I was American; my husband was German.

We married in London in 1939, that fateful year when Europe was moving toward World War II. Wolf was foreign correspondent for a group of German newspapers, and I was a student working toward my Master's at the University of London. After postings to Amsterdam and Stockholm, we came to Berlin in 1941, where Wolf became chief editor of the Berlin office of an intra-European news agency.

When the following events took place in April and May 1945, he had been conscripted into the German Army and was on the Eastern Front.

I stayed in Berlin, because Wolf and I believed that Berlin would be occupied simultaneously by Allied armies moving in from the west and the east, and that I would be able to get in touch with my family at home in Massachusetts more quickly through a large headquarters than through a small one.

To clinch the matter, I went to the Swiss charge d'affaires in the old American Embassy, who advised me to stay in Berlin. Revolutions and battles, he said, are not particularly dangerous so long as one minds one's own business and does not walk around the streets looking for trouble.

Berlin at that time was a city of mostly women and children. Many were refugees from east of the Oder River, or from Berlin itself, families who had been driven back to their city by the rapid Allied advances.

The men remaining were Nazi Party functionaries, loud-mouthed about staying to the end and dying for the Fuehrer, or sober, tired workmen and shopkeepers -- genuine Berliners, who would not think of leaving their jobs and their homes. They were expected to join the Volkssturm, the People's Army, which was to repel the invaders with the city equivalent of pitchforks.

Our flat was on the ground floor of a large old house in Lichterfelde West, a leafy suburb in the southwestern part of Greater Berlin. The owner of the house, Heinz Cramer, an old colleague and friend, was living there, too. He had just escaped trial by the People's Court (which routinely found all accused guilty) when the principal witness against him had been ''overrun'' by the American advance, and the case was dropped.

Frau Grahl was the other member of our household, a spunky little East Prussian with a round, rosy face and gray-blonde hair strained tightly back into an anguished bun. She had come to clean house for me one day, had taken a fancy to my husband and me, and simply moved in the next day to take over housekeeping.

The flat upstairs was occupied by two elderly schoolteachers, Tante Else and Tante Alice. Both were over 60 and in poor health, but they stood up to the air raids and politics well, mainly out of spite for the government.

On the top floor lived Herr H., a mysterious being, and his supposed fiancee. He ''inherited'' linen and lamps from deceased aunts after every heavy air raid and exchanged them for black-market ration cards, which were appearing for the first time in Berlin that spring.

Berlin never recovered from the American air raid of Feb. 3, 1945. The S-Bahn, the subway-elevated which covered Greater Berlin, never functioned properly again. For the first time, corpses were left under the ruins. For the first time, the streets were not cleared.

After the air raid, Berlin sank more and more rapidly toward dissolution and defeat. The nearer the front came, the less one really knew about it. The bread ration, which was all-in-all in the city because of a lack of vegetables, fish, and meat, was cut at about the same time, and the nervousness and lassitude of the population increased.

One morning when I went to get bread, I was told there had been no delivery, for American tanks had been sighted southwest of Potsdam and all delivery trucks were pressed into service to take soldiers and ammunition there.

The next morning we caught the mutter of guns not only from the east but from the west. Our anti-Nazi suburb was delighted. Cautious neighbors who had never dared talk politics shouted to each other over garden fences that the BBC and Radio Atlantic had just announced the capture of this or that city. It made the American and British troops sound so near Berlin that the neighborhood felt free to ignore the ''death is the penalty for listening to a foreign broadcast'' ban imposed by the Nazis.

The British Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) began sending their Mosquito bombers over in staggered groups so that raids ceased to be distinct, running into one another and lasting, as one raid, for most of each night. Bombing was child's play by then, for Berlin had no defenses. Almost all the anti-aircraft guns were on the Eastern Front, now just beyond the terminus of the S-Bahn.

On April 21st it became obvious that the Russians had broken through in the southeast and were advancing westward along the southern border of Berlin. The glow of fires on the horizon was getting brighter, and we could smell the smoke.

The first Russian artillery shell whistled over my head the early morning of the 24th of April, as I was on my way to the bakery. By the time I reached home, the scream of shells was everywhere. I was helping sandbag the windows of the cellar room where we intended to wait out the siege, when a sudden terrific explosion sent us reeling into the shelter of the cellarway.

Two minutes later came a second shell. This time we were looking up, and we saw a shower of sparks go through the top branches of the big fir tree next to our house before the explosion of the shell sent a shower of plaster over us. It had hit the railroad station, a two-minute walk from our house.

We granted the Russian artillery good marksmanship for those shells. For an hour, the heavy shells went through that pine tree, every three minutes, regular as clockwork.

Stormoviks, the little Russian fighter planes, added a devil's chatter to the racket. Heinz, our landlord, went over to the long, main street that led from the Teltow Canal south of us to the Lichterfelde station for a loaf of bread, and he got to the bakery by dodging from doorway to doorway, together with a lone soldier trying to reach his barracks.

The day passed in an increasing inferno of sound. We had moved rugs, a couch, and all available containers filled with precious water into the cellar. Our clothes, silver, and linen we put into the deep coal cellar.

About four o'clock, our friend Asendorf and his NCO (non-commissioned officer) arrived. Asi was attached to a German Army administration office which had ceased to function that afternoon. He had tins of meat, slabs of butter, and cigarettes by the package, chocolate, coffee, food now almost unknown to us in Berlin.

While we were eating, a Stormovik attack sent the remaining window glass in the house crashing. After supper, Asi and his NCO departed, with casual farewells, to attempt to get through to Potsdam. Not even Asi's office had known how far the Russians had proceeded; very likely their route was already cut off.

I was foresighted enough to pack some of this precious food ration into two pouches and a knapsack that held my air-raid things, little knowing just how provident I was being. These scant rations, from a Wehrmacht (German Army) with its back to the wall, were to be our only provender for days to come.

After seeing Asi off, Heinz found two People's Army men on guard outside our gate. They were quite gruff. It was only after we had taken them a pot of hot tea that they began to talk, and told us they had but four rounds of ammunition between them.

With that, and a Panzerfauste (anti-tank gun) they had ''mislaid,'' they had been ordered to hold the street-crossing against Russian tanks. One of them took Heinz aside and asked how to get through the back gardens to the next street: There certainly would be no resistance at our corner.

Although firing had increased, Heinz and I lingered outside in the twilight. About 9 o'clock, 10 German soldiers came past and asked us how to get to the SS (German special forces) barracks. About half of them had rifles. I wondered how much ammunition they had. They had just been ordered from east Berlin to our suburb to take over for the SS. Half an hour later they returned. The SS barracks were full of Russians. Ivan (which the Russians were called) had crossed the Teltow Canal and was five blocks from us.

''It won't be long now,'' Heinz said. The two Volkssturm men walked away through the garden. There was little artillery fire near us now, but the cracking of rifle bullets increased. I went to lie down on the couch in the cellar, dressed in my husband's gray flannel trousers and my shirt and sweater, and dozed off. The war was almost over.

I did not sleep peacefully. Tank cannon shots had roared and ripped into our back yard about midnight, causing great havoc among the rosebushes and rhododendron, but the soft earth of the garden absorbed the main shock and the house had not suffered much.

Heinz woke me about 4 o'clock in the morning.

''The first Russians,'' he announced. His voice was hoarse from lack of sleep.

''Here?'' I asked, dazed.

''No. Down the street. But you can hear them. Come and listen. Funniest thing I ever heard.''

We listened at the shuttered window of the living room to the first sounds of the Russian Army. Heinz was right. It seemed comical; a guttural chirrup from a distance, answered by one nearer, then one to the right, then one to the left, like a chorus of frogs starting up in the dusk on a swampy river.

''What do they do that for?'' I asked.

''Darned if I know.'' said Heinz. ''They sound as if they were trying to encourage each other.''

''Safe here.''

''No one here.''

''Safe over here.''

''No one here,'' was what the chirrups seemed trying to say, not at all like ''Come on! Come on!''

Heinz and I were lightheaded when we sat down to breakfast, and we joked about the Russians and what we could expect from them. It was all over. The war had come to an end. I did not feel apprehensive.

It was almost with kindness that we looked upon the two dirty moujiks (peasants) who prowled past the window and on into the kitchen. They looked far from prepossessing, but what should one expect of soldiers in the midst of battle?

It did not take them long to find their way into the breakfast room. One of them laid his right forefinger on his left wrist and uttered the word which was to become so familiar to us: ''Uhr. Uhr.'' (''Watch. Watch.'') he grunted. There was no flicker of expression on either of their faces, but the second one had fastened his eyes on me and did not look away again.

Heinz shook his head, and the first Ivan took out his revolver and motioned Heinz toward the kitchen. I went, too. ''Uhr. Uhr.'' the moujik grunted urgently. The second one chimed in this brilliant conversation with ''Uhr. Uhr.''

Heinz pulled out his Swiss sport-watch, the face of which was concealed by sliding silver doors. The moujik waved his revolver impatiently. ''Nix Uhr'' (''Not a watch''), he objected. Heinz shrugged his shoulders and put the watch nonchalantly back into his pocket. If they could not tell a watch when they saw one, he could, in good conscience, deny the possession of one. He pulled his coat sleeve up, showing a bare wrist.

I went back up to finish my coffee, and the second Ivan followed me. For the first time, I blessed the eccentric builder of the house who had had a penchant for odd stairs and confusing doors.

I walked straight through the other door of the breakfast room, up a half flight of stairs, through the living room and down a flight of stairs back into the kitchen while my moujik was still trying to find his way out of the front hallway. His fellow finally located him with shouts and rescued him. His stolid silent pursuit had given me one uneasy moment on the stairs.

They poked about the kitchen for a few minutes and then walked out in disgust after shouting a final ''Uhr?'' at Heinz.

We moved to the front of the house to inspect the street though slits in the drawn shutters. There were more Russians on the street now.

One of them emerged from the little grocery shop over the way. He was staggering, and held a half-full bottle of liquor. Other Russians were climbing past him through the battered down doorway.

''The store's full of the stuff,'' said Heinz. ''We were supposed to get an emergency issue this week. Look, there's going to be trouble around here. You're going down to the cellar and don't please stick your nose out again until I tell you it's safe to. Please.''

In the cellar, I lit the candle on the table next to the couch and tried to settle down to reading ''Walden Pond,'' but Thoreau's individualism seemed very remote. I blew out the candle and lay listening to the rumble and staccato of exploding shells, the sharper note of rifle fire, the clatter of machine guns. Nonetheless, I dropped into a deep sleep.

It was not sound that awakened me, but light. I opened my eyes and froze in fear. A candle stump had been lit near the door; two Russians were standing there inspecting, by the happily dim light of the candle stump, the contents of my pocketbook.

I listened, straining my ears for any sound from the rest of the house. Utter and complete silence. How long had I slept? Where were the others? Had they been shot, or taken away? Was I completely alone with the Russians? I felt the stirring of an overpowering fear, a fear that was to increase until it absorbed all other fears.

The Russians muttered to each other, walked cursorily into the middle of the room, then turned and went out; the swing of the door blew the candle out. I waited, listening. There was no sound to be heard, but that meant that at least I could hear no Russians.

''Nonsense,'' I told myself. ''It's safe neither here nor in the kitchen. At least if you know what is in the kitchen, you'll know the worst.''

I walked out and, to my unutterable relief, saw Heinz and the Tantes and Frau G. standing there. There were several Russians. The Tantes flew past me toward their suitcases in the cellarway when they saw me coming out. I had noticed their things strewn over the floor. Heinz looked very pale under his stubble of beard.

''Are you all right? Did they touch you?''

''Never saw me,'' I answered.

''The past quarter of an hour has been hellish. They came in and lined us up here in the kitchen, pointed guns at us while two or three Ivans started going through pockets and the Tantes' things. When I saw two going into the room where you were...'' his jaw clamped. ''I couldn't do a thing.''

Frau G. interrupted him. She was rosy from bending over the stove, stirring in various pots and pans.

''Look, Gnaedige (gracious) Frau,'' she cried. ''Look what they gave me! Lard, a whole pound of it. And meat. I'm cooking dinner for them.''

She seemed pleased with the world. ''I've told the lieutenant all about Gnaedige Frau being American, and Gnaedige Frau must meet the lieutenant.''

The lieutenant, a dark, wiry little man, was looking at me from beyond the stove. He was washing his hands and face in a bucket of our precious drinking water, which I instinctively resented. He acknowledged the introduction, as I did, with a slight nod and a stare.

He plunged his face into the bucket, fumbled for the towel, and his eyes emerged from behind it still fixed on me. I thought, ''At least there is an officer in the house,'' but I did not like the lieutenant, and he found me suspicious.

His black eyes remained on me, staring at my every movement. I tried to ignore him. There were five or six Russians in the kitchen, and more could be seen through the kitchen window, building a fire in the yard. Heinz said, ''We seem to be a headquarters. There are two truckloads of them plus officers.''

Two Ivans passed me, carrying some of our scarce potatoes out to the fire. I was angry and said, ''What the devil do they have to use our last potatoes for?'' loudly and sharply. The question -- and the tone -- found little favor with the Russians in the kitchen. There was a shocked silence.

Tante Else sidled over to me and said, in English, ''You'd better be quiet. Don't say anything.''

I was mad clear through. I resented those hard-won potatoes being taken. The Russians were part of an Army and had their own supplies. As I turned to leave the kitchen, I realized there was a second officer in the room. She stood tall and blond and broad, staring at me.

She held a long-handled, broad-headed ax in her hand, which she gripped more firmly when our eyes met. She turned and walked into the bare vegetable storeroom, lifted the ax and struck the door, blow after blow, until the panels were nothing but splinters.

Heinz followed me back into the cellar. ''Well, what do you think of your Allies now?'' he asked, not expecting an answer.

At that moment, Tante Else came in with the daughter of the concierge next door. ''Can't you help us?'' the young woman appealed frantically to Heinz. ''What shall we do? There are 30 in our house, and my sister and my mother and I have to wait on them hand and foot, and they keep following us around. There's one with a scar across his face, and he won't leave me alone.''

Her voice was thin and frantic. ''He doesn't say a word,'' she said, ''but wherever I go he follows me, and I don't dare get out of sight of Mother and my sister. Papa sits in the corner of the kitchen with his head bowed over his knees and won't speak. He just groans. They keep following us. God, I'm afraid. I'm afraid. Can't you help us?''

Heinz's face was hard. ''All I can do is give you advice,'' he said. ''Have you friends you can go to? If so, get out of the house as quickly as you can. Don't let them see you leave. Go through the back gardens. Above all, get out of the house.''

She asked: ''Can we come here to you? If there is a man there, they won't dare . . .''

Heinz said coldly, ''There are almost as many of them in this house. I can't do anything.'' He stared at the table, his hands clenched. ''The thing for you to do is get out. You can do it.'' She got up and walked out, her hands still trembling visibly.

We sat silent for many minutes, feeling our helplessness. Then Tante Alice came in with a steaming soup tureen and soup plates. We had just finished when the door opened again, and the lieutenant came in. He was uncertain on his feet, and made a lunge for the nearest chair, planked a bottle of cognac down on the table and half-leaned, half-toppled over toward me, making a imperative gesture with his other hand to Heinz and the Tantes to clear out.

Quicker than thought, I rose, picking up the soup tureen, with a little hostess-like nod to him as if to say, ''Excuse me a moment while I clear the table,'' and walked straight out of the room, holding the tureen in front of me.

I put the tureen carefully down on a table and walked past the lounging Russians in the kitchen, telling myself firmly I wanted to get parsley from the garden. I went past the soldiers' cook-fire, with its circle of eaters, and slowly down the garden and through the hedge to the neighborhood dentist's house.

I said to myself, ''The roses will be lovely this year,'' although there were no more rose bushes but a shell hole, ''and the violets are blooming well.''

No Ivan came after me, but I felt as if every motion jerked, as if I were poised, like a runner, before I took each step. My muscles ached with the effort and my knees shook under me. I went though the hedge into the dentist's garden, and called, ''Is anybody here?'' and the old dentist and his wife came out. He was holding a little bottle, which he shook at me.

''We're trying to commit suicide,'' he said. ''That's poison, but we don't want to leave our daughter-in-law alone. She refuses to commit suicide.'' (By that evening, they were all dead by poison -- the dentist, his wife, the raped daughter-in-law, and her little boy.)

The noise of battle, loud as ever, made no impression on me. I, who had trembled at every sound in an air raid, could hear nothing now. My fear of exploding shells and tumbling walls had given way to numb horror of the Russians. There was no analyzing or calming that fear.

Heinz fetched me back about 5 in the afternoon. He had grown whiter and grayer.

''Look, Kerlchen (laddie),'' he said to me, ''the Russians seem to be moving out. Come on back.'' He was right, in so far as one group moved on, but wrong in his feeling of safety, for another unit was moving in. The lieutenant and the woman officer were still there, and were joined by three new officers. Heinz and I had slipped through the house unseen, up the stairs to the roof. There I stayed, up among the steep angles and the chimney pots.

Shells screamed over my head from the heavy Russian artillery behind us, and at first, occasional German counterfire sent shells straight toward us. It grew dark, and the fires of the burning city became more intense, a sullen inferno.

One of the Russians stood in the garden with a small rifle and shot at German bombers passing helter-skelter overhead; the others sang melancholy and stirring Russian songs.

Heinz smuggled food upstairs. He had been having a bad time. The lieutenant had not forgotten me and cornered Heinz, poking a revolver in his stomach. Heinz, as if to indicate he did not understand the question, calmly turned his back on the gun and walked away. The lieutenant had been too non-plussed to pull the trigger, but Heinz wanted to keep out of his way.

The two girls from the neighboring house had been raped and were being held in one room of the house at the service of the other soldiers. Their mother and the other women in the house had fled to us, but our house had furnished no refuge.

They sat now huddled in the cellar, and the Russians went in with flashlights and pulled them out and let them return afterward until they were picked out again by other soldiers.

A young blond girl who had been boarding next door had been raped 12 times and lay in a state of complete hysterical collapse on the floor behind the couch. There was no resisting, unless the woman wanted a violent death.

''They don't care what age or condition the women are,'' Heinz said. ''It makes no difference to them. Female is female.'' He told me then that the dentist and his family were all dead.

The married couple in their 40s who lived two doors down, and who had always shared our air raid shelter, were dead from suicide, done after she had been horribly mishandled.

The toll in our immediate neighborhood of those first 24 hours of occupation was to be 50 dead -- the majority suicides, the rest killed by the Russians.

''You can't stay here,'' Heinz said. ''There is only one thing to do: strike out for the American lines. Have you got the courage?''

I nodded, swallowing hard.

It was not just a matter of courage, or the lack of it; I wanted to live.

I did not know where my husband was; our only chance of finding each other again was my survival, his survival.

Books, clothes, papers -- I could leave them easily.

I wanted to live.

Heinz said, ''It will be bad until we get out of Berlin, but I'd rather go straight through the battle, straight through a front line, and be killed by 20 bullets, than stay another day in this house.'' He was not being dramatic. It was a statement of fact for both of us.

He had brought up my air-raid knapsack and now made one more hazardous descent to sneak up the food pouches.

I checked the pouches, for food was of first importance. We had two pounds of butter, one pound of margarine, two large tins of corned beef, half of a two-pound sausage, one pound of Army bread, tins of sardines, a composition block of pressed coffee, sugar, dried milk, two small bars of vitamin chocolate, and an odd assortment of sweet biscuits and a few crackers.

We had a bottle of cognac, matches, a combined tin and bottle opener, and two loaves of rye bread, so we were, thanks to Asi, amazingly well-off for Berlin in 1945.

I added soap and a towel into the clothes knapsack, shoved a novel manuscript and a small volume of poetry into my back trousers pocket, stuffed the other pockets with handkerchiefs, and was ready. I topped the sack with my lightweight, English blanket and strapped it down, looking with longing and heartache on the heap of discarded clothes and books and jewelry beside the knapsack.

There were precious things in that sad little heap, things that had meant much to me in the past years. They had to be left.

We had made our preparations to the accompaniment of shellfire and the drunken shouts of Ivan in the garden. The after-dinner bombardment had set in, and before long, with awe-inspiring explosions, a Katushka (rocket projectiles) attack began. It was behind our house, and all night shells screamed overhead, the thunder jarring the walls.

Propped against a chimney, I dozed, uneasy and alert for the sound of footsteps on the stairs, until 5 o'clock.

First of 10 chapters. Tomorrow: Early morning escape and more Russian soldiers.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today