“That was an event where many people simply wandered in a certain direction without orientation, sometimes even towards a fire. They simply ran anywhere. My mother took hold of us and held on tight.”
Manfred Gräber was just a young boy during the bombing of Germany. With clarity he recalls trips to the air raid shelters and Nazi racism and paranoia.
This interview has been translated from its original German.
Q: If you think back to when you were six years old, what comes to mind when someone says “bombing war,” “air assault”? What kind of feeling, what kind of memory comes to the fore?
For me, the bombing war is, even today, very strongly associated with the wailing of a siren. The siren that sounded the alarm with a howl through those darkened streets is deeply embedded in my memory to this day, even as an older man. In the summer months, when I occupy myself with leisure activities like fishing on the water in Brandenburg, outside Berlin, I hear at times in the distance the cry of a siren, very faintly. A swelling and ebbing away. Perhaps I should mention in this context a forest fire which broke out, and which set off the fire alarm in a town. I called my wife’s attention to it repeatedly, “Don’t you hear the siren?” She said, “I don’t hear any siren.” And yet this subtle rising and falling tone from that time has always stayed in my memory.
Q: Can you describe that? An attack, when the siren sounds, just the process, what was it like at that time?
At night when it became dark outside, along with the darkness fear came over the city, and in the apartments and the houses of the people. At night, one was afraid above all else of the night attacks, which often were carried out between the hours of 8pm and 11pm. A sure sign of this was that, for those who had a radio, it was quietly audible in the rooms of the house, and then the news station interrupted the program and announced the approach of enemy combat units. In 1943, there was also still a so-called cuckoo which was heard over the radio. When the cuckoo’s call sounded, there were approximately 20 minutes until the sirens wailed at full alert. Full alert was a swelling and fading sine wave in the 200-500 MHz frequency range. Particularly outside of the house, if one on the street turned in the direction of Alexanderplatz, as in 1943, then precisely this siren was eerily audible and elicited fear and terror.
On the other hand, when the attack came to an end, a long, sustained tone flowed through, and it was as if this tone relieved the tension of the whole situation. Many people spoke out to that effect, saying, “We have been spared again,” or “We have arisen from this.” I actually still have this sensation, because in the communities of Brandenburg the sirens from the war remain standing. Here in Berlin they have been dismantled. We have them in museums. But when these sirens can be heard from a distance, this is not exaggerated, a light tingling runs over one’s back. The second issue was the blackout, which had a very frightening effect on the children.
Q: Why fear and terror? Why did it elicit that at the time? How do you explain that?
The emergence of this sound, of the siren, wasn’t the most decisive factor in and of itself. Already as a child one picked up on and sensed very observantly the conversations of the adults and everything which happened in the surrounding environment. Often, from my personal experience, adults underestimate children, that at their age they understand and assimilate and process one thing or another quite articulately.
For example, it emerged that thousands of people burned to death in Hamburg. However, that fact wasn’t popularized through the press or the radio, but rather in the form of a whispering campaign and rumors. One didn’t know anything exact, but one knew nevertheless that something had happened. This also stemmed from the approximately 1 million refugees from Hamburg, from whom it spread to the population in the Brandenburg area. And so, concretely related to the situation in the Fall of 1943, one was afraid in Berlin of experiencing such an attack, as the imperial capital.
Q: Did your parents try to prepare you as a child for such a thing? Were there conversations, exercises? How should one picture that?
Yes, as a child one was prepared at an early stage. I can remember well that there were a whole series of picture books, in which one found situations as they presented themselves later in the war. Burning houses for example. There were also games, dice games, which were already playfully introduced in kindergarten. I still have such a game in my work now in the Society of the Berlin Underworlds, with which we show our visitors how early one began in the ’30s to prepare children for such things. It was first and foremost fire precautions, to be afraid of fire, and also questions already of first aid. What do I do if someone is injured? Who do I have to tell?
Q: And in contrast, the reality. How did that look?
The reality was such that the terror and the powerful emergence of the war were not in sync with that which one had read or at least seen. On the contrary, the appearance in 1943 of such massive bombing attacks was a bone-crushing counterbalance to the preparation which one had begun so early.
Q: Can you describe that? What happened then when the alarm was activated?
When the alarm went off, one had to decide which shelter to make use of, if one wanted to go in the building in which one lived, in the so-called “splinter protection cellar” (as one could not even speak of “bomb-proof”), or if one sought refuge in a fortified concrete bunker, for example on Alexanderplatz and elsewhere. The most important thing was to reach the space. When that happened in residential buildings, one had to find the exit from the house the fastest way possible, from the third or fourth floor, without light. At the entrance below, one was already awaited by the air raid warden, whose shouting had a great impact on the people and who, with the lights out, hurried them along. Then one rushed into the cellar, or one had to go still further, and had to run to their respective bunker, like Alexanderplatz for example.
Q: And were there skirmishes, jostling, and panic then? Who can still come in, who can’t? Or how should one imagine that?
In the apartment building itself the situation was clear. It was more or less the same group of people who were received by the air raid warden and hurried along, so to speak. In the central shelters, however, the composition of the occupants was quite varied. In Alexanderplatz trains arrived with soldiers on leave from the front, who likewise left the trains and attempted to cross the square to reach the bunker. The example of Alexanderplatz demonstrated, however, that one can produce certain effects, such as panic, through structural measures. One did not have to negotiate any stairs in order to enter into the bunker. Rather, one affixed slides to such slopes. One ran downwards. For children it was to some degree even pleasant, in that they could run down such a ramp. Consequently there was little congestion in coming into these complexes. I still remember that clearly.
Q: Was fear noticeable, or was it disciplined?
I would make that dependent upon the year in which one experienced it. At the beginning of the war all of that turned out to be somewhat easier. I can remember precisely, in 1942 we had a relatively quiet year in Berlin. There are said to have been only nine bomb attacks, which is not many for the city. In this year there was complete steamboat traffic in the city. One could visit popular destinations for day-trips. My mother went with us to the Müggelsee and also the Spree baths. In other words, we still enjoyed the summer.
That changed abruptly after 1943. Behind every action which one undertook dominated the question, “Where is the next air raid shelter?” That was something which one could by no means forget. Parents didn’t let their children out of their sight.
Q: How long did it last? Did one perceive somewhat the attack itself? Did you perceive it when you were in the bunker?
Here, too, one must differentiate between the people who had to descend into the shelters of the residential buildings, which was the majority of the population. Here in Berlin the determination came about that it was approximately 80 percent that sought protection in the cellars of their buildings. Only 20 percent had the possibility to ride out the incident in a so-called shellproof concrete bunker. In these home air raid shelters the lights often gave out immediately upon bombardment, and that led to an outcry, particularly from the children. That was fear. Women were also often in over their heads in this situation. Reassuring words were offered by the air raid marshal, and the situation then often quieted itself. In the central bunker complexes one had little to fear along these lines. There, neither the noise of bombs nor other noises were as intensely perceptible as in the home air raid shelters. Directly on Alexanderplatz, I myself witnessed in 1943 impacts in the vicinity of this bunker complex which did not lead to the eruption of panic.
Q: The people were so accustomed to that? Or how must one envision it? Was that a fate to which one acquiesced? One tried to survive. How must one imagine the mindset of the people with regard to that?
The mindset of the people has to be viewed in various ways. Often there were women there, and I can remember such scenes myself, that the women sat in the cellar and had a letter, an official letter, and that they absolutely could not grasp that they had received a death notice from the front. These women were near despair. I still remember that, as the light became somewhat darker for whatever reason, a woman there attempted to slit her wrist. That was an act of desperation.
After 1945, as I rediscovered my former neighbors who had also survived the war, I learned of other things. For example, that in air raid shelters, even in home shelters which were in no way bomb-proof, national socialist songs were sung during the bombing. For example the Horst Wessel Song.
Q: How does one react as a child to the fact that a woman slits her wrists, or that you have to see mutilated, charred people? How did you react to that?
Yes, this question of the suicide attempt of this woman. That was actually new. That was horrifically new. That didn’t fit in the upbringing, in the entire mode of perception which one had picked up personally at home in the educational process. Perhaps a different example.
Once again to turn attention to the bombing on the night of November 23rd, 1943, as we left the bunker on Alexanderplatz after the approximately 40-minute assault, and we neared our apartment, we came to a corner house, which had been torn in half by the blasts. A so-called aerial mine had dissected the house. At this time, the new Friedrichsstrasse, into which we had to turn, was closed.
There were already hastily summoned OT-men — rescue workers of the Organization Todt, members of the armed forces — and above all firefighters on duty. They extracted people from a broad hole in the rubble and laid them out on the sidewalk, one by one. These people had no major injuries. But I saw quite clearly, because we couldn’t go down the street, that blood ran out of the corner of their mouths. Their lungs collapsed due to the air pressure of the extremely heavy bombs. They told us that later.
The firefighters talked with one another, and I was astonished when I saw that they had bottles of Schnapps. I discovered later that they gave out alcohol for such missions. I said then to my mother, who had not understood that, “Mom, the firefighters, they’re talking so funny. What kind of firefighters are they?” Then she briefly exchanged a few words with a fireman and smirked a bit, despite the situation, and said, “Manfred, the firefighters are from Leipzig. They’re Saxons.”
So as a child one registered attentively that even linguistically the rescue workers are of a different nature. In fact, in my research with reference to my activity in the Society of the Berlin Underworlds, I have found that 53% of the Leipzig firefighting units, the most hard-hitting units, were commandeered by Berlin in 1943 for the rescue of the imperial capital. This then, one year later, left residents of Leipzig bitterly infuriated.
Q: Once again the question, or perhaps then to put in more concrete terms, how can a child react to seeing these dead people lying there? Or was it simply a part of war which they recognized? They were of course aware that it was a war.
That these people were laid out side by side… they weren’t stacked up, and there were a few children as well… that was an extended topic of conversation in the following weeks, and personally, these images have always remained with me, how the children laid there and did not move.
Q: But did that fill you with panic?
No. I wouldn’t say panic. That provoked a certain respect and fear by all means, but not necessarily that it could have led to a catastrophe.
Q: Were there any explanations for it?
Yes. The explanations were more of the technical variety, shall we say: that it was due to the bombardment, and because of the explosions of these bombs. After this point, all of the occupants, even of the shelters in the residential buildings, were advised that they had to crouch down upon the impact of the first bombs, that the children had to hunker down and compress their chest cavity with their arms, and open their mouths wide. That was a reaction to the implementation of such super-bombs.
Q: When the door opened after the attack, how would you describe that? Apocalypse? Or what words are there to describe what one saw then, or how one perceived it as a child, when there were impacts in the area?
On the example of the events of November 1943, on November 18th, the first air attack more or less passed by Alexanderplatz, because due to its size all of Berlin could not be attacked by a bomber wing. It was attacked variably, precinct for precinct, according to the general staff. In this case, the momentum of the attack was divided amongst Reinigendorf, Kreuzberg and Lichtenberg.
As we could leave the complex, then naturally the first thing — one isn’t forewarned, one isn’t informed as to what awaits you outside — but as we exited and found Alexanderplatz in more or less the same condition as we had seen it when we ran down the steep slope into the depths of the shelter, the image was more or less a positive one. The second thing which was striking was always the glow of the fire. Particularly the fire over Lichtenberg and Kreuzberg. The sky was red and flickered with lavender tones. It is a play of color which one can never properly describe. It is terrifying. Bright, yet dark. Then one looks around to see if the path is clear, and one have only one wish practically, to come home quickly in order to see if everything is as one left it.
The second attack on the 22nd and 23rd saw the weight of the assault focused on the center, including Alexanderplatz. Streetcars were overturned. The contact wires of the streetcars lay in the street. One didn’t know at the time whether one could even cross the roadway. Is there still electricity in there or not? The people screamed, “Stop! Don’t go out! Be careful!” In other words it was chaos. The streets were full of debris. If the glass of the windowpanes had not already flown out, it lay on the street. Individual houses all around burned. That was an event where many people simply wandered in a certain direction without orientation, sometimes even towards a fire. They simply ran anywhere. My mother took hold of us and held on tight. We left a piece of luggage lying there. It was important to me that we not follow suit in fleeing in an arbitrary direction. Yes, that was a dire situation. Alexanderplatz was no longer recognizable.
Q: Describe that a bit more.
Bomb craters on the magnitude of 10 to 20 meters in diameter. Such deep holes were bored into the earth through the surface of the road. The facades of houses were literally shaved off by the shrapnel. Plaster, ornaments which were on the houses all around, all that lay on the ground below. Fire hoses which, for whatever reason, were still laid out from the 18th, had partially burst. Water ran everywhere. It was chaos. One could not readily cross the square. Either a streetcar lay askew, or there were contact wires, or there was rubble, debris and so forth on the street.
Q: Once again the question, how does a child react to that? Is it unreal at that moment, or is it very real?
As a child, I would say, one just huddled against someone, against adults. Small communities form when one is in such a bunker, even for a short period of time. You become friends very quickly with someone who shares the same fate as you, who has to bear the same burdens as you, because you know that it is better to be a group or a pair than to be alone. So it was that one often said, “We’ll go to your place first and take you there,” depending upon who was feeling better emotionally, in terms of morale. Only then did one go home. One made a small detour and first brought the woman who had three children and a small baby. Families were all bigger, the men weren’t at home, they were at war, and the families had three or four children. The woman also had a piece of luggage. One first delivered this woman to house number 68 for example, and then one went to one’s own apartment building and assessed the situation. It’s a small solidarity, one didn’t just call that a bunker community, but a solidarity among people. It developed spontaneously in such situations.
Q: Did the people conceive of that as a crime that was being perpetrated upon them, or did they see it as a part of the war?
That is a difficult question, how the people reacted in such a situation. Of course there were people who quite clearly repudiated the war, and also expressed that the war must be brought to an end. But everywhere you looked, even in these bunker complexes, there hung posters, proclamations, “Enemy, listen up!” This propaganda, which ultimately directly affected the people in such shelters, which was in plain view … there were enough informers, and enough examples have come to light, that people who spoke out spontaneously were picked up by the police, by the Gestapo, and that they were no longer in these shelters, that they were charged with being traitors to the Volk, among other things.
Q: You also experienced how enemies of the people, or alleged enemies of the people were treated. Can you explain that once again briefly, about the half-Jews, or those who were held to be half-Jews?
At the new Friedrichsstrasse 70 there was a respectable middle-class house. In the front of the house there were also several small business owners. It was a house which was highly esteemed so to speak. Extremely varied people lived in this house, but all were either employed or retired. The air raid marshal was a man who stood 100% on the side of the National Socialists, who could no longer be drafted into the Armed Forces due to his age, who always carried his air raid helmet with him, even beyond the event itself: Mr. Wernege. Already at that time the individual residents adopted a position against him. There was a saying at that time, an old German saying, “Give a German a function, and you won’t recognize him anymore.” That’s how Mr. Wernege behaved. It came about time and again that a child would violate the so-called blackout order, in that a small light would shine somewhere; a door was opened without the light inside having been extinguished first. Then he always roared immediately upwards through the house, “If that happens again, I’ll have to turn you in as a public enemy!” One was a public enemy in that instance.
In this house there lived a young theater director, whose ancestry was not 100% accounted for so to speak. He did not wear a yellow star, and as a result he was not viewed as a Jew. But Mr. Wernege had his information, and always gave the theater director a good talking to in the presence of all those in the shelter of the house, and informed him that he must verifiably demonstrate his credentials as an Aryan, because only Aryans belong in his air raid shelter. As a child that hurt me very much, because the theater director concerned himself with the children of the whole house and tried to raise their spirits in the terrible situation with little games. Of course as a theater director that is how he made his living. I never heard anything more about what became of this man.
There was another person who distributed the so-called ration cards. That was a person who had an important function in national socialist circles. With the ration card, one had control over the people. Who was held back in the city and who wasn’t. These cards weren’t handed out for a month, but for differing amounts of time. Sometimes for a week, sometimes for 12 days. Each time one had to check in with a clerk, Ms. Venske, and after that one received the ration card. My mother wanted to drive to Frankfurt am Oder with us children to see our grandparents, which was indeed encouraged by the government and the city administration, whoever was able should leave the city. Ms. Venske tried to prevent that by all means. She prohibited our departure several times by giving us the ration stamps one day later. She even said to my mother once, “Oh! You want to run away again and abandon the Fuehrer.” That’s the attitude that national socialists had toward others at that time.
Q: Was there hate toward the invaders? Did that break ground?
Of course there was hate toward the aggressors, particularly after 1943. I always have to mention that year, because the year 1943 took an intervening course in the question of the direction of the war. Not only had the bombers become stronger. The caliber of bombs and weapons had become stronger, and attempts to bring about destruction relied more heavily on incendiary bombs and fire than on explosive bombs of the traditional variety. These blazes also led to severe burns of people. I saw myself that people burned, and were covered with blankets and extinguished upon leaving the bunker on the way home, for example. This led to a situation where one was always prepared to believe that Germany could nevertheless win the war ultimately.
Q: So they bound together, as there was no alternative to perseverance, or how would you formulate that?
I would say, also from the perspective of my current experience, after one has not forgotten this whole thing so to speak and has reprocessed it, that the intensification of the bombing, which of course had the goal of weakening the morale of the German population, that these attacks, self-proclaimed by the British as terror attacks — I read that in directives, that is available to everyone today, one can look that up in any archive — did not lead to the destruction of morale, but rather precisely at this point the national socialist party, the NSDAP, approached the ordinary people and offered assistance, in that, after the bombing, they established emergency kitchens and saw about housing, so that the schism between the Volk, between the ordinary people, and the abhorrent national socialist fighters was not compounded.
Q: But were there expressions of hate, or of national socialist disposition toward the bombers?
Hatred toward the Allies from the populace, which expressed itself, as I later encountered, in the lynch mob of Rüsselsheim, I did not experience such incidents in my environment as a child here in Berlin. However, I did experience how, immediately following severe shelling, distraught people screamed, “This cursed war, when will this cursed war be over?” The so-called snitches and the absolute party supporters tolerated that in this situation, did not step in, and to put it simply, allowed nationalistic ideology to fade away.
Q: Did one differentiate between Britons and Americans? Between day and night attacks?
To answer that in one sentence, the Americans were given preference. That may be related to the fact that the British forces had been waging the war for longer, and only launched attacks at night. One had a different, more open-minded relationship with the American pilots than with the British. That fact demonstrated itself in 1945, as the American troops advanced into the area of Leipzig. After just a few days, the Americans threw chocolate to the children from their cars, and from the beginning it was a much different relationship than what had been expected.
Q: But the bombs which fell during the day could kill just as well as those which fell at night.
Of course. Purely judging by effect one can see no difference. On the contrary, it was the case that in the last months of the war there were violations by US forces, such as fighter planes in Brandenburg which shot farmers while they were tilling their fields. Bicyclists too were shot by fighter planes. Unfortunately there were such incidents. On the other hand, that was only a short period of time. The strategy of US forces was, from the very beginning, different and not so strongly oriented toward carpet bombing.
Q: That was already clear as a child?
That was clear to us even as children. That was clear as a child. The American forces, the bomber groups — I experienced them later in 1944-45 in the area of Leipzig — concentrated primarily on coal hydrogenation plants, in order to liquidate the fuel which was so important to the Wehrmacht. There were fewer terror attacks which were directed solely against the civilian population of the cities.
Q: Thank you very much.
I hope I have contributed a little.
Q: Yes, there aren’t many anymore who can relate that from personal experience.
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