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Life in Hamburg during WW2 - Chapter 1

by Mike Stickland

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Mike Stickland
People in story: 
Paula Alexander
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Contributed on: 
07 October 2005

PAULA’S STORY — By Paula Alexander
An account of her life during the war in Hamburg — Written in 1977
(Paula was born Paula R Kuhl on 31 Jan 1913. She married Cecil H Alexander
1n 1952. She died on 3rd December 1980 in Carlton, Nottinghamshire)

Chapter 1

Having never written anything of importance before, except letters, I find it very difficult to know how and where to start, and I am not really qualified to relate on "Wartime-Germany". There are millions of people who could tell much sadder and more moving stories, and who had more dreadful experiences than I did. Although I had some bad moments too, but
compared with other unfortunate compatriots of mine, I had a moderately easy time, and many lucky escapes from all the disasters which were inflicted on my country.

My home-town Hamburg was, and is again, a beautiful town. The "Alster", consisting of a small and a large lake, (we call it the inner and outer Alster), lies in the middle of the town centre. On fine summer days all sorts of boats are bobbing about on the waves, sailing, rowing. and canoeing are favourite sports, it is a lovely sight and one never tires of watching the activities on the water. A big attraction is a sightseeing trip around the lakes, which even the Queen undertook, while visiting Hamburg.

Situated along the embankments of the smaller lake are large offices and some of the smartest hotels. Residing on the "shores" of the large lake, in beautiful villas, is the "upper-crust", mainly millionaires or "near" millionaires.

By a strange coincidence, this part of the town was spared from total destruction, only a few bombs dropped into the vicinity. I remember that we used to say:" Aren't the British clever, they are saving the villas for themselves to live in". And we were right too, all those houses were requisitioned forthwith at the start of the occupation, mostly for British officers. But who were we to complain or object? We were only too glad that some parts of Hamburg at least came off "scot-free", and happy to accommodate the British troops. The whole of Hamburg's population had been shivering in their boots in case the Russians beat them to the post.

The suburbs, where most of the working-class lived, bore the-brunt of the coming onslaughts, not many buildings were left standing up. Hamburg, with one of the largest ports in Europe, and being next to Berlin the biggest industrial town in Germany, became a fatal bombing -target, this was inevitable. And by God she got more than her fair share.

Since 1937 I had lived in "Wandsbek", a very nice and select suburb. There were some pretty woods at the bottom of the road, where one could go for quiet and relaxing walks. Nearby was a Hospital, surrounded by trees, perhaps that was the reason we had not too much damage in this area. My "abode" was a nice flat in a small sort of link-house, two houses together with five flats in each. I thought it might be appropriate to give a short summary of the town where I was born, and also mention my residence, as I have to tell of some incidents concerning this house later on in this story.

Thinking of past events, I would say it all began as far back as 1936, after the "NSDAT" had been in power for 3 years. To everyone’s surprise and consternation, rationing of fat was introduced, ( 1/2 lb. of each - butter and lard, per person per week.) People began to wonder and suspected that something ominous might be afoot. It soon became clear to anyone with some foresight, that Hitler was preparing towards a war. It was Germany's great misfortune that Hitler, "the aggressive painter"(as he was called) jumped up and into power, with the help of his "henchmen" and some mis¬guided citizens, causing so much havoc all over the World.

Most men, especially the ones in good positions, had to join the party whether they wanted to or not, for fear of losing their jobs or worse, they had not much alternative.

The boys of the "Hitler-Youth" were totally brainwashed, they idolized Hitler and would not hesitate to denounce their own parents if they made hostile remarks against the "Fuehrer" and his party.

As time went on, conditions seem to deteriorate, the persecution of the Jews had started. Jewish shops were ransacked and smashed up, expensive clothes were thrown into the Alster-lake, followed by tailors-dummies, the latter looking like floating corpses. It was an awful sight and a shameful deed, the citizens of Hamburg were disgusted with the pranks of the SA,(the brown-shirts they were called), it was unintelligible that grown-up men could behave in such a manner. But, had we only known, those incidents were only forerunners of the very sad events which followed in later years.

It is well known in many parts of the world how Hitler marched into and annexed all adjacent countries, rode rough-shod over anything and anybody, consequently the war was unavoidable and had to break out sooner or later. Alas, it was sooner, and when it happened I was terrified, it was beyond my comprehension what it might entail. I imagined that Germany would be "wiped out-and off the map" in no time, by enemy attacks on land, sea and from the air.

But to my astonishment nothing much developed at first, life in the town went on as usual, everybody going about their daily business, and the threatening trouble did not seem to affect us. However, it was only the calm before the storm, suddenly things were happening thick and fast.

When the news was broadcast over the radio that Coventry was razed to the ground and London destroyed, we were shocked. All was greatly exaggerated as we learned later, but at first we believed it, having had no knowledge to the contrary. Although we felt very sorry for the British people, neverthe¬less we rejoiced when rumours went round that, with assaults like those, the war would be over in a matter of weeks, and our spirits went sky-high. But those assumptions were "a flash in the pan" and our joy was short-lived.

We were soon shaken out of our complacency when British bombers appeared on the horizon in full force, dropping their dangerous loads in retaliations.

Up till then the bombing had been more or less sporadic, or so it seemed to me, having not seen much damage near enough to worry me. But now Hamburg was on the receiving end, my lovely town became more and more the target of the fiendish bombs. I really began to feel afraid then and thought that "Doomsday" could not be far off now, little did I anticipate that our sufferings and that of the involved nations would go on for five more long years.

Now conditions became more serious and also food supplies became a problem although we had our ration-cards, we could riot always count on getting our quota when certain items were scarce. We had a slogan about it: "Es ist zu wenig zum leben - aber zuviel zum sterben". (It is too little to live on -but too much to die on.)

With most men now in military service, women had to step in and take over some of the essential jobs. Especially women with no children, for them the stipulation was "No work - no ration-cards”. As I belonged to the "childless-brigade", I had to, very reluctantly, offer my services. I was very apprehensive in case I would be drafted into an ammunition factory, but my luck was in, a job as shop-assistant in a grocery store was allocated to me. “Just the ticket” I thought, at least I shall have enough to eat. I was also able now and again, to help my Mother out with a few extra rations, who, as time went on, often had to go hungry. (As so many others, but 1 couldn't help them all.)

Despite the growing hardship all around me, on the whole, I had a very good time, all else considered. The very sad and distressing fact was that this particular shop had been especially opened for the Jews to buy their goods, since by that time, (1940) they were not allowed to shop anywhere else. Still, they were reasonably content and resigned to those rules, things were not too bad then, nobody, us included, had any inkling of the dreadful events to come. My colleagues and I did our best to help and to make life a little easier for them, a few "tit-bits" here and there when possible, the gratitude of those poor people was very touching.

Meanwhile, the intensive bombing continued, one got quite used to the "nightly scrambles" into the cellar, taking day-visits also in ones stride. But the sounds of the sirens were very nerve-racking and it was scary sitting powerless "down-below", listening to the whistling of the bombs and splintering glass. Feeling the house shake like being in an earthquake when the dreaded "Teppich-bombing" was in progress, and not knowing what one would find after the air-raid, awaiting the all-clear with bated breath, one just heaved a sigh of relief on discovering the house was still standing and thanked God that one was spared once more, to live and see another day. But for how much longer, that was always the question. (Teppich means carpet, bombs laid out like a carpet or a carpet of bombs, whichever way one looks at it.)

It was then that my friends and 1 suddenly realized that at the next air-attack it might be our homes which will receive the much feared "Voll-treffer"(direct hit), it might be us who are lying in the streets, burned to cinders. So we decided "it's now or never", we are going to live, really live each minute of the ensuing days, regardless of our endangered lives. How could anyone hope to see further into the future in these days than an hour, a minute even? Each dawning day seemed more precious, was more appreciated, we were resigned to the fact that, by all accounts, we might perish the very next night. It was a strange period, one was just past caring any more and began to grasp at any sort of gaiety which came ones way.

Although intermingled with very sad events, I could say those were some of the happiest days of my life. It might seem odd to say this, but it was quite a good situation to be in, no worries, no nothing, just take it day by day. Our motto was “Geniesse den Krieg - der Friede wird furchtbar” (Enjoy the War - the Peace will be awful), or, as the English-saying goes “Let us live, love and be happy, for tomorrow we die”. Very appropriate for that particular Epoch, and bearing that in mind our pursuits of amusements began.

So, most evenings after closing-time at the shop, my friends and I went out,(usually any number between 4- and 10 of us) either to a pub for a drink and a bite to eat, or to a famous "'Bier-Garten" (beer-garden), the latter being our favourite meeting place. Getting into to this "Tavern" afforded quite a lot of ingenuity as it was packed to capacity every night. A stern doorman held the "fort", and the "overflow" back, but we, bold as brass, just walked up to him, shook hands, and "hey-presto", a few pilfered butter-coupons were, like magic, transferred into his hands. With no further ado we were politely ushered through the swing-doors, it was always so funny and we never could stop laughing. Very soon he got to know us, was even waiting for us, (and the coupons no doubt) - no more trouble to get in. We went through the waiting crowd like "greased lightning", even found a table reserved for us.

It did not matter very much that dancing was prohibited by then, we had a lot of fun just the same, we laughed, sang and “schunkeld".(Schunkeln is linking arms with everyone round the table and swaying in unison to the music), almost as good as dancing. Some restaurants had table-telephones installed, one could ring up somebody on any table who took one’s fancy. Others invented a "postal-service" which enabled customers to make contact with the opposite sex. The latter was great fun, all tables were numbered and supplied with postcards. If a fellow (they were mostly soldiers on leave) liked a girl, or a girl liked a boy, he or she would write a card, giving table number and description of person, posted it in a letter-box, the waitresses then collected and delivered the "post". Who knows, many a friendship or even marriage might have developed out of this invention. The Landlords certainly went out of their way to cater for some "fun and games" to make life and the hard times more bearable.

However, after those evening escapades, when I was strolling home slightly "tipsy", I saw everything in a rosy haze. It was often very late and more times than once the enemy bombers approached before I reached the safety of my home. But did I care? Not in the least! With searchlights and so-called "Christmas-trees" illuminating the night sky, and the planes roaring overhead, I just laughed, waved and shouted "Hallo Tommy, how are you?" (The only English words I knew then). Lucky for me that nobody else was abroad, they would have thought I was going barmy. Remembering it all I still chuckle about those crazy things I did, and what a "desperado" I was. Those were the pleasant interludes I like to recall, one often forgets the bad things in life. But of course, war-time was not all fun and pleasures, one had to face up to the true gruesome facts for the struggle and survival, and for me it was time to come out of "cloud-cuckoo-land".

Very distressing events were beginning to happen. The evacuations of the Jews started, we had very emotional scenes with our customers at the shop. One after the other received their marching-orders, a lot of families were parted from each other, husbands had to leave while wives and children stayed behind to be put on another transport, or visa-versa. It really and truly was heartbreaking to watch, and we all cried with them in sympathy. When the exodus was over and none of our customers left, the shop folded up and closed down in July 1942.

I had to find another job and was installed in a smaller shop as manageress and "sole employee", unfortunately this also was of very short duration. These premises, being situated near the harbour, were rather in the danger-zone. One fine morning, coming to work, I took the key out of my bag to unlock the shop. But where was my shop? All gone -"kaputt", overnight it had disappeared and all that remained was a pile of bricks. Had I only known beforehand I could have saved some of the much needed food.

I remember raking over the still hot ashes for something to salvage, but it was hopeless, everything had gone up in smoke. I found a few melted and bent silver coins though, 5-Mark pieces which I had saved in a "piggy-bank" pacing out the distance where I thought they might be. I did not find them all, but the ones I rescued I had refunded by the bank! My "Guardian Angel" must have also been watching over me.

It so happened that, at the end of each month, I had to stay behind after closing time to count the ration-coupons, ready for delivering them to the office the following day. Often the sirens went while I was still busy, and by the time the raids were over, it was too late to catch any transport home. On those occasions I "camped" on a make-shift bed, which I had rigged up in a little back-room. Had I slept there on that fatal night, I would not be here now to tell the tale.

See Chapters 2, 3 and 4 for the rest of the story.

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