Saturday, January 28, 2017

Escape from Berlin, 1945: a Family Journey

Dear Readers, this article is different than the normal Urban Decay topics. Still, it is a story of decay - of the catastrophic collapse of an evil government and the fate of some of its innocent victims. This is the story of how my family escaped from Berlin in April of 1945, during the chaotic final days of the Second World War in Europe when the Soviet armies were entering Berlin.

My family came from Greece and moved to Berlin in 1938, when my grandfather got a job in Germany. He was a highway engineer, and at this time, the Germans were building the autobahns and were at the forefront of highway technology. My grandfather (Opa) and mother were Greek-born, while my grandmother (Oma) and Aunt Hellas were German-born. Needless to say, moving to Germany in 1938 was a terrible strategic decision.
The family moved to a flat in the Charlottenberg area of Berlin, near the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station and near the 1936 Olympic stadium complex. My mother remembers that they lived on the second floor at the corner of Ratzeburger Allee and Ebereschenallee. These buildings survived the war with little damage, and the area is still a quiet residential district.
My mother was a young girl then and did not remember the exact the address of the flat. But when I showed her this picture of the door with twin portholes, she immediately recognized it (you can see it in Photograph 1 behind the yellow car). She said when you entered, one flight of steps led up and another led down to the basement, which was very frightening.
This is Steubenplatz today, with Ebereschenallee coming in from the right. My mother remembers that one store facing the platz in the 1940s was a pharmacy.
This is the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station. The location and shape is likely the same as in the 1940s, and the vertical beams with rivets may be pre-war.

My mother and Hellas went to school. My mother remembers that girls and boys were separated by a barbed wire fence. The teachers were very strict, and everyone had to rise and say, "Heil Hitler." She also remembered seeing Jewish people wearing the large yellow stars on their clothes. She must have been very young because (from what I have read) almost all Jews had been expelled from Berlin by 1939 or 1940.

After the war started, the family applied to leave Germany, but because my grandmother and Hellas were German-born, they were not allowed to leave. The family was not in a wealth category in which they could buy an exit permit by turning over valuable assets or properties.

As the war progressed, my grandfather lost his job. Oma's Uncle Max and his wife took over the apartment so that it would appear to be leased to a German family. Opa had to remain hidden in one room in the flat for fear that he might be arrested. My mother said that other residents surely knew that a Greek family was in the flat, but no one ever turned them in to the police. The ladies were blond and spoke fluent German, so they could leave the flat and move about. The family sold possessions to raise money for food. They had only two food vouchers, for the two German-born  members of the household.

For 18 months, the Allies bombed Berlin day and night, and for most nights, residents had to shelter in the cellars. But Opa had to remain hidden upstairs even during the bombings. One day, a bomb fell through the bathrooms and the tub from above crashed through the ceiling. Luckily, the bomb did not explode. She remembers Opa listening to the BBC on a wireless receiver with a blanket over his head to muffle the sound. Listening to foreign radio was an offense that would lead to execution.

Late in the war, Aunt Hellas was evacuated to the woods of Prussia along with other school-age girls to escape the bombing. But she and a young actress or opera singer knew someone important in the Goebbels propaganda organization and they secured travel permits to return to Berlin.
My mother said one day she and Oma were out shopping for vegetables and heard noises of gunfire. The civilian population had been so thoroughly insulated from real news by the government's propaganda, they had no idea the Soviet army was entering the city. Today, we find this hard to believe, but totalitarian governments know that control of the media means they can dominate the populace. This is a map of Soviet advance from:
They rushed home, grabbed a few possessions, and went to the train station. Prior to this, residents were not allowed to leave Berlin, but all order must have broken down. Amazingly, even as the Nazi government was collapsing, trains were still running. I assume they went to the Westend Bahnhof. My mother and Oma went one day, while Opa and Hellas followed a day later. The 1946 photograph above shows a tank graveyard near Westend Bahnhof, from :

Their destination was a small town in the Schwarzwald (southwest Germany) named Reichental, where the family had vacationed before the war. Everyone with any sense tried to flee to the west, away from the Soviets. The train ride was terrible. When allied planes flew overhead, everyone got off and sheltered in ditches or fled into fields because the planes strafed the trains. People were packed tight into cattle cars. Oma had a brother, Kurt, who had died near Kursk. His wife was on the train with two children. The baby died, and my mother said the baby was thrown out because there was no room. It is hard to believe horrors like this. I do not know if the family was ever in touch with Kurt's wife after the war and do not know what happened to Max and his wife. My mother, sister, Oma, and Opa survived, and eventually made it back to Greece in the late 1940s. They had endured a decade of war and turmoil. One day I will scan some of my photographs from Reichental.

Dear Readers, this was only 72 years ago, in what had been one of the most urbane and developed countries in the world. So many millions of innocent people suffered and died. But despite the lessons of history, many people are still susceptible to the hollow promises of demagogues and frauds. Consider the 2016 election in the USA. Remain vigilant and never let a war like this happen again.

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