Military history

Chapter 4
 
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BERLINERS, who almost daily shook their fists at the bombers, who, as often as not, sorrowed for family, relatives or friends lost in air raids or in the armed forces, now fervently spoke of the British and Americans not as conquerors but as “liberators.” It was an extraordinary reversal of attitude and this state of mind produced curious results.

Charlottenburger Maria Köckler refused to believe the Americans and British would let Berlin fall into Russian hands. She was even determined to help the Western Allies. The gray-haired, 45-year-old housewife told friends she was “ready to go out and fight to hold back the Reds until the ‘Amis’ get here.”

Many Berliners fought down their fears by listening to BBC broadcasts and noting each phase of the battles being fought on the crumbling western front—almost as though they were following the course of a victorious German Army rushing to the relief of Berlin. In between raids Margarete Schwarz, an accountant, spent night after night with her neighbors, meticulously plotting the Anglo-American drive across Western Germany. Each mile gained seemed to her almost like another step toward liberation. It seemed that way to Liese-Lotte Ravené, too. Her time was spent in her book-lined apartment in Tempelhof, where she carefully penciled in the latest American advances on a big map and feverishly willed the Amis on. Frau Ravené did not like to think of what might happen if the Russians came in first. She was a semi-invalid—with steel braces around her hips and running down her right leg.

Thousands were quite certain the Amis would get to Berlin first. Their faith was almost childlike—vague and unclear. Frau Annemaria Hückel, whose husband was a doctor, began tearing up old Nazi flags to use as bandages for the great battle she was expecting on the day the Americans arrived. Charlottenburger Brigitte Weber, 20-year-old bride of three months, was sure the Americans were coming and she thought she knew where they intended to live. Brigitte had heard that Americans enjoyed a high standard of living and liked the finer things of life. She was ready to bet they had carefully chosen the wealthy residential district of Nikolassee. Hardly a bomb had fallen there.

Others, while hoping for the best, prepared for the worst. Soberminded Pia van Hoeven and her friends Ruby and Eberhard Borgmann reluctantly reached the conclusion that only a miracle could keep the Russians from getting to Berlin first. So they jumped at the invitation of their good friend, the jovial, fat-cheeked Heinrich Schelle, to join him and his family when the battle for the city began. Schelle managed Gruban-Souchay, one of the most famous wine shops and restaurants in Berlin, situated on the ground floor below the Borgmanns. He had turned one of his cellars into a resplendent shelter, complete with Oriental rugs, draperies and provisions to withstand the siege. There was little food except for potatoes and canned tuna fish, but there were ample supplies of the rarest and most delicate of German and French wines in the adjacent wine cellar—plus Hennessy cognac and case after case of champagne. “While we wait for God knows what,” he told them, “we might as well live comfortably.” Then he added: “If we run out of water—there’s always the champagne.”

Biddy Jungmittag, 41-year-old mother of two young daughters, thought that all the talk about the Americans and British coming was—in her own words—“just so much tripe.” The British-born wife of a German, she knew the Nazis only too well. Her husband, suspected of belonging to a German resistance group, had been executed five months before. The Nazis, she thought, would fight as fiercely against the Western Allies as against the Russians, and a glance at the map showed that the odds were against the Anglo-Americans getting to Berlin first. But the Red Army’s impending arrival did not unduly alarm Biddy. They would not dare touch her. In her sensible English way, Biddy intended to show the first Russians she met her old British passport.

There were some who felt no need for documents to protect them. They not only expected the Russians, they longed to welcome them. That moment would be the fulfillment of a dream for which small groups of Germans had worked and schemed most of their lives. Hunted and harassed at every turn by the Gestapo and the criminal police, a few hardened cells had somehow survived. The German Communists and their sympathizers waited eagerly for the saviors from the east.

Although totally dedicated to the overthrow of Hitlerism, the Communists of Berlin had been so scattered that their effectiveness—to the Western Allies, at any rate—was minimal. A looseknit Communist underground did exist, but it took its orders solely from Moscow and worked exclusively as a Soviet espionage network.

Hildegard Radusch, who had been a Communist deputy to the Berlin House of Assembly from 1927 to 1932, was getting by almost on faith alone. She was half-starved, half-frozen and in hiding, along with a few other Communists near the village of Prieros, on the southeastern fringe of Berlin. With her girl friend Else (“Eddy”) Kloptsch, she lived in a large wooden machinery crate measuring ten feet by eight and set in concrete. It had no gas, electricity, water or toilet facilities, but to the burly 42-year-old Hildegard (who described herself as “the man around the house”) it was the perfect refuge.

Hildegard and Eddy had lived together since 1939. They had existed underground in Prieros for almost ten months. Hildegard was on the Nazi “wanted” list, but she had outwitted the Gestapo again and again. Her greatest problem, like that of the other Communists in the area, was food. To apply for ration cards would have meant instant disclosure and arrest. Luckily Eddy, though a sympathizer, was not wanted as a Communist and had weekly rations. But the meager allowance was hardly enough for one. (The official Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, had printed the week’s adult allowance as four and a quarter pounds of bread; two pounds meat and sausage; five ounces fat; five ounces sugar; and every three weeks two and a quarter ounces of cheese and three and a half ounces of ersatz coffee.) Occasionally the two women were able to supplement their diet by cautious buying on the black market, but prices were exorbitant—coffee alone cost from $100 to $200 per pound.

Hildegard was preoccupied with two thoughts constantly: food, and liberation by the Red Army. But waiting was hard, and simply surviving was growing more difficult month by month—as she methodically recorded in her diary.

On February 13, 1945 she wrote: “It is high time the Russians got here … the dogs haven’t got me yet.”

February 18: “No report since the seventh from Zhukov about the Berlin front and we are so desperately awaiting their arrival. Come, Tovarishti, the quicker you are here, the quicker the war will end.”

February 24: “To Berlin today. Coffee from thermos; one piece of dry bread. Three men looked at me suspiciously during the trip. So comforting to know that Eddy is beside me. Didn’t get anything to eat anywhere. Eddy really took the trip to get cigarettes on the ration card she bought on the black market—ten cigarettes were due on that. None in the store, so she took five cigars. She had hoped to barter a silk dress and two pairs of stockings for something edible. Nothing doing. No black market bread either.”

February 25: “Three cigars are gone. Still no communiqués from Zhukov. None from Koniev either.”

February 27: “I’m getting nervous from all this waiting. It is catastrophic for someone anxious to work to be cooped up here.”

March 19: “Wonderful meal at noon—potatoes with salt. In the evening potato pancakes fried in cod-liver oil. Taste isn’t so hot.”

Now, on this first day of spring, Hildegard was still waiting and, her diary noted, “almost crazy for something to eat.” There were no reports from the Russian front. All she could find to write down was that “winds are sweeping winter from field and meadow. Snowdrops are blooming. The sun is shining and the air is warm. The usual air raids … judging by the detonations the planes are coming closer to us.” And later, noting that the Western Allies were on the Rhine and could, by her reckoning, “be in Berlin in twenty days,” she bitterly recorded that Berliners “would rather have the men from the capitalistic countries.” She hoped that the Russians would arrive quickly, that Zhukov would attack by Easter.

About twenty-five miles due north of Prieros, at Neuenhagen on the eastern fringes of Berlin, another Communist cell grimly waited. Its members, too, lived in constant fear of arrest and death, but they were more militant and better organized than their comrades in Prieros and they were luckier, too: they were barely thirty-five miles from the Oder and expected that theirs would be one of the first outlying districts captured.

Members of this group had worked night after night under the very noses of the Gestapo preparing a master plan for the day of liberation. They knew the names and whereabouts of every local Nazi, SS and Gestapo official. They knew who would cooperate and who would not. Some were marked for immediate arrest, others for liquidation. So well organized was the group that it had even made detailed plans for the future administration of the township.

All members of this cell waited anxiously for the Russians to come, sure that their recommendations would be accepted. But none waited more anxiously than Bruno Zarzycki. He suffered so badly from ulcers that he could hardly eat, but he kept saying that the day the Red Army arrived his ulcers would disappear; he knew it.

Incredibly, all over Berlin, in tiny cubicles and closets, in damp cellars and airless attics, a few of the most hated and persecuted of all Nazi victims hung grimly to life and waited for the day when they could emerge from hiding. They did not care who arrived first, so long as somebody came, and quickly. Some lived in twos and threes, some as families, some even in small colonies. Most of their friends thought them dead—and in a sense they were. Some had not seen the sun in years, or walked in a Berlin street. They could not afford to be sick for that would mean getting a doctor, immediate questions and possible disclosure. Even during the worst bombings they stayed in their hiding places, for in air raid shelters they would have been spotted immediately. They preserved an iron calm, for they had learned long ago never to panic. They owed their very lives to their ability to quell nearly every emotion. They were resourceful and tenacious and, after six years of war and nearly thirteen years of fear and harassment in the very capital of Hitler’s Reich, almost three thousand of them still survived. That they did was a testimonial to the courage of a large segment of the city’s Christians, none of whom were ever to receive adequate recognition of the fact that they protected the despised scapegoats of the new order—the Jews.*

Siegmund and Margarete Weltlinger, both in their late fifties, were hiding in a small, ground-floor apartment in Pankow. A family of Christian Scientists, the Möhrings, risking their own lives, had taken them in. It was crowded. The Möhrings, their two daughters and the Weltlingers all lived together in a two-room flat. But the Möhrings shared their rations and everything else with the Weltlingers and had never complained. Only once in many months had the Weltlingers dared venture out: an aching tooth prompted them to take the chance and the dentist who extracted it accepted Margarete’s explanation that she was “a visiting cousin.”

They had been lucky up to 1943. Although Siegmund was expelled from the stock exchange in 1938, he was asked soon afterward to take over special tasks with the Jewish Community Bureau in Berlin. In those days the bureau, under the leadership of Heinrich Stahl, registered the wealth and properties of Jews; later it tried to negotiate with the Nazis to alleviate the sufferings of Jews in concentration camps. Stahl and Weltlinger knew that it was only a question of time before the bureau was closed—but they bravely continued their work. Then, on February 28, 1943, the Gestapo closed down the bureau. Stahl disappeared into the Theresienstadt concentration camp and the Weltlingers were ordered to move to a sixty-family “Jews’ house” in Reinickendorf. The Weltlingers stayed in the Reinickendorf house until dark. Then they removed the Star of David from their coats and slipped out into the night. Since then they had lived with the Möhrings.

For two years the outside world for them had been only a patch of sky framed by buildings—plus a single tree which grew in the dismal courtyard facing the apartment’s kitchen window. The tree had become a kind of calendar of their imprisonment. “Twice we’ve seen our chestnut tree decked out with snow,” Margarete told her husband. “Twice the leaves have turned brown, and now it’s blooming again.” She was in despair. Would they have to spend yet another year in hiding? “Maybe,” Margarete told her husband, “God has forsaken us.”

Siegmund comforted her. They had a lot to live for, he told her: their two children—a daughter, seventeen, and a son, fifteen—-were in England. The Weltlingers had not seen them since Siegmund had arranged to get them out of Germany in 1938. Opening a Bible he turned to the Ninety-first Psalm and slowly read: “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.” All they could do was to wait. “God is with us,” he told his wife. “Believe me, the day of liberation is at hand.”

In the previous year, more than four thousand Jews had been arrested by the Gestapo in the streets of Berlin. Many of these Jews had risked detection because they were unable to stand confinement any longer.

Hans Rosenthal, twenty, was still hiding in Lichtenberg, and was determined to hold out. He had spent twenty-six months in a cubicle barely six feet long and five feet wide. It was actually a kind of small tool shed attached to the back of a house owned by an old friend of Hans’s mother. Rosenthal’s existence up to now had been perilous. His parents were dead and at sixteen he was put into a labor camp. In March of 1943 he escaped and, without papers, took a train to Berlin and refuge with his mother’s friend. There was no water and no light in his cell-like hiding place and the only toilet facility available was an old-fashioned chamber pot. He emptied that at night during the air raids, the only time he dared leave his hiding place. Except for a narrow couch, the cubicle was bare. But Hans did have a Bible, a small radio and, on the wall, a carefully marked map. Much as he hoped for the Western Allies, it seemed to him that the Russians would capture Berlin. And that worried him, even though it would mean his release. But he reassured himself by saying over and over, “I am a Jew. I have survived the Nazis and I’ll survive Stalin, too.”

In the same district, in a cellar in Karlshorst, Joachim Lipschitz lived under the protection of Otto Krüger. On the whole it was quiet in the Krüger cellar but sometimes Joachim thought he heard the distant boom of Russian guns. The sound was soft and muttering, like a bored audience applauding with gloved hands. He put it down to imagination—the Russians were much too far away. Still he was familiar with Russian cannonading. The son of a Jewish doctor and a Gentile mother, he had been inducted into the Wehrmacht. In 1941 on the eastern front, he had lost an arm on the battlefield. But service to Germany had not saved him from the crime of being a half-Jew. In April, 1944, he had been marked for internment in a concentration camp. From that moment on, he had been in hiding.

The 27-year-old Joachim wondered what would happen now as the climax approached. Every night the Krügers’ eldest daughter, Eleanore, came down to the basement to discuss the outlook. They had been sweethearts since 1942 and Eleanore, making no secret of their friendship, had been disqualified from attending a university because of her association with an “unworthy” person. Now they longed for the day when they could marry. Eleanore was convinced that the Nazis were militarily bankrupt and that the collapse would come soon. Joachim believed otherwise: the Germans would fight to the bitter end and Berlin was sure to become a battlefield—perhaps another Verdun. They also disagreed about who would capture the city. Joachim expected the Russians, Eleanore the British and Americans. But Joachim thought they should be prepared for any eventuality. So Eleanore was studying English—and Joachim was mastering Russian.

None waited in more anguish for Berlin to fall than Leo Sternfeld, his wife Agnes and their 23-year-old daughter Annemarie. The Sternfelds were not in hiding, for the family was Protestant. But Leo’s mother was Jewish, so he was categorized by the Nazis as a half-Jew. As a result, Leo and his family had lived in a torment of suspense all through the war; the Gestapo had toyed with them as a cat with a mouse. They had been allowed to live where they wished, but hanging over them always was the threat of arrest.

The danger had grown greater as the war had come nearer, and Leo had struggled to keep up the women’s spirits. The night before, a bomb had demolished the post office nearby, but Leo was still able to joke about it. “You won’t have to go far for the mail any more,” he told his wife. “The post office is lying on the steps.”

As he left their home in Tempelhof on this March morning, Leo Sternfeld, the former businessman now drafted by the Gestapo to work as a garbage collector, knew that he had put off making his plans until too late. They could not leave Berlin, and there was no time to go into hiding. If Berlin was not captured within the next few weeks they were doomed. Leo had been tipped off that the Gestapo planned to round up all those with even a drop of Jewish blood on May 19.

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Far to the west, in the headquarters of the British Second Army at Walbeck, near the Dutch border, the senior medical officer, Brigadier Hugh Glyn Hughes, tried to anticipate some of the health problems he might encounter within the coming weeks—especially when they reached Berlin. Secretly he feared outbreaks of typhus.

Already a few refugees were passing through the front lines, and his assistants had reported that they carried a variety of contagious diseases. Like every other doctor along the Allied front, Brigadier Hughes was watching developments very carefully; a serious epidemic could be disastrous. Tugging at his moustache, he wondered how he would cope with the refugees when the trickle became a flood. There would also be thousands of Allied prisoners of war. And God only knew what they would find when Berlin was reached.

The Brigadier was also concerned about another related problem: the concentration and labor camps. There had been some information about them via neutral countries, but no one knew how they were run, how many people they contained or what conditions were like. Now it looked as if the British Second would be the first army to overrun a concentration camp. On his desk was a report that one lay directly in the path of their advance, in the area north of Hanover. There was almost no further information about it. Brigadier Hughes wondered what they would find. He hoped the Germans had shown their usual thoroughness in medical matters, and had the health situation under control. He had never heard of the place before. It was called Belsen.

*The estimated figure of Jewish survivors comes from Berlin Senate statistics prepared by Dr. Wolfgang Scheffler of Berlin’s Free University. They are disputed by some Jewish experts—among them Siegmund Weltlinger, who was Chairman for Jewish Affairs in the post-war government. He places the number who survived at only 1,400. Besides those underground, Dr. Scheffler states that at least another 5,100 Jews who had married Christians were living in the city under so-called legal conditions. But at best that was a nightmarish limbo, for those Jews never knew when they would be arrested. Today 6,000 Jews live in Berlin—a mere fraction of the 160,564 Jewish population of 1933, the year Hitler came to power. Of that figure no one knows for certain how many Jewish Berliners left the city, emigrated out of Germany, or were deported and exterminated in concentration camps.

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