29th May 2007
Last week I wrote about the film 'Germany Year Zero' made in 1947 by the Italian neo-realist film director, Roberto Rossellini, and asked if life for a young child in Berlin, at the end of the war, was really as bad as shown in the film?
Helga Schneider was born in November 1937. She was deserted by her mother (who joined the SS and became a concentration camp guard) in 1941 and was brought up by her father and stepmother. In "The Bonfire of Berlin" she tells the story of her lost childhood. Her stepmother couldn't cope with her and she was sent, firstly to a mental institution, which she hated but survived, and then to a boarding school, which she loved. At the end of 1944, when she was still only 7 years old, she returned to Berlin and spent the closing months of the war with her stepmother's family. Most of the time was spent sheltering from the bombs in the cellar of the apartment block where they lived.
The subject of my studies is the British Occupation of Germany after the war, and the British make only a very brief appearance in this book. But how can an historian understand one set of sources, such as the official papers of the British Military Government and Control Commission, the memoirs of British officials, or the British Zone Review, without also reading memoirs and contemporary accounts written by those on the other side? For example, if you read my earlier posting on the debate in the British Zone Review on 'Feeing Sorry for the Germans', read it again, after you've read this posting.
In keeping with the approach in this blog of letting sources 'speak for themselves' here are a few extracts from Helga Schneider's book:
Firstly, on being caught by a bombing raid just outside the door of their house, in the Autumn of 1944, when her Aunt Hilde was bringing her back to Berlin from her boarding school:
"We had almost reached the door of the house when a woman ran towards us shouting, 'Get away from here. Run to the shelter. They're coming!'
I looked up and saw a triangle of low-flying planes followed by other triangles; at the same time a chorus of wailing sirens went up. My heart leapt into my throat: the sirens had sounded too late, the planes had already begun firing, and all hell broke loose. I was short of breath and thought I would collapse. Then a powerful blast of air hurled me against the door. Feeling as though I was falling into a deep ravine, I lost consciousness.
When I came to, I found myself lying on the ground with a loud roaring in my ears. Everything around me seemed to be flying through the air, fragments of brick, bits of tarmac, pieces of wood... I saw Hilde lying at the door, arms slack, eyes closed, with a trickle of blood running slowly from her hairline to the corner of her mouth. She looked as if she was dead. The roaring was still all around us, and as I burst into terrified tears, a lashing rain of rubble crashed down on me like a hurricane. My mouth and nostrils filled with dust and sand, and I felt I was suffocating. I spat earth, blood and bits of brick.... I reached Hilde and stared at her in astonishment, touching her chin gently. Suddenly she opened her eyes and gazed at me vacantly, murmuring, 'What happened?' Then her face sprang to life: 'Oh my God, are you injured?'
'I don't know ...' I looked at my hands, my arms. There was blood. I was horrified. I choked back my nausea. Suddenly Hilde whispered, 'Please don't turn round...' But I turned round straight away and saw her. The woman who had shouted 'Run to the shelter!' She was lying not far from us in a pool of blood, headless. I vomited. I vomited my guts up. I vomited up all the horror at the world."
Unlike the headless woman, both Helga and her Aunt Hilde were only slightly injured.
Secondly on the effects of hunger:
"We lived like moles in the cellar, numb and drained by inactivity. We waited. Our minds grew dull. Sometimes we behaved like animals.
One day Egon [another boy in the cellar] was gnawing on a miserable stump of bread his mother had given him. He was sitting on a stool, holding the bread in both hands, and the grinding of his teeth became so insistent that I became absurdly annoyed, Then a strange thing happened. My brother, who had been curled up in a corner with Teddy, worryingly downcast and apathetic as usual, suddenly leapt to his feet and jumped on Egon to take the bread from him. Something bestial was unleashed within me. Rather than separate the two of them, I joined the fray. It was as though my mind had blocked out everything apart from the absolute need to get hold of that piece of bread. As though hypnotised, I laid into those two little boys and, when I finally pulled the bread from Egon's fist, dashed upstairs as though the Devil was after me. I reached the first landing and stopped panting.... Crouching in a low, gaping window, I devoured the bread, gnawing at it like a ravenous rodent. After swallowing the last crumb, I felt as though I was waking from a horrible dream. Only then did I realise what I had done. I was so upset that I started crying, not with remorse but with profound anxiety. Hunger had turned me into an animal!"
Thirdly, on what happened on two occasions when the victorious Russian soldiers discovered the group hiding in their cellar. The first time a soldier asked her if she was hungry. When she answered yes: "The Russian said something to one of the other men, who slipped a loaf of black bread out of a knapsack and handed it to me." After they left, the loaf was cut into slices and shared between everyone in the cellar. "We consumed our slices slowly, relishing every last crumb. I thought I had never eaten anything so exquisite."
A few days later, two drunken Russian solders found their way into the cellar and raped two of the girls there, in full sight of everyone. One of the girls, Erika, was ill with tuberculosis. "It had never until that moment occurred to me that a man might take the slightest interest in such a shadow of a girl. Erika stared at the Russian and turned white as a sheet. She started trembling, and her coughs mingled with her tears ... I tried to take my eyes off the horrible spectacle but I couldn't. What I saw was unimaginable, cruel, unjust ..."
Erika never recovered. "It was as though her body, shattered by the horrible abuse to which she had been subjected, had succumbed to her illness, Struggling against a terrible breathlessness, lips bloodless and eyes vacant, she coughed and spat blood into a tin bowl someone had brought to her."
The following day, concerned that she was losing blood, Erika's mother found a doctor who examined her as they all gathered round her bed: "Eventually Erika looked up at us one by one, smiled weakly and murmured, 'Thank you.' Then her lips tensed, her eyelids grew heavy, a long shudder ran through her body, and a drop of blood appeared at the corner of her mouth, like a tiny rosebud. She gripped her mother's hand and kissed it. But the kiss stiffened, and she died biting her mother's fingers."
A few days later, they heard the news on the radio that Berlin had surrendered and the war was over: "There was an explosion of jubilation, tears of disbelief flowed down our faces, Euphoria, kisses, tears.... All of a sudden everything was erased: quarrels, insults, meanness and intolerance, malice and vulgar jokes, sullenness, a lack of solidarity, of sensitivity, of humanity. The cellar could not contain our happiness and we rushed into the street.... Surrender had turned us into human beings again, sanctioning the first of our rights, the right to hope. We weren't just survivors, we were new people...."
"But what was Berlin like now? It was an expanse of burning ruins whose glow turned night to day. A limitless bonfire with a residue of humanity enduring the most catastrophic conditions in its belly. The streets were packed with corpses that stank to the heavens; the water shortage had turned the city into an open-air latrine. For a long time there had been no electricity, or gas, or water, or heating, or any distribution of food or medicine; the sewers were paralysed. Infectious diseases raged, so lice, bugs and rats reigned supreme....
"The cellar was hastily cleared, and the mattresses were carried back up into the block. The suitcases returned to the flats, this time forever... I gazed around the empty space where we had lived crammed on top of one another, piled up like beasts, intruding on our neighbours with our smells, our bad tempers, our selfishness. We had passed beyond what was endurable, what was imaginable; we had passed beyond our strength, beyond humanity. Yet we were to learn that our suffering was nothing compared with what had happened to the Jews in the concentration camps."
Helga Schneider was fortunate. Her father survived the war and the family left Berlin in Spring 1947 to go, first to a refugee camp in Lubeck and then to Austria. In 1963 she moved to live in Italy.
In 1971 she found her mother again and went to visit her with her son, Renzo, but her mother showed no remorse for abandoning her daughter, nor for her Nazi past:
"My blood froze. If she, in 1941, had decided that she didn't want her daughter, it was my turn not to want my mother! My son and I took the first train back to Italy. Renzo wept with disappointment. How could I explain why I hadn't found a mother, and he hadn't found a grandmother? He was only five years old.... So I lost my mother for the second time."
She never saw her mother again until 1998, when she received a call from her retirement home, asking her to come and visit. Her book 'Let me Go - My Mother and the SS' is a record of that meeting.