Monday, October 25, 2004

OMA!

Yesterday I went to see my parents and while I was there they wanted me to call Germany so we could speak en masse to my German parents. The family is doing, eh, not so good. Oma, who just turned 88 (not 87) in August has not been feeling too well. Additionally, her husband, Fritz, who suffers from Alzheimers and diabetes and has been living in a nursing home, had a stroke last week. He responded at first and knew who she was but he is now non-responsive. I can only say that I am very sorry for this. Fritz was quite a character. Not so much as my Oma but he could hold his own. Like my Papa’s father, Fritz is a veteran of WWII, but I think Oma deserves the Medal of Honor. There are simply some things I don’t know, nor does my Papa. He was extremely young, probably about 3 ½. At the beginning of WWII, Oma, her husband (not Fritz) and their two sons lived in East Prussia. The northwestern area of East Prussia was located along the Baltic Sea and flanked on the Southern and Eastern borders by Russia, Poland and parts of Lithuania and to the southwest by West Prussia. East Prussia was the eastern most land area of Germany and basically operated as an independent state, with Berlin acting as its capital as well as that of Germany. That part is a little confusing to me and I may update that with better information later. However, I do know that this area of Europe is where my host father was born. During WWII, Papa’s father was sent to the Russian front lines to accompany ammunition transports. Regardless, the Red Army continued to advance and in early 1945 they were close enough to cause panic among the inhabitants of East Prussia and many began leaving despite weather, at least in Breslau, now Wroclaw, which stands 125 miles due East of Dresden, of minus 20 degrees. As the Red Army drew closer, Oma had no choice but to take the last train available and make the trip with other refugees to the nearest safe haven, Dresden. It is unknown what type of conditions they traveled in but most of the trains were over-crowded and rife with lice, hunger and filth. Dresden is located about 20 miles north of the Czech Republic border and about 120 miles south of Berlin in the Eastern part of Germany. From East Prussia it was roughly, give or take a hundred miles, 350 miles. From there, another 300 or so to Frankfurt or just beyond as the case may be. The story, as it has been pieced together, is that Oma and the boys arrived in Dresden sometime before or on February 13, 1945. For WWII buffs or simply those who remember Dresden from their history books, February 13th is the day the Allied bombers basically leveled 15 square kilometers of Dresden. The bombing of Dresden is a very controversial subject. Propagandists used photographs from it to explain away the Holocaust, stating the Allies used the photographs of their own bombing raid to support evidence of the Holocaust. (Shite!) Anyway, whether or not you agree with whether Dresden was a military target or simply a hospital city with more refugees, is, naturally a matter of opinion. What I will do is try to at least explain what happened and try to just state the facts: From wikipedia: The fire-bombing consisted of dropping large amounts of high-explosive to expose the timbers within buildings, followed by incendiary devices (fire-sticks) to ignite them and then more high-explosives to hamper the efforts of the fire services. This eventually created a self-sustaining 'fire storm' with temperatures peaking at over 1500 EC. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area became extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire. 3,907 tons of bombs were dropped. Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. An area of 15 square kilometers was totally destroyed, among that: 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches, 5 theaters, 50 bank and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, and 62 administration buildings. Alexander McKee, Dresden 1945: the Devil's Tinderbox (1982) "From a firestorm there is small chance of escape. Certain conditions had to be present, such as the concentration of high buildings and a concentration of bombers in time and space, which produced so many huge fires so rapidly and so close together that the air above them super-heated and drew the flames out explosively. On the enormous scale of a large city, the roaring rush of heated air upwards developed the characteristics and power of a tornado, strong enough to pick up people and suck them into the flames." Major-General Kehrl, report on the firestorm in Hamburg in August, 1943. "Before half an hour had passed, the districts upon which the weight of the attack fell were transformed into a lake of fire covering an area of twenty-two square kilometres. The effect of this was to heat the air to a temperature which at times was estimated to approach 1,000 degrees centigrade. A vast suction was in this way created so that the air "stormed through the streets with immense force, bearing upon it sparks, timber and roof beams and thus spreading the fire still further and further till it became a typhoon such as had never before been witnessed, and against which all human resistance was powerless." Trees three feet thick were broken off or uprooted, human beings were thrown to the ground or flung alive into the flames by winds which exceeded 150 miles an hour. The panic-stricken citizens knew not where to turn. Flames drove them from the shelters, but high-explosive bombs sent them scurrying back again. Once inside, they were suffocated by carbon-monoxide poisoning and their bodies reduced to ashes as though they had been placed in a crematorium, which was indeed what each shelter proved to be." Margaret Freyer was living in Dresden during the firestorm created on 13th February, 1945. "The firestorm is incredible, there are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno. To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then - to my utter horror and amazement - I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. (Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders. Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: "I don't want to burn to death". I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn." The number of causalities suffered in Dresden will never be known. With the huge influx of refugees fleeing the advance of the Red Army, it is impossible to know how much the population of Dresden had grown from its normal 600,000 people. I’ve read close to one million. Estimates range from the conservative of 25,000 dead and 30,000 wounded to the exaggeration of a quarter to half a million people following the raids. Many people were simply cremated or melted due to the intense temperatures. Others suffocated due to the lack of oxygen as the fire sucked all oxygen from even the cellars and shelters. The main train station in the area was burning. The fire raged all the way to the Elbe and a huge garden area where many had gathered who had survived the first wave of the bombing. It is unknown where Oma and her sons hid. She refuses to speak of it. I do not know if her youngest son was even alive at this time. Many died from the cold, malnutrition and childhood ailments. But she and my Papa did survive. By April 1945, they had made their way the 300 miles to the outskirts of Frankfurt. Papa’s father arrived on May 8th, V-E Day, having received a "command" by the United States Army to travel there. In reality, he had simply thrown his rifle down and started walking. When he met up with American troops he stated his intent and was given a pass. Why is unknown. Upon learning of his youngest son’s death, Papa’s father abandoned the family. Oma spent a lot of time in Frankfurt trying to procure food. There is a story my Papa tells about his first encounters with Americans but I’ll save that for later. Oma was able to find employment in a garment factory of sorts and ironed most of her days. She suffers horrible arthritis in her hand, elbow and shoulder because of it. She married Fritz later in life. The Oma of today is as opinionated and old-fashioned as grandmothers come. When I got ready to return to the States after my year there, she presented me with a pewter plate with the skyline of Frankfurt on it. She said, "So you don’t forget me." As if I ever could. It isn’t difficult to see where my Papa gets his personality and sense of humor. Oma punctuates her sentences with a firm "Doch (Absolutely!)," whether she’s discussing the amount of snow on the ground, the price of tomatoes or what ungrateful grandchildren she has. *wink* We grandchildren do our best to hide our smiles and giggles and I think she does it on purpose. And she and my real father.... OH THE HUMANITY!!! When my parents visited Germany in 1999, they immediately became best buddies and would sit and talk for hours. I would hate to think what things they agreed on, as he speaks NO German and she speaks NO English. Somehow I’d like to think it was the same thing. So, that’s my Oma in a nutshell... or is that a nut in a shell?
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    5 Comments:

    Blogger lab munkay said...

    Wow, have you just made me think about what a totaly self-centered spoilt brat I am. I am gratful I have never had to try to muster up the courage and strength of your grandparents. Thank you for writting this.

    10/25/2004 09:35:00 PM  
    Blogger Inanna said...

    Hi Lab Munkay #9! Yeah, hearing personal stories of surviving such circumstances are quite sobering. It makes me wonder what I have to bitch about myself.

    10/26/2004 07:57:00 AM  
    Blogger Inanna said...

    As a Footnote: East Prussia was divided between Russia and Poland at the end of the WWII.

    I refer to my German parents, they who cared for me for a year as an exchange student, as "Mama" and "Papa."

    My real parents, they who brought me to this world, are "Mom" and "Dad."

    All of my real grandparents are dead. Oma is the only living "grandparent" that I claim.

    10/26/2004 08:02:00 AM  
    Blogger Cattiva said...

    The bombing of Dresden was the worst "conventional" firestorm in recorded history. It was second only to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in intensity, damage and casualties.

    I studied it 2 semesters ago. Amazing that your Oma survived.

    10/26/2004 09:54:00 AM  
    Blogger Wolfgang P. May said...

    My grandmother, mother, and I escaped from Breslau on the last train from Breslau to Dresden. Although I was very young, I remember watching the bombing of Dresden from a hill south of that city, and the tons of aluminum foil dropped by the British bombers to confuse any German radar. The foil on the fir trees reminded me of the Christmas we had just celebrated in Breslau, and I started singing "Stille Nacht", while my mother cried for the firebombing victims in Dresden.

    In 68/69, I served as advisory team leader in the Central Highlands and at the edge of the "Iron Triangle" of Vietnam. My antiwar web site "war around us" usually pops up as #1 in most search engines.

    7/17/2005 11:30:00 AM  

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