Interview with Margarete Zettel
Q: How did you feel when the war began?
Zettel: We felt very sad and really afraid at the same time..., that the young people in the family would be called up, because in the First World War, my family lost quite a few people who fell in the war, and the things my mother told me, I knew that the war wasn't anything nice....
Q: Were you afraid of being bombed?
Zettel: I don't know exactly. Anyway one day we started to train these air shelter attendants and started making preparations. At the beginning when we hadn't had any experience [with] it -- the fear wasn't actually there, we were just worried about members of the family who had been called up, where they had been taken, and the fear of bombs didn't really start until we had had the first experience of it.
Q: How did the war affect your daily routine?
Zettel: It was disrupted, certainly disrupted, because what we thought was quite interesting to start with -- when the air sirens came and we were at school -- it was a very welcomed disruption because no bombs had dropped.... We were given ration books for food. That was really right at the start of the war. That was a change, and as I told you, we had air raid alarms. I was about 17, and we were quite pleased at school if lessons were disrupted or if we were doing a test, writing an exam, and we had a chance to cheat. But the first time we started to have black outs -- we had to black out the windows, couldn't put lights on, we couldn't listen to any jolly music, it was just classical music on the radio -- all the celebrations were stopped. No celebrations. That is what I can remember, as a kind of alteration.
Q: Why couldn't you listen to popular music?
Zettel: Because it was just prohibited. We weren't allowed to. At the beginning of the war we weren't supposed to listen to jolly music or light music, and all we had on the radio was classical music -- Wagner, Beethoven, Bach -- and everything else they gave us to understand that we were not to listen to it. We were supposed to think of the soldiers and the seriousness of the situation, and this could be expressed by classical music. After a short time it was slackened off a bit and we could hear jolly music on the radio, and we were allowed to celebrate, have parties, and that was obviously very important for us at that age.
Secretly we listened to swing and used to sing swing, "A Tisket a Tasket," the Andrew Sisters, "Tiger Rag" -- that was our favorite that we sang, but we just sang that to ourselves. But on the radio we had operettas, march music and just jolly kind of folk music, but we really preferred swing.
Q: You were able to listen to American music?
Zettel: Officially we weren't allowed to listen to foreign transmitters; we had to do that secretly as well, because we only had this Peoples' radio. It meant you had to look a long time to get British Broadcasting transmitter -- the English transmitter which put out news in German.... But this transmitter was always jammed and we had to do it secretly anyway.... We sang lots of folk songs, old folk songs, the lyrics were changed slightly by the Nazis.
Q: Did women join in the war effort?
Zettel: There were lots of women who went to factories to work -- food factories, ammunition factories... -- women who had grown-up children or women who weren't really fully employed, and they were told to go to work. And later it was completely different -- the women were actually called up for service. Older women, my mother had to work, everyone who was capable of work was called up for work service. There was no chance of not doing it.
Q: What kind of service did you do?
Zettel: When war started I was still at school, and I did my sort of A levels before the big attacks started, so I started to go to university. When I was still at school, we had to do...certain things. In the afternoons I had to do tram service -- two hours in the afternoon. We used to go as bell ringers, and we had to take the trams which were always over-crowded. And we had to push the people into the trams, stuff them in, and then ring the bell. In those days you had to ring the bell so the driver knew when to start, to go on.
At the beginning of the war my mother was able to stay at home, until this declaration of Total War was announced, and then she was also called up and she was forced to work at the main [railroad station] counter in Hamburg, to sell tickets.
Q: How did you hear about the declaration of Total War?
Zettel: All I can remember is that we listened to Goebbels' speech. He announced Total War, and all these speeches by Hitler and Goebbels, they were all announced on the radio and we were really forced to listen to them because they asked us at school. They asked us about these speeches, so we had to be informed. We didn't like listening to Hitler's speeches at all; he was too theatrical, he screamed, it was embarrassing. But Goebbels on the other hand, he had a very nicely organized speech. It was well worked out, and he was quite a good presenter until the moment when he too started to scream. There was always some point where he started. But it was quite interesting to listen to this speech even if you were not convinced of what he was saying.
When he declared Total War, we didn't really know what he was talking about -- as far as we were concerned it was total already. What could get more difficult for us, we didn't really know. We heard all this enthusiastic jubilation, everyone agreed with him, people who were listening to the speech directly there, but it was all very oppressing. "Total" was in my mind when my mother was called up, and we had to do more and more, and the young people had to do more and more kinds of service. I was in the P.D.M. and I was in the Red Cross, and we had to go to lessons more often during the week.
Q: Tell us about the first bombing attack.
Zettel: The first attack was very surprising. We got an air raid siren -- a warning, and I had to go to a big air raid bunker and help. On the way there, the bombs were already starting to drop, and the first phosphorous canisters were falling. All I can remember is that I ran until I got to the bunker.... When I arrived at the shelter there were about 40 or 50 people there, mainly women with children, old people, soldiers, some of them injured, and I should think about 10 children who had been to a circus that day, which was something quite rare because people were afraid of daylight attacks. And these children were telling me about the circus, and I kept asking them about the clown that they had seen. And meanwhile the bombs were dropping, and the children kept stopping and interrupting and listening to the noises, and I kept asking them what they had seen, what they liked best. Then we heard a bomb hit the house next door, which collapsed and blocked the door -- the exit to our shelter. And it took a long time before we were able to escape from the shelter.
Q: Describe the city after the attack.
Zettel: When we came out of the shelter, it was an inferno, pure chaos. There was an unbelievable storm, something you can't really imagine. All around there was fire, and the fire service was just driving past, no one came to the neighbouring houses, which we couldn't understand -- because they had to go to the hospitals and the waterworks, and all the things which were really important. The next thing we noticed was the disgusting smell. I still have it in my nostrils now. The neighbouring house was absolutely just a pile of rubble, people were buried there. Blood, mortar, everthing was burning. The mixture was absolutely gruesome. It took me a long, long time to get over that.
The first moment we went out, and then [we] went back and got all the people who couldn't walk properly -- we got them out of the shelter because we couldn't get rid of all the rubble. We had to clamber over it. And suddenly someone arrived who told us which way to go, not to walk into the fire storm, and after that we were able to move fairly well again. Then the first people came, a person in flames, I don't want to talk about it, just a burning torch. Then we looked around to see who could we help....
Funnily enough, it was one of Hitler's specialities -- he always got the right people, really good, well organized, so we knew where we had to go to, to take the injured people. It didn't take all that long before bags of straw arrived, and I kept asking myself how they managed to do it so quickly. People could just be put down because we didn't have any bandages. What we had in our bags wasn't enough by any means to treat these people, and this took quite a long time before everything arrived, and the main thing was to console people -- it was something very, very important.
Q: What did you do next?
Zettel: I passed the house, it was a low building, people were desperate to try and extinguish a fire and to get rid of rubble, because there were six children in there still. And I was on my own, on my way home, and I went right into the house, and I got babies, I carried babies out. I brought the last child out, thank God, and immediately the burning stairs behind me collapsed. I went home very quickly -- as quick as possible. I ran home.
My hair was burnt off, right up to the edge of the steel helmet I was wearing. And I had blood spilt all over my blouse, I was so dirty and the first thing that happened when I got home was a little girl came towards me from my neighbour's house and just jumped up at me, so pleased that I was still alive. And for me this was also a sign that my mother was all right too. She said to me, "You hardly smell!" It was so wonderful, so funny to hear this. It was something normal again, and then there was this joy of being home. Of course all the windows were broken, and lots of things were broken inside the flat, but the house was still standing.
We all stayed there -- we were glad to have somewhere to stay, that we had a roof over our heads, and we took in people who had lost everything or couldn't go home.... We had blankets and put them on the floor, and people slept.
Q: Describe the days after the attack.
Zettel: The days following the attack were very spooky. The sun never really managed through -- you just saw a huge red, fire-red ball.... There was the smoke and this horrible smell, the stench. There was this darkness everywhere; not like night time. You could walk down and see the houses, contours of the houses, but at the same time it was dark. It was very spooky. And you had such a very strange fear of the next, coming rains, fear was there from that point onwards, we felt fear.
...After the third attack, when we were just on the go day and night, we just slept on bags of straw in the street during the operations.... Several parts of Hamburg were evacuated, people were offered the opportunity,...they had the possibility to get out, and people [who] didn't have any relations here in Hamburg, they were quite pleased to get out and get a roof over their heads.
Q: What effect did the attacks have on the morale of the people?
Zettel: The people at the collection point..., they were injured, they were in pain, they were in despair; they were crying out for their families. They didn't know whether they had survived or not, or whether they were the only lucky ones, because all the people who had come out of the fire storm, they were in danger of being hit by falling debris -- not just the fire, because the fire came at a terrific speed -- but there were bombed houses which were falling over, so everyone was really just concerned with himself. It wasn't until they got to the collection points that the real fear and the real despair came out, and this caused the shouting for the families and things. It was a chaos of feelings and pain, spirtual and physical pain.
After these attacks what happened was that people were closer to each other, much more willing to help each other, more open to each other, but of course, we were broken at the same time. I can't say whether it was a complete success. The destruction was a success, that was the object of the war. The destruction and to break things and to make it difficult for people. This was a success. Resistance grew a little bit against the government, resistance against the government and Hitler, because people were saying, "What is going on, what is it all about, what is the sense of it all?" We never understood what the sense of it was. To a certain extent, the attackers did actually manage to achieve something. They made us very unsure, and they just broke us.
Q: What was your worst experience?
Zettel: A house right next to us was hit by a bomb, and we had to go there and clear the rubble. And there were a whole family dead. We just managed to get them out dead. Parents, grandparents, children, and a dead baby. It started to rain, and we put the corpses in a big cellar in a neighbouring house. There was a badly injured woman there as well. Then I was asked to go to this cellar to look, and the ones that we had presumed dead were still perhaps alive. I remember I couldn't let go of this dead baby. I didn't want to put him on the ground. I just kept carrying it round all the time and took it into this huge cellar like a catacomb. Two candles were there and about six dead people; a woman, a woman who was still alive, but her skull was damaged.
This was one of the worst experiences for me, and this was after the big attack. I sat there for hours and hours until someone got me out. Everyone was so excited, all the relatives of course, and there was this horrible stench, cement and blood, and it is still like that today. If I hear of attacks in Yugoslavia or in the Gulf War, I can still smell it. It's a kind of trauma for me. I shall never get rid of it.
Q: Tell us about the award you received.
Zettel: After the attack awards were given. But to be quite honest, we had seen very many operations performed by other people..., and I don't think we had the feeling that I really deserved this award of merit. And others told me this as well.... I got this award because people knew that I worked in a large air raid bunker.... I was awarded the War Cross of Honor, Third Class with Swords.... They just choose a few people who are perhaps a little bit conspicuous. And other people who have done an awful lot but didn't do it quite as conspicuously deserved it more or just as much as we did.
Q: Where did you find the courage to go on your rescue missions?
Zettel: Later on, after we had been invited to the award ceremony in Berlin, we had to give interviews, and I was always asked what kind of feelings I had at the time, and I said, "I can't describe it, I was like a different person, like a person next to myself. As if I didn't have a soul or a heart, I just had to do something and I just had to do my job." It is difficult to describe that -- it is just like a different person. The thing that you were afraid of oneself -- I just had to forget because you saw there were people who were much much worse off and that is why we were being sent there. We had been sent there to help....
Q: What did you think about the English who were bombing you?
Zettel: I don't know whether we were just generally annoyed with the English, of course, when the bombs were dropping..., but it was the war..., but it wasn't aimed at particular people.... We couldn't grasp it, we didn't understand it, that there were pilots dropping bombs on the civilian population -- until afterwards we realized that we had done it too. This was the war. It wasn't any specific hate directed towards the English -- not in my circle of friends or acquaintances.... We had never had anything like this before, attacks, war which was affecting the civilian population. In the First World War, we never had this.
Q: How did you feel when the war ended?
Zettel: Happy and thankful. I was having a child, I was pregnant. I used to lay in bed and pray it would finish, and when the English arrived, we didn't cheer them but we didn't hate them. We were just thankful that the bombing was stopping. We still hoped that people would return home -- soldiers and friends, relatives. We were thankful to our local leader who refused to defend Hamburg to the very end, although he knew that it would have been very bad for him under certain circumstances. That was the kind of thing that affected one.
When the English arrived, I didn't look out of the window when they came, but we were pleased they were there. Like the incidents that happened in the Russian zone -- we didn't see anything like that, everything was in an orderly manner. And then the hunger started. Hunger is something which is very terrible and demoralizing, but it is still better than the air attacks.
It was an inferno, pure chaos. There was an unbelievable storm.... The next thing we noticed was the disgusting smell. I still have it in my nostrils now..... Blood, mortar, everthing was burning. The mixture was absolutely gruesome.... I brought the last child out, thank God, and immediately the burning stairs behind me collapsed.... My hair was burnt off, right up to the edge of the steel helmet I was wearing.... They were in despair; they were crying out for their families.... It was a chaos of feelings and pain, spirtual and physical pain. Of course, we were broken....
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