Living “under the Radar” in 1945
As recalled by:
Peter Schaper; September 1, 2015
Last night during dinner at Coco’s, spurred on by a remark about my life in 1944/45 in Berlin made by Muck in his last email, I proceeded to tell Mike about “peeling potatoes and salvaging German Marks from a bombed-out mint”. He said he had never heard this story and urged me to write it down along with some of my other war stories. So, in case you heard the story before, I decided to write a bit more about how I remember getting by – especially financially – after I escaped from the emergency hospital in Witzenhausen and the labor camp.
I am not sure about the exact time line from where to begin. I remember that during the Battle of the Bulge I was still in the hospital; in fact, I remember that I spent Christmas 1944 and New Year’s Day there. On the day I left, I remember getting a hat from someone in the Diphtheria ward because it was cold and I seem to remember snow on the ground at the train station. I did have a little money, probably given to me at the hospital. The train ticket was provided by the hospital. That’s where I made the clever decision to tell the innocent clerk that I was “returning to Berlin”. I took a “local” train to Kassel and then I got hauled into an overcrowded car on the Berlin Express by some kind hearted souls who pulled me in through a window. There was no room to move once I got in, I think my feet never touched the floor. The Gestapo tried to come through and called out ‘Passports” and everyone in the car said “you’ve got to be kidding” and of course there was no way they could come through, so no passport check by the feared Gestapo. As we approached Berlin in the late evening, there was the nightly air raid in progress, so the train slowed down at the outskirts of the city and I asked my kind fellow travelers to help me out of the car in the same way I got in. I must have recognized the neighborhood where the train halted. I don’t remember the details of getting from that point to my Aunt Dora’s apartment house located in the section of Friedenau, but I remember knocking at the rear door of her apartment, a knock answered by the maid, Johanna, with “what are you doing here?” Dora came, in her pajamas, and I got a great welcome and something to eat. (There are a few more details in my note: “From Bremen to Berlin 1944 – 45.rtf”; dated January, 1945) The next morning, at breakfast, there was a strategy session. Along with Dora Lux and Johanna, there was a good friend, Tony Scheurer, who lived in the apartment and a Russian lady friend of hers, who was a co-worker with her at the local Gestapo Censorship office, by the name of “Schnüffelchen” (which is what we called her – I don’t remember the name any more) which liberally translated means “little sniffly one”. She was definitely a Nazi and could not be trusted, but was treated with respect. Of course, she did not attend the strategy session. Dora and Tony suggested that I had to register with the police right away, among other reasons it was the way to get ration cards every two weeks, and it was required by law. Since Dora was successfully living without being detected as a Jew, I could of course not live there officially. It was decided that I would make my official residence with a good friend of the family, Lis Bruck, as a relative who was bombed out of his home without parents and working in central Berlin (hence my rare presence at Lis’ apartment). Along with that Dora contacted our banker friend, Scheuermann, who agreed to offer me a job at his banking house in the financial district of Berlin. I went off that same morning to get re-acquainted with Lis and got her consent to the charade we were about to play. She accompanied me to the police station and I received my first two weeks worth of ration cards. Fortunately, everything went smoothly and I returned to Aunt Dora’s apartment.
Thus began my “Tauchzeit” in Berlin in early January 1945. I use the German expression, “Tauchzeit” as being a very apt description used by Jewish and politically persecuted people who managed to escape the notice of the Gestapo and managed to survive the war. Literally translated, it means “dive time” and was normally used in relation to submarines’ time under water. In the beginning, my daily trips to Scheuermann’s office were made by streetcar or bus. Public transportation was, however beginning to be unreliable, in part due to damage caused by nightly British air raids. Air raids during the day were rare and the Berlin government had initiated a radio station which broadcast the status of enemy air activity over Germany, giving out number of incoming aircraft, location and probable target area and estimated time of arrival. This information was easily obtainable, so that one could plan one’s morning activity accordingly. Toward the end of January, my life had settled into a fairly routine event, spending the day at work and evenings at home, usually with Tony Scheurer before the nightly air raid and the standing in front of the house watching the British Mosquito bombers bombing specific targets, usually marked by flares dropped on parachutes. This, accompanied by the ineffective anti aircraft rounds with tracers provided a spectacular show, if you were not in the target area. The routine of this was accentuated by one of my fellow employees at the banking house who left the office every evening wishing everyone a “pleasant alarm” for that night. On weekends I tried to visit areas of Berlin, where I used to live. One of these visits to the Buchen Strasse (sight of my grandfather’s house where I enjoyed my childhood) made me discover that the house had been severely damaged by a large bomb, clearly not likely to be repaired. I also was able to reconnect with my boyhood friend Horst Hilpert and Melitta Mangelsdorf, the sister of a good friend of mine from high school who had actually lived with us in the Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse, and with whom I was in love – in teenager fashion. Melitta brings me to the unforgettable events of Saturday, February 3, 1945, my mother’s birthday. As I said there had been a few daylight raids on Berlin before this date, but the radio predicted early in the morning that a large armada of B17s were headed for Berlin, presumably. I had promised Melissa that I would accompany her to air raid shelter at the Alexander Platz, the next time I “was in the neighborhood”. So, I set out for the center of Berlin to celebrate my mother’s birthday with her in the subway station which served as a “safe public shelter”. I have attached a Wikipedia description of this air raid below to give the reader an idea that I had chosen a bad place to be for the event. The screaming women and children crowded in the station were too much for me and so, when I heard what I thought was the end of the raid because the roar of airplane engines had decreased, I decided to leave. Melitta opted to stay and find her own way home. I will never forget my walk home through streets flanked by burning and still collapsing buildings. It was not until a year later, that I found out that my half-brother Eric Schwab experienced the raid as a war correspondent in one of the American B17s.
There also was another American lead daytime air raid that Eric and I both remembered two years later, when we were “telling war stories” to each other on my first evening in the USA. I had gone to my see friend Horst and we both had decided to watch the show as a large group of four engine bombers flew in formation toward the northern outskirt of Berlin, where a railroad center was the apparent target. Suddenly the lead plane pulled up, out of formation and exploded as he got away from the group. We watched the remains of plane fall to the ground, but tour surprise spotted three parachutes slowly descending into the smoke rising up from the bombed region. As I told the story to Eric, he mentioned that he had flown almost all the missions over Berlin, but one. He had missed that because he had a case of the flu and his alternate correspondent, a friend, had flown in his place and got killed. When he heard my story, he investigated with his employer, Agence France Press, and found out that his friend indeed had not been killed but was German prisoner of war. We really did not remember the exact date of the mission, but were surprised at the coincidence. As time went by toward March 1945, my walking excursions through Berlin increased due to deteriorating service of public transportation and the weather made walking a good exercise. I therefore become more acutely aware of how the city took on the roe of a potential victim of the war, a city potentially to be under siege. Strange constructions appeared which turned out to be potential locations for artillery pieces overlooking strategic open places like large city squares. Patrols by uniformed SS troopers were seen on the main streets and, much to my horror, bodies in military uniform were seen hanging from streets lights with signs that said: “I am a traitor to my country”. This really made me acutely aware of the fact that I was walking around without any real identification, so that when I spotted the signs saying that all young men born in the year of 1928 needed to register with the military authority in their area for the German version of the draft. I appeared at the designated place for the area of the Buchenstrasse and stated that my home had been destroyed by a bomb and I was now living with a friend, showing my registration with the police at Lis Bruck’s apartment. That seemed to be satisfactory and I joined the crowd of young lads “volunteering” for service in the army. The last station to be visited during the interview was run by a team of medical people. I showed the doctor my statement from the hospital in Witzenhausen that I had a heart murmur. The doctor looked at my name and the “home address” of Buchenstrasse 4, and asked me if my father was a sculptor. I said yes and he seemed to remember certifying him for admission to a public school. He listened to my heart and said that he was sorry, but he had to certify me as unfit for military service for another six months. I gave him a snappy military salute, got my military pass – with picture – and properly stamped with the swastika. The walk home saw me feeling pretty cocky about further trips into town!
By about April 25, 1945, the situation in Berlin deteriorated rapidly. In addition to the construction work on defensive fortifications in part of the city, I saw several places where stacks of “Panzerfausts” (anti-tank bazookas) were stashed with armbands marked as “Volkssturm Member” (people’s storm) were available for the public. Needless to state I stayed far away from those. I cannot recall the exact date of our last day of work at Scheuermann’s, but I recall that in late April we could hear the sound of artillery fire and the approach of the Soviet Red Army was very imminent. The news broadcast on the Berlin radio station was not believable. So Scheuermann dismissed those of us who had gotten to his banking house, with some sadness, but with good wishes for our survival and, I believe, with a small envelope of money. (I never saw him again!) I set out on my walk home to Friedenau. We all had heard the howling of artillery shells overhead, apparently flying east to west, so I was not concerned. But, as I crossed the square in front of the Berlin “Dom” (Lutheran cathedral), with Fritz Schaper’s Christ statue, all of a sudden, a column of dirt sprang out of the ground not far away, followed by the sound of an explosion. It was then that I got worried and ran toward the protection of high-rise building and re-planned my further itinerary along streets running north and south mostly. Fortunately, the artillery fire diminished as I got farther into Western Berlin, and I made it home safely. Having arrived at the Fregestrasse in Friedenau I observed a small group of Russian bombers overhead dropping small bombs – I was not impressed! One landed in the house next to Dora’s apartment and started a fire. It was late afternoon and the residents in our house manned water hoses to keep our house from catching fire. Since there was a small pharmacy on the ground floor of the building, a few of us searched it for potential stores of flammable stuff to fuel the flames. All I found was a large bottle of vegetable oil, which I “liberated” – a boon to the days to follow! The night was spent on the roof of our house with water hoses manned by those who used to watch air raids in front of our house in the recent past. We now could distinguish gunfire in the rumble of artillery noise and could tell it came from the Templehof area – the Red Army was close! So, when the fire next door had sort of burned out, we decided it was wise to retreat to our basement shelter area and “hunker down”. I had prepared a small area in Dora’s basement room with rugs and some survival food stuff and I went sound asleep. The last day of my Tauchzeit dawned to my awaking to the sound of strange voices in a foreign language outside the small window in the cellar space. I recognized Soviet soldiers and was immediately wide awake: my liberation had arrived! I ran out of the basement into the stairway where a Russian soldier emerged from ransacking the apartment above. Of course, I raised my hands and gave him a huge smile. His response was: “Uhri, uhri, uhri”, pointing to his wrist. There was no doubt in what he meant and I lost a pocket watch (German Uhr”) and I was searched by him and others for more goodies, before they let me go into the courtyard. I headed for the cellar which served as the official air raid shelter, where all the residents had spent the night. It was here that I learned that the “liberation” was far from a celebration, but a tale of horror emerged. Already several of the young women had been taken out and were raped and the loss of my pocket watch was nothing compared to the plunder of watches and jewelry of the residents. It took most of the morning for nerves to settle down and for the acceptance of this “fate of the vanquished” by all involved. A consensus arose that we had to get some able-bodied folks to volunteer to go out and get some water – we had gas for our stoves, but no running water or electricity. In a square near the house there was an old-fashioned pump with a big handle, and rumor had it that people were lined up to get water for their needs. I was elected to carry two buckets and our group ventured out of the confines of our house.
The main street (Haupt Strasse, Friedenau) was filled with Russian troops and equipment, coming from the south and heading toward the square where I had noticed the tank turret buried. We made it to the pump and took our turn in line and headed back, when all of a sudden, a tanker truck filled with gasoline exploded violently on the main street, spewing fire right behind our path. None of us were hurt, but we were scared to death and started running, carrying our water buckets. I just made it to the front entrance to our house, when a big Russian soldier grabbed a hold of me, threw me against the wall of the entrance passage way and put his pistol to my forehead. I guess I dropped the buckets and had my arms raised up. The Russian kept screaming at me, obviously intent of killing me, but apparently wanting me to say something. I managed to yell at one of the ladies running by to get Schnüffelchen to help interpret. Thank God she arrived very quickly and told me that the soldier thought I had shot at the tanker truck and that his buddy had been killed by the explosion, so he was going to kill me. I now opened up to Schnüffelchen that I was “friendly”, a Half-Jew just out of a concentration camp hiding from the Germans, that my mother was in a concentration camp and that I had three brothers in the French army. It must have been quite a shock to that dear lady, but she apparently convinced the soldier. The pistol disappeared and I was told to get into the basement shelter and stay there for the next few days if I wanted to stay alive. I walked through the courtyard thanking Schnüffelchen for saving my life. She mumbled something, but I don’t think she ever talked to me again. After all she was a White Russian –Tsarist refugee – and no friend of the Soviets. No wonder I forgot her name! I was surprised that I did not pass out in the shelter: I have never been so scared in all my life. The ladies in the shelter enforced my “house arrest” very strictly for a couple of days. This turned out to be a boon to me in the long run because it gave me a chance to get to know a 19-year-old girl in the group, Jutta Kny. Being the only two in our age group, it was natural that we should stick together and form a close friendship, sitting on the stairway leading to the shelter, but still inside the house. Jutta had been raped a couple of times and dove into the darkness of the shelter behind older women, whenever a Russian soldier came nosing around. Johanna cooked a meal for us that first evening. We had a stash of potatoes that I had bought on a food collection trip to an outlying farm during the last days of train travel out of Berlin – along with a multitude of Berliners on the same “hunt”. I provided my liberated bottle of oil. So, for the next few days Jutta and my friendship grew nourished by old fashioned potato pancakes. Finally, the “arrest” was over, soldiers had calmed down with the raping and it seemed that the war had moved on, although gun and artillery fire could still be heard in the direction of the center of Berlin. This feeling was enforced by the fact that the corner houses on the big streets in Berlin were receiving electric power, which included the part of the house next door which had burned, but of which the rear apartments were still intact. Now Jutta lived in an apartment adjacent to this house and it occurred to me that, if I got the permission of an apartment owner in the neighbor house, I could drop along extension cord with two male ends out of her window into his, and if I removed the main fuse in her apartment, we might have enough power to provide some light. The idea worked and Jutta moved back into her flat. Of course, we moved our dinner time into her place and spent evenings telling each other life stories. The relationship was always purely platonic; a big incentive for me was the very public warning about the fact that Russian soldiers were known to be carriers of Syphilis!!! By Wednesday, May 2, 1945 Jutta and I were beginning to have cabin fever. I wanted to go and see how people I knew faired during the Battle for Berlin and whether the house in the Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse was still intact. It was a beautiful day and the sounds of war had diminished and were in fact quiet and Jutta gladly agreed to come along. We thoughtfully carried a few bottles of water in a knapsack because we knew we would have to walk. Of course, there were many houses that had been destroyed along the way, down the Haupt Strasse to the Potsdamer Platz, but it was not until we got there that we saw corpses of soldiers lying on the street. This was a bit disconcerting, but we pushed on toward the Brandenburg Gate, past Hitler’s Chancellery building which was flying a Russian flag and was in ruins. As we went through the Brandenburg Gate along with many soldiers and a few people, we were shocked at the Unter den Linden Avenue: Most of the houses on both sides of the street were on fire, still burning. Carefully, we went on since my goal was at the end of the street, and that is where a Russian soldier stopped the two of us and told us to work for one hour. This became quite common in Berlin, they would stop you and say: “Rabota, ein uri” (Work, one hour). There was no choice. So, he gave us a wheelbarrow and a shovel and we joined a group of Germans loading bricks from bombed houses and dumping them at the edge of a blown-up bridge (the Schloss Brücke) to let the Russian engineers rebuild it to re-establish crossing of the Spree River. They watched us pretty closely and when our hour was up, the soldier told us to come and sit and rest. He spoke pretty good German and wanted to know if we were brother and sister; of course, we agreed, and he said he could tell by the resemblance. We got more talkative when he offered a bowl of soup from is field kitchen and a large piece of dark bread. As we sat, we looked around we noticed Russian soldiers celebrating in front of the old Berlin castle. Of spectacular interest was a Mongol in full dress uniform on a large white horse who looked very war like and threatening, but was showing off. When we got done eating, we thanked the soldier and decided to start home. Back at the Brandenburg Gate I suggested to Jutta that we should take a short cut through the Tiergarten, it was getting late in the day. I headed through what was once a nice park with trees, but now had just bare trunks sticking out of the ground. When we spotted a wrecked military car sitting there abandoned, Jutta said she had to go to the bathroom, please don’t look and I will call you when I am done! In a bit she called for me to come and see what she found: a full “wheel” of Swiss Cheese, about a foot in diameter, which we quickly stuck in our knapsack. We got back on our way through the Tiergarten and on to cross the Spree Canal at the bridge on the Bendler Strasse, once the place where my father had painted my favorite picture. It was indeed a short cut and we got home before dark. Not until I talked later to Tony Scheurer, did I find out that Berlin had officially surrounded that very morning, there had been intense fighting in the area by the Chancellery the night before! Furthermore, when I returned to the Tiergarten a couple of days later, I found it was roped off with large yellow signs: Do not enter; Landmines!!! But the cheese enhanced our dinners for many evenings. Some of these were made even more pleasant through another strange set of circumstances.
I had gone to visit my friend Horst about a week After the Tiergarten incident. He greeted me with a special request for help. A lady who lived with her family two houses east of Horst’s family apartment had been killed. Her kids asked Horst to recover her remains out of their burned down house and bring these to them for burial. Horst had tried, but could not navigate in the still very hot, dark ruins because of his poor vision. So, he and I crawled into the ruins, found the remains, a charred skeleton, and brought them out into daylight where we could put them in a temporary container, Horst had prepared. It was a gruesome task. On the way out of the hot ruins I spotted a fine-looking Telefunken radio receiver which seemed to be in good shape. I asked to borrow a backpack rom Horst and carried it to the Fregestrasse – and Jutta’s apartment. It worked fine and we had music and news casts to listen to for our evening get-togethers. On a subsequent visit to Horst, to return the backpack, he and I decided to walk to the Buchenstrasse #4, to revisit the site of our childhood together. We had just entered the cul-de-sac street, when we were met by a Russian soldier and were given the “rabota, eine uhri” command. He took us behind the bombed-out house – #3 – where a field kitchen was set up and the soldiers were telling us to peel a large mountain of potatoes. We were handed kitchen knives and sat in front of the potato pile on a huge pile of large sheets of white, heavy paper. As we had been working for a while, Horst leaned over to me and whispered: “Did you see what is on the back of the sheets of paper we are sitting on?” I looked and saw that each sheet contained about 30 printed German 2 Mark bills, without serial numbers. As we looked around, we realized that the source of all the paper was a bombed multi story building, apparently a kind of mint at the far corner of the property we were on. After we got done with the potato peeling task, we ambled away from the work area toward the building, casually turning over many sheets on the ground.
As we got close to the “mint”, we found what we were hoping for, sheets with bills printed on both sides, with serial numbers! We took as many as we each could carry and still walk in a pretty natural way, and headed for Horsts house. We “split the loot” there and I went home having wrapped my treasure with plain paper. When I got home, I took a razor blade and metal ruler and proceeded to separate each bill very carefully. I really have no idea how many sheets I had. I gave some to Tony Scheurer for help with the household and took the rest to my evening with Jutta. Our money worries were over – we lived like kings, buying cigarettes on the Berlin black market and even attended an operetta performance of the “Barber of Seville”!
By mid June we heard that the Allied troops were going to take over their assigned sectors of Berlin. I was delighted that Friedenau was to be in the American Sector and I began to count the days. This was the first real disagreement that entered Jutta’s and my friendship: she did not like Americans and totally refused to come with me in July to welcome Us troops, as they drove down the Haupt Strasse in early July. It did not stop me and I finally felt really liberated and I hoped it showed in my smiles, hellos and handshakes. A few weeks later Jutta moved into a different apartment, closer to where she was pursuing her career in the theater. She gave me some chocolate bars as a parting present, making a point, I am sure.
With my new found financial freedom, my trips to central Berlin became more frequent. I discovered the sad fate of the Bieber house in the Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse – burned by the Russians while the inhabitants were forced to work on the Schloss bridge, on the other side of the area where Jutta and I had worked. As I walked through the old Berlin area, I saw notices that there was to be a re-opening of the Französische Gymnasium, my old high school under the auspices of the French Military Government. Of course, I attended as did many of my old classmates. Some of the boys had been forced to work on the Zoo Flack Tower and managed to come through that alive. Of note, from the viewpoint of 2014, one of the attendees was Thomas Baldner, who wound up retiring from Indiana University’s Music Department in 2014 as a noted orchestral director! His sister Monika also came who I had a crush on when we were in sixth grade! She and the other two girls of my class, Louise and Herzeleide, received most of the attention since all had developed into very pretty young ladies. It was decided to get together every week until classes could officially start. Everyone who came was highly enthusiastic. At the end, as we prepared to return home, I found that Herzeleide also lived in Friedenau with her mother. We became weekly traveling companions and good friends, again, until I made my exit to the other side of the Iron Curtain. As soon as the fighting was over in May, I had started to search for my mother. The Jewish Community had set up locations where they posted the most recent information of survivors of the various concentration camps. The one closest to me was located in Schöneberg, not far to walk to. They did post a list for Theresienstadt, but of course my mother’s name was not on it – remember that Eric and Meyer Levin had liberated her and no one made official note of that at the time. A two months wait of great uncertainty had to pass before we received any information.
Then, the concierge at the Fregestrasse told me that two American soldiers had stopped by while I was not at home. They said that they came to tell me that my mother was alive, recuperating in Berchtesgaden. It later turned out that these were two class mates of my cousin Hanna from Kingston High School in New York. Tony Scheurer convinced me not to go off based on such a rumor, but to just see it as good news. A bit later I missed the visit of another American Army nurse (a friend of Cousin Ruth Bieber), but all she knew was that my mother was alive. Finally, in August I received a post card from Peter Kollwitz, the grandson of the famous artist Käthe Kollwitz, about the same age as I, whom I had known before. He wrote that he had met with my mother in Bremen and wanted to meet with me. We did that and he gave me a lot of advice as to how to get to Bremen with a lot of specifics about how to get out of the Russian Sector.
Two days later I was on my way to Bremen well rested and outfitted with a decent set of clothes and some food for the road thanks to Tony and Johanna. I was told to take the train to Magdeburg, the “end of the line” and the last town in the Russian sector. The train was crowded with standing room only. On the way there I had engaged two “men of the cloth” (Geistliche, in German) who gave me their blessing as I set out on foot. A mass of humanity descended don a grassy hill headed toward a wooded hill rising in the near distance. A young man walking next to me said: “this is nonsense, the Russian border guards surely see us coming. Let’s split off and try to make it on our own, away from the crowd.” All this took place in bright daylight. We started up the wooded hill, bearing to the right while the crowd seemed to heading left. After a while we were by ourselves, carefully watching out for armed border guards, but not seeing any. Finally, we came to a fairly wide road in front of us. We carefully looked up and down the road and saw a red and white barrier to our left. We were about to decide that we needed to get to the other side of that barrier to enter the British Zone, when we were challenged by a Soviet guard. H asked us where we were going and without stopping to think both of us said: “Berlin”. The guard said: “No, you go back!” He led us toward the barrier and spoke to the guards there in Russian, they beckoned us to come forward, frisked us, threw away a Swiss army knife I had and some cash and then motioned us to go down that road and not to come back. As we got to the end of the road, we were met by some Polish soldiers in British uniforms, welcoming us to the British sector and telling us, in good English, to get in the trucks and they would take us to the train station! We had made it!!! As we got on the train that evening, the “Geistliche” who had wished me luck, sat in the same compartment and congratulated us on succeeding in our mission.
My arrival in Bremen has been described many times before. After my mother and I had our first big welcome hugs she said the words that were a fitting ending to this part of our journey:
We are going to America!
[The US Consulate in Bremen opened in the spring of 1946; we were numbers 1 and 2 in line!]
The grim facts form the internet.
- Notable Air Raid 1945: [Saturday February 3, 1945]
Almost 1,000 B-17 bombers of the Eighth Air Force, protected by some 575 North American P-51 Mustangs, attacked the Berlin railway system on the forenoon of 3 February 1945 in the belief that the German Sixth Panzer Army was moving through Berlin by train on its way to the Eastern Front, thinking the Sixth Panzer Army would use the Tempelhof railyards for the move. This was one of the few occasions on which the USAAF undertook a mass attack on a city centre. Lt-General James Doolittle, commander of the USAAF Eighth Air Force, objected to this tactic, but he was overruled by the USAAF commander, General Carl Spaatz, who was supported by the Allied commander General Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower and Spaatz made it clear that the attack on Berlin was of great political importance in that it was designed to assist the Soviet offensive on the Oder east of Berlin, and was essential for Allied unity.
In the raid, led by highly decorated Jewish-American USAAF Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Rosenthal of the 100th Bombardment Group, Friedrichstadt (the newspaper district), and Luisenstadt (both divided between the boroughs of Kreuzberg and Mitte, the central area) and some other areas, such as Friedrichshain, were severely damaged. The bombs used in this raid consisted mostly of high explosive ordnance and not incendiary munitions. The area that suffered the greatest damage did not include railway main lines, which were more northern (Stadtbahn) and southern (Ringbahn), but did include two terminal stations of Berlin (Anhalter and Potsdamer Bahnhof, the latter of which had already been out of service since 1944 due to bomb destruction).
The bombing was so dense that it caused a city fire spreading eastwards, driven by the wind, over the south of Friedrichstadt and the northwest of neighboured Luisenstadt. The fire lasted for four days until it had burnt everything combustible in its range to ashes and after it had reached waterways, large thoroughfares, and parks that the fire could not jump over. Due to the exhaustion of German supplies the German anti-aircraft defense was under-equipped and weak so that out of the 1,600 US aircraft committed, only 36 were shot down and their crews – as far as they survived the crash of their planes – taken as prisoners-of-war.
A number of monuments, such as French Luisenstadt Church, St. James Church, Jerusalem’s Church, Luisenstadt Church, St. Michael’s Church, St. Simeon Church, and the Marcher Protestant Consistory (today’s entrance of Jewish Museum Berlin) as well as government and Nazi Party buildings were also hit, including the Reich Chancellery, the Party Chancellery, the Gestapo headquarters, and the People’s Court. The Unter den Linden, Wilhelmstrasse and Friedrichstrasse areas were turned into seas of ruins. Among the dead was Roland Freisler, the infamous head justice of the People’s Court. The death toll amounted to 2,894, fewer than might have been expected because the raid took place in daytime with relatively few incendiary bombs. The number of wounded amounted to 20,000, and 120,000 were left homeless or “dehoused“.
2. Berlin under Siege
While this was going on, Zhukov and Koniev had completed the encirclement of the city by 25 April and started to close in to what Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry was describing as ‘Fortress Berlin’. While the city had been preparing for a siege since January, the defences were still rudimentary and makeshift due to the lack of resources – certainly no match for the forces that were about to assault them but the defending forces could muster almost 100,000 troops (including the LVI Panzer Corps, reinforced by the 18th Panzergrenadier and 11th SS ‘Nordland’ Panzergrenadier Divisions) in a variety of makeshift formations. Certainly the urban terrain, with its many canals and rivers and damage done by bombing and artillery fire, naturally favoured the defence. The main attack started the next day, with the Germans fighting tenaciously, making skilful use of buildings and rubble to conduct sniping, counterattacks and ambushes, while many of the high flak towers were able to fire down onto the advancing Soviet forces. After two days of bitter fighting, Zhukov’s forces had reached Charlottenburg in the west and the River Spree in the Moabit area further east. His forces, in clockwise order, were the 47th Army (advancing towards the Ketzin – Spandau area, eventually joining up with 4th Guards Tank Army from Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Front), 2nd Guards Tank Army (Charlottenburg and Moabit), 3rd Shock Army (advancing south from the Pankow area), 5th Shock Army (advancing west from the Lichtenburg area), 8th Guards Army and 1st Guards Tank Army (advancing northwest from the Neukölln and Tempelhof areas). To the west of the 8th Guards Army lay Koniev’s forces with 28th Army (advancing from the Steglitz area), 3rd Guards Tank Army (advancing from the Teltow area) and 4th Guards Tank Army (advancing towards the Ketzin – Spandau area).
Berlin: The Soviets advance into the city The bridge on the Potsdamerstrasse was seized on the 28th and in the face of fierce opposition from the SS ‘Anhalt’ Regiment, the attack began on the Tiergarten (Zoo). Maj Gen S. I. Perevertkin prepared his 79th Rifle Corps (comprising the 150th, 171st and 207th Rifle Divisions) to storm the Reichstag, but first the Soviets would have to overcome some serious obstacles. In front of the Reichstag lay Königsplatz, across which there lay a water-filled antitank ditch and behind this numerous gun pits, artillery emplacements and trenches connected to the Reichstag itself. Additional mortars and artillery pieces were sited in the Tiergarten and the whole area was mined. As with every other building in the area, the Reichstag itself had been heavily fortified with the lower storeys being reinforced with steel rails and concrete and the doors and windows bricked up to provide loopholes. It also had street-level cellar windows, which proved to be natural gun embrasures and the construction site for the abandoned U-Bahn (Underground) tunnel nearby was readily incorporated into the defence system. The area was
defended by between 5 and 6,000 German troops of all kinds, including Army regulars, SS, Allgemeine-SS (defending the Ministry of the Interior), Volkssturm and 250 sailors from the ‘Grossadmiral Dönitz’ Naval Battalion, reinforced with large numbers of stragglers and some tanks from the 11th ‘Herman von Salza’ Tank Battalion, the majority of whom were in the Reichstag itself.
3. Some afterthoughts in November 2020:
In hindsight, what motivated me – a 17-year-old teenager – to take huge risks to my safety and well-being by avoiding air raid shelters and stand outside protective buildings during devastating air-raids?
After I was separated from the love and protective security of my mother in 1944, I was in sort of a state of shock. For example, I do not remember anything about the arrangements being made for my future in Bremen with my aunt and uncle in Bremen – not even how I got there. My first Bremen memories start with experiences of love and care of Anni Stelljes (maid) and my two cousins, Monika and Kiki, and laughing with them at “dish drying” times in the kitchen after meals. Something must have happened to me during the “black-out” period which made me lose the fear of being harmed or even death. I had forgotten the days in Berlin of going to the basement shelter with my toy animals packed in a back-pack and calmly waiting out the air raid situation and then going out to help put out fires or assist in rescuing furniture and belongings of victims of the bombing. As I remember now, I had developed an aversion to public air raid shelters. There is a vague memory of going once to the above ground concrete public shelter near my uncle’s home. It was crowded and there were “panic moments” when the lights flickered and women screamed when the bunker sort of shook due to bombs falling nearby. In any case, I swore off even getting out of bed during almost nightly raids. No insistent urging by Anni to at least go to the basement in the house changed my attitude. I do remember one occasion, when a bomb exploded in the nearby park, and I jumped out of my bed near the window to the street and made a wild dash down the stairs, almost getting hit by falling glass from the skylight above the stairway. But by the time Anni returned from the shelter, I had cleared the broken glass from the stairway and got back into bed. During the days when a few air raids occurred while I was working in the machine shop, we apprentices used to go to the Weser river, nearby the shop, and fool around, even swimming in the river. In short, we had all assumed the teenagers’ attitude of immortality or the fear of death.
The Bremen attitude was furthered by later events in 1944/45 through my experiences in labor camp and emergency hospital in Witzenhausen, which had no air raid shelter. When I got back to Berlin in 1945, I found that watching night raids from the front of the house added to the desire to avoid crowded basements. The only danger I really faced doing that was from falling fragments of anti-aircraft shells, so I and my fellow watchers stayed near the house instead of the middle of the sidewalk. This attitude prevailed and maybe found its climax in the Walk into the center of Berlin with Jutta, described in the main text.Share
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