Based on a true story gleaned from the memories of family members sixty years after the events, from photographs and documents, and from published works of nonfiction describing the times and events described in the narrative, We Came From Konigsberg is set in January 1945.
The Soviet Army is poised for the final push through East Prussia and Poland to Berlin. Elisabet Daeker and her five young sons are in Königsberg, East Prussia and have heard the shocking stories of Russian atrocities. They’re desperate to escape to the perceived safety of Germany. To survive, Elisabet faces hardships endured at the hands of Nazi hardliners, of Soviet troops bent on rape, pillage and murder, and of Allied cruelty in the Occupied Zones of post-war Germany.
GENRE: Historical: World War ISBN: 978-1-922233-08-0 ASIN: B00CVP98Y6 Word Count: 124,984
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
5.0 out of 5 stars Koningsberg
Written with incredible sensitivity. Based on the true story of a wonderful mother who leads and protects her children on an overland journey from Koningsberg to Berlin through one of the worst winters ever recorded, keeping them ahead of the approaching Russian Army during World War 2. I didn't want it to end and shed some tears at the finish.
Kapitel Eins (1)
The navigator sat bent over his charts, the bone-shaking roar and vibration of four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines almost ignored as he plotted the course of the Lancaster bomber. He checked his figures once more and thumbed the intercom.
“Five minutes out from Bornholm Island, Skipper. Ahead and slightly to port.”
“Roger, Dickie. I see it.”
Dickie counted down the five minutes and spoke again. “Correct course to 090 degrees, Skipper.”
Dickie felt the Avro Lancaster bank slightly to starboard.
“Coming up on 090 degrees…mark.”
“Forty-two minutes until we turn onto our bombing run, Skipper. Then nine minutes to target.”
The navigator went over his calculations, noted the time and checked it against sunset times for their position. Night would be blanketing the earth beneath them, but at twenty thousand feet they still experienced a glimmer of rapidly fading daylight. He checked his figures once more, then flicked off his desk light and drew the heavy curtain back. Forward, in the darkness, he could make out the hunched shapes of the Skipper and the co-pilot, the faint glow of their instruments, and beyond them only the blackness of the eastern sky. He knew, though, that in front, behind, and on either side were other Lancasters, all moving along parallel courses that would, within the hour, bring them over the East Prussian city of Königsberg. The bomb load dropped on the city would be devastating.
“You could almost feel sorry for the poor buggers,” he murmured.
* * *
The sun set through a bank of low cloud that evening at the end of August 1944, flooding the smoke-tainted air with ominous shades of red and orange. Families walked the tree-lined streets and parks of old Königsberg, enjoying a brief promenade in the warm evening air. Workers laboured to remove the rubble from bomb-ravaged sites or quench the fires that still smouldered in the eastern quarter of the old city. From time to time, families and workers alike looked up into the darkening skies with varying degrees of apprehension or fear. The waxing moon, washed out and pale in the western sky and just over three-quarter full, was still several hours from setting, and would later cast its pallid glow over a darkened city. Moonlight, and the scattered glow of embers from burnt-out buildings would, that night, aid any cold and hungry eyes looking down through bomb-sights on the city from twenty thousand feet.
The air war had largely passed by Königsberg, the city being too far distant from the main theatres of conflict for bombers to reach easily. However, German military reverses on the Eastern Front were changing this: Soviet aircraft were increasingly raiding the area, but so far had inflicted little damage. Then three nights previously, a large force of British Lancaster bombers had suddenly appeared out of the western darkness and rained down a deadly storm of explosives on the unsuspecting eastern suburbs. The fires still burned, and though casualties had been light, few people had slept each night since until the approach of daylight had removed the likelihood of renewed attack.
Darkness fell, shrouding the old city, and its citizens hurried about their business, praying that the enemy would leave their home alone. The men of the Luftschutzpolizei–air raid wardens–made their rounds, searching out unnecessary lights and checking on bomb shelters. Motor traffic died away and silence descended, broken only by the distant sounds of the rail yard, and the murmur of roosting sparrows in the trees that lined the streets. Stars emerged, fading and brightening as skeins of smoke sifted across the sky. The moonlight strengthened, casting a silver glow over the waiting city.
Elisabet Daeker, a young woman of Königsberg, was too busy to wait for enemy bombs to fall. She had a large family to feed, and no man to help her. The bombs of three nights ago had fallen far from her home and had not fallen since, so she put all thoughts of the war from her mind, and concentrated on the needs of her family. Her mother had died the previous year but her seventy-five year old father still lived in a small apartment–fiercely independent and resisting any attempts by his children to take care of him. Her mother had left Elisabet her share of the proceeds from the sale of the farm years before, so she still had Reich marks in the bank.
Although food rationing limited the diet of the citizens, Elisabet had managed to provide for her family by judicious use of official rations, augmented by fresh produce from her uncle Erich’s farm near Elbing, south of the city. These occasional shipments of eggs, milk, butter and vegetables–sometimes even a little meat–almost fell under the category of black marketeering and might have attracted severe penalties–incarceration or worse–if the local officials had known and chosen to act. However, her late husband had been a Party member, and if the officials knew of any wrongdoing, they turned a blind eye, looking after their own. Elisabet disregarded such dangers for her family’s sake, though she was cautious in her breaking of the law. Nothing was to be gained by overt resistance to punitive laws, but she was not above a little subtle subterfuge if it benefited her family.
Elisabet lifted the lid of the iron pot on the stove, releasing a gust of scented steam. She stirred the stew and tasted the simmering liquid, nodding with satisfaction.
“Helmut,” she called, wiping her hands on her apron. “Come and set the table. Kurt, make sure your brothers have washed their hands.”
A small dark-haired boy ran into the kitchen and stopped abruptly, lifting his face and sniffing, a smile breaking out across his face. “It smells nice, Mutti.”
Behind him, a larger tow-headed boy bumped into the smaller child and shoved him to one side. “You’re in the way again, Kurt.”
“Mutti called us both.”
“But she told you to get the children’s’ hands washed, dummkopf. So what are you doing in here?”
“Helmut, be kind to your brother,” Elisabet reproved. “Kurt, go and do as I said.”
“Yes Mutti,” Kurt said, and ducked out of the room. Helmut shrugged and crossed to the sideboard, where he took out six large plates and six small ones. He carried them across to the kitchen table and set them out, adding cutlery, cups and glasses.
Elisabet carried over a wooden cutting board and knife, together with a loaf of fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven and a small dish of butter. She sliced the bread and lightly buttered it, setting out one slice on each small plate. The deep yellow butter melted into the warm bread, pooling like liquid gold, the aroma of the bread augmenting the rich smell of the stew.
Two small boys and a toddler came tumbling and laughing into the kitchen, ushered in by Kurt. The dark-haired boy pulled them into a rough line near the sink for inspection, though the toddler ran straight to his mother.
“Hands all washed?” Elisabet asked. “Let me see.” She bent to examine the upraised hands, lifting them gently to her face to imbibe the fresh scents of soap and the unique smell of each of her children. “Very good, Werner…you too Günter.” The toddler tugged at her skirts and she turned her attention to him with a smile. “Hmm, what’s this, Joachim, you seem to have missed a spot. Here…” She rubbed at the offending smudge of dirt with the corner of her apron before turning her attention to the older boys. “Good, Kurt…and you, Helmut.” Elisabet nodded her satisfaction and gestured toward the table. “Take your places, children.”
Elisabet served the meal, ladling out generous portions of the vegetable stew onto the plates, and pouring half glasses of milk for the three youngest children. The older boys and she enjoyed cups of weak ersatz coffee. They set to with a will, and for several minutes the only sound was of the clatter of cutlery against china and polite requests for another slice of bread.
As the first pangs of hunger were assuaged, murmurings of conversation arose. The two younger boys, Werner and Günter, chattered away in low tones about some private subject, sometimes including Joachim, while the older boys talked of things that had occupied their day. Elisabet listened, and only interjected if the conversation was in danger of straying from the paths of wholesomeness.
“Konrad Schultz showed me his dagger today,” Helmut remarked. “It’s a beauty. His father gave it to him because he’s being sworn in as Hitlerjugend on Saturday.”
“Did he let you hold it?” Kurt asked.
Helmut hesitated, struggling with his desire to appear more important. “No, but he held it close so I could see it properly. I’m going to have one when I join, aren’t I, Mutti?”
“We’ll see, but that’s a long way off. You can’t join until you’re fourteen.”
“But I can join the Deutsches Jungvolk when I’m ten.”
“That’s a year away yet. Besides, I need you to help me at home, Helmut. You must be the man of the house.”
Pride warred with disappointment in the young boy’s face, but he shrugged and changed the topic of conversation. “Anton says there are dead people in the ruins of Kirchen Strasse.”
“We will hope not,” Elisabet said. “However, that is not a suitable thing to talk about at the dinner table,” she added.
“Afterward?” Kurt asked.
“No. How was school today?”
“All right. Two boys got into a fight in the playground.”
“I saw that,” Helmut said. “Victor started it. He said Rudi’s mother was a…a Pole.”
“What’s a Pole?” Werner asked.
“Someone who comes from Poland, dummkopf,” Helmut jeered.
“Enough, Helmut,” Elisabet said. “Apologise to your brother.”
“Yes, Mutti. Sorry Kleine Junge.”
“Why is somebody from Poland bad?” Günter asked.
“Herr Vogler says they are untermenschen, not real people. He says…”
“That is enough, Helmut. You should not be listening to Herr Vogler. He is a troublemaker.”
“He’s our teacher and a Party member…”
“Yes, and you are too young to tell the difference between propaganda and truth. Do not believe everything that man says.”
“Papa was a Party member too,” Günter said.
“Where did you hear that?” Elisabet asked. “You were too young when he left.”
Günter glanced at Helmut, who shrugged. “I told him,” the older boy admitted.
“Your father was a good man. Nothing like Herr Vogler. You shouldn’t compare them just because they were both National Socialists. Lots of people belong to the Party and many of them are decent, honest people who are just trying to…” Elisabet broke off and took a deep breath, calming herself. “All I’m saying is, you shouldn’t judge people by who they happen to be, only by what they do. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mutti,” Helmut muttered. The other boys nodded, though the younger ones looked doubtful. Joachim just giggled and beat the table with his spoon.
“Now, help me clear away the dishes and I’ll read you a story.”
For several minutes, the only sound in the kitchen was that of plates being gathered up and placed by the sink. Elisabet ran water and added a little soap, scrubbing them clean and handing them to the older boys to dry. Werner and Günter put them away in the sideboard, while Joachim sat at his mother’s feet and dabbled his fingers in splashes of water that spilled onto the hardwood floor. As she reached the last dish, Elisabet stopped and cocked her head, listening.
Helmut looked at his mother. “What’s wrong, Mutti?”
The other boys put down the plates in their hands and turned towards their mother, apprehension starting to show on their faces. Distantly, a siren climbed in pitch, winding up laboriously and holding its desolate, wailing cry for half a minute before descending to a growl. It rose again, and now another, nearer, started up, like wolves baying at a bomber’s moon.
Elisabet dried her hands on her apron and turned to face her children. “Go and put on your shoes and coats immediately. Use the toilet if you need to and wait for me in the hall.”
Günter started to cry. “What is it, Mutti? What’s happening?”
“Just another air raid. Nothing to worry about, but we need to go to the shelter, just like we did three nights ago. Nothing happened to us then, did it? Now get ready, quickly.”
“It’s those British bombers again, isn’t it?” Helmut asked.
“Very likely, now go and get ready–hurry.”
“I hate them,” Helmut declared. He ran to get his coat and the other children followed.
Elisabet set about collecting what they would need for the evening. Since the last air raid three nights before, she had prepared a bag containing blankets and cushions, some cork-stoppered bottles of water which she had renewed daily, a tin cup, and a box of homemade biscuits. She quickly checked the contents before lacing up her sturdy shoes and shrugging into a heavy coat. The evening was warm, but she knew it was better to have too much in the way of clothing than too little.
“Is everyone ready?” she called out.
Elisabet went out into the hall and checked over each child, making sure their coats were buttoned and shoelaces tied. Werner had his shoes on the wrong feet so she knelt and quickly changed them over.
“Can we take our toys?” Günter asked.
“Only if you can fit them in your pockets. Now hurry, the planes are getting closer.”
The children scurried to find a favourite toy and thrust it into a pocket, and within two minutes were back in the hall, though Joachim dragged a small stuffed horse behind him. Elisabet added it to her bag and took her youngest son by the hand.
“All right, stay close together. Helmut looks after Werner, Kurt looks after Günter, and Joachim stays by me.” Elisabet picked up the heavy bag and switched out the light so it would not contravene the black-out laws when she opened the door.
The sound of the sirens rising and falling was much louder out in the street, and the western sky was lit by moving pillars of light showing up in the smoke and dust-filled air. Yellow flashes and the distant crump of explosions told of the inexorable approach of the falling bombs and of the anti-aircraft fire directed by the city’s defenders. Every now and then, a ghostly cross would hang in the columns of light for a few moments and flashes of light would march across the sky to meet it. The howl of the sirens now had a counterpoint of sharp explosions and the darkened streets were lit as though from a summer lightning storm.
“Hurry.” Elisabet led her family down the street and round the corner to a small beer hall whose cellar had been turned into a bomb shelter for surrounding streets. The beer hall itself was a burnt-out shell, having succumbed to a fire unrelated to enemy action earlier in the year. A Luftschutzpolizei guard ushered them down the steps as the first explosions sounded off to the west.
“Hurry, Frau Daeker,” the guard urged. “Those verdamten British bombs are coming closer.”
The cellar was lit by electric bulbs strung on wires from the ceiling and already contained forty or fifty people–mostly women and children. Elisabet guided her children to a vacant section near the bottom of the stairs and sat them down in a small circle on the dusty floor. A woman sitting nearby with her two sons and young daughter smiled and made room for them. The occupants of the shelter looked toward the newest arrivals, some nodding a greeting or saying something, others just looking away after a few moments.
The guard closed the cellar doors and the sound of the sirens and explosions became muted, though a faint vibration could still be detected through the walls and floor of the shelter. Every now and then the floor would shudder as a bomb fell somewhere close, and a deep ‘crump’ would make people look up in alarm. The electric lighting flickered and a few people readied candles in preparation for a power failure.
Elisabet sat her children around her, huddling close, with Joachim in her arms and told them stories–some bedtime ones from the big book of Grimm fairy tales they had at home, and when the subject matter seemed a bit dark for their present situation, she switched to tales of her childhood and stories of her parents, the boys’ Opa and Oma. They laughed at her recollections, for she tried to talk only of good memories–sleigh rides in the winter, picking apples in the autumn orchards, or running along country lanes in the spring when all the trees were in new leaf and bluebells carpeted the forest glades. As she talked, the woman and her children drew close to listen, and Elisabet made room for them.
“That is lovely,” the woman said, after an anecdote about escaped chickens and rounding them up. “You were so fortunate to grow up in the country.” She blushed. “I’m sorry, my name is Marlene Theiss. These are my children–Jan, Ernst and Lotte.”
A fair-haired boy of about twelve looked up, his expression intense and serious. “Guten abend, Frau.” His brother, slightly darker and half his age, nodded his head shyly, but his sister, a beautiful blonde child of ten smiled and said ‘hello’. Elisabet responded with introductions of herself and all her children. The boys greeted the Theiss family politely, though Joachim said nothing and Helmut eyed Jan with wary hostility.
“You did not grow up in the country?” Elisabet asked.
Marlene shook her head. “I was born in Berlin, and grew up there. A big city is not such a great place for children.”
“Königsberg is a lovely place though.”
“Oh yes, I came here to be closer to my husband Dolf. He was given the post of Stationmaster on the trains until…until he volunteered. He could not bear to see other men marching off to glory and him being left behind. He…” Tears gleamed in Marlene’s eyes and she looked away.
Elisabet reached over and squeezed the other woman’s hand. “He volunteered for the Front?” She sighed. “Mine did too and…”
A roar and crash of timbers cut her off as the cellar shuddered and shook. The lights flickered and went out, plunging the room into darkness. Women and children screamed and men shouted out in alarm. Elisabet clutched her children close and in the darkness held little Lotte along with Joachim. The lights flared, dimmed and steadied, and a fine rain of plaster fell from the cracked ceiling. People looked at one another, fear slowly being replaced on most faces by relief, though some now displayed anger. Crying children were comforted by their mothers and conversation started up again, though the tenor was now very different.
“Those verdamten British swine,” swore an old man. “Who wages war on the innocent, eh? If they were down here instead of in their cowardly airplanes, I’d show them.”
“Sure you would old man,” jeered a youth in the far corner of the cellar. “It’s quite a different thing when you have to face a man with a weapon in his hands. You wouldn’t be so brave then.”
“What makes you think I haven’t, you junger Spund? I’ll have you know I was in the Great War, when our victorious army showed those damn British and French how to fight.”
The young man laughed. “Yet you lost.”
“We were stabbed in the back by the Bolsheviks and Jews at home.”
“That’s right,” another man exclaimed. “But not this time. Our Führer is leading us to victory.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard,” muttered a one-legged man seated on a bench along one wall. “The Russians are coming.”
“That is defeatist talk,” snapped a thin old man with a small smudge of moustache just like his revered leader.
“Can you deny it? Listen to the stories of soldiers invalided home from Russia. Things are not going well for us in the East.”
“You dare to say we are defeated?” spluttered the thin old man. “My son is SS Unterscharführer Brandt in the Auschwitz Konzentrationslager, and if he heard you say that, he’d drag you out and arrest you. You’d probably be shot, and good riddance, I say.”
There were murmurs of agreement from several other people and One-leg hunched head down on his bench and tried not to meet anyone’s eyes.
“Does anyone else agree with this traitor?” Old Man Brandt asked. “The Führer has promised us victory, and how indeed can we lose when our enemies are sub-human? I mean, Jews and Slavs and Russians–one good German soldier is worth a hundred of them.”
“I don’t doubt it, but what of the British and Americans in the West?” asked another man. “I’ve heard that they are good fighters and have invaded France and Italy.”
“They will be thrown back into the sea. Our Führer has promised it.”
“Well, that’s all right then,” the man said with a smile.
“Your comments sound defeatist too,” Brandt said. “I should report you.”
The man shrugged. “I only say what many people think.” The cellar shuddered again, the lights flickering but remaining on, and more dust fell from the ceiling. “They promised us that no bombs would fall on German soil, yet here we are.”
Brandt snarled and glared around him. “The only reason our enemies succeed in anything they do is because we have traitors in our midst, people who give less than full commitment to our eventual victory.”
“Many of us here have made sacrifices for the Fatherland, old man. I look around and I see fatherless children, widows, other fine German women whose husbands, brothers or sons are facing death on a daily basis, while you sit here in relative safety boasting of a son whose only risk is in guarding helpless men locked behind barbed wire, far from the Front.”
Brandt flushed and his voice quivered. “How dare you, you traitor. I demand to know your identity. I intend to report you to the authorities.”
The man stood, a tall man with a lined face and haunted eyes, grey haired though still young. He stood to attention in his rumpled Volkssturm uniform and faced his accuser. “I’d salute, old man, but I lost my right arm fighting the Russians at Kharkov eighteen months ago. Eleventh Panzer division. I also lost a brother and nearly a hundred of my comrades in the same battle. I returned home to find my house destroyed, my family dead, and everything I knew in ruins. Do not talk to me of sacrifice and commitment.” He started to sit down again and stopped. “Oh yes, you need my name to report me–I am Zugführer Ernst Hirsch of the Königsberg Volkssturm.”
He sat down and slowly people started clapping. A woman passed him a biscuit, and another, a cup of ersatz coffee. Old Man Brandt visibly shrivelled though he still scribbled the man’s name down on a piece of paper.
Despite the continued rain of bombs and the wail of sirens heard mutedly through the shelter doors, few of the explosions came near enough to shake the nerves or precipitate more dust, and the children fell asleep, curled up in blankets near their mothers. Elisabet and Marlene stayed close, sharing resources and taking comfort in a common experience.
“Do you think he is right?” Marlene whispered.
“Who? The old man?”
“No, the one he accused of defeatism, the man with the missing leg. The one who said the Russians are coming.”
Elisabet was silent for a time. She debated the risk of saying what she thought and weighed it against her feeling for another woman struggling to bring up children alone. In the end, she decided to trust Marlene, though she cast a wary eye toward the thin old man who still glared angrily at the young Zugführer.
“I think it very likely the Russians are coming,” she whispered.
“But the Army will protect us, won’t it? The radio broadcasts say we are winning victory after victory.”
“To say otherwise is defeatist,” Elisabet observed. “Yet our victories edge ever closer to home. I think there is something they are not telling us.”
Marlene shivered. “What are the Russians like? You hear stories.”
“I think they are men like other men.”
Elisabet smiled. “There are some good ones, as I’m sure you know. What I meant was that Russians are not monsters, merely men who are no doubt angry that their homes have been destroyed and their families killed. They may want to take revenge on Germans if they get the chance.”
Marlene thought about this. “But we are innocent. I’ve never hurt a Russian.”
Elisabet checked that her children were asleep. Joachim shifted and opened his eyes briefly before falling asleep again. “We may be innocent ourselves, but terrible things have been done in the name of the German people,” she said. “When my husband was home on leave, he would tell me of things he saw in Russia and Poland. Men and women killed indiscriminately, even children. Villages burnt and cattle slaughtered. My husband said that if ever the Russians were in a position to invade Germany, they would exact a terrible vengeance. He said if that ever happened, I was to flee to the West as fast as I could.”
“How? There are restrictions on people leaving the city, and even if you could get permission, where would you go?”
“I don’t know. My grandparents owned a farm near Elbing. My uncle owns it now. I could probably go there.”
“If the Russians come to Königsberg, they’ll come to Elbing too,” Marlene pointed out. “I think I just want to get as far away from Russia as possible.”
“I have relatives in Dresden,” Elisabet said. “That should be safe enough.”
“Providing you can get permission to go there.” Marlene yawned and shook her head. “How much longer do you think this air raid will go on for?”
“Who knows? Get some sleep if you want to. I’ll keep an eye on the children.”
Elisabet got up and went round the children, drawing up the blankets and adjusting cushions in an attempt to make them comfortable. Werner woke while she knelt beside him.
“Is it over, Mutti?”
“Not yet. Go back to sleep.”
The young girl, Lotte, was fast asleep beside her mother, and Elisabet settled herself with her back to the wall where she could see all eight children and Marlene. She smiled as she looked at each of her sons in turn, and then at the blonde curls of little Lotte.
“What is her life going to be like, living in such a terrible time?” she whispered to herself. “I, at least, enjoyed a happy and peaceful childhood…”
* * *
Memories are strange things. I have very few from an early age, most being little more than half-remembered incidents that seemed to happen to someone else. Most of my early memories are about nothing–or almost nothing. For instance, I can remember sitting in my mother’s lap near a warm wood fire on a winter’s evening, and watching my brother Hans playing on the floor with his toys. My father sat opposite us, reading a newspaper and smoking his pipe. The scent of the tobacco smoke was quite distinctive and smelling it again always brings this scene to mind. Nothing else happened–there was nothing to imprint it on my memory, yet there it is, my earliest memory. I must have been no more than three or four years old.
Other early memories are jumbled and it is hard to put them in order. I can remember helping my mother in the kitchen and being covered in flour. I can dimly recall being afraid of something that I thought lived under my bed until father showed me I could chase it away by standing up to it and refusing to be afraid. I remember school and a playground bully who made me cry. Hans came to my aid and dried my tears, picking a wildflower from beside the road to bring a smile to my face once more. I enjoyed some lessons–ones on the geography of distant lands, or being read poetry, or painting. I remember those quite clearly, and can even call up images of some of my teachers, but though I must have learnt arithmetic and history, I cannot recall a single thing from those classes.
The different seasons figure prominently in my early memories–hot summer days where we would picnic in the shade of leafy trees, or swim in the sea, and warm still evenings when father would take us outside to look at the stars. He could name many of them and Hans learnt them off, reciting them back to him to earn a word of praise, but I just wove stories around their names. I would tell these to my mother and she would laugh and clap her hands at my inventiveness.
Autumn brought the ripening of crops and we would all go to my grandparents’ farm near Elbing to pick apples. I would help with the milking and watch as my Oma churned the milk in an old wooden churn, bringing out globs of fresh gold butter. We would go down to the seashore too, making a day trip of it, letting the chill wind off the Frisches Haff bring a glow to our cheeks, the salt spray lifting from the crashing waves and matting our hair, sand grains stinging our bare legs. Our feet would sink in the white sand or crunch on the drifts of broken shell as we collected shiny stones, and once–the incident stands out in my memory–father found a small sea-polished piece of amber, gold and translucent, looking like a drop of liquid sunlight. He had it set in silver as a brooch for my mother.
Winter is a hard season, but can bring joy to children. I used to play in the snow and make snowmen with my brother’s help. Sometimes my father would pull us through the snowy country lanes on a sled, or we would race down a hill, laughing and screaming with exhilaration as the icy air burnt our cheeks. I remember hot milk drinks in front of the fire, and the deliciously safe feeling of sitting in our little parlour of an evening while a storm raged impotently outside. Father would turn the radio on and through the crackle we would hear strains of operatic music or news broadcasts of people talking about things that made no sense to me.
Spring brought a release and the burgeoning new life in the countryside lifted our spirits once more. The sun shone warmly, the trees put out fresh new leaves, and flowers pushed up through the thawing soil–bluebells covering the wooded ground like a blanket of smoke, daffodils thrusting up through the fresh green grass. Birds built nests and Hans would risk life and limb, climbing high to secure an egg which would be blown carefully and added to his collection. I was discouraged from climbing, and in truth had little desire to do so, but we would compete to see the first schmetterling of the year. Hans was more active than I, and roamed further across the countryside, so was often the first to see one. It was usually a lemon-yellow butterfly fluttering in the buckthorn hedgerows, while in the fields between the buckthorn hedges, calves bawled for their mothers and lambs leapt and raced over fresh new turf under fair skies.
As I said, I can remember all these things from my childhood, but fail utterly if I try to put them in order. The only events I can date with any certainty were in the summer of 1924 when my grandfather died and my parents moved to a new farm in Metgethen, and 1930 when we moved to Königsberg. We still made forays into the countryside to visit my grandparents’ farm near Elbing, though it was then owned by my father’s elder brother Erich. For the rest, I became a city girl and swapped the freedom of the countryside for the fascination of an old and historical city…
* * *
Another explosion jolted Elisabet back into full wakefulness. The cellar was plunged into darkness and dust and plaster rained down on the huddled inhabitants. Children awoke and many started screaming again. The electric light did not come back on, and several men lit candles or flicked on cigarette lighters, casting little flickering pools of light among the shadows of the cellar. After a few minutes, the Luftschutzpolizei guard produced a battered kerosene lantern and lit it, illuminating the frightened faces of the people nearest the doors.
“That was a close one,” the guard said, “But we mustn’t worry. We’re quite safe down here.”
The guard grimaced a few minutes later when another bomb cracked the ceiling of the shelter, showering debris over the refugees. He moved everyone back from the centre of the floor, though the cellar was so crowded the open space was no more than a few paces across.
“We should leave,” said a woman.
“Nonsense,” replied the guard. “We’re safer here than in the streets with bombs falling.”
“Unless the ceiling collapses.”
The cellar shuddered again and they heard a huge crash above them and the sound of rubble falling on the cellar doors.
“We’ll be buried alive,” a man yelled. “Let us out.”
Several people moved toward the cellar doors and the guard moved across to bar the way. “I’m in charge,” he said. “And I say we remain.”
“Mutti,” Günter whispered. “I’m frightened.”
“There’s nothing to be worried about. Stand close to me and hold the blankets over your heads–that’s it.”
Through the cellar doors they could hear a cacophony of wailing sirens, the whistle of falling bombs and the dull crash and thump of explosions and the rumble of falling masonry. Smoke seeped under the cellar doors and mingled with the dust in the air to start people coughing.
“Fire!” a woman screamed. “We’ll be burned alive.”
People surged toward the doors, pushing the protesting guard to one side and pulled the doors open. Broken bricks and rubble tumbled inward as the doors opened and a blast of hot air made several people cry out in alarm. In the street beyond, the night had been banished by the glow of fires, and smoke and dust filled the air.
Elisabet waited until most of the other refugees had left the shelter before venturing out, her children clinging to her in terror. She stumbled over the rubble and edged out into the partial shelter of a building next door to the burnt out beer hall. The remaining walls had collapsed inward and the pile of rubble groaned as it shifted, threatening to descend into the cellar below.
The sirens still wailed, but the crash of exploding bombs slowly moved away toward the city boundaries, leaving relative calm in their wake. Elisabet looked around, judging the safest place for her family and led her children back around the corner to their street and their home. They had to step over rubble and once had to skirt a smoking crater in the street. There were many people about but all were busy with their own business and nobody bothered a young woman and her five children. As they reached their house, the sirens wound down and the All-Clear sounded.
Their house was unscathed, though other homes along their street had suffered superficial damage. The electric power was off, apparently for several streets around them, so the houses were all in darkness. Elisabet let them in and lit candles, leaving the children sitting around the table in the kitchen while she made a quick check of the rooms to make sure there was no real damage. She heated a little milk on the wood stove, and the boys sat and drank it, eating a plate of biscuits between them before being led off to bed. The younger boys were still frightened by their experiences and insisted on sleeping with their mother, so Elisabet tucked them all in her bed, leaving only the two older boys, Helmut and Kurt, to sleep in their own bedroom. They boasted that they were not frightened, but after an hour, crept into their mother’s room with blankets and pillows and lay down between the bed and the wall.
Elisabet stretched out an arm to her eldest sons, careful not to disturb the youngsters already asleep beside her, and smiled. “Sleep well, meine lieben kleinen.”