on a pale yellow background, the sunshine pendulum and its cone shaped weights had stood still, and weeks later my mother found the pot with dried up Rotkraut, which would have been part of our lunch. The furniture were taken out through the windows. The straps holding the piano broke in the process. It did not re-appear mended until many years later.
My mother came to visit us often at the hospital, and we regularly met in the cellar. At 20.00 every night the gut-piercing sound of the sirens initiated frantic activity by the nurses to get us all onto trolleys, into the lift and down into the long underground corridors of the hospital. There below fat hot water pipes and bundles of electric cables, we spent many anxious hours. Arnstadt was not bombed a second time.
No more reassurances came from my mother, who was now as afraid as I was.
My faith in her ability to protect me from all evil, even if she wanted to, had been destroyed.
Nothing was ever quite the same again after the bombing.
The experience of the bombing and my brush with death made me realise that meeting your end in a sudden violent fashion of this nature goes without any conscious realisation of what is happening to you.
I do not remember the impact of the bomb on the house or how I was buried beneath the masonary.
One minute I was sitting next to my mother, the next I woke up without any memory of how it had occurred, yet I was able to assess the situation, initially entirely without any emotion.
Our family was homeless. My father had taken lodgings near the hopital, where my mother joined him after her release from the ward while all four of us children were in the childrens' hospital until some time later a flat on the main streat was found.
It must have been April 1945 when our lives suffered another great upheavel. We were moved into the bunker which had been dug into the hill on which the children's hospital stood. The bunker was a long windowless tube. Along the right side the babies' upholstered changing tables were placed in a row and on it the babies were lying, wrapped up in blankets, head to foot in a row. A few toddlers and we children were two to a cot along the left side, so were some deck chairs in which the nurses slept when they got the chance. Some babies were allowed home early. One baby was left upstairs , because my father said it would most certainly die in the stuffy atmosphere of the bunker, whereas it had a chance, at least, to survive in a well aired ward. It did! I presume the adults went outside during quiet intervals, because there were no cooking or toilet facilities down there. I do not recall us leaving in between. We spent three terrifying days in this bunker. Ernst, when asked, said it was a week, that is how long it seemed to him! Outside there was crashing, banging and exploding, you could feel the vibrations in the bunker. The Arnstädter Bürgermeister had decided to defend, quite hopelessly, the town against the might of the American Army. On the fourth day we were allowed out into the fresh air again. From the balcony of the Säuglingsheim we watched the endless columns of tanks and jeeps along the Uferstrasse. " The war is finished for us now!" said my mother, "we do not have to be afraid anymore!" "Do we have to flee?" I wanted to know. (By then a steady influx of refugees from the Eastern Territories had also reached Arnstadt.) My mother answered: "No, we shall stay here, there is no point in running away. In any case it would be very difficult with four children."
I felt greatly relieved.
One summer night in 1945 my parents were woken by unusual activity on the road and observed, from behind the curtains, the occupation by the Russians. The previous afternoon my mother had noticed that the Americans were emptying the petrol station tanks, but she did not appreciate the significance. By the time we woke up, the Americans had gone. Instead of jeeps with relaxed soldiers in fatigues, chewing gum, the main street was busy with carts pulled by ponies, small trucks and columns of walking soldiers in heavy uniforms, strange-looking serious faces with small narrow eyes. Terrible rumours of pillage and rape had gone before them. Everybody was scared, nobody left the house that day, except my father. However it was a controlled take-over (as had been planned at the Conference at Potsdam), no atrocities occurred as they did in Berlin and in the Eastern Territories, when the troops came in fighting. Nevertheless gloom settled and fear remained.
A nearly total collapse of the economy and most vital structures followed. Key people, who knew their job but were NAZIs or had connections with the party, were dismissed from their posts and their places taken by inexperienced communists or people true to their cause. Initially there was chaos! Ration books were no good if the shops were empty! There were days, when we could not even get bread. Our diet was nearly fat and meat free. For a while potatoes and swedes were our daily food. We were always hungry and became very thin, especially my father, who would not consume some of the concoctions my mother invented. We children ate what was put in front of us.
Petrol was in short supply. My father did most of his house visits on his bicycle and was seen permanently with trouser clips, unless the nurses reminded him to take them off.
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