Man's Inhumanity towards Man
With gratitude and love to my guardian spirit and protector and a big thank you to Phil Pegg, my husband., my admired computer genius.
BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Chapter 1: Timing
World War 2, the war I knew, was no equalizer. Quite the contrary, it was very selective. While it’s furies cast a benign and fleeting glance at the country side, the little towns with church steeples, they concentrated with malice on urban locations. Their deadly arms favored heavily populated areas, where they could crush in their embrace large segments of the population in a mere blink of the eye. Above all, they kept mum, adhering to a strict code of silence about the where and when of their deadly appearance.
Oh, yes, if we could just figure out the timing of their strikes, it would do us as civilians a lot of good. We could get out of harm’s way. Of course, the soldiers in the field would not be able to escape anyway. Foreknowledge of timing would not do them any good, for they would have to stand fast anyway..
Thus it comes to me, now that I am old and often in the mood to look back, that it is really quite amazing to have slipped twice out of the furies’ greedy grasp, when they were planning a direct hit on me. With this I mean destruction of my body, my person. They did not spare people I loved. They also robbed me of things I thought i could not do without, only to find out that I could.
Timing, so important in the course of our lives, played a major role back then. Since we could not control it, we ran. Running, driven by panic, was a daily exercise. But then with all the running, the precautions we took, we could not control the timing. I remember Frau Hansen on our street, who was one of those who also ran. We did not know her all that well, but we got to talking to her once, my mother and I. I remember so clearly what she said. And that is really strange, for I cannot remember her face, only the color of her reddish hair. She said wirh a trembling voice, how dreadful it would be to get caught in one’s basement, with the burning ruins of a house pressing down on the ceiling, and flames and smoke leaking into the space you were caught; no escape possible! At the first sound of the warning sirens she ran, as we did, to a tunnel within possible reach, dug 28 meters under the ground. Once in the tunnel, we felt quite safe and with good justification. The problem was reaching it on time.
While the tunnel might not have protected the people it sheltered from today’s smart bombs, it withstood a carpet of 30 bombs in April of 1944, sown so close together that right above our heads three bombs of the heaviest caliber joined each other in one crater of such proportions that Sachverstaendige (men who studied such things) came from all over to look at it. I bet it gave them something to think about. The news referred to the air raid as pre-invasion terror attack wrought on the city of Aachen. The general expression for this war on the civilian population was terrorangriff.
The tunnel ran along rail road tracks leading from Aachen to Herbesthal, the next town beyond the border in Belgium. Of course, at this time there was not really a border, since Belgium was one of the occupied countries. On this fateful night my mother and I made it to the tunnel on time. We had started to spend our nights on the 3rd floor in the house of acquaintances, which gave us a better chance to reach our life-saving destination. We slept in our clothes and had worked out a speedy get-away, stumbling down the stairs in record time. All this in total darkness. Unfortunately, the entrance to the tunnel was located behind railroad tracks, which were guarded by a conscientious R.R. employee. If, from a distance, we heard the clanging of the bars at the crossing, our hearts sank, the cold hand of fear became more pronounced. It hastened our speed. The optimists would believe that the bars would come up on time, the pessimists were sure a long freight train would lead to their doom. My mother and I were kept waiting more than once, but on this night of all nights, on April 11, 1944, we made it to safety on time. We were huddled on narrow benches along the wall in the dim light of candles, when we heard this terrific roaring above our heads. It stopped and repeated itself 30 times. Not that I was counting. It was established after the fact.
I looked up and saw hairline cracks running across the ceiling with lightning speed. However, I believed these came from explosions somewhere in the city. I did not know bombs were falling right over our heads. We were sitting pretty close to where the tunnel intersected, the very place where three bombs made such a terrific impression on everybody who saw the crater. We trembled, the tunnel seemed to quiver, but otherwise withheld this onslaught.
Strange, I only thought how glad I was that my father was dead, and we did not have to worry about him out there in our house anymore, as we had on july 14, 1943, when he had been killed in an air raid. He was now past all this. Preoccupied with these thoughts, I became only vaguely aware that Frau Hansen and son were not in their customary seats. She had proved to be a good runner with her 10-year old son keeping pace. Therefore she had never been missing in the tunnel. Yet she was not there on that crucial night. Her son had come down with scarlet fever - consequently, at the time of the most devastating air raid she had stayed home with him, and the fate she dreaded so much, befell her anyway. Everyone in her basement burnt to death under the smoking ruins of an imploded 4 story house. Luck, the twin of timing, had run out for mother and son. Quite strange that I should recall Frau Hansen’s words so clearly, when I cannot recall her face. As I said, I really did not know her all that well. I wonder if she had a premonition and had been trying to escape, duck out from under the fatal noose? A premonition would have been different from the fear and panic we all felt. It would have been more specific. Since there were so many ways to lose one’s life in those days, she had actually been describing details of a fate she was unable to escape.
When the all clear sounded, and we hesitatingly made our way up to the surface, we were prepared for the worst. First thing, we had to climb over the body of the reliable railroad employee, laying at the entrance to the tunnel. Duty before all else must have been his principle. So close to safety, he lost his life in vain, for the train he considered of utmost importance did not even make it as far as the crossing. It had been halted in its tracks, decked by bombs. The bodies of passengers hanging from windows of the doomed train like torn dolls, ripped apart by a nasty child, or propelled outwards, where they lay on the stony ground, grotesquely twisted. We had to climb over rubble, trying to find our way home through dense smoke, a city in flames in our peripheral view. But then there was no home. We were bombed out again. It was also the second time we narrowly escaped with our lives. The air raid shelter in our apartment house had taken a direct hit. And that’s where most of the folks were, my mother and I absent from the place of the doomed.
I really don’t remember where we spent the day. All these pictures of horror and need become somehow intertwined. I will say one thing for the local Nazi authorities: in all the chaos they were well organized and quickly on hand with food where needed. They were generally quick to assign you to quarters at the homes of unwilling providers.
Let’s put it that way: everything rested in their hands. The ortsgruppen fuehrer was not only the organizer, but also the giver. As a bombed out, homeless person you went to him for ration cards, not only for food, but for clothing and other necessities..
I don’t quite remember how we finally ended up in Hahn, a picturesque small village, located about 45 minutes by streetcar from the outskirts of the city. Marita Bauwens, my good friend from school, took us in. We stayed a few weeks with Marita, her sister Else, and Mrs. Bauwens, who spent her days in a wheelchair, skinny legs dangling down lifelessly. But I will say one thing for the paralyzed woman: she had guts, guts of a foolish nature. Her main topic was: "Warum machen sie nicht schluss, diese verbrecher?" She was talking about Hitler and consorts, condemning them loudly as criminals, monsters, for prolonging the war. I got quite a kick out of her. She was proclaiming what we were thinking, throwing caution to the wind. If anybody had walked in on us, would we have been considered a danger to the Reich just for listening - with dire consequences, of course. Else was an accomplished piano player and considered herself an artist, leaving all the household chores and her mother’s care to my good natured friend Marita. Of course, my mom, helpful, hard-working as ever, immediately gave her a helping hand. However Else proved useful to her mother in other ways. When enemy planes droned overhead and the Flak bellowed below, Mrs. Bauwens refused to be intimidated. Else had to play the piano with all her might to tune out all threatening noise. if this did not work, the radio was turned on at full blast too, Yet this type of music - Else’s fight with enemy forces and the german defenders - provided neither pleasure nor did it calm our already strained nerves. Once a stray bomb fell into the village, and the portly priest of the small catholic church, who was a frequent visitor, was the first one to dive under the table with unexpected speed. It was a small country house without a basement the Bauwens had rented for the duration of the war. Without a basement to seek refuge, Mrs. Bauwen's idea of listening to loud music might have been soothing to her, but was at times the cause of high anxiety for us. These were the times when I did not believe in any tomorrows and definitely could not imagine that the war, the way we lived, would ever end.
The first bombing out is much more traumatic for me to recall. Aachen with its grandiose cathedral dating back to Charlemagne, is located at the Belgian and Dutch borders, the so-called three-country-triangle. Unfortunately it was also close to the Westwall, the fortification, which the English and Americans called the Siegfried Line, as immortalized in the song “we are going to hang our wash on the Siegfried Line!” the light spirit of the song being totally unjustified. It would prove to be a costly wash for both sides, a wash done in blood. Because of the proximity to the Westwall the city was “fortified”, which means it had a lot more bunkers than other cities in Germany. These bunkers were about four stories high, had immensely thick walls and ceilings - interwoven with steel - they had small air holes. Altogether they looked formidable.
Whoever built them took no shortcuts, but had complete safety in mind. Quite understandable, when we consider that shortcuts to enrich one's pockets were punishable by death. Thus, these bunkers proved their worth. I can attest to this, because I was there, when several bombs fell on the bunker that harbored us. It did shake us up mightily. Nothing compares to taking a direct hit overhead, without knowing if the shelter can protect you from more than a powerful jolt, or if the promised safety is just a myth.
I can still remember the bunker’s smell: like a damp cement tomb. Lucky were the people, who lived close enough to hurry over there when they heard the first blast of the sirens. We were a few minutes short to cover the distance before expecting all hell to break loose. Consequently, my mother, I and several neighbors spent the nights there, having been assigned cots. I remember there was a lot of snoring going on, my mother joining in occasionally. Mrs. Navy and Frl. Wolf, our neighbors, often got into an upset conversation about this, and referred to my mother’s snoring as eine “Unverschaemtheit”. What a nerve to snore! I don’t know why it amused me so. I could have kicked my mother’s bunk from below, but refrained from doing so. First of all, there was that strong tie I felt with her and the knowledge that she deserved her sleep, and secondly, at the tender age of 14, I was still a sound sleeper. As long as I felt safe in the bunker, I had no problem getting to the rem state fast.
What bothered me, however, was Mrs. Wagner. She was fat. I wonder how she reached that weight in those hungry times. Her body odor was something else. Apparently she only washed her face, but never got down to the more intimate places with the wash cloth. Fortunately, her cot was not close by. I am talking here about whiffs I got from her in passing. The only way to escape the odor cloud that hung around her body was the wide detour, when one saw an obese body approaching, because the unpleasant smell seemed to hang in my nose long after I had passed her. I have always been blessed with a sharp sense of smell
TOD UND ARMUT
And then came the night of july 14, 1943, when English planes dropped 500 explosive bombs, 110.000 incendiary bombs and 21.000 phosphorus bombs on Aachen. My father was at home. I still remember the disbelief we felt upon returning in the early morning hours, when we had passed the huge new apartment house behind which, at some distance, the six ranchers were located. They lay amidst blooming gardens. When we came to the point from which we usually saw them, there was nothing at all to be seen anymore - all six houses had blown away. A luftmine, a bomb that sucks the air out of the lungs, had hit the side of our house and had worked a strange pattern of death. More folks, all in their basements, had been killed farther away then some closer by, depending on where the whoosh of the bomb had gone. The dead sat lifelike on their chairs with only blood trickling from their mouth - just as if they would open their eyes when touched ever so lightly. Of course, it was different with my father. He lay under the debris of the house with the basement ceiling caved in on him. There were different versions of how he died. I always preferred to think that the blast killed him on the spot, but Mr. Fuchs, who shared the duplex with us, claimed that my father had been calling for help and that he choked or was slowly squashed to death. I refused to believe that, even though the whole Fuchs family, father, mother and 5 children, had miraculously escaped unharmed, with only a thin wall separating their basement from ours. A miracle, indeed! The father had thrown mattresses over the children, when the basement ceiling began to crumble. I never saw Erika Fuchs, my close friend, again. The Fuchs’ moved to Bavaria post haste. That’s where they had come from years ago. All my neighborhood friends, alive, but homeless, were spit to different corners of Germany by the explosion of the bomb. I never saw them again. Nor did we see my father’s body. My mother and I preferred to remember him the way he had been. My brother Wilhelm undertook this task for us. He was at that time stationed in Weimar and able to come home post haste after he received the news of our tragedy.
He went to the cemetery and looked for his father amongst the long rows of the dead, some of them torn to pieces, which were clumsily arranged together like a jig saw puzzle that came out all wrong. The dead lay on straw mats, their bodies bloated in the broiling sun. Finally he came to my father’s body. All he told my mother after her trembling question “it was not our papa anymore.” He told me that my father lay there with his head turned to the right and an other worldly stunned expression on his face. But there was the telling rivulet of dried blood from nose and mouth, which laid my fears to rest. Mr. Fuchs had not been right with his claim that my father had been calling for help. My father died like the others - a quick and merciful death. I had to believe that he had been killed immediately. It gave me comfort. Mr. Fuchs was a wife beater and a drunk and his account not worthy of consideration.
Thus my dear father had been taken away from us on a humid summer night, while the flowers kept on blooming in the middle of destruction. War, which had cast such a long shadow into my father’s life, had caught up with him. He had been a good man of strong faith, who had once returned from the first world war suffering from terrible nightmares, which suddenly had returned during the year prior to his death. He had never talked to us about his war experiences, and we had never asked. But my brother Wilhelm recalled that as a teenager he had discovered the place where my father’s gun and his war diary had been hidden. My brother had immersed himself in the text written in my father’s firm hand in the old fashioned script. My father had lain in the trenches for months, when the bullet struck, that was meant to take his life. By the sheer miracle of timing, he had thrown himself down at that very moment. The bullet had passed through the underside of his chin and lodged in his shoulder, leaving him unconscious from loss of blood, whereupon the most horrifying experience unfolded. My father had come to, covered with blood, barely breathing, and had found himself lying on a pile of dead soldiers about to be committed to the waiting, open earth by the funeral detail, standing by, spades at the ready. One of them noticed that my father was still breathing and saved his life. Perhaps it was at that moment, when my father’s strong faith was born or strengthened. He had been an excellent swimmer, but did the crawl only with one arm. As a child it had never occurred to me to ask why.
But now the shadow had absorbed him. My mother and I were left just about with only the shirts on our back. There was little time for mourning the sudden death of a good man and father, when survival became a priority. The knowledge of how much my papa had meant to me came much later. He was buried at the solemn occasion of a mass funeral, where I managed to disappear into a tearless nothingness, floating into the arms of a merciful void. My thoughts stopping dead in their tracks. My father got his own grave. Even today you can see the graves where whole families were buried together. Not far from my father lies Hildegard Prinz with her family, the lovely girl from my class with the big brown eyes, the long black braids and the gentle smile. It’s been so long. She may be forgotten by all, but I have not forgotten that she was special in her gentle ways. Her sister was not united with them in the earth, because she was away from home, when the bombs were falling.
The graves are covered with ivy and appear interconnected like a green carpet, thus almost losing their individuality. It now has become hard to read the inscriptions on the simple grave stones.. Unfortunately the city, which maintains the graves, has not seen to it that the moss and dirt are removed from the grave stones of its fallen often enough to keep the inscriptions legible. It might be rewarding for classes to undertake the task of scrubbing the stones clean, which would remind them that their beautiful city came to life again on ruins of the past and that their present well being was nourished by the blood of a past generation.
My father did not have to die. It’s this thing about timing again. He worked as a customs officer in the Belgian city of Herbesthal and had rented a room there with a nice elderly Belgian lady. She liked him, because he was a decent man. It bothered me that he had been coming home in the evening that often, while my mother and I slept in the bunker. A few days before he took the train to his death, I had pleaded with him “Papa, please stay in Herbesthal, don’t come home to spend the nights here”. My father, however, had the ironic idea that he needed to be in the house to put out a fire in case of an incendiary bomb hit. Of course, there had been plenty of incendiary bombs falling on the city, but what killed my father was a monster of a bomb. Strange how people arrive at their feared destination, get to the place of the doomed. They might have been running all the time to stay out of death’s way or willingly take the path prematurely into his arms. What difference did it make? Death was prowling the cities. He grabbed frau Hansen and son from behind and willingly held his arms out for my father, who was running towards him. Somehow my father had not been able to resist the homeward train leading to his doom.
MY BROTHER HERBERT
Strange how some impressions stay with us a lifetime, even if they had only been taken in by the eye for a short time. The sharpest picture i see even now clearly in front of me is my brother Herbert, 11 years my senior. A fortnight after the air raid i saw his tall figure in his black panzer uniform standing by the crater, erect and handsome. He finally had made it home from the Russian front. What joy I felt, when I saw him, but at the same time I already became aware of tears of sadness trickling into my mind, the shadow of the parting held barely at bay. He stood like a frozen statue, this soldier hardened by war. There was a tear glistening on his bronzed cheek. His only words: ”and this is what we are fighting for?” What else had he known in his young life but the military? They had inducted him into the Arbeitsdienst right after school. He wore a different colored uniform then. It was brown. The young men in this outfit were not portrayed with a rifle, but with a spade. They were sent to farmers to help in the fields. After that came two years of military service. Herbert had spent no more than 9 months with the Internal Revenue, his civilian career, when the war started in September of 1939. Even though I was only ten years old, I clearly remember that they came to get him during the night, causing anxiety and shock in the family by this hurried call to duty. The German army was marching into Poland. Where would it lead my brother?
Considering that everybody was complaining after the air raid, also the very lucky ones, my mother and I said very little. Perhaps because we had lost so much. I remember that I had to walk about 1 km to get a pail of drinking water. That’s where the complainers met. At the water fountain I ran into a friend who overwhelmed me with lamentations about their broken windows. I never mentioned our grave loss. How could I have ever penetrated the wall of her own preoccupation.
It’s so easy to recall the trauma, but so hard to remember the details of those turbulent times. How did things come together, when one stood naked before a new dawn. Oh yes, now I remember: Schwester Hilde and Schwester Else took us in. They were two young nurses, not sisters of a religious order, who had taken care of my brother Wilhelm, when he had been in an isolation ward of the largest hospital in Aachen with scarlet fever. Oh, yes, his scarlet fever! How is it that I remember so clearly that I had sat on my brother’s lap and we had hugged, while the disease was breeding within him. I had found it quite remarkable that I did not catch it. I also remember that it happened in our own home, so it must have been before July 1943. At that time my father was still alive. He had served as an officer in the Wehrmacht since September 1939, but had been released from the military on 9. 6. 1940, to resume his duties as a customs officer. Customs being in urgent need of men.
We had always been a hugging family, hand shakes were never exchanged between us - there had been warm embraces and kisses. Especially during war times, when you wanted to hold onto a father or brother forever, you could not get enough of them to stash away in your memory - how they had felt, what they had said the last time you saw them. Wilhelm, my younger brother, was 4 years older than I and was still teasing me at that time. The teasing I got from my two brothers and the love I felt for them in spite of it will always be remembered. Yet I had to fall back on Wilhelm’s memory, and he had to scramble for a while before he could provide me with details about where he had picked up the seed of scarlet fever. It had most likely been in a hospital while being cured of jaundice. He recalled that he had come down with jaundice in France and had gone through a delousing process upon entering the military hospital. This “cure” of non-existent lice had left him with a uniform that stank. When he came home on leave, he was not exactly a soldier proud of his uniform. Home leave, so rare and getting rarer as the war went on, was usually granted after a hospital stay. The smelling uniform had upset my father as being unfit for a german soldier. Papa had been able to get a new uniform for my brother. Oh, world of wonders, my father must have had some connection to a supply officer.