By Patricia Keegan
There was a chord, deep within him, reaching for something that was surrounded in a mist, it came like waves on the sea-- appearing and disappearing. When images began to come clearer, the inevitable breath of the wind scattered them again, and he was alone. But as the chord became more persistent he could see far-off windows opening in the mist. If his mind could hold, could clutch these fleeting images-he would see everything! He wanted to peer into the heart of the boy wrapped in the innocence of childhood. He wanted with clear eyes to see his family, his mother his father his sisters and brothers and return to the tragic, turbulent yet somehow happy years of his early childhood. He closed his eyes and drifted back in time.
Guenter was born in Silesia at the beginning of WW11. His father, Bruno, was the town’s veterinarian, a hard working man who placed great emphasis on individual responsibility. His mother Margarete, strong, intelligent and beautiful, had wanted to pursue a career in literature but was encouraged by her father to secure an education in domestic science to fulfill the duties of a good housewife. He had four brothers and two sisters.
As a child, war, although it was in the air, was not on his mind. It was a distant thing and something grown ups worried about. He was a happy, exuberant boy filled with the never ending wonder of life
When he was eight years old, he remembered playing hide and seek in the fields with his brothers and sisters and running away to hide from them. He threw himself down in the green grass, over a hillside where he was convinced they would never find him. He lay in the grass, on that sunny, summer day in the small Silesian village of Waltersdorf, looking up at the sky and inhaling the familiar fragrance of the surrounding countryside; a mixture of farmland, cow's milk and wildflowers. A church bell sounded it the distance, then everything was still again except for the sound of a bee droning near his ear. Will he sting me, he wondered. He didn't move or brush the bee away, he just lay in wait. The bee crossed his forehead, paused a second, he held his breath, the next moment the bee was gone.
He was suddenly flooded with happiness; he could feel streams of energy moving from within him and connecting with a small, distant white cloud in the blue sky. Then he heard the sound of a plane, in a way its sound was ominous but he was fascinated by planes. It came across the sky slowly, its wings glinting in the sunlight. It moved with a roar, momentarily disturbing his peace. The sound of the engines gradually fading replaced by the gentle chirp of birds. Then more planes crossed the sky, as one crossed directly above him his energy seemed to stream towards it. He had never been in a plane, but from pictures he'd seen, he knew all the people were sitting up straight, strapped in, looking out the windows. He wondered how the world looked from so high up. He wondered if they could see him lying in the grass looking up at them. Just in case they were looking at him, he smiled, and waved, then laughed at himself. He was always laughing at himself and at his own imaginings. Imaginings were like dreams, they came and went and nobody could ever explain where they came from or why they fled so fast, always eluding our grasp. Maybe everything in life was about forgetting, especially, the bad dreams. Suddenly he was pulled from his reverie by the joyful shouts of the other children as they tumbled down on top of him
He loved and enjoyed his large family, they were a rowdy bunch. When they weren't studying they played together inventing games, and playing out life in the schoolroom. Together they would arrange the furniture lining up chairs, imagining a classroom. Fifteen year-old Ruth would stand in front calling on each of her brothers to take turns reading and spelling. They were in awe of Ruth; there was nothing they could ask her that she couldn't answer.
Guenter walked to school every morning it was only two miles away. He packed his books and his lunch, which was in a little tin box, into his schoolbag and hoisted it on his shoulder. His schoolbag smelled like a mixture of leather, and Logan berries. His mother always put something different in the tin box. Today he felt lucky; inside he found a cold bratwurst sandwich on crispy crusted bread, along with half an apple. Thinking of his mother, Margarete, he could see her face. He thought she was beautiful, but lately she appeared tired and worried. Her stomach was always swollen because a new baby came almost every year. Guenter was the fifth child and three more came later. Ruth was tall and regal resembling his mother. Ruth loved babies and didn't mind holding and walking the new baby------ while Baby Rolly screamed and cried and acted as though he was being tortured. Ruth said she wants lots of babies when she was grown up. Thinking of Ruth he wondered if she would really be leaving home. Just yesterday Ruth had been called to go away and join the Hitler’s Youth. He didn't know what was going to happen: he hoped this stupid war would end before she had to leave. When he thought about her he could feel himself becoming sad, he knew how much he would miss her.
In his schoolroom Guenter didn't feel as though he was learning anything. There were three (grades) in one room. Too many children crowded together. Since he had learned how to read he was always searching for books with stories but there were not many books outside the worn out text books.
He looked at Mr. Drollick, his teacher standing in front of the class, Gunter's mind raced faster then the slow methodical way his teacher talked. He always guessed what that big man was going to say next, it was like a game inside his head and he would smile inwardly when he was right. He didn't feel smarter than the teacher but it was like working on a puzzle and knowing which piece came next.
One morning Mr. Drollick came into the classroom in a very bad mood. On mornings like this, the room became tense. With his face a bright scarlet, Drollick moved across the classroom swiftly with a pointer gripped in his hand. A hush came over the small schoolroom they knew someone was going to feel the brunt of this anger. Before the class began the children stood to salute Hitler. They shouting in unison "Heil Hitler". Guenter despised this performance, it irritated him and his arm became tired when they would be commanded to repeat the salute over and over. There was also something about military ritual that even as a child he inheritantly disliked.
"Guenter" Drollick's loud voice broke through his thoughts, "Come to the front of the class and hold out your right hand"
Guenter was shocked, could Drollick have read his mind. He jumped from his seat and went to the front of the class. He held his hand out, low with his arm resting on his side, but the teacher wasn't satisfied.
"Hold it up and out, in the manner you are supposed to" He demonstrated.
The other kids were laughing. Guenter was tall for his age but his muscles were still undeveloped. His classmates thought he was pretending. That just made Drollick angrier.
"Hold it out straight".
He could see Drollick's eyes bulge behind his glasses; he was livid. Guenter tried to get his arm up high, he opened his palm upward and Drollick smashed down on it with the thick end of the heavy pointer. He felt his hand crumble. It stung badly. Drollick did it again but Guentar acted like it didn't hurt at all. He just held his head up and walked back to his desk.
Back in his seat Guentar remembered if you talked about Hitler in any negative way you would be punished. He had heard his mother and father and aunt and uncle whispering just the other night about the war. He didn't know what it all meant. He was sitting in the kitchen reading. They thought he wasn’t listening. He heard Hitler mentioned a few times. Nobody ever mentioned his name out loud. It always gave him a strange eerie feeling. He would hear Hitler's voice on the radio; he always seemed to be screaming when he talked. In pictures he looked mean, which, he thought, must be why people were afraid. Anyway if you didn't like Hitler why hide it. He asked his father at dinner one night why people always whispered about Hitler. His father gave him a stern look and said,
"Just be careful".
His mother said;
“Guenter, Hitler is the leader of Germany, some people don't like him. We are living in dangerous times with a war going on. But you are too young to think about these things and your father and I will do everything to keep us all safe”.
Guenter was thinking this war could even spoil Christmas. Avoiding his father's stern look he gazed at his mother imploringly. Surely the war could not spoil Christmas
"Will we still go to Grandfather's on Christmas Day". He asked.
“Oh please" the other children chimed in.
The very thought of not going to that great old mansion, where all the family and cousins gathered at Christmastime was shattering.
But he knew his father wouldn't make a promise instead he said in a stern voice;
“Guenter, have you done your chores today?"
Guenter had to help on the farm, his job was collecting eggs from the henhouse. All the children had their own patch of land in their Mother’s garden and could decide what to plant. The month of August was the most fun when they would ride on the tractor and take in the hay. They would use huge forks and pile the hay into haystacks and then jump and hide in the hay. Guenter planted flowers on his piece of land. The first time he took the tiny seeds from packages and buried them in the black earth, he couldn't believe that they would ever appear again and become flowers. What happened to them under this pile of earth? He couldn't understand. Things that were buried were usually dead, so how could this happen. He forgot all about how it happened when he saw the first appearance of delicate green shoots and in a few days watched them blossom into violets and peonies. It was like making a painting, except this extravaganza was alive.
The next time he planted more and more until the whole patch was a mass of color. Growing white asparagus was even more intriguing it grew in big mounds of black soil and did not turn green because it never saw the light. His sister, Ruth, had explained the process of photosynthesis which added even more to his sense of wonder about the miracle of nature. When the asparagus was ready to be picked a little root shot out of the earth. He would put his hand deep into the soil following the root, then pull gently, carefully removing the plant and putting the soil back in place. He grew rows and rows of asparagus and with a feeling of great accomplishment brought it to his mother. She would show him how to snap the ends and cook it. An ongoing competition grew between the children to see who could create the best all around garden of vegetables and flowers.
Parting with Ruth.
It was just after her seventeenth birthday when a letter came to the family saying Ruth had to go and serve in the army. Her father read the letter aloud over and over as if believing there was some mistake. In the end he said:
"Ruth, the war is almost over, you will not be away for long.” She was instructed to report for duty in one week. The news came as a blow to the family they were given so little time to prepare. The day she left, it rained all day. It was as though the sky reflected the family's sadness. She left on a train. Together they went to the railway station to see her off. As the train pulled into the station there was noise and shouting and swirls of steam everywhere. People were hurrying with suitcases; families were standing in circles around young men and women in uniform. Amid tears, Ruth hugged and kissed her sister and brothers and then her father and mother. Margarete and Ruth held each her for a long time, and then Ruth turned away as the commanding whistle pierced the air. Standing on the first step of the train she turned and waved with a brave smile on her face. They stood on the platform waving until the train disappeared in the distance. Guenter looked at his mother; she stood like a statue looking after the train. Finally his father took her by the arm and they walked from the platform through the station and into the car. He remembered how his mother's face looked, it was as though she was a terrible pain, and she sobbed without stopping all the way home.
About a week before Christmas in December 1944, Ingrid called the children together, she rarely smiled these days but she was smiling when she told the children that they would be going to their Grandfather's house at Christmas. They all whooped with joy, and then thought about what they could make to bring as presents. Gunter decided he would write a giant Christmas card. He would do it in calligraphy which he was learning in school. Settling down to work he found a cardboard box, cut one large section, folded it carefully, covered it with plain white paper which he glued on then tried to think of what he would write. He would like to write something funny that would make people laugh, but then he thought ---no it must be about Christmas. After much thought he finally wrote:
From winter to springtime, led by the baby Jesus.
He didn't quite know why that came to him, but he made his little message look important with large flowing letters. Then he colored the edges with his crayons and cut two holes in the fold threading through one of his sister's ribbons.
What added immensely to Christmas enjoyment was traveling through the snow. All the children were bundled into the back of an open sleigh drawn by two horses. The babies sat up front with their parents, they were wrapped in blankets so you could hardly see their faces. The family traveled for three hours passing silent houses covered in snow without even a visible path to the front door. The trees were filled with icicles and every so often the wind would blow a gust of snow into the faces of the children, they would all laugh and try to catch enough to make a snowball.
When they finally reached their Grandfather's 18th century manor house in Altgabel, they were cold but received a great welcome. The house was filled with children, all Guenter's cousins and there were two large fires at each end of the large reception room. A table in the middle was set with dishes but not as many goodies as they had a few years ago. The children didn't mind they just wanted to play they ran up and down the wide staircase, they loved going to the attic which was filled with old toys. After playing for awhile, Guenter left the other children and wandered into the library. He loved coming to this room it was stacked from floor to ceiling with books. His Uncle Uter was standing at a desk flipping through the pages of a large book with photos of buildings that looked to Guenter like castles. His uncle said;
"Look at this villa it was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci for the Italian princes.”
He turned a page and Guenter saw what his uncle called classical architecture. Lifting another book from the shelf his uncle showed him the difference between the simple clean lines of classical buildings and the ornate style of baroque architecture. Guenter was intrigued, he had never been to a city, but the pictures of those magnificent buildings made him think about traveling and exploring all those cities when he grew up.
When it came time for dinner the family, all thirty- two, including Guenter’s cousins, uncles and aunts, sat around a long table. In the center was a turkey from the farm, and all the vegetables that had been saved from the summer in cold storage. His grandfather started talking about the time he spent in WW1, He said in all his days he never shot anyone. Guenter looked closely at his grandfather, with his broad forehead, thick grey hair and kind eyes and tried to imagine him in a uniform carrying a gun.
His Uncle Uter said:
"Look at this table, before Hitler, there was no food for the German tables’ people were hungry. Now, there is not enough food and it’s all gone crazy. What can we do...?
Guenter watched as his uncle looked around the table trying to find an answer. Nobody answered but everybody looked uncomfortable. His uncle, becoming more passionate, his voice rising;
"What can I do a single person? Could I have I shot Hitler” It’s too late Germany is finished!
They were all talking about Hitler and in the background was a small radio that was always turned on waiting for news. At that moment they could hear the voice of Hitler assuring Germans that they were winning the war if they kept on fighting that Germany would be restored to its former glory.
The conversation at the table had abruptly stopped. Guenter was startled. His grandfather jumped up from his chair tipping it over, it crashed to the floor as he pulled the radio from the wall and smashed it on the floor.
“I cannot listen to him anymore" he shouted.
Margarete rushed to her father's side and said
“Don't upset yourself, Father, This is Christmas let’s forget about all that is going on and try to enjoy these precious moments.”
She called all the children around the piano and began to play Christmas carols. As they started singing together, harmonizing deep baritones and young sopranos, the mood changed, it was as though the songs, and the images they stirred were like an elixir reminding everyone of happier days. They asked Guenter and his cousin Helga to sing together. Guenter loved to sing and was delighted when on the last note everyone applauded. They asked him to sing a solo. His grandfather said his voice was getting stronger every year.
Günter felt sad on the drive home he wanted to keep himself surrounded in those happy moments when everybody sang together. Somewhere lingering among the happy moments were the words he heard about the Red Army. He turned to his brother, Reiner, asking him about the Red Army. His brother told him that they were Russians, and they were marching across Poland and may come to Silesia any day now. His brother answered in a matter of fact way and didn't seem worried. That night Guenter dreamed that all his tin soldiers came alive and started marching across his room. Awakening suddenly he turned on the light, looking cautiously around the room. Then his brother was awake and shouting at him to turn the light off "right now." Guenter started to say:
"But……. the Red Army..."
His brother had already returned to sleep.
Fleeing from the Red Army
In January, with the world around them covered in deep snow and rumors about the end of the war coming soon, Guenter learned that the Red Army was getting closer to Silesia. Calling the family together his father took out a map and showed them where the Russians were estimated to be moving. Then he said something that Guenter could hardly believe possible. His Father still looking at the map said:
“Your Mother and I have decided that the best course of action is for all of you to go with your Mother to Saxony where you will stay with your Aunt Marianne and Uncle Serge until we know for certain it is safe to come back home again. I will stay here and make sure everything is safe and then I will follow. It is important that people in Silesia don't lose their animals.”
Guenter was astonished, how could they go anywhere without their father, it was beyond his comprehension. For a moment he felt as though he couldn't breathe. Who would take care of all five children, the oldest fourteen and two infants?
"Listen", his Mother understanding how this was affecting the children tried to make it less frightening.
“Your brother Reiner knows how to drive; in fact he is a very good driver." Reiner glowed under her praise. By going everywhere with his father he had learned many skills. Intelligent and curious he was a good student and had learned how to drive when he was twelve.
"He will drive the car. We will follow a map and travel all the back roads. We'll plan on going through Dresden and I will show you the beautiful city where your father and I first met."
She looked at her husband but failed in her attempt at a smile. He reached over and put his arm around her and looking at the children he said:
"When you see the city of Dresden and the King's Palace, it will be like opening a beautiful storybook". Three year old Anya clapped her hands and said;
"Oh, I want to see the King's palace. Will there be princesses there walking in long gowns?
It was snowing on the morning on January 30, 1945 when the children with a few of their prized possessions tucked into small knapsacks clambered into the back of the car. They had delayed the trip hoping the snow would stop, but in the end Guenter’s father, after hearing the latest news and looking at a map, said they must leave and be safely in Saxony before the Red Army reached Silesia. From the car window Guenter looked at his house and up at his bedroom window, would he ever sleep there again, he wondered. He watched his Mother and Father saying goodbye with snow falling all around them. It was a scene that would be etched in his memory. His mother's hair was turning white with snowflakes, she was holding baby Jenna. His father looked as he always did; very much in control, confident that everything would be alright. Yet as Guenter watched he could see the sadness in his father's face as he held her briefly, he than opened the front door of the car and tucked a blanket around mother and baby. Would they ever see his father again? Would the Red Army find him? It was impossible to think of how they could drive to Dresden and leave him behind. But his father had insisted and his mother seemed to believe it was the right thing to do and they would all be safe. But what about his father, he quickly brushed a tear away. During the last few days his father kept repeating the words;
“The war is almost over. Aunt Marianne will be waiting for you and I will come soon and we will all be together again.”
Giving Reiner last minute instructions and going over the map one more time, his father waved ‘Goodbye’ as Reiner started the car. Guenter looked back at his house and at his father standing in the snow until he became a black dot in the distance. He saw again the train taking Ruth away. Why was all this happening? He felt angry and blamed Hitler. Reiner had told him it was because of that horrible man that all this sadness was happening to them.
It was going to be a difficult journey traveling through the snow, the windshield wipers were working overtime and visibility was very poor. Every so often when Reiner was shifting gears the car lurched forward, there were immediate protests from the back seat. They were taking the back roads, by which his father said would reach Dresden in 6 hours and from there it would be another 30 kilometers to Aunt Marianne’s house. After about ten miles they reached a crossroads and began to see the signs to Dresden. The road was a little wider with tracks of car wheels that had preceded them. Turning to his mother Reiner said”
If I can stay in these tracks we should be fine"
Margarete nodded her head, giving him an encouraging smile. From there Reiner moved the car along smoothly and they all began to relax. The snow stopped and as they came closer to Dresden the roads became increasingly better. Leaving what appeared to be deserted farmland with isolated houses they began to see more buildings but they also began to see more and more people on foot heading toward Dresden.
"Mama why are all those people walking in the cold?" asked Guenter
“They are families who have come from all over Germany because they feel it will be safe here in Dresden ".
“I heard in school they will never bomb a cultural city like Dresden because they only bomb industrial cities which build ammunition for the war.”
Guenter looked again there were long lines of people mostly women and children. They were carrying little knapsacks some were wheeling small carts with children and belongings. Guenter felt sorry for the children they looked so tired and cold. Some were sitting on the cold ground as though they couldn’t take another step. He looked at the back of Reiner's head and felt new respect for his big brother who at thirteen was taking the place of his father. He had become a skilled driver. Guenter thought; what if they all had to walk from Silesia to Dresden it would take days and days and where would they sleep.
Anya, who was just awakening from a nap rubbing her eyes and looking out the window said
"How long until we see the palaces, Mama."
They drove in to Dresden from the eastern hills, as they crossed the Augustus Bridge; Guenter held his breath, gasps of delight came from the other children. The scene in front of them looked like a mirage, an illustration from a fairytale, a figment of the imagination. Lined up along the Elbe river were magnificent buildings, spires, domes, theaters and palaces, the buildings varied in size and shape and even from a distance they could see the fine detail. They were seeing for the first time the outward grandeur of the long line of Saxon kings including Augustas and his son, who from the 15th century had transformed Dresden from a small, poor village on the Elbe to a thriving city. It had become the center of German cultural activity with a masterful ensemble of baroque architecture attracting a stream of intellectuals and artists from across Europe.
Dresden was referred to as the "Florence on the Elbe".
The magnificence of all that lay before him left Gunter breathless, he heard gasps of delight from the other children. As they drew nearer and nearer Guenter felt as though a veil was being lifted and he was entering a new dimension of human experience. He had never imagined cities of the world could look so magnificent.
He rolled down the window wanting to inhale the scent of this new discovery; he wanted to become part of it. He felt a sudden jubilance beyond comprehension. On top of one church, his mother named the Hofkirche, he could see statues of saints standing with their arms open to the sky. Shadowed against the sky they looked alive, some seemed to be walking holding long staffs at their side. He felt so energized he wanted to jump out of the car and run through the streets of Dresden shouting and pointing to the buildings:
“Look, look, see how beautiful this is!
He wanted to run to each building and touch it. He loved the cherubic faces and plump little bodies of the puttees beaming down from shadowy crevices in the ornate buildings; they seemed to be urging the children passing by to delight in their play.
Margarete directed Reiner to the Neumarkt where she said they could park the car and see the Frauenkirche. Then they could walk around. She added that they only had one hour to explore before going to Marianne’s house which was thirty miles away. Reaching the broad square of the Neumarkt with its lovely residential townhouses with red rooftops, Guenter spontaneously opened the car door and jumped out. He ran to the center of the square and saw before him the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) completed in 1743 as a Protestant Cathedral by the King of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, a Catholic. It subsequently became Europe’s largest Protestant cathedral.
Looking up at the enormous bell shaped dome made of solid stone, with four cupolas turrets, Guenter felt dwarfed by its size, yet it held the opposite affect on his spirit which seemed to grow in joy with each step closer. Completely unaware that he was looking at one of the most dramatic examples of Baroque architecture ever built, instinctively he was connecting to the perfection and glory of its distinctive presence. The Baroque period coming after Roman and Greek Classicism was characterized by dramatic, spacious expression, different in tone from all that had preceded. It evoked a deeper meaning which seemed to touch the soul of the boy.
After walking around the Frauenkirche several times and listening to the deep, plaintive tones of the church bells, the family trooped inside. His mother carried the youngest baby while Reiner carried the two year old. The spectacular church was quiet, empty and peaceful. It was designed on three different levels, the first reached up almost to the first cupola which narrowed, opening to a second cupola. Red upholstered seats were designed in a circular, opera-like arrangement all with clear views of the centerpiece; the alter. As the family walked to the cathedral’s center and looked up at the alter. Anya cried out:
“Oh look at the beautiful angel”
An ethereal figure of a full sized angel appearing to have flown in from the high window was poised over the alter. “
“Beautiful,” murmured Margarete while her eyes locked on the soaring Silbermann organ.
“Imagine”, she said, “Johann Sebastian Bach sat here and gave concerts. If only we could hear that organ play.” she said wistfully.
Pointing to the gallery above the inner dome:
“That is where the choir sings, I remember their voices seemed to float down from heaven”.
Then looking quickly at her watch she said:
“We must leave now and walk by the Palace and the Zwinger museum but we must hurry before it gets dark”
Guenter feeling safe inside the Frauenkirche didn’t want to leave. He felt there was something alive in this space, he looked up at the outer dome, he could see the sky peeping through. His eyes wanted to feast on every corner of this magical spot. He watched the sun slanting through the windows, splashing beams of light on the shining marble floor. It was as though everything converged from outside and inside to create a circular ring of beauty. It occurred to his eight-year old imagination that once he stepped outside this circle, the spell would break, and he would never again be able to capture this reverie. He didn’t notice that his family has already left the church until his brother Reiner returned with a frown on his face and grabbed him by the arm. “Let’s go”
Filled with excitement they walked the cobbled streets toward the Zwinger Palais, they passed the high wall of the Palace stopping to admire the mural of blue and white porcelain tiles depicting the entire Wettin dynasty “Procession of Princes” on horseback. The city was becoming dark the buildings were old and dark but for Guenter it held a wonderful lightness.
Anya, wishing to find princesses in long dresses, was distressed to see so many refugees, mostly women and children looking worn out and hungry, their noses red and runny from the cold. Anya, holding on to her brother’s hand said it made her very sad and frightened to see them.
There was something about all the people that put a pall over their excitement but they still wanted to see the exact spot where their Mother and Father had first met at the Zwinger.
Walking along, looking up at the beautiful architecture, Guenter kept seeing little puttees smiling down and pointing a finger at them. Reaching the Zwinger they walked under the big baroque arch and into a beautiful quadrangle filled with waterless fountains. The impressive building formed a huge rectangle.
They stopped midway through the rectangle, “
“We don’t have time to go inside but it is filled with a wonderful collection of paintings from all over the world. Maybe on the way back home we can stop again,” Margarete said optimistically.
“Now I will show you the exact spot where I met your father.”
She suddenly sat down on a bench; they all looked at her wide –eyed.
“Yes” she said laughing. “This is the exact spot where we met. Your father was studying at one end of this seat and I was at the other. After a week of not addressing each other we began to talk when a little girl’s ball rolled over here.” She pointed to a spot midway under the bench.
“We both bent to pick it up at the same time. Our heads knocked together. Your Papa was very concerned and kept saying how awfully sorry he was. We became friends after that.”
The children all giggling sat on the seat,
“You be Papa, I will be Mama”
They wanted a game. Standing back and watching them, Ingrid felt satisfied she had accomplished her goal.
They left Dresden and drove outside the city in the direction of Reichenbach. The mood in the car was a mixture of joy and sadness.
Seeing the crowds of refugees had made them think of the war, and the Red Army again, but the experience of seeing Dresden had opened a new page in their young experience of life’s possibilities. Its fairytale beauty was etched in their imaginations. Guenter kept recalling the images; he wanted to treasure these images to keep them like photographs tucked into his mind.
After becoming lost a few times, as darkness was descending they finally arrived at Aunt Marianne’s. They could see the house through a large gate, with a long driveway in front. It had a single light over the front door just as she had promised.
Guenter leapt out of the car and opened the gate, Aunt Marianne came to the door even before they knocked, wearing a large blue apron. She was a tall, formidable looking woman, but when she saw the family standing shyly on her doorstep she opened her arms wide embracing all of them together and hurrying them inside. Guenter’s two teenage cousins, Hilde, and Derkle came to greet them, each immediately wanting to hold the baby Rolly and his two year old sister.
Aunt Marianne made Margarete sit in a soft chair next to the fire. Then with the help of Hilde and Derkle they took the two youngest children, changed and bathed them in warm sudsy water and placed them in a cot. All the while Aunt Marianne kept talking and telling them how delighted she was they had come. She had been worried about their long trip. On a nearby stove she was cooking soup in a big black pot. The children were delighted everything smelled good and they were hungry. Guenter looked around at the big kitchen and thought how cozy it was with its huge wooden beams stretching across the high ceiling.
He didn’t have any idea how long they would be staying but he felt comfortable in his aunt’s home.
When they sat down to eat, Aunt Marianne said grace and prayed that the war would soon end and Uncle Serge would come home. Over dinner, consisting of freshly baked bread and potato soup with carrots, she talked about Guenter’s uncle who was a soldier in the war. She hadn’t received word from him in over one year. This news saddened Guenter, he loved UncleSerge, and he missed his father, and it had only been twelve hours since they parted. He then recalled his father had told him the war was almost over so he must go on believing that things would get better.
Many rooms of the big farmhouse were closed off. There was no heat except from the fireplaces. Guenter and his brothers slept in one big room with two large beds under a pile of blankets.
All the girls including Anya, slept in another large room with blankets heaped on top of them. Ingrid his Aunt and the babies slept near the fireplace in the kitchen.
The next few days passed quickly. All the children were kept busy with chores during the day. The boys went outside and chopped wood for the fireplace, there was hardly any food left for the animals but they had to give them water and keep them together in the barn. The girls helped with cooking and cleaning. Ingrid and Aunt Marianne went to a small market nearby where they managed to buy some meager supplies to keep food on the table. The owner of the store said she might have to close soon that she was running out of supplies.
Aunt Helga, a practical woman, bought as much as she could and stored it in the cellar which also served as a bomb shelter.
A few days before Shrove Tuesday, Derkle and Hilde talked about going to the circus in Dresden, this created a lot of excitement around the dinner table, but Aunt Marianne said it would not be possible because they had to save the gasoline that was left in the car. Guenter and his brothers having heard about the famous Dresden circus were very disappointed. Aunt Marianne and Margarete talked about how great it was that the circus had gone on every year since the war started and was continuing to the delight of all the children who lived in the city. Derkle said;
“It shows how safe Dresden is.”
So many cities had been bombed by the British and Americans after the allies landed in Normandy. Looking at her daughter Aunt Marianne said, “We can never be certain about these things. War is unpredictable”
There was something prescient in her words. Two days later on Shrove Tuesday the children were all asleep Aunt Marianne heard a radio message instructing everybody in Dresden to go immediately to their cellars.
She ran to awaken all the children and send them downstairs.
Guenter’s mother picked up the baby and grabbed the two year-old and headed downstairs.
Guenter heard the terrifying sound of the first planes screeching across the sky coming very close to their roof. Just before entering the cellar they heard explosions coming from Dresden the sky lit up like lightening, they could see everything inside the house in the blazing light. Closing the door which did not entirely block out the sound Aunt Marianne spread out blankets across two large mattresses.
“Are they bombing Dresden”? Asked Reiner
The babies were crying.
“Don’t worry we will be safe down here” she tried to sound reassuring.
Anya began to cry “I’m scared, Mama” she said running to clutch at her mother.
“We will be O K the noise won’t last” Margarete said holding Anya. Her voice a little shaky she began to sing Anya’s favorite lullaby.
Guenter lay down on the mattress. His mother said there was nothing anybody could do except wait. He turned his face to the wall trying to block out the sound. How could this be? He felt a cold sweat take over his body and he began to shiver. Could Reiner be right and that all these sounds were bombs exploding in Dresden. That would mean that everything they saw just two weeks ago was being destroyed.
That would mean that all those people who had come to find safety in Dresden were being killed. All the people, all the children they had seen, all that beauty. But how could this be. Is this what war was about? His shivering increased, he felt terrified. Up until now war was something he didn’t really understand. He had no experience with death. But the thought of all those people dying together was too much for him to bear. The explosions continued. He remembered some of the expressions on the faces of the children, like him they were delighting in seeing Dresden for the first time. When he had seen them, they were just like him, smiling up at the puttees. They had no understanding of war either. Why should they be killed? What had they done to deserve this? How could grownup people be so angry that they would do this? All these questions ran incessantly through his mind. Would they all die too, down here in Aunt Marianne’s cellar? His thoughts then went to his sister Ruth. Where was she? How could she manage to be on her own away from the family? Now that he knew what war was about he couldn’t bear to think of what she might be enduring. The bombs kept falling for almost half an hour. Then there was an eerie silence.
They waited for about fifteen minutes then Aunt Marianne went upstairs. Guenter followed her, he saw the flames over Dresden and the red sky spread for 30 kilometers reaching over their own roof.
She turned to him and said gently:
“We will go back downstairs, where we are safe and stay down there tonight.
Feeling cold and empty he followed her, returning to the mattress, covering himself, even his head, with the blanket. He was so cold that he thought he would never fall asleep. But he soon fell into a fitful slumber filled with bad dreams. Three hours later, at about 1:30 a. m., they were abruptly awakened by the sound of more bombs falling, this time the whole earth seemed to shake. The explosions came more rapidly. All the children sat up and began to cry. There was a chorus of crying that could not be quelled. Guenter’s mother, Aunt Marianne and the older siblings tried to distract them, but the children could not be consoled. This time the explosions lasted about 40 minutes. When they finally ended the children had cried themselves into exhaustion. Again there was an ominous silence.
It was shortly after 10:30 on the following morning of February 14; the last raid swept over the city and for 38 minutes pounded the rubble of what was left of Dresden.
When the all clear sounded (a long whistle) they went upstairs. Aunt Marianne and Margarete tried desperately to get things back to how they were before the bombing raid. The younger children responded to the warmth of the fire and the food but the older children were listless, despondent and uninterested in the food. They no longer chattered and laughed together.
‘How do you think Papa is? “ Reiner asked his voice just above a whisper.
“He will be fine” Margarete said trying to sound matter of fact. “Your Papa always makes the right decisions. He probably has not set out to follow us to Dresden yet. But he will come, you will see”.
This was a comforting thought to Guenter, who needed reassurance that somehow, at some point, this chaos would end.
Guenter went to the back window looking in the direction of Dresden. He could see some flames but mainly dark billowing clouds of smoking mingling with the low lying cloud cover.
‘What would be left’ he wondered. It frightened him to think of what could be spread out beneath those clouds. Then he walked to the front window, in the distance, on the street he could see what looked like crowds of people clustering together.
Aunt Marianne already had her coat on and was going out to see if she could get any news. Guenter asked if he could go too.
“Come’ she said, handing him his coat and hat.
Walking down the long driveway to the gate the air was chilly and smelled of cinders
They walked into the street where all the neighbors had gathered. Many people were walking as though heading for Dresden.
Aunt Marianne’s neighbor was standing with a group of women in the middle of the street. As Aunt Marianne and Guenter approached, Guenter noticed that most of the women were weeping.
”Three raids, must have been 180 firebombs, everybody in Dresden burned in the inferno”
One of the women informed Aunt Marianne,
“Think of the children all of those children enjoying the circus, How in the name of God could they do this?
The woman was very angry. Tears welled in Guenter’s eyes
“We never thought they would do it”, said another.
Aunt Marianne, hugged her neighbor briefly, then taking Guenter’s arm, said they should return home to the family.
Weeks passed the smell of fire became a daily reminder of the horrific firebombing of Dresden. The news of the Red Army coming closer added more fear, and although they knew the war was coming to a close-- there was no sense of relief. Would anybody care about the German people? That was doubtful. They were at the mercy of the British and Americans, and would bear the brunt of Hitler’s madness.
The March winds blew in cold bitterness, seeming to willfully inflame the open caustic wounds of war. Blizzard-like snow blanketed all of Saxony but nothing could hide the gaping hole and crumbled walls of a city that had stood nobly for more than seven centuries as a living tribute to the magnimity of the human potential.
For days after the bombing Guenter saw people streaming back and forth between Dresden and Chemnitz. A spectacle of human tragedy paraded by. Some wheeled carts with the dead bodies of relatives found in the rubble. He saw one man carrying the broken body of a child about six years old. They walked blindly, heads down, ebbing strength braced against the wind.
There were no cars moving on the road. His mother said that was because there was no petrol to fuel them.
“Well, how will Papa get here” he asked anxiously.
“He will find a way” his Mother reassured him. She answered with such confidence that he stopped asking.
Aunt Marianne made daily excursions to talk with the neighbors gathering news from people on the street and to pick up milk from the corner store. Guenter would listen to the horrific stories told about the devastation that lay in the wake of the bombing. He heard about people being sucked into the firestorm created by the bombs, and he heard them say over 135,000 people had been killed. The images Guenter carried of the Frauenkirche were irreconcilably shattered when a man hurrying up the hill breathlessly repeated the story he had heard that the Fraunkirche (Church of Our Lady) had withstood two day of firebombing.
“At first she did not fall….. from a distance everyone thought she would survive…. But then the huge dome just crumbled in on itself. There is only one wall standing. All that is left is piles of rubble!”
The man turned away abruptly and hurried on, head down, unbuttoned coat flapping behind him in the wind.
Later, thinking of these horrors, and trying to reconcile the remembered images that had brought such joy, Guenter personified the Frauenkirche, telling himself it had been brave, it had stood fast against the onslaught but the wound caused by the bombs lacerating its heart, had been too deep. It had died.
Again the question came “why did they do this”? No one seemed to have an answer. It was the question that he kept hearing over and over again.
Ever since the two nights of bombing the children were restless. Their childhood security, cruelly robbed, had left them with a sense of apprehension especially when darkness came. At night they stayed down in the cold cellar covered with heavy blankets. Margarete and Aunt Marianne would tell bedtime stories, and sing old lullabies and teach new songs which the children would learn quickly and in a spirit of fun would sing together until they drifted off.
Guenter would sleep for awhile then awaken and listen to the comforting murmur of his mother and Aunt Marianne speaking in hushed voices telling stories of their girlhood. He could tell by the way they were talking they must be recalling happy times. Sometimes they would laugh together. This made him feel better.
Yet, there were times when his mind wandered back to the dreadful screech of the planes over the rooftop and the sound of explosions that followed. Those sounds were etched in his mind. He wondered if it would happen again, would those planes return again. He pulled the blankets tightly around him and tried to imagine his father’s face. It is strange, he thought, that he couldn’t see that familiar face in its entirety. He could fit everything together except the eyes. It was like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces for the eyes missing. This bothered him so he decided to get up and tell his mother he needed a glass of water. She immediately told him to go back under the covers
‘It is much too cold.” She said. “I will bring it to you.”
The room was lit by a single candle. He watched her take a glass and pour the water from a crystal jug then she lifted the candle and holding it in one hand and the water in the other came toward him.
He looked around the room, his brothers were fast asleep.
Taking the glass from her he held it before him studying it for a moment, he liked the way the candlelight danced on the water it seemed to turn the glass into a golden goblet. Then he looked at her face, he could see her eyes looking at him with love. In a whisper, he asked;
“Mama, why did those planes drop bombs on Dresden”?
For a moment she hesitated, then said:
“Guenter, I really don’t know why. Everybody, including your father and I thought Dresden would be a safe place. But in war nobody can ever be sure. Now it’s coming to an end”.
He thought about what she said, then his voice hoarse and just above a whisper;
“But all those people we saw, all those children, are they all dead,” he asked tremulously.
She reached out to hold him smoothing his hair while she talked.
‘Many people died, nobody knows just how many, but my little one, we must be thankful that it didn’t happen the day we were exploring Dresden”
Will the planes come again, Mama?”
“No, kleine libling. The planes will not come again. Now go back to sleep thinking of beautiful things, like your garden at home.”
She kissed him “Goodnight” and he felt her cool hand soothing his forehead.
With mixed images of the mischievous puttees, the refugee children shivering in the cold and the beautiful buildings he soon fell asleep exhausted by the intensity of his feelings.
Two week passed, Guenter rose early each morning so he could accompany his Aunt Marianne to the corner store. Walking down the hill, Marianne would lower her head to keep the snow from its relentless bombardment of her face, but the snow made Guenter feel better. He walked with his head back, hanging on to Marianne’s arm, looking up at the sky. Snowflakes stuck to his hair and eyelashes. It felt soft and good. The snow was taking the smell of cinders from the air and everything in the distance was covered in a brilliant white blanket.
Although all the shelves were bare Aunt Marianne managed to get fresh milk for the children and some flour for baking bread. The storekeeper kept telling them that although she might continue to get milk and dark flour, it was about all she would have for a long time. Her brother came on a horse drawn wagon as often as he could, with a huge urn of milk on his cart. The women from the neighborhood would gather in the shop with empty baskets; talking, crying and grieving about loved ones lost in Dresden. Guenter listened as one woman cried inconsolably saying she had searched for three weeks for her mother but to no avail. She still could not find her.
“She was so strong. I know she is alive somewhere looking for me!” she cried.
While sobbing uncontrollably she kept twisting her long black scarf in her hands, her distraught eyes were red and swollen. Several other women volunteered to go with her the next day to continue the search. As their kindness penetrated her sobbing she gradually became calmer.
After agreeing on a time and embracing each other, the women parted, promising to meet at the shop the following day.
Returning from their daily mission, one day, looking up the long incline of the hill they saw in the distance, outside Aunt Marianne’s gate a tall man alighting from a horse drawn wagon.
“Papa, Papa, shouted Guenter running as fast as his legs could carry him up the hill. His father turned and started toward him opening his arms as they came closer. They embraced warmly. Guenter kept looking up at his father, his eyes shining; it had only been two months but his father looked thinner and older.
“I can’t believe it is really you Papa”
As they walked to the front door his father paused looking at him and winking.
“Wait till they see you”. Gunter cried.
He put his finger over his lips, a mischievous look on his face, lifted the heavy knocker and knocked loudly on the door. The entire family, led by his startled mother, came running in response to the demanding sound. There were shouts of surprise and joy. The atmosphere of the house, although alight and noisy with the sounds of playful children had been somber, and heavy with worry. Now it was suddenly transformed. Their father was alive and well. He would take them home to Silesia.
In the evening, they sat beside the fireplace listening attentively to his plans for bringing the family back to Silesia. He had come through the city but could not talk about what he had seen
He spread a map out on the table marking the route they would take. They planned to leave on May 24, 1945.
Relatives and other refugees from Silesia came to help in the planning of supplies and navigation for the trek, which had to be carried out by horse and covered wagons. Guenter was delighted to see his Uncle Uter, whom he had last seen at his Grandfather’s house at Christmas. He and the other children loved to listen to Uter’s stories. Uter carried a bag strapped to his shoulders the children hoped he had a story book to read to them.
Passing through Dresden
As they approached the city of Dresden, nothing had prepared them for the terrible sight of destruction. All the bombs they had heard falling from the sky had demolished everything as far as the eye could see. All the beautiful buildings were gone, only crumbled walls were left standing in the rubble. Interspersed amid the rubble Guenter could see fragments of heads and limbs from smashed statues. The sun was shining from a cloudless sky on a searing, disorienting image of chaos and destruction. Reacting to the devastation that lay before them, Guenter instinctively shut his eyes as though in a bad dream, at the same time he stifled a sob that swelled painfully in his throat.
That sob: a plea against the darkness, once released, would join a dense chorus of subdued cries that arc and spill down through the ages when men, women, and children are forced to witness the unmitigated evil of man’s inhumanity to man.
Rubble lay everywhere, and still, despite the February rain and snow, the pungent odor of fire remained. All that beauty, a monumental tribute to the glory of the human spirit, now lay in pieces. He thought of the bodies that had never been found. Facing this harsh reality was too incomprehensible for a young boy’s mind to cope with. He sat in the wagon covering his eyes and struggling amidst the chaos of his feelings. On the path through the rubble, the lead wagon paused a few moments so everyone could see what had become of Dresden.
Then the lead wagon moved on. The family wagon lurched forward to continue the journey to Silesia, nobody uttered a word. What was too terrifying to comprehend could not be matched by mere words, but from somewhere deep within the boy, lifting his head and looking back at the terrible scene in disbelief, came a vow, that if he lived to become a man, he would help Dresden in whatever way he could.
To be continued.