- 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"
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
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
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.