Fred's Story > Chapters > 1945
Date Range: 01/21/1945 To 12/31/1945
I am trying to write only facts here. No embellishments, no fictionalization, just what I remember. I have read other accounts of people in my position who write about all the details of their surroundings. They quote what people said verbatim. I must have the world's worst memory as I only have vignettes and special scenes which my synapses can recall. It's sad in a way but such is life.
As I mentioned I remember having to pee as we got under way on our train. I was 7 but somebody managed to hold me out the window of the moving train. All I really remember is the fear of being dropped and the bitter, icy cold. Whatever happened on that train must have been pitiful. As the wounded died they were thrown out of a moving train. I remember hearing moaning and crying and clogged walkways. People were everywhere. The train stopped often and just sat there. People came running to try to get on. A few always did. I could leave my loft but always returned as that was my place to sleep. It was safe up there. I have no recollection of where my mother or sister were. I don't think I really cared as the whole thing was still more adventure then tragedy. A child does not understand what adults see as obvious.
The trip to Berlin normally took 10 hours. On this trip it took 10 days. I do not recall much but there was shooting or bombing and glass shattering and the train would sit like forever and it was cold. My assumption is that the rails had been bombed and had to be repaired or the engine was destroyed and a new had to be brought in. The railroad authorities worked with as much efficiency as they could by making the impossible only difficult. The train had to move on or the wounded would die. At some point we had to get off and I can not imagine what happened to soldiers but all the women and children walked and walked to another train. It was just a freight train with a bunch of cattle cars. This was neat as there was straw inside and we could make a fire. This train too was on a stop and go tour. I was sent out to get fresh snow in a bucket for melting. The fear was always there that the train would start to move at any moment and leave me all alone. So I did not dally but still there were so many dead and frozen animals along the train tracks. I could not understand why they were dead. They must have frozen to death. More likely they were shot by strafing planes. I was always cold. Everybody as constantly stomping their feet and clapping their arms to stay warm. I don't think the fire did anything except provide water. We must have existed off the foodstuffs the soldiers told us to take along as there was no other food. Somehow we arrived in Berlin always a few miles ahead of the Russian advance.
My mom's sister Anni, was married to a train conductor who drove the Berlin S-Bahn or elevated train. Uncle Alfred always wore a smart uniform and in his capacity as a state employee also belonged to the Nazi party. Actually he was a convinced party member and probably would have joined anyway. He and my dad did not get along too well. Alfred and Anni Köhler lived in an apartment in a Berlin suburb called Erkner. That is where we were headed. We moved in with my aunt but that arrangement didn't last too long for some reason. I know they had three kids of their own and it must have been rather cramped in their home. So my memory takes me living in a basement not too far away from their apartment. There were lots of people in the basement and no food. One must try to understand that the entire supply system had collapsed and one could not just simply go to a store and buy what is needed. Besides, bombs were falling and going out was rather dangerous. But hunger makes one do crazy things. We could smell burning peas and surmised that the army storehouse down our Grabenstraße and across the main avenue was burning. My mom took me with a washbasket between us to see if we could rescue some food from the fire. There was banging and explosions, lots of smoke but we marched on to our goal of burning, popping pea cans. At the end of our street was the main avenue and we had to get across to this flat barrack type building where all the smoke was coming from. As we started to cross a man yelled at us from the nearest ditch and was frantically waving his arms to get across. "Dawei Frau" this I remember. It was a Russian soldier and we were sort of on the front lines. The shooting stopped and we ran across the street. There in front of the main door where the smoke was coming from was a pile of dead German soldiers. They were all old men who probably worked the depot and were too old to be at the front. Their arm sleeves had all been ripped open. They probably came out of the building to surrender but as normal were promptly shot.
Anyway, we climbed over the bodies and got inside. The smell of burning peas is, to this day, quite vivid in my memory banks. Whatever it was my mom found, she filled the basket and back we went to the basement hideout. By now the shooting had moved on and we crossed the street unmolested. I don't know how long we lived in that basement but one incident sticks in my mind. The Russians were now raping and killing as they please and the women were constantly trying to hide or made themselves look horrible with black soot. I got did not understand what was going on but later learned as to what they went through. One evening we hear loud dancing of drunk Russian soldiers. This was always like an alarm bell to everyone. We saw through the cellar windows that the party was in a big white villa at the end of the street. I had been in that place as no one seemed to be living there. We used to scrounge around to see if we could find food. I was with a gang of kids. The grand piano was making beautiful music and then they set the place on fire and danced around the building like little children.
The early frontline Russian soldiers were like Mongolians with fur hats and slanted eyes. Fearsome looking people. They were quite from another age and knew nothing about modern conveniences. We hear they were ripping out faucets to take home to plug into their walls. Toilets were unknown to them and above all they liked to collect watches. That's were the slit sleeves came in. We would see Russians with both arms full of watches up to their arm pits. It was like taking scalps I guess. They could also be seen riding tricycles down the street. Most bicycles had long ago been requisitioned by the German government for use by soldiers.
Once the immediate invasion had ended we must have gone out to look for better lodgings. There was a house with a large backyard with barns and sheds on its perimeter. I don't exactly know the circumstances but Russians kept coming into this yard where I knew my mother and sister were hiding in one of those barns under a pile of straw. My sister was only 11 and escaped being caught and raped throughout this entire period. She was very lucky. To this day, I have no idea if my mom was ever molested. It was not something I ever wanted to ask her and she never volunteered any information. I have my suspicions that she was no exception to the millions of women who were raped by the occupying forces. Stalin had given his troops liberty to take what you wanted and do as you please to take revenge on the German invasion of Russia.
As the early months went by the constant struggle to find food and material for heat was a daily event. My sister and I would go out and collect 'Brennesseln' (stinging nettle Urtica dioica) and 'Löwenzahn' (dandelions) to cook with whatever else we could find. Once I brought a cow or horse foot with me. This thing was cooked until there wasn't an bit of anything left on it. Mostly we existed on flour and water during these times. I was getting to look like one of those African kids we now see in television with an extended stomach from malnutition. At some point I got sick from what we called Hungertyphus and was in danger of dying. My mom carried me from one place to another to try to get help. With people dying left and right (1.2 million refugees died during the great exodus from the Eastern Germany) what was another child? But to a mother I was her world. She finally found a Russian doctor in one of their military camps who gave me a blood transfusion. My mother told me from his own blood. I stayed there among the soldiers for a few days until I could walk again. I survived somehow.
Life was the search for food. My mom would trade one thing for another on the black market to obtain flower. A piece of soap for a piece of bread. The Russians had occasional relief stations where they would hand out 'klebba' or hard dried bread for us to chew on. This was one of their staples and every Russian had some in his sack. I mean this stuff was rock hard and one had to really work on it to get it soft enough to bite off.
Another staple stays well in my mind. We would sneek into the quarters of the Russians and go through their garbage to dig out their discarded potato peels. These were then washed and cooked into a mesh or they would be fried into Bratkatoffeln (fried potatoes). The taste was horribly bitter and to this day I refuse to eat potato peels served in most restaurants. There were also potatoes found here and there which had frozen and were hard as rock. No matter what was done to them they were always bad and mushy once defrosted. They remind me much of sweet potatoes which are also on my list of permanent no-nos.
I don't know how it came about that I wound up on the American sector of Berlin at a place where they gave food to children. There must have been thousands of us hungry urchins. I remember the smell while standing in a line that went round and round near to the kettles. You would ever get nearer but never quite close enough to actually see what was dished out - but the heavenly smell was always there. I eventually got my turn and to this day I dodn't know what it was they gave me. All I know is that it was as sweet as any manna from heaven could possibly be. It was probably the best food I ever ate in my life. As I can guess today it was either rice pudding made with real milk or some kind of sago pudding. I did not leave that place. Today I can't imagine how I was there all by myself to simply not leave. I was going to wait because surely there would be pots to lick or some leftover I could have. I was not the only one thinking like that though. At some point the line had ended and we were given free reign of the kettles. What a rush. Put you whole hand in there and scoop out what you could. I dreamt of this event for a long time afterwards and it obviously has stayed with me to this day.
Whatever I was doing in Berlin was also full of adventure and danger. What's a little boy to do except to explore the unknown. Climbing in the ruins of old buildings to look for anything of value was an interesting challenge but I also did some real stupid things like climbing to the tops of free standing walls which could have toppled anytime. Getting up there was the challenge. Getting down was always a bit more difficult. One time some old lady gave me a lot of hell for climbing on a wall. She made me come down and explained that I could be killed doing that. Didn't mean a thing to me as kids just don't know that accidents happen all the time. That unexploded ordinance was all over the place was beside the point.
As the summer came on there would be trips to rural areas where we would go to the harvested field of rye or wheat and look for anything missed in the cutting. So we collected little baskets full of untreshed ears of grain and at hove worked the kernels out and made flour out of them with a coffee grinder. There were also excursions at night to creep into other peoples gardens to see what we could steal. Around Berlin it was mostly unripe fruit from trees. Terribly bitter green apples were still better then nothing.
We kids would always hang around the Russians trying to beg stuff from them. My recollection is that these people were quite nice unless they were drunk which was like much of the time. We heard their language and learned a few words - especially the bad ones. One thing they always yelled around sounded something like yuppfoyomat. We didn't know what it meant but it was obviously some kind of bad word. One day a drunk Russian was staggering down the street and my sister hollered that word at him and ran. He seemed to sober up quickly and started to chase us. Me behind my faster sister. She jumps up the steps of where we were living and slams the door behind her. I'm still on the other side trying to get in. The Russian stands at the bottom of the steps and draws his pistol to aim at me. I scream bloody murder but my sister was too scared to open the door. So the Russian pulls the trigger and the gun only goes click. He looks at it in his stupor and wants to try again. In the meantime a Russian officer from the other side of the street hollers at him and he looks over there. Still I scream and the Russian aims at me again. Click. The officer now comes over and draws his gun and arrests the man and marches him down the street to wherever. This incident came after Stalin had rescinded his open season permission and now the aim was to be nice to the Germans and make good Communists out of them. The Russian military now had very strict rules against criminal behavior against the German population. They were as extreme in this order as they were lax to the other. It would not surprise me if the man who tried to shoot me was excecuted himself. At the Russian Kommendatura (military command post) we often heard shooting and I can only guess that excecutions were the only way they were able to turn things around from total lawessness.
Life was now becoming more normal. The Russians tried to be nice. Their officers especially were real gentlemen. They would have parties in some large house and invite the women from the area to come to dance with them. Obviously there would be plenty of food and drink available. My mother and my aunt would go these parties and steal what they could. Mostly they took us kids with them, just in case. Sometimes these events were held in the middle of the day, sometimes in the evening. I always resented being forced into nap mode upstairs. We always took naps whether we liked it or not. I wanted to watch the dancing. Sometimes I was given the opportunity to keep the record player running by winding it up. I don't know what kind of machine that was but it had a crank to it. Mostly I don't think the adults wanted us around though. I can imagine how they felt dancing with strange men for favors with their kids looking on.
One of these officers was very young, maybe only 19 or so. He took a liking to my sister and asked her to dance with him. She liked him too but at 12? He kept coming around and brought us many nice things. He actually asked my mother for permission to marry my sister and take her back to Russia. Such was life. Later I found out that he was quite taken with Annely and when my mom, in no uncertain terms, refused the offer, he was almost brought to tears. He was a nice young man and in Russia maybe they married that young.
I'm trying to remember what Christmas 1945 was like as Christmas was always a very special day. It's just not there. It was probably more sad then holy because my father was still in POW camp and there was little news from him. I don't know when they first were permitted to write but I do remember the postcards which arrived every few months. The prisoners were only permitted to write on one side of the card next to the address. The back side was imprinted with various regulations. So the writing was so tiny that it must have taken days to compose. Sometimes the ink got smudged and you couldn't read a section. I did not have any particular feelings for my dad. I really didn't know him but my poor mom took Christmas very hard as it was her anniversary. She would sit there and cry. I wish, I wish we would have kept one of those cards from Russia. They were like Red Cross cards amd perhaps permitted periodic communication according to the Geneava Convention.
So the year came to an end we had survived.