WWII - Allied Slaughter
At Hamburg - Part 1
Back To The Holocaust In Germany

By Margit Alm
Melbourne, Australia

Here is how I remember the 1943 air raids over Hamburg. It is a story far removed from Zionism but it turned into a Holocaust of its own kind.
It had been a particularly beautiful sunny summers day in July and a busy one for us children. My baby brother, my older sister and I were safely tucked into bed, watched over by the elderly lady from next door whilst my mother had walked to the Central Station to collect my father, who was a conscript soldier in the Wehrmacht, but stationed in North Germany whilst rehabilitating from a war injury sustained the previous year. This enabled him to spend his free days with his family.

We lived in a flat in a big block of commercial/residential apartments in Hamburg's inner city (CBD), some 300 m away from the "Binnenalster" (Alster lake).

My parents had just arrived home; my mother had put the kettle on for a cup of coffee and a piece of freshly baked cake when the howl of the sirens sounded and simultaneously the buzzing roar from the squadron bombers filled the air. We were torn from our beds, hastily dressed, my mother grabbed her handbag with the family documents and some photos and we raced down the stairs from our 4th floor flat to the cellar. As we passed the window between the 4th and 3rd floor I could see the bombs falling and the "Christmas trees" lighting the sky to guide the bombers.

We hovered in the cellar together with other people from the building, everyone preoccupied with their own thoughts and fears. My father meanwhile raced up and down the four floors, scouting for fires. He put out some 18 spot fires. Eventually he reappeared in the cellar, took my mother in his arms, told her that everything was lost, and then ordered everyone out. A huge load of fire bombs had hit the building next door and the fire was now spreading to neighbouring buildings and streets. 

Whilst our cellar was fire proof, it was not smoke proof. Smoke quickly began to fill the cellar and we rushed up the stairs into the foyer, holding wet handkerchiefs over our mouths and noses. There was only one entrance/exit to/from the building and that was enveloped by flames. There was a lonely chair in the foyer, which my father grabbed and smashed the window, through which all of us escaped, the adults jumping the two odd metres, the children being lifted out.

The air raid was still in full swing, so my father took our group some 50 m down the burning street into another building that had not yet caught fire and temporarily "parked" us there whilst he continued on his way to investigate the air raid shelter another 100 m away. It was still intact and had room for our group.

As we left our temporary abode I cast a last glance to our building where my childhood dreams and toys were turned to ashes. It stood there, a dark and silent silhouette in the fire-lit sky, seemingly untouched by what was going on around it. However, a blaze of flames escaping through the roof shot skywards and I knew that the building was burning itself out from within.

Five metres away from us, across the street, a whole building came crumbling down and rained a shower of phosphorous sparks on us. One of them must have hit me in the face as my mother was for a while fearful that I could become blind. Thank heavens, not so.

The whole group made it safely to the air raid shelter where we waited out the end of the air raid and the end of the night.
I cannot remember whether I was scared. This air raid was a totally new experience for me. There was no time to become scared. I also had 200% confidence in my father's ability to see us through safely. Although air raids had taken place earlier over Hamburg, they left only sporadic damage to the inner city and were mainly targeting the port and industrial areas.  They provided some excitement to us children. We would tour the bombed-out buildings the next day.

But this air raid was not child's play. It was meant to destroy more than infrastructure, and it certainly did just that; yet it could not have targeted civilians as there were relatively few civilians living in the inner city. Maybe it was a practice run for what was to come next.

As soon as daylight broke, and being summer it broke early, my father made his way across town to my aunt, who lived on the other side of town, some 5 km away, in a large residential area. They (two aunts lived there and one uncle but he was on the eastern front) had escaped the bombings and we found shelter in their apartment - but only for one night.

The second night the sirens once again forced us into the building's cellar. This time there was a much larger group, the building being residential only. My father, now on compassionate leave from the Wehrmacht, again patrolled the building like a security guard would patrol a casino, checking every corner. Again, he told us we had to vacate. A time bomb had fallen into the small courtyard (where the rubbish bins were stored) and it could explode any time. But escape where to? The whole suburb was burning. Luckily the emergency services had earlier on dynamited an entrance through the walls of the underground, and this was the only safe spot far and wide.
The rule was that my father carrying my brother would lead the way, followed by my mother who dragged me along and my aunts who took care of my older sister. But when we emerged from the cellar and I stood on top of the stairs leading into the street I could only see fire: all buildings were ablaze, fire was raining from the sky, and as the sparks were ricocheting from the stones it looked to me as if the road was burning. I jerked away from my mother's hand and told here I was not running through that. My mother followed my father, screaming "I lost Margit" (I have never ceased wondering whether at that moment my father was not cursing her for being unable to control a pre-school child), and I just stood there and watched in abhorrence. To my left shadows were rushing past me disappearing into the firy night, following my father to safety. No one noticed me, or so I thought. Suddenly I felt swept off my feet and strong arms held me. I buried my face in a broad chest. It turned out that my rescuer was a young Dutchman who lived in the apartment building and knew us quite well. When my feet touched the ground again at the dynamited entrance to the underground I looked into my father's face. He was about to run through the fire and air raid once more and fetch me. However, he would not have made it. The time bomb explored just after the last person had left the building, turning the building to rubble.

We were lucky, everyone in the building was saved.

We spent the remainder of the night cowering and squatting on the rail tracks. At daylight my father again went on his by now familiar scouting trip to find the best way out for everyone. The best way out turned out to be a long, long walk along the tracks until we reached platforms and a station in another suburb. When my father investigated the devastation from the previous night, he not only found the rubbled buildings but piles and piles of corpses just lying in the streets. He wanted to spare us such a sight.

They say, 45000 people perished during that night.

From the railway station we were taken to big halls in Neumnster, and a new episode of our lives began. For the next four years we settled elsewhere, but that is a different story.

My father was a decorated soldier (and threw all his decorations into a river because they would have hindered his escape from a Russian POW camp back to Germany after the war had ended), but I think his greatest deed was to show leadership in those two air raids. Neither our family nor all those belonging to the two groups would have escaped the bombing and the fires without his initiative. There were mainly women and children in the cellars, but I remember a few males present, yet apart from the Dutchman who carried me to safety, no one showed initiative (maybe for that reason the men were at home and not at the front).
I now look forward to the book Der Brand and what it says about Hamburg's firestorm.

By the way, more than 30 years ago I saw a play here in Melbourne by Rolf Hochhuth, called The Soldiers. It dealt with the planning of this air raid over Hamburg. At the time a Swiss girl from work was in our group of theatregoers. She was quite devastated after the play and said to me: "but they never carried it through". I had to tell her that they did.



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