“And even there — even in the midst of this inferno, those above us remained our liberators. Though it would have been a very tragic fate indeed to have been killed by our liberators! But the bombs couldn’t distinguish between the persecutors and the persecuted. We were simply lucky.”
Hitler first came to power in Germany when Ralph Giordano was 10; when he was 20, he survived the devastating attack that flattened Hamburg. Read about some of Giordano’s harrowing experiences as a half-Jewish German citizen who survived the bombing of Germany and went on to become an accomplished writer and producer.
This interview has been translated from its original German.
Q. So, Mr. Giordano, first of all I’d like to ask you to tell us: what was this Hamburg of the pre-war period like, where you grew up? What did you like about the city, what kind of a city was it? Could you describe it?
Hamburg was my nest. A wonderful childhood in the first ten years (I was born in 1923) until 1933. [It was] home, with a deep feeling of belonging. In this city, [I had] a carefree childhood. Until 1933, when Hitler came to power, and it soon became very clear to me that a new age had dawned.
The first difficult, internal injury did not come from the city, although the Gestapo was already there in May of 1933. The first difficult, internal injury came from a place where I expected it least: from my playmates with whom I had grown up in Hamburg-Barmbek. It’s over 70 years ago now, but it must have been a summer day in the year 1935: Hitler had already been in power two and a half years. My best friend, Heinemann, with whom (as I said) I had grown up, said to me: “Ale (I was called “Ale,” that was my nickname), Ale, we’re not going to play with you anymore — you are a Jew.” Still today, when I relate this story to you, cold shivers run down my back. Later I experienced horrible things under arrest by the Gestapo. But these words, “Ale, we’re not going to play with you anymore, you are a Jew” — that was a minute, a second even that I will never forget, even if I were to live to be 150 years old.
So, by 1945 (twelve years after that), every feeling of belonging had died. The isolation began immediately in 1933, with such experiences as the one I just described.
Q. Tell us a little about your family.
My father was a musician, and had a Sicilian father — my grandfather, Rocko Giordano. My mother was a piano teacher. They met each other at the conservatory, and it was, as much as I could tell as a child, a happy marriage. We — my brother Egel and I, and later Rocko, who came in 1930. My older brother Egel arrived in 1921 and I in 1923. We had a sheltered childhood, and then our life became, when I was 10, my older brother 11, and my younger brother barely 3… only then did I become aware that I had a Jewish mother. That simply hadn’t played a role at all before, but it began to shape our lives to an ever-increasing degree.
I had a classical high school education. On the first day we were divided between Aryans and non-Aryans, Jews and non-Jews. One can see just how much my brother and I were not aware of our standing by the way that we placed ourselves in the larger group of about 30 people, while the non-Aryans numbered about 6. In total ignorance of what was going on, we placed ourselves in the larger group. That afternoon, my mother and my father said to us: “You stood with the wrong group: you belong with the smaller one.” I didn’t sense then, and don’t have in my memory now, that my parents communicated any cause for anxiety when they told us that we belonged in that group. While I do not want to anticipate later events, it did do something to me.
But it certainly was censorship. I was 10 years old and sensed that something was being questioned here: something that had been self-evident before, namely how much we belonged. And that was an experience that impacted me from the outset. And to an ever increasing degree.
Then, when we were freed by the Eighth British Army of field marshal Montgomery, all ties to Germany had died. Since 1938 we had accustomed ourselves to speaking of “the Germans,” to whom we did not belong. In the war, we felt like part of the Allied Forces. [Sigh]
Q. This Hamburg was also a working class city: Ernst Thälmann and the Communists were strong in the 1920’s. How did that play itself out for you in the 1930’s? Was it a totally normal, national socialist city, with a community of people that cheered Hitler on? We know of pictures of an open car with Admiral Horthy in it and that drove through Hamburg while the people cheered. How did you experience that?
The area of Barmbek was primarily populated by workers. It was the largest district in the city. In my memory the number was 300,000 residents. And I remember the sea of flags before 1933: red flags, the three arrows of the SPD, we the Communists too, and then of course the swastika — at first only marginally, but then after the so-called takeover by Hitler the swastika arrived in a torrential flood.
And I think Hitler was very rapidly successful, as in all parts of Germany, at winning over the masses. Proletariat masses, too — indeed, one shouldn’t give in to illusions. I remember the example of a family with many children that lived above us at Hoflerstrasse 113. In 1930, 1931 and 1932 they hung the hammer and sickle and made themselves out to be Communists. Then suddenly after 1933, the swastika was hanging out in front of their place. I remember in 1934, my mother came into our apartment looking very pale and said the neighbor Mr. Finger (that was his name) had just written to a former comrade: “What! You still stand by the red flag! You are still in the Communist Party! We’ll take the [land] away from you.”
So I think what I’ve just related here is very symbolic, though for starters the Communists sacrificed the most. But the Germans at that time succumbed to the siren calls of the Nazis very quickly, and it was just as true in Hamburg-Barmbek where we lived. That means that maybe the resistance in the workers’ district was greater, or the compliance not so extensive. But on the whole I remember that, overall, the Germans at that time all fell like dominos. Something came out of the depths of German history that obliged them to prepare the way for the leader. I think it’s the sorest chapter of their history, along with the Nazi period. The way the people— what induced them frenetically to agree to a regime that left not even a shred of doubt as to its violence, frenetically to cheer on such an unappetizing figure as this Adolf Hitler… the telltale sights were all there — in film.
Q. But what do you think was the reason?
The reason is that Germans of that time had a long prior history as subjects, as people willing to serve, and so were internally predisposed to these authoritarian tones. The terrible thing that then became evident was that, when the murderer needed them, his henchmen were there. And I think that’s exactly the most important question to study: how it was that a people like the Germans — to whom I felt I belonged for the first 10 years of my life — could have such a massive deficit of humane orientation that they were willing, quite literally, to fight for their leader until five minutes after midnight.
And just how allied they were with the regime and its ideology is apparent, I think, only after 1945, 1949. What I mean is that 70 years have passed since the fall of the Third Reich, but we are still grappling with that period. In other words, we’re experiencing that our grappling with the Nazi period is lasting much longer than its actual historical existence. And that’s frightening. It was “only” 12 years — 12 years too many, of course — but given this short length, out of proportion with the extremes and counterforces of our current grappling with this period. Precisely this long era of examination and dispute shows how deep the readiness for this period was. And as the alert little boy that I was, I experienced the full impact of the fact that an entire people — no, that’s not right: not an entire people, but the majority — succumbed to violent ideas which led to crimes singular in the history of mankind, and that will probably remain singular.
In the microcosm of the district where I was born, the preconditions for this monstrous lack of humane orientation showed themselves in manifold ways. In this Germany, intoxicated with Hitler, a young person of my generation (born 1923, and so ten years old in 1933) had no other choice but to become a Nazi. It didn’t work any other way. There simply wasn’t an opportunity for internal resistance to the violent agitation and propaganda that was driven into these young people.
When no resistance was allowed in your parents’ home — and that was the case the majority of the time — then a young person couldn’t help but become infected with National Socialism. And so my criteria for judging other people are based largely on how old one was in 1933. As a result I have a much different sensation towards older people, who as a consequence of their age were responsible for what happened, than I do towards young people.
Q. How did you experience the militarization of Hamburg, of the society? And by that I mean the inner as well as outer militarization. Battleships were put to water, Blohm and Voss, etc. Could you describe this a bit from memory?
Well for starters, I think militarization was apparent to me in other young people, in my playmates. They became members of the German Youth, I think until 10 years of age, and then by 14 they were part of the Hitler-Youth. That was the case for almost all of my friends, though we of course (my brother and I) were not a part of that, as children of a Jewish mother. No, no, we understood that. One of my good friends who had remained my friend in spite of everything (and there were such friends) was first in the German Youth and then in the Hitler Youth.
Then Hitler in Hamburg. I remember that at my school we were required to cheer for him. I also remember that there were classmates from my school who defected (and my brother and I did too of course). I also see that it must have been battleships from Blohn and Vloss that were put to water. That Hitler came to Hamburg I can also remember — I even saw him in the flesh, so to speak. He was driving in a car at a great distance. I wasn’t standing in the front-most row, but I can see the cheering people quite clearly in my mind’s eye.
The alienation from my environment increased with every degree that this system won more followers, and I sensed very clearly that I was being isolated from my childhood. It’s a very clear feeling that I still have to this very day. I have the awareness of a deep feeling of belonging up until 1933 — 1934, and then the way that this belonging was annihilated and how I became estranged from myself, so to speak. It was a terrible process.
And the loss of belonging was an incisive experience in my life. It became possible only after liberation to experience belonging under different circumstances — under democratic circumstances — and just how deeply this process of alienation had penetrated became evident in how long it took me to stop speaking of “the Germans.” It took until 1987 for me to be able to give my book its name, The Second Guilt: On the Burden of Being German — that is, for this to be a title with moral and intellectual integrity, since I could not have given it that title if I didn’t feel that it applied to the author. And it did, eventually. But the book came out in 1987, as I said, 40 years after liberation. That’s how long it took.
Today I do have a sense of belonging, and since then, over the course of a long process, this feeling of belonging has even grown. But it is not self-evident, as it is for people whose belonging was never questioned; it isn’t self-evident today and it never will be. I no longer say “the Germans,” no, no; I feel bound to this home, to this difficult fatherland. But the experience, the pain, the humiliation, the indignity, and of course the physical agonies — the Gestapo treated me — and mistreated me — in such a way as I don’t even want to describe to you, since it would ruin your day. As far as it is and was possible, all of that has been processed and worked through. But the scars remain, and will be there even if I live to be 150 years old.
Q. You referred to the launch of a battleship. Were those important events that also made clear to you, as a young person, the militarization of Germany, the orientation towards militant action, if you could describe it? Was the city in state of emergency?
It was all very clear from the outside. The police developed a whole new appearance, the whole way they looked was different. Most Germans were raised in an authoritarian manner — not all, of course, but most of them — and that was true even in the working classes. And this was evident, as I said, in the outer appearance. This characteristic way of being of the military was clearly perceptible, tangible. Although always, in my case, with the feeling of standing outside it, because we simply didn’t belong. In 1938, the list of bans and rules for Jews had grown to over 100. Among them was the rule, from the Reich’s ministry of the economy, that Jews could only buy sewing things worth 20 Reichspfennigs every quarter year. You have to imagine that. My mother wasn’t allowed on the streets past 8:00pm, an occupational ban from the Reich’s cultural ministry for her as a piano teacher.
That means that what was happening, on the outside, was actually generally and subconsciously trending towards a conflict. Whereupon I don’t mean to say that the Germans of that time yearned for war. No, no. For that, 1914 and 1918 were still too fresh. Of course the armament and the accumulation of workers from off the street picked up. And, as is man’s nature, if he sees a stretch of disadvantages before him, then he’ll seize upon the tangible opportunity. In this manner many people thought: “Yes, yes, I’m building a canon along with them, and tank too, but at least I have work.” It’s an uncanny mechanism that took place there, and then paved the way for such violent regimes.
Q. But then it became even worse, since the Germans won. In Poland, France, the Soviet Union… and there was an exalted feeling that Hitler was the greatest.
I want to tell you something. I never believed in the triumph of Hitler’s Germany. Not for one second. And not even at the times of the highest triumphs. Germany conquered one weaker opponent after another: Poland was weaker, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway — all of them were weaker. Then came the Soviet Union, the assault on the Soviet Union on July 22, 1941.
And here, near the Karlstadt building, there was a large board in the shop window where the eastern front was being traced out. And that was sinister enough for those of us whose life was a race between the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” and the ultimate victory of the Allies. We had left the bird to the snake on the Eastern Front, what were they doing there? And then in 1941 it was “advance, advance, advance.” In 1942 the greatest expansion of power that Germany had ever recorded, all the way to the Caucasus and Grosky (Grosny in the modern Tschech Republic) — that’s half the distance between the eastern border of Germany and the western border of China — one can well ask what the Germans even wanted there, so far away from Stalingrad.
So. And in front of this map, there were always a lot of people gathered. Among them was Ralph Giordano, who was an apprentice in a railroad factory nearby here, and who numbered among those in the assemblage before this map. Quite frequently. And I heard of course the cheers for the victories, all the way to Moskow and Smolensk. I have such names in memory as Shitomer, Kiev, Viteps. And I still know exactly what I thought. This Germany, which was now so powerful as if it would stay that way forever, this Germany will go down — with man and steed and tank, smitten upon crown and limbs, and all of you will no longer understand. These cheering people who grew up with “nobody is stronger than Germany,” and of course full of racist disdain for the Eastern peoples like the Poles and the Russians. And I thought: how lucky that you all can’t read my thoughts, since if you could, you would take me away on the spot.
And this confidence that Hitler Germany would lose the war did not have rational roots at all. The conviction did not come from the fact that the Allies had more tanks, more planes, more gasoline, more armament, more battleships, more boots — rather, it was something more metaphysical. Evil would not win. That’s what lived in me. I was full of doubt that we would actually experience the downfall of this evil, but completely sure that Hitler’s Germany would eventually be destroyed.
Q. How did you experience the beginning of the war from the air? At first British cities were attacked by the Germans, and then the Brits attacked Berlin in 1940, but that escalated really quite slowly. Can you describe it? And did you already have the feeling that, 'Hmm, Hamburg: its turn will also come?’
One discovered what aerial warfare meant from the newsreel, and in particular aerial warfare carried out against the Allies — against England. That’s where one saw the smoking rubble and ruins and all the havoc that bombs could wreak. But at first Germany remained spared. My memory of the first bomb was (that must have been autumn of 1940) they fell quite close to us. We lived at the time in Hamburg-Barmbek, in the Hoflerstrasse 113, and they fell not even 150 meters right next to a gas station. Thank God no fire ever broke out. My brother and I, we lay in bed! My mother always went downstairs into the air-raid shelter. I wonder whether the neighbors had a problem with that or not, since if they had had a problem with it, then my mother and we would not have been allowed into the shelter — that happened elsewhere, but it did not happen to us. That must be said in favor of our fellow tenants.
So we lay in bed, and one can tell from this that we had no idea of what could actually happen here in Germany. I only remember that I had gotten up and looked out the window, and then often saw (not just once) how a bomb of the Royal Airforce would be illuminated by the cone of light from the search lamps, and my heart trembled on one side that nothing would happen — because those above in the planes were our liberators, and they remained our liberators. I won’t tell you of all the atrocities that I experienced during these air raids. But those were our liberators and above all I thought, “come down from there, take us with you, free us from this fear of a violent death that was possible at any moment, come down.”
Q. But you surely didn’t have any idea of what would happen next.
No, we didn’t. In the year 1941 Hamburg was attacked more frequently, but nothing actually happened that was really terrible. That only changed, not with Operation Gomorrah, but rather one year before. On the 26th to the 27th of July there was an attack that made aerial warfare very clear to us. That was a heavy attack. I remember how the women screamed, even a neighbor woman whom I knew as a strong woman, who said “I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!” because the bombs fell down without interruption, the light quivered in the air-raid shelter, and because it was clear that aerial warfare had reached Germany. That was a deep-rooted experience that reached its high-point one year later [with Operation Gemmorah.]
Q. Did you hear at the time that at the beginning of 1942, Lübeck was attacked and the old town burned? Did you hear that, and did you also hear that the so-called exile community — like Thomas Mann — welcomed that? You probably also welcomed that, but do you know what there was to discover at this time?
Well, the uncanny thing is that Lübeck had been attacked and that was, of course, mentioned, even in the Armed Forces’ report, and with all the usual verbiage that above all things like hospitals and schools had been bombed (while of course this kind of bombing accuracy just didn’t exist then, as it does today). But for example we didn’t hear of the thousand-bomb attack on Köln. That must have been 1942, I guess in spring, and today we know what kind of havoc that attack wreaked. But the other Germany did not get to receive that information. And Lübeck was of course very close to Hamburg, although of course there were no pictures of it. So that means — and I’ve considered if what I say is true. When it hit Hamburg, we were actually unprepared for it, in spite of this heavy attack one year earlier. This means that the Nazis masterfully understood that they needed to keep the damage a secret, and prevent people from wondering whether it could hit them too. This is something I’ve thought about many times: how is it that we didn’t know what was happening in Köln? Köln was the city most attacked, 270 attacks, since it simply was the closest metropolis.
Q. How did the people react? You mention this large attack one year earlier. Was the hate tangible, the terror, pilots, and as far as language is concerned, how was that absorbed by the community, so to speak?
Well I think the overwhelming majority of Germans had not conceived — in contrast to us — these bombs and these bombers as liberators, which is not so incomprehensible, but hate? I don’t know whether this definition applies. Fear, sure, I think, yes. But hate? That might have changed in the course of all the years of bombing by armadas that flew over Germany, and bombed one city out after another, but at the time I sensed nothing of it.
Q. Summer 1943.
Let me say something about it. One summer evening, the 24th of July, 1943, the day of the first attacks, I was working on my Hamburg family novel, The Bertinis, that would come out in 1982. I had the idea to use my own life as the raw material for a novel in January of 1942, in other words three years before liberation and of course without knowing whether we would be freed. And I worked in the living room alone on my notes, my manuscript.
Slightly before 12:00 the sirens went off. And we went, as always since the first heavy attack one year before, into the cellar — and it was clear actually within only a few minutes that something was happening, something that overshadowed everything that had happened before, even the night of the 26th and 27th. It was as if the people were paralyzed. Nothing moved and everyone thought that it was “lights out” for him or her in a matter of seconds. The bombs howled down, and there was a gruesome noise. If you heard the noise, then that meant that the bomb was hitting someone else; the bombs that hit you were the ones you didn’t hear ahead of time.
It continued without interruption. When at 2:00am I climbed out of the basement and into the street, the linden trees that lined the street — big trees that reached as high as the fourth floor, 17 to 18 meters high — they were bending towards the south, because the oxygen had been so depleted by the fire. The fire was so strong that these great trees were bending in this direction. Innenstadt and St. Pauli were hit, Barmbek not. I remember that exactly, as well as a rustling in the air, a totally uncanny sound.
So. Then midday on the 25th of July, the Americans came, and pelted the harbor. But above Hamburg — it was July, it was hot — already after the first attack, one could see the sun only as if it were behind a veil. The second attack, the “Night of Phosphor” from the 27th to the 28th, was once again a monstrous load of bombs, but above all, phosphor was dropped, which of course we sensed from kilometers away. Everyone thought that at any moment it could hit him or herself. But that was not the case. Then after the attack I went outside, and the whole horizon was like one glowing ember, and the trees were bent over — these strong lindens! Bent over like this, such that branches broke off, from the oxygen, like this, and then flew around, so that we had to run for cover since we could have gotten hit by the trees. So one really knew that Hamburg was the intended target, and that this will not be the last attack.
And then came the night from the 29th to the 30th of July, a Thursday to a Friday, when it was Barmbek’s turn. I have often depicted this, also in my Hamburg family novel The Bertinis, all from my memory of it. But it strikes me as difficult to speak of it, because I ask myself today in astonishment how it was that we were able to come out of it alive. After two minutes it was clear that Barmbek was the intended target. Everything was crackling — the fire crackled — and we were together, my parents, three brothers, and my grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side. Within a short time the smell of burning was so strong that one had to leave the basement. To make a long story short: it was burning all around, an inferno like no human imagination could picture, everything was ablaze, and constantly the bombs came down and we had only one idea: to get to the extinguisher tank, the so-called sandbox in which I had played as a child, but it too was burning with phosphor and so we couldn’t go into it. So we tried instead to reach the edge of the city park. And from our apartment that meant a distance of about one kilometer. The city was starting to wear down, there were lights — it was an open area, and we tried to escape this inferno. It actually took four hours for us — crawling across the ground on our bellies — to get out of this hellish scenario.
And I’ll never forget: there’s this elevated railway bridge to the forest villages, and in front of it was a bombed-out pit that was filling fast with water, and my grandmother (who already at that time was an old woman) fell into it and would have drowned, but my father and I pulled her out. Then she lay on the ground, and just at that moment a tongue of fire shot out of the burning street, from the other side, and pushed my grandmother over. Her hair was completely gone, though her skin wasn’t bleeding from the fire — but all her hair was gone, without the flames having touched her skin [laughs], it was really unbelievable. Then we reached the edge of the city park as the “all-clear” signal came, and it was obvious to us that we had been bombed out.
But we had, unbelievably, survived this third heavy assault of the Operation Gomorrah. There was then also a fourth at the beginning of August, which was scattered by a thunder storm, and then the loads were dropped once again with appalling consequences all around Hamburg. My later wife came from an area that was especially badly hit then. Yes, but we had survived. And even there — even in the midst of this inferno, those above us remained our liberators. Though it would have been a very tragic fate indeed to have been killed by our liberators! But the bombs couldn’t distinguish between the persecutors and the persecuted. We were simply lucky. If the English pilot had, instead of pressing it like this, just pressed it like that, then they would have swept us away, but were alive. In all other ways like so many other people who didn’t survive, except that we were alive.
Q. How did the people react to the first attack? How did people find out that Altona and St. Pauli had been attacked? You’ve also told a story of a man and a wheelbarrow. Could you tell that again? In short, how did people react?
I remember around noon on the 25th of July, so after the first attack, many people were moving out of the south of Hamburg through Barmbek, in order to leave the city. Among them was a man with a wheelbarrow, which he wasn’t using for water. That is how I remember it. And in his wheelbarrow there was something lying there, covered, and I don’t remember today whether he showed me or told me this, but at any rate — it was his wife, who was half burned, and who was running out of Hamburg. Any I myself could not imagine being in this situation, or a similar one — being bombed out. And that means that one really has to experience an event the hard way in order to be able to imagine it. Two days later, I got my chance.
Q. Did the people respond with a lack of comprehension, or with chaos, with panic? How should one imagine that? They weren’t allowed to leave the city.
Every notion was invalidated. What had come over Hamburg and over many German cities was, in the history of war, something completely singular up until that point. You couldn’t think it up beforehand, and I think that most people were shocked to the point of being without feeling. How else should one react to this universe of fire that was released there. My father and I — I still don’t know why to this day — we were, one or two days later (I think it was Monday by then, and not already Sunday) in the city, here in Gänsemarkt, again I don’t know why, but we learned of what had happened even before it got to Barmbek. And it was a feeling as if a movie were showing before my eyes, something that I experience even now as if I were on the outside — in other words, that one’s own imaginative world does not suffice to involve oneself in these happenings.
And I remember that my father — when we had arrived at the edge of the city park at the break of dawn on the 30th of July after the third heavy attack — my father came back with the news: the house at Hoflerstraße 113, where we had lived for 20 years, is gone, is no longer there, like the entire district. And it didn’t shock me. It didn’t shake me at all — the fact that one had just survived was so unbelievable, that everything else stepped way, way back.
No, the people were shocked, they stood under shock in a literal and a figurative sense. It was also something that even the strongest imagination could not paint for oneself. In this situation a person got into an internal emergency situation, in which he first of all tried to shut everything out of his consciousness except for the fact that he had survived. And then, of course, then the fear that the next time, it would get hold of you yourself. After all it had cost 500,000 lives, and that’s not even taking into account the maimed and the injured. In other words, the war of bombs against Hitler’s Germany had traumatized the entire country.
Q. If you could try once again to describe this chaos, in which you moved almost like an animal — in these hours while the dead lay on the street — how should one imagine this? You’ve said that you yourself saw the fate of others as if in a movie. But what was your movie, then, so to speak?
We ourselves were our own film. One simply didn’t have the opportunity to care for others. Quite literally we made the passage from our house to the edge of the city park crawling on our knees or lying on our stomach like a snake — we couldn’t stand upright, that wasn’t possible — and meanwhile constantly surrounded by a horrible uproar. Imagine: bombs that way tons exploding around you, an entire district in flames, that had been unthinkable before.
And then, when we came to ourselves around noon, we were standing at the edge of the city part and had only a distant likeness to the other people there, as you can imagine. The first question was: where do we go now? We decided to go to the mother of my father, who lived on Romanstraße, and had to pass through districts that had been hit but not flattened, not obliterated, like in the southeast of Hamburg. And we passed by my school, where I had gone for years, and it was burning. That was in Winderhude. We passed by the a large front of row houses, and my mother screamed “It’s going to collapse! It’s going to collapse!” and she ran, and then fell down. Of course there were people around us with similar fates, but one was completely busy with oneself. Next we got to the apartment of my grandmother at Romanstraße 31, which was undamaged and would have been a good lodging place since we had no other one.
But the lodger [or: tenant] who lived with my grandmother — a man with whom we had gotten along well until then — said, “This is out of the question, you can’t move in here with five people,” (admittedly it was a small apartment) “if you aren’t gone within a half hour I’m calling the Gestapo.” Well, I fell into a hysterical crying fit, and when my mother saw me, she lost her ability to speak and move. We always believed that my mother was the rock of the family (and we all saw it that way — my father, my brothers and I): my mother was the foundation. But now I realized that my mother relied on me, and if I were weak, so to would she be. In this second, as she lay speechless and unmoving, it was clear to me: “Ale, you have the responsibility now.”
Q. This was already by day — or was there even a day, a difference between day and night?
Well the sun was totally clouded over. The sun was like an evil eye. The sky over Hamburg was sulphurous, truly like Hell. And we set off, then, to the harbor, and on our way on the Grindellallee a massive façade was burning, and my mother said again, as she did earlier in front of my school, “Come on, let’s run away fast, fast! It’s going to collapse!” We did that, and in that moment the wall really did collapse, and my younger borhter Rocko (he was the youngest) — covered in dust — came uninjured from what was like a chamber of haze and dust. Countless times I’ve thought to myself: if we had just lingered for only a few more seconds, because, say, a shoelace had gotten untied and we were bent over with it, and we had stayed standing there for just a little longer, we would have been struck dead. Well, that was the beginning of an odyssey that can’t interest us here. At any rate the aerial war remained an experience that accompanied us until the end of the war.
Q. Did one distinguish between Brits and Americans at the time?
No, at the time one didn’t know that. You figured that out later. The Americans specialized in attacks by day, and the Royal Air Force specialized in attacks by night. That continued to be the case until Dresden. Dresden was bombed by the Royal Air Force and not by the Americans.
Q. But the people did not distinguish between them.
No, no, no. Although I think that the German Armed Forces’ report did distinguish between American organizations and English organizations, it could well be. I don’t think that this distinction was something that people generally knew about.
Q. If you could describe this city, this Hamburg. We started to talk about it, like the fact that when you were a child, it was home to you. What was left of this home from your childhood?
Let me tell you what I experienced, immediately after liberation on May 4th, 1945 by the eighth British army. I thought — after I had looked around Hamburg for myself — we had gone to the Town Major, my brother and I, with a report of what we had been through, here at the corner of the Neuer Jungfernstieg. And I thought to myself: even in a hundred years, this city will look like it does now. Nobody will pick up this rubble. Which of course was wrong, since within 10 years the rubble had been swept away. And of course enormous repressed and sublimated energies went into that reconstruction. The rapid pace of rebuilding, the Economic Miracle — everything was thanks to the fact that the Germans of the time totally repressed the period of National Socialism, or at least the majority did. But that Hamburg looked proportionately different, no, I didn’t think that. Although someone who had an idea of how the city looked before, if he for example came to Hamburg via the south over the Elbrücken, then — if he came in the night of the 27th to the 28th of July, 1943 — the burned out southeast of Hamburg still seems like a single large scar to me. Because these quarters, these districts — Hammerbrook, Rothenburgsort, Billstedt — were literally obliterated. What Hitler threatened would happen to English cities and which was realized in part, had also hit Germany. And then of course I saw, I experienced, how the city slowly but still in many ways impressively was lifted up again.
I can only say this: Hamburg is the most beautiful city in the world, which I say not because I was born here, but rather just because it is. As a television man, I’ve been to 38 countries — in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and I’m familiar with all the big cities. But Hamburg is something incomparable, even just because of its topography. The Lower Elbe is four kilometers across — I’ve lived for a long time in Köln, and in contrast the Rhein looks like a trickle!
Q. Would you say it was a legitimate goal to attack Hamburg? If we could come to this debate. Should one have — was it justified or not — to set fire to the working class part of the city. That was, after all, not a coincidence, but planned.
Well the Germans are world champions at feeling like victims. They were the ones who caused the greatest numbers of victims to other peoples. In other words, this universe of murder in Germany-occupied Europe is something that arose out of Germany, and it is much discussed whether the aerial warfare was a war crime. I can only say one thing to that: the ones first and foremost responsible for every civilian and military death and injury of the second World War are those who started it in the first place. Hitler and the national collective of his hangers-on (not Hitler alone — he would have been a semicolon in the history books, had it not been for his supporters.)
This aerial warfare — sure, one can ask whether it could have been carried out somewhere else, that’s legitimate. But even if I seem cold saying this, the aerial war (which, by the way, had demanded 500,000 deaths from the English and Americans) was something that was right, yes it was right that this war was carried out. Even if I seem cold… I saw countless dead, burned people… people who had been burned and baked together like a piece of bread, so small… yet it was still right, if only that I am now sitting before you today, that too, thanks to the Anglo-American air force. My family won the race between the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” and the final victory of the Allies only by the width of a hair.
Q. When my mother was supposed to be deported, we went underground (I had prepared everything), and we held out under Dante-esque conditions until May 4th, 1945. The aerial warfare had clearly shortened the war. And our life was a matter of a few days. If the 8th British army had come one week later, we would have died of hunger in our rat-infested, damp cellar, because we had been cut off in the last few weeks from the supply of foodstuffs.
I can only be grateful to the men of the American air fleet. Just as I am thankful to every Allied soldier — and clearly also to the Red Army — and will forever be grateful. They were chosen (so it seemed to me then) and caused these terrible victims in order to liberate us. To liberate us from the fear of a violent death that was possible at any moment. Not the streets or bridges — that was Hitler. But rather because we were in the world, and our crime was our biological, our physical existence [of being Jewish]. Well, when I now see the movies about the invasion, and see the way they depict Omaha Beach — the way the nurses fell… then I can only cry, because they were chosen to liberate us.
Q. Is it symbolically meaningful to you that the pictures of the Moorweide, where those who had been bombed out sat, was also the point at which the deportees gathered? Does that impress you?
Of course there’s a causal connection between the Holocaust and aerial warfare, and with the war altogether. I want to tell you something. My mother was supposed to be deported on the morning of February 14th, 1945, after 12 terrible years. That was the night before Dresden was annihilated in the night. I see a causal connection there. One can realize things.
On February 14th, 1945, the Allied armies had already come onto German soil in the east and the west. Nothing worked anymore — there was panic, chaos, and the end of war in sight… only Eichmann’s deportation machine still worked. And this transport, the same one my mother was supposed to be on, was going to the city of Dresden. That means: I see a causal connection between the downfall of Dresden and the fact that Eichmann’s deportation machine worked in the Holocaust right up until the last minute of this so-called third empire.
Q. Some people say that these last bombing raids, which were meant for all the other cities that hadn’t been destroyed yet or at least attacked — that they had the character of punishment.
Nonsense. Of course one can ask oneself if they were necessary. But this all boils down to the fact that the Germans want to be spared, forgiven. And why? They unleashed this universe of murder over Germany-occupied Europe. They helped to commit this breach in civilization. What’s the difference between a city that is destroyed by air, and a city that is paralyzed by war on the ground, by artillery? During the night in which Dresden burned, with 25,000 to 30,000 deaths — terrible, but the same fate met hundreds of other small towns through the war on the ground. What’s the difference? I mean, if it’s said that Dresden wasn’t necessary, you can still say, even if Dresden did not have strategic meaningfulness, well — this thesis of debating is characteristic of a certain species of German. These people want to suppress the numbers of the Holocaust victims, and raise the numbers of those killed by aerial warfare. It’s one and the same species of German that wants both of these things. No, I think the air raids had a hand in the fact that I am sitting here before you today, and that many thousands, hundreds of thousands of concentration camp inmates could also be liberated.
But in one thing, Bomber Harris — and that’s a curse word in Germany — was wrong. He thought that he could get the Germans to turn against Hitler, and I do believe that this was a psychological goal of the air warfare. But he was wrong, that Bomber Harris. Hitler could do what he wanted with the Germany of that time. Even the inferno of the bombings did not persuade the Germans to lean harder against their own internal enemy, and to conquer him from the inside out. Those who wanted that, as we know today, were a little tiny sheep, and it was characteristic of the men of July 20th, 1944 that they did not know how the majority of Germans would behave if the assassination succeeded.
Q. Did you hear that the Party was constantly on the go, and that they brought relief packages of provisions that possibly contributed to the fact that the people were able to hold out?
Without a doubt. I can think of my own example. We came down into a little village in the middle of Germany, a village of about 500 people, Bösdorf, near Übersfelde — and it worked. The mayor wasn’t happy that we had arrived, especially after my father explained to him what demon’s children we were, and then he gabbed something about the World Jewry — but he liked the groceries, the provisions, and everything worked out. Without a doubt that contributed to the fact that everything didn’t get off track. The bureaucracy functioned until the very last minute. And we got money, it was being disbursed to people. The money of course wasn’t worth anything, but still. With the basic provisions of groceries, one could get along.
Q. The catastrophe of Hamburg actually only spread through rumors in Germany. You went somewhere else — how did people react to the stories, or was there even an exchange of information that the official party press and radio naturally wouldn’t have given?
Well, Hamburg had passed into a new era of aerial warfare, so that at first the readiness of the people to take in those who had been bombed out into their homes was great — these people were after all distributed throughout all of Germany. At first the readiness to help was large, and we also experienced that in the little village. And I believe it was also that way in other places, or at least at the beginning.
Whether or not that remained the case at a later point, when those bombed out numbered into the hundreds of thousands, I’m tempted to say is doubtful. Today we also know how these displaced persons were treated by the native population. This is a frequently suppressed chapter. In Bavaria, Americans forced Germans at gunpoint to take on other German lodgers, whereupon one has to say that of course nobody likes it when other people intrude upon one’s private space. But when conditions are as they were… I think that there were many tragic cases, and some people asked themselves: “Where is this folk community that was talked about to no end?”
Q. Describe Sodom and Gomorrah.
Today some people ask, “Operation Gomorrah, what is that, where did that come from?” Educated people have a weak idea of Sodom and Gomorrah from the Bible. Now that I’m asked what I have to say about it, I have to admit — and not without trepidation and apprehension — that I don’t know the Bible that well. I only know that the residents, the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah supposedly sinned, and that’s where I become skeptical. Because it that’s true, then that means that they were justifiably punished. And if one carries the analogy over to the attack on Hamburg, well, I wouldn’t go so far.
That this inferno passed over Hamburg has other roots than that God is punishing the people because of their sins. I don’t know whether it was such a happy idea to give this name to the attacks. The reasons that 40,000 people had to die here are very different. Simply put, because many adults among them had become participants in their own fate. One can’t forget that. And with all sympathy, all the mourning, one must never forget the children. Children are always innocent. And the ones responsible for these burned, innocent children are: first of all Hitler, but then the collective of his supporters. And let us never forget not to name Hitler alone, but rather first of all his following, which made possible everything that came over Germany, and over the world.
Q. When you, with your present 86 years of life, look back at yourself as a 20-year-old, back then in 1943 in the summer, what do you see?
In my memories, The Memories of One Who Came from There, I say: over the course of a long, long life, the ego changes to the point of being unrecognizable to oneself. In other words, people transform, without that meaning that certain segments and elements of the ego can’t remain the same. I believe — without wanting to draw the suspicion of immodesty — that characteristic of me and my life is that, when I see weaker people, then I always stand by their side. Maybe that’s because I was once weak myself, and it was important that somebody stood by me. But when I see that somebody must be helped, then I’m there, and it doesn’t matter what risks are associated with that. It just doesn’t work any other way — I can’t do it any other way. And that has remained.
Otherwise there are of course many things that one smiles about, and things that one did oneself that are abhorrent to remember. But all in all, I can only say that — at the cost of the fallen and the dead of the second World War — a life has been bestowed upon me that in the end I can only be happy about. The creative spinning top that turns in me could only have extended itself under the condition of a democratic republic, a democratic, constitutional state, and with the highest of consequences. I’ve made 100 movies for television, I’ve visited 38 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, I’ve written 19 books — and I could always say everything and write everything that I wanted. I have never been censored.
I’ve been able to experience the pure joy of my creative powers, and my life has progressed in such a way that I can only say (in spite of everything that remains scarred, or hasn’t yet scarred over) that my story is a success, and that makes me happy. And many people envy me above all — even when they are 20 years younger — that the hair on my head stayed, which was obvious to me my whole life, but turns out not to be so obvious when you turn 70, 75, 80, 84. So I’ve been proven right about this, too. But above all, there’s one thing I haven’t lost: I haven’t lost my humor. Once someone has lost that, and the ability to be happy and to smile — then, in spite of everything that was, one is truly lost. And I never wanted to be that. And I never want to be that, all the way to my — hopefully still distant — end.
My American Experience
Were you there for the storming of Normandy beach? The Bombing of Germany? The Victory in the Pacific? Or perhaps your friends and relatives have passed on stories of their own World War II experiences that you would like to share.