Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Growing up in Bischoffingen, Germany. Part 3.

With the invasion of France by the German army, the danger from the French artillery had ceased.  Our village had a certain feel of emptiness about it as all the able-bodied menfolk were serving in the armed forces: only the women, the young (below 18 years) and the old people were left.  We had about thirty Polish prisoners of war stationed in Bischoffingen, each assigned to a family - and they supplemented badly needed manpower, and they helped with our farm work.  They were locked inside a building that had been especially prepared for that purpose, from six p.m. in winter and eight p.m. in summer and all day on Sunday.  The prisoners were not guarded; they went to their sleeping quarters by themselves, as well as returning to the farm in the morning. The prisoners in the village became part of their respective farming families, despite a government directive that they were the “enemy” and that we were not to get too friendly with them.  However, we considered them human beings who just happened to be on the wrong side of the fence – at the wrong time.  The prisoner assigned to us, Stanislaw, was no exception.  He sat at the same table with us and ate what we were eating and the war situation was frequently discussed. He became like part of our family. 

Shortly before the allied forces reached Bischoffingen,
the prisoners were given a choice. They could either stay or be shifted eastwards to a “safer” destination.  Stanislaw decided to be shifted, and bade us goodbye.  He vanished without a trace, never to be heard from again. The prisoners who remained in Bischoffingen stayed on for a while, and then migrated to either USA or Australia.

Towards the end of the war we also had French prisoners of war working for us. Our teacher, Herr Feuerstein, was from Alsace and spoke French fluently.  He was often seen talking to the French prisoners in the street. We had to greet our teacher by raising the right hand in salutation, saying  “Heil Hitler!” whereupon the teacher had to return the salute. However, each time he was talking with a prisoner and had to return my Hitler salute, I could sense he did so with painful reluctance, just mumbling the words and lifting his arm like a short quick wave, and I often pondered what they were saying to each other in French. 

A French prisoner who worked in the winery, rescued and saved from certain death a local man who had inhaled carbon dioxide, produced by fermenting grapes.
The prisoner found the man lying unconscious on the winery cellar floor, after the gas extraction fan had failed at the peak of the grape juice fermentation process. He received recognition from the German government, was released to the Red Cross, and subsequently allowed to re-join his family in France. Perhaps this goes to show that there was also a compassionate side to the German people - not often mentioned when the war is discussed by non- Germans.

Also, at the beginning of the war a lot of children from the German seaports and industrialised areas of northern Germany were sent to southern Germany and billeted with families.  In Bischoffingen we had a Girl from Bremen, whose name was Hannelore, and she was billeted with the local midwife, who in 1953 delivered our eldest daughter in Bischoffingen.  Hannelore was in my class at school, and every boy in the village had an eye, or both, on Hannelore. Shortly before the war’s end, Hannelore suddenly disappeared; all that was said was that she went back to her parents.  I never got Hannelore completely out of my mind and often wondered what happened to her and where she would be – it's perhaps my inquisitive mind at work. 

Postscript. However, when we returned for the first time to Bischoffingen after 22 years in Australia, we eventually met up with the old midwife.
  We came to talk about Hannelore, and it was there and then that we found out, some thirty years later, that Hannelore had also migrated to Australia with her husband.  We obtained Hannelore’s address in Melbourne and when we came back to Australia I wrote to her and after a few letter exchanges invited her and her Husband to visit us in Cairns. They accepted the invitation and we met again after all those years, and off course there was a lot to talk about and to reminisce about the time in Bischoffingen.  However, after their plane left Melbourne on the way to Cairns, I suddenly thought, oh my God how will I recognise Hannelore at the airport after all those years? I should have asked her to hold a newspaper or something in her hand which I could look out for.  However, my concern was for nothing. Hannelore walked through the airport gate, and suddenly a female voice exclaimed, Werner, you still look the same!  She recognised me instantly.

I was only 14 years old, when one night my grandfather requested my help for a special event - the birth of a calf - and I became an assistant obstetrician. Now, that was an event, which under normal circumstances young kids like me were not allowed to witness, let alone to help.  I’m not sure why, perhaps it was not to betray the instilled concept that all living creatures are brought by the stork.  The cow in question was particularly big, and as grandfather expected a very big calf and a difficult birth, like a good scout he prepared himself for any eventuality, especially the manpower required for pulling.  Beside myself, he lined up a German soldier who was billeted in our house.  With plenty of clean straw and a book, grandfather settled down in the stable to hold a vigil, ready to call on us when the time arrived.
Calf delivery time arrived just before midnight.   When I entered the stable the cow was lying down, the water had broken, there was some blood around, and I could see, protruding from the cow, two legs to which a rope had been attached. Grandfather quickly informed me that the calf was big and that it was coming out the wrong way - backwards.  I had hardly been instructed to pull on the rope when the soldier arrived.  As soon as he set eyes on the blood, he fainted, and we had to drag him out of the stable and call for help. Mother and grandmother took care of him and brought him back to life with cold water.  He apologized later for the let down, and explained that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood.  The happy ending to this episode was that grandfather and I delivered a big female calf – ‘no bull.’

Perhaps three incidents in my young life in Bischoffingen could easily be classified as the worst life experiences of my entire life.   They are embedded in my mind and will stay with me with every detail to the day I die.

1) The nightly intrusion of enemy aircraft high above us, with their monotonous drone, became part of our daily lives. One night, well after midnight, an aircraft broke this monotony seemingly in dire trouble. The sputtering of aircraft engines, the perception of the plane getting lower, louder and closer caused me to get out of bed and jolted me from my slumberous state.  My attention was now focussing on this new and ominous-sounding situation, then a big thud put a full stop to this not so “silent night”. At first light in the morning everybody was up looking for any evidence of this puzzling occurrence of only a few hours before.  It didn’t take long to find the evidence of this disturbing nocturnal event.

There was a long corridor strewn with aircraft wreckage, and we found all sorts of things, amongst them, still intact, an orange-coloured inflatable life raft and all sorts and shapes of pieces of twisted metal.  Despite the seriousness of our war situation and the many worries on our minds, this proved to be something of a distraction, and turned out to be a field day for souvenir collectors. The debris trail led us into the hills where, a few meters from one of our vineyards, we discovered the whole tail section of a Lancaster bomber, with its characteristic pair of upright tail fins and rear gun turret. The whole area looked like a drawn out scrap metal yard.   A little bit further on we found the mangled mid section, and a few hundred meters past that, the wing section, with its four engines and cockpit embedded in a hilltop, and still smouldering. 

The most distressing find, however, was around the tail section: parts of human remains, such as a foot, an arm, mid section of a human with intestines hanging out, and a head still partly attached to a shoulder and arm, the dog tag still around the deceased’s neck.  This was not a pretty sight, and is a ghastly memory that will remain with me for the rest of my life.  I can still see my mother crying and visibly shaken by this awful sight before us, and saying that there would be a mother, wife or girlfriend and a family crying for this dead airman somewhere in England or another allied country.  We informed the police, who subsequently removed the dog tag and collected the body parts, and handed them to the Red Cross.

2) By now, the “ safety of distance” had dissipated and two British Spitfires, equipped with extra fuel tanks under their wings to enable them to penetrate to the southern-most part of Germany, paid us a ‘visit’.  When their outside tanks were empty they jettisoned them. These two must have been on a reconnaissance mission and taking pictures of the landscape. A battery of anti-aircraft guns (Flak) nearby opened up, and in retaliation they attacked Bischoffingen. These “spitting” metal birds introduced terror and fear into our lives. They were only armed with heavy machine guns, yet their ear-splitting noise when they swooped low over you was even more terrifying than the actual gunfire.

It was the 16th November 1944; my father was home from Russia for a fortnight of rest and recreation.  We were killing a pig and calf for our meat supply.  This ‘killing’ event took an unexpected and terrible twist and turned into a ‘killing event’ of a different kind.  Suddenly, and without any warning, we heard the ear-piercing noise of planes and gunfire descending upon us.  Everybody scattered in different directions, each trying to save their own skin.  At first, I ran panic stricken into the house and huddled for a second  (which seemed like an eternity) under the dining room table.  However, the intensity of this terrible and frightening noise made me decide to run through the barn into the garden, only to be greeted by falling roof tiles, caused by shrapnel from the projectiles of the anti-aircraft guns nearby, and of course gunfire from the fighter planes.  The attack lasted only seconds - certainly much shorter than I can reiterate the story - but it appeared to be an eternity.  The roof of the house and barn looked kind of weird with all those tiles missing. 

Shouts by someone that our barn was on fire made me recover very quickly from my state of shock.  Although we had plenty of water from our own well, there were no pressure water hoses on our farm, which made things more difficult. Water had to be hand-pumped into buckets and passed on to me to the top section of the barn where all the hay was stored for the animals' winter supply.  Everyone worked feverishly to extinguish the fire, but another shout alerted me to the fact that, about three blocks further up the street the house of my great aunt (my grandfather’s sister) was ablaze. 

My grandfather, father and I raced towards the house, but father looked back and saw smoke coming from our barn, and went back to take care of it. As the faster runner, I arrived at the house first, but the heat was so intense and the two-storey house was totally engulfed in flames. The only thing I was able to retrieve from the raging inferno was auntie’s bicycle - and in the process of retrieval, the hairs on my head, arms and legs were singed.  We stood by helplessly as the house burned to the ground with only the brick walls jutting towards the sunny winter sky.

There was no sight of aunty, and my grandfather and I resigned ourselves to the worst-case scenario as we prepared ourselves mentally for the situation before us. We found my aunt’s daughter-in-law, Elsa Schmidlin, in the house next door, being taken care of by the neighbours. She was badly burned, and cut by glass by jumping through the kitchen window. But before the ambulance took her away, she told us that aunty was sitting with her at the Kitchen table having lunch.

We started to shift rubble where the kitchen table used to be.  Everything that was made from timber in the house has turned into ashes. The corner where the kitchen table had been was now littered with a large pile of fallen red bricks. We started to shift them gingerly, brick by brick, as they were still extremely hot.  Our worst fears were confirmed when we found the charred remains of my aunt’s body.  This was a sight I will never be able to erase from my mind as long as I live.  My aunt was a tall person, in the proximity of 1.8 metres tall, yet the body we found had shrunk to only about 600 mm  (2 feet) in length. The head was a little bit bigger than that of a cat; the arms and legs just short stubs.  She needed only a very small coffin.

As I look back at this terrible event, writing it down still raises strong emotions: tears to my eyes, and goose bumps over my whole body.  This short and terrifying incident left two people dead, two houses totally destroyed, and four including ours, damaged.

The other person killed in the attack was a man in our neighbourhood.  He was really unlucky as it was only his first day home from the Russian front, for two weeks of rest and recreation, having survived many fierce battles - only to be killed by a heavy, three-meter high barn door falling on him after having its hinges shot off by the Spitfire.  As I often say:  war is indeed a monstrous atrocity against humanity.

As we put the pieces together after this air attack, with the help of eyewitnesses, it became quite clear as to what happened.  There were two planes involved in the attack.  The anti aircraft guns nearby (known as “ the Flak “) fired a barrage of shots at the Spitfires. They retaliated by strafing our village with gunfire, while one plane jettisoned both long-distance fuel tanks, which it carried under its wings. The tanks still contained a quantity of high-octane fuel, which made it a lethal and highly explosive bomb.  As the first plane strafed us and dropped the fuel tanks, the second plane behind it set the tanks alight with its gunfire, sending them hurtling earthwards like trail-blazing comets. The burning tanks hit the roof of my aunt’s house, going through two floors and spreading burning fuel all the way down, finally reaching the kitchen where the two women were having lunch, where it exploded. The fact that one woman survived this inferno can only be described as an absolute miracle. We thanked our lucky stars, because it could have been our house and the casualty might have been one of us, perhaps me, and I would not be here today to tell this story.

It might be worth noting that the German word "flak", and now also part of the English language, was derived from the German abbreviation of Flieger  Abwehr  Kanone (One word) which means literally, Aircraft Defence Cannon - or Anti-Aircraft Gun.  The word is used in German in the same context as in the English language, e.g. to give somebody flak, by criticizing them. 

3) Freiburg, the capital of the Black Forest and the town in which I was born, had so far, been spared from being bombed.  It became a perplexing question as to why this was so, not that we wanted it to be bombed, yet all other towns in this area had suffered. This remained a bit of a puzzle and open to all sorts of speculation.   Freiburg had not much industry: it was mainly an educational centre with a highly rated University, as well as a few modern and (for that era) well-equipped hospitals.  Rumours were circulating, and Radio Beromünster (Switzerland) confirmed them to be true, that negotiations were under way between Germany, the Red Cross and the allied countries; the latter two wanting to declare Freiburg an international Hospital Town. Their intention was to hospitalise wounded or sick airmen, and also to station prisoners of war there, so that they would not be accidentally killed in their bombing offensive.  If Germany would agree with this proposal and stipulation the Allies would, in return, spare Freiburg from being attacked or bombed. The Nazis in their wisdom and with their severe tunnel vision refused point blank.  The stupidity of this refusal was that wounded German soldiers also would have been safe there, and within a few days, on the 27th of November 1944 most of Freiburg was destroyed.

It was just before 11 p.m. when we heard the familiar monophonic drone of the B 29 Super Fortresses and Lancasters high above us. The bombers always flew in several wave formations. The first unloaded their deadly cargo then started their return journey in a different direction. Then it was the second wave’s turn to execute their deadly mission followed by the third and so on. The last planes of the first formation had passed above our house not more than a minute ago, when the first bomb explosions could be heard, and from the short time it took, we realized that this time it was Freiburg’s turn.

The iconic and renowned Market Place of Freiburg was surrounded by businesses and in the centre of it was the Catholic Cathedral. (Münster in German) Every time we used to come to Freiburg that was where we went first to get a nice crusty bread roll with a German Bratwurst or Weißwurst - there was always a beehive of activity, especially on Saturday. When Freiburg was bombed everything that surrounded the market place was totally destroyed, but the cathedral stood there like a lone sentinel, and with only minor damage. This was described as either a miracle or an act of God – we will never know. 

I hope that you find this chapter interesting, tell me if you did or if you didn’t. Click on picture to enlarge.

My thought for today could only be: My love, not war. John Lennon

 The heart of Freiburg. (YouTube presentation)  Here are some interesting pictures of Freiburg from the National Geographic magazine, it shows the utter destruction and the nice buildings of Freiburg, many of which had been destroyed, and then restored to their collective former glory. Click here. 


Heather and Alex said...

What an interesting narrative of your youth, Werner. And, what a fascinating insight of how it was on the other side of the “fence”. My husband and I enjoyed reading every episode of “Growing up in Bischoffingen” tremendously. It is an absolute credit to you to compile this story so nicely and succinctly. As you wrote, “War is the greatest atrocity on humankind” is so true. Governments initiate war not the people. Will we ever learn?

Betty Sander said...

Werner, what a varied and interesting life you had as a youngster. What you experienced would have been character-building for you. When I look at our youth today; a lot are possessed with drugs, sports, and electronic devices – which is just about all they know or interested in. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Jane B. said...

What an interesting story. We can imagine how awful the bombing of Freiburg and the Spitfire attack on Bischoffingen would have been. However, that the cathedral survived with all the destruction around it was really a miracle, or indeed, an act of God. Thank you for sharing this with us and we look forward to the next chapter.

Heidi, from Germany said...

Werner, I read the whole lot this evening! You know I love Freiburg and your report about the war was very interesting; I also looked at the report from the National Geographic Magazine. I didn't know that your aunt died during the bombardment. Your detailed account of how you found your aunt; I found very creepy – but then again, war is not a “love affair”.

Dymity said...

Werner,I found Part 3 very interesting as usual, but also sad about what happened to your great Aunt. Also some awful frightening memories for you from the war years. It was interesting to read what happened with the prisoners of war.
I will look forward to Part 4.

Mike and Betty said...

You have done a wonderful job with your life story, very well written and compiled together in very enjoyable manner.It is great to be able to record experiences from the past and you and Karola had such an interesting life,no doubt difficult at times, but you have displayed your story making all just a time of lives well spent.
Thank you for your story.

Emma and Alex said...

Werner, this is a riveting story and well written. You certainly had an interesting and varied life; there was never a “dull” moment in your young life. We were especially impressed with the compassion of your family, treating to polish prisoner as a friend and not as an enemy. Thank you for sharing this with us and the wider community.

Megan said...

Some absolutely horrific memories for you Opa. I can certainly understand why your recollection of those terrifying events remains so vivid. Thank you for sharing.