Military history

Chapter 2
 
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TO THE DANGERS that threatened them, Berliners reacted each in his own way. Some stubbornly disregarded the peril, hoping it would go away. Some courted it. Others reacted with anger or fear—and some, with the grim logic of those whose backs are to the wall, prepared bravely to meet their fate head on.

In the southwestern district of Zehlendorf, milkman Richard Poganowska was, as usual, up with the dawn. In years past his daily routine had often seemed monotonous. Now he was grateful for it. He worked for the 300-year-old Domäne Dahlem farm in Zehlendorf’s fashionable suburb of Dahlem, only a few miles from the center of the huge capital. In any other city the dairy’s location would have been considered an oddity, but not in Berlin. One fifth of the city’s total area lay in parks and woodlands, alonglakes, canals and streams. Still, Poganowska, like many other Domäne employees, wished the farm were somewhere else—far outside the city, away from the danger and the constant bombing.

Poganowska, his wife Lisbeth and their three children had spent the night once again in the cellar of the main building on the Königin-Luise Strasse. Sleep had been almost impossible because of the hammering of anti-aircraft guns and the bursting of bombs. Like everyone else in Berlin, the big 39-year-old milkman was constantly tired these days.

He had no idea where bombs had dropped during the night, but he knew none had fallen near the Domäne’s big cow barns. The precious milk herd was safe. Nothing seemed to bother those two hundred cows. Amid the explosion of bombs and the thunder of anti-aircraft fire, they stood patiently, placidly chewing their cuds, and in some miraculous way they continued to produce milk. It never ceased to amaze Poganowska.

Sleepily, he loaded the ancient brown milk wagon and its trailer, hitched up his two horses, the fox-colored Lisa and Hans, and, with his gray spitz dog Poldi on the seat beside him, set out on his rounds. Rattling across the courtyard cobblestones he turned right on Pacelli Allee and headed north in the direction of Schmargendorf. It was 6 A.M. It would be nine at night before he finished.

Worn out, aching for sleep, Poganowska still had not lost his cheerfully gruff manner. He had become a kind of morale-builder for his 1,200 customers. His route lay on the fringes of three major districts: Zehlendorf, Schöneberg and Wilmersdorf. All three had been badly bombed; Schöneberg and Wilmersdorf, lying closest to the center of the city, were almost obliterated. In Wilmersdorf alone, more than 36,000 dwellings were destroyed, and almost half of the 340,000 people in the two districts had been left homeless. Under the circumstances, a cheerful face was a rare and welcome sight.

Even at this early hour, Poganowska found people waiting for him at each intersection. There were queues everywhere these days—for the butcher, the baker, even for water when the mains were hit. Despite the lines of customers, Poganowska rang a large cowbell, announcing his arrival. He had begun the practice early in the year when the increase in daylight raids made it impossible for him to deliver door-to-door. To his customers the bell, like Poganowska himself, had become something of a symbol.

This morning was no different. Poganowska greeted his customers and doled out their rationed quantities of milk and dairy products. He had been acquainted with some of these people for nearly a decade and they knew he could be counted on for a little extra now and then. By juggling the ration cards, Poganowska could usually produce a little more milk or cream for special occasions like christenings or weddings. To be sure, it was illegal and therefore risky—but all Berliners had to face risks these days.

More and more, Poganowska’s customers seemed tired, tense and preoccupied. Few people talked about the war any more. Nobody knew what was going on, and nobody could have done anything about it in any case. Besides, there were enough armchair generals. Poganowska did not invite discussions of the news. By submerging himself in his fifteen-hour daily routine and refusing to think about the war, he, like thousands of other Berliners, had almost immunized himself against it.

Each day now Poganowska watched for certain signs that helped keep him from losing heart. For one thing the roads were still open. There were no roadblocks or tank traps on the main streets, no artillery pieces or dug-in tanks, no soldiers manning key positions. There was nothing to indicate that the authorities feared a Russian attack, or that Berlin was threatened with siege.

There was one other small but significant clue. Every morning as Poganowska drove through the sub-district of Friedenau, where some of his more prominent customers lived, he glanced at the home of a well-known Nazi, an important official in the Berlin postal department. Through the open living-room windows he could see the big portrait in its massive frame. The garish painting of Adolf Hitler, features boldly arrogant, was still there. Poganowska knew the ways of the Third Reich’s bureaucrats; if thesituation were really critical, that shrine to the Führer would have disappeared by now.

He clucked softly to the horses and continued on his route. Despite everything he could see no real reason to be unduly alarmed.

No part of the city had been completely spared from the bombing, but Spandau, Berlin’s second largest and most western district had escaped the kind of attack everyone feared most : saturation bombing. Night after night the inhabitants expected the blow. They were amazed that it had not come, for Spandau was the center of Berlin’s vast armament industry.

In contrast to districts in the very heart of the city that had suffered 50 to 75 per cent destruction, Spandau had lost only 10 per cent of its buildings. Although this meant that more than one thousand houses were either destroyed or unusable, by the standards of raid-toughened Berliners that was a mere flea bite. A caustic remark was current in the bomb-blackened wastelands of the central districts: “Die Spandauer Zwerge kommen zuletzt in die Särge,”—The little Spandauites are last to reach their coffins.

On Spandau’s westernmost fringe, in the quiet, pastoral subdistrict of Staaken, Robert and Ingeborg Kolb were more than grateful to live in a kind of backwater. The only bombs that had fallen even close were those that missed the nearby airfield—and the damage was slight. Their two-story orange and brown stucco home, with its glass-enclosed veranda and its surrounding lawn and garden, remained unharmed. Life went on almost normally —except that Robert, the 54-year-old technical director of a printing plant, was finding the daily trip to his job in the city’s center increasingly arduous. It meant running the gamut of the daylight raids. It was a constant worry to Ingeborg.

This evening the Kolbs planned, as usual, to listen to the German-language broadcasts of the BBC, although it was a practice long forbidden. Step by step they had followed the Allied advances from east and west. Now the Red Army was only a bus ride from the city’s eastern outskirts. Yet, lulled by the rural atmosphere of their surroundings, they found the imminent threat to the city unthinkable, the war remote and unreal. Robert Kolb was convinced they were quite safe and Ingeborg was convinced that Robert was always right. After all, he was a veteran of World War I. “The war,” Robert had assured her, “will pass us by.”

Quite certain that no matter what happened they would not be involved, the Kolbs calmly looked to the future. Now that spring was here, Robert was trying to decide where to hang the hammocks in the garden. Ingeborg had chores of her own to do: she planned to plant spinach, parsley, lettuce and early potatoes. There was one major problem : should she sow the early potatoes in the first part of April or wait until the more settled spring days of May?

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At his headquarters in a gray stucco, three-story house on the outskirts of Landsberg, twenty-five miles from the Oder, Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgi K. Zhukov sat at his desk pondering some plans of his own. On one wall, a large map of Berlin showed in detail Zhukov’s proposed offensive to capture the city. On his desk were three field phones. One was for general use; another linked him to his colleagues: Marshals Konstantin Rokossovskii and Ivan Stepanovich Koniev, commanders of the huge army groups on his northern and southern flanks. The third phone was a direct line to Moscow and the Supreme Commander, Josef Stalin. The barrel-chested 49-year-old commander of the First Belorussian Front spoke to Stalin each night at eleven, reporting the day’s advances. Now Zhukov wondered how soon Stalin would give the command to take Berlin. He hoped he still had some time. At a pinch Zhukov thought he could take the city immediately, but he was not quite ready. Tentatively, he had planned the attack foraround the end of April. With luck, he thought he could reach Berlin and reduce all resistance within ten or twelve days. The Germans would contest him for every inch—that he expected. Probably they would fight hardest on the western edge of the city. There, as far as he could see, lay the only clear-cut escape route for the German defenders. But he planned to hit them from both sides as they tried to get out. By the first week of May he anticipated wholesale slaughter in the district of Spandau.

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In his second-floor Wilmersdorf apartment, Carl Johann Wiberg pushed open the shuttered French windows of his living room, stepped out onto the little balcony and took stock of the weather. With him were his constant companions, Uncle Otto and Aunt Effie, two waddling, liver-colored dachshunds. They looked up at him expectantly, waiting for their morning walk.

Walking was about all Wiberg did to pass the time these days. Everyone in the neighborhood liked the 49-year-old Swedish businessman. They considered him a “good Berliner” first, a Swede second: he had not left the city like so many other foreigners when the bombing began. Moreover, although Wiberg never complained about his troubles, his neighbors knew that he had lost almost everything. His wife had died in 1939. His glue factories had been bombed out of business. After thirty years as a small businessman in Berlin, he had little left now but his dogs and the apartment. In the opinion of some of his neighbors he was a better man than many a true German.

Wiberg looked down at Uncle Otto and Aunt Effie. “Time to go out,” he said. He closed the windows and walked across the living room to the little foyer. He put on his beautifully tailored Chesterfield and settled his carefully brushed Homburg on his head. Opening the drawer of a polished mahogany hall table, he took out a pair of suede gloves and for a moment stood looking at a framed lithograph lying inside the drawer.

The print, sketched in flamboyant colors, showed a fully armored knight mounted on a rampaging white stallion. Attached to the knight’s lance was a streaming banner. Through the helmet’s open visor the knight gazed fiercely out. A lock of hair fell over his forehead; he had piercing eyes and a small black moustache. Across the waving banner were the words, “Der Bannerträger”—The Standard Bearer.

Wiberg slowly closed the drawer. He kept the lithograph hidden because the derisive lampoon of Hitler was banned throughout Germany. But Wiberg did not want to get rid of it; the caricature was too amusing to throw away.

Snapping leashes on the dogs, he locked the front door carefully behind him, and went down the two flights of stairs and into the rubble of the street. Near the apartment house he doffed his hat to some neighbors and, with the dogs leading, made his way down the street, stepping carefully around the potholes. He wondered where Der Bannerträger was now that the end seemed near. In Munich? At his Eagle’s Nest in the mountains at Berchtesgaden? Or, here, in Berlin? No one seemed to know—although that was not surprising. Hitler’s whereabouts was always a big secret.

This morning Wiberg decided to drop in at his favorite bar, Harry Rosse’s at 7 Nestorstrasse—one of the few left open in the district. It had a varied clientele: Nazi bigwigs, German officers, and a smattering of businessmen. There was always good conversation and one could catch up on the latest news—where last night’s bombs had fallen, which factories had been hit, how Berlin was standing up under it all. Wiberg liked meeting his old friends in this convivial atmosphere and he was interested in just about every aspect of the war, especially the effects of the bombings and the morale of the German people. In particular he wanted to know where Hitler was. As he crossed the street he once again tipped his hat to an old acquaintance. Despite all the questions that crowded his mind, Wiberg knew a few things that would have surprised his neighbors. For this Swede who was more German than the Germans was also a member of America’s top-secret Office of Strategic Services. He was an Allied spy.

In his ground-floor apartment in Kreuzberg, Dr. Arthur Leckscheidt, Evangelical pastor of the Melanchthon Church, was beset by grief and despair. His twin-spired Gothic church was destroyed and his flock dissipated. Through the windows he could see the remains of his church. A few weeks before it had received a direct hit and, minutes later, incendiaries had set it ablaze. The sorrow he felt each time he looked at it had not yet abated. At the height of the raid, oblivious of his own safety, Pastor Leckscheidt had rushed into the blazing church. The back of the edifice and its magnificent organ were still intact. Running swiftly up the narrow steps to the organ loft, Leckscheidt had but one thought: to bid farewell to his beloved organ and to the church. Singing softly to himself, eyes filled with tears, Dr. Leckscheidt played his farewell. As bombs burst all over Kreuzberg, incredulous patients in the nearby Urban Hospital and people sheltering in adjacent cellars heard the Melanchthon organ pealing out the ancient hymn, “From Deepest Need I Cry to Thee.”

Now he was saying a different kind of good-bye. On his desk was the draft of a round-robin letter he would send to those many parishioners who had left the city or were in the armed forces. “Even though fighting in the east and west is keeping us in tension,” he wrote, “the German capital is constantly the center of air raids … you can imagine, dear friends, that death is reaping a rich harvest. Coffins have become a scarcity. A woman told me that she had offered twenty pounds of honey for one in which to lay her deceased husband.”

Dr. Leckscheidt was also angered. “We ministers are not always called to burials of air raid victims,” he wrote. “Often the Party takes over the funerals without a minister … without God’s word.” And again and again throughout his letter, he referred to the devastation of the city. “You cannot imagine what Berlin looks like now. The loveliest buildings have crumbled into ruins…. Often we have no gas, light or water. God keep us from a famine! Terrific prices are asked for black-market commodities.” And he ended on a note of bitter pessimism: “This is probably the last letter for a long time. Perhaps we shall soon be cut off from all communication. Shall we see each other again? It all rests in God’s hands.”

Cycling purposefully through the littered streets of Dahlem, another clergyman, Father Bernhard Happich, had decided to take matters into his own hands. A delicate problem had worried him for weeks. Night after night he had prayed for guidance and meditated on the course he should take. Now he had reached a decision.

The services of all clergymen were in great demand, but this was particularly true of Father Happich. The 55-year-old priest, who carried the words “Jesuit: not fit for military service” stamped across his identity card (a Nazi imprint like that reserved for Jews and other dangerous undesirables), was also a highly skilled doctor of medicine. Among his many other duties he was the Father Provincial of Haus Dahlem, the orphanage, maternity hospital and foundling home run by the Mission Sisters of the Sacred Heart. It was Mother Superior Cunegundes and her flock who had brought about his problem, and his decision.

Father Happich had no illusions about the Nazis or how the war must surely end. He had long ago decided that Hitler and his brutal new order were destined for disaster. Now the crisis was fast approaching. Berlin was trapped—the tarnished chalice in the conqueror’s eye. What would happen to Haus Dahlem and its good, but less than worldly, Sisters?

His face serious, Father Happich pulled up outside the home. The building had suffered only superficial damage and the Sisters were convinced that their prayers were being heard. Father Happich did not disagree with them, but being a practical man he thought that luck and bad marksmanship might have had something to do with it.

As he passed through the entrance hall he looked up at the great statue, garbed in blue and gold, sword held high—Saint Michael, “God’s fighting knight against all evil.” The Sisters’ faith in Saint Michael was well founded, but just the same Father Happich was glad he had made his decision. Like everyone else he had heard from refugees who had fled before the advancing Russians of the horrors that had taken place in eastern Germany. Many of the accounts were exaggerated, he was sure, but some he knew to be true. Father Happich had decided to warn the Sisters. Now he had to choose the right moment to tell them, and above all he had to find the right words. Father Happich worried about that. How do you tell sixty nuns and lay sisters that they are in danger of being raped?

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