The noise was deafening. I covered my ears with my hands, but they were still ringing. Then I heard it again. The incredibly loud bang seemed to repeat itself again and again, a resounding echo under the bridge, finally fading away. Papa was talking to Mutti, but I could only see their lips moving. I decided that it was safe now to uncover my ears.
Mutti, Papa and I were out for a walk in the park not far from where we lived. On our walk, Papa stopped under the bridge, removed his pistol from its holster, and pointed it down to fire a shot into the river. He then handed it to Mutti, showing her how use the pistol, and asked her to shoot into the water too.
This was the noise that left my ears ringing. I thought my parents were just showing off, and I did not like the sharp loud sound the pistol shot made one bit. But this would become a small sample of the sound of war, and I would be reminded of this day in the not-too-distant future.
It was the summer of 1943, and Papa was home on leave. He came dressed in full uniform, wearing a shiny black belt that held the pistol and holster, and high, gleaming black officer’s boots and riding trousers. I thought Papa looked very handsome in his uniform.
At home I would try to walk in his boots and make everyone laugh at me. My feet were lost in Papa’s size twelve, the dark expanse of the shaft so tall that I could not bend my knees and had to walk stiff legged.
Suddenly Papa was taken away again, back to military service as a doctor in the Balkan states.
The next summer, I, Katharina, am nine years old when World War II arrives on our doorstep. Posters are prominently displayed in the streetcars, warning “Feind hört mit.” (the enemy listens); one poster features a masked bandit Kohlenklau (coal thief) reminding citizens not to be wasteful. Around the city water reservoirs had been dug and now were filled to brimming; in neighborhoods and apartment buildings, air raid shelters had been readied; for each building a Luftschutzwart (Air Raid Marshall) was selected.
Our family had just recently moved into a second-floor apartment at Stobbäusstrasse 5, not far from Luisenallee I was still attending the same school. Mutti had split up the children, sending the two youngest to stay with grandparents. Little Heidi was with Marie and Karl in western Königsberg; baby Rudi was with August and Hedwig at Kalthof.
We became used to blacking out windows at night; there were buckets of sand on every landing in the staircase for putting out fires. Regular air raid drills were conducted, and we all knew where our shelter was.
The first bombers came to Königsberg. The sirens sounded as Mutti shakes us awake. We quickly dress, pull on our shoes, and grab our blankets as we had been instructed. Mutti leads us into the bomb shelter. We huddle on the benches with other people from the building. We hear explosions in the distance and listen for the hum of the motors of airplanes drawing closer. The air in the room is thick with tension; no one speaks. We stare at each other, and at the floor, and at our hands, for an interminable time.
Finally, the sirens sound the all-clear and a collective sigh of relief comes up from the small group. We all shuffle back to our apartments; we children are put back to bed and we fall asleep as if nothing had happened.
The morning brings a clear and sunny day, but the news tells a frightful story. Much of the inner city has been destroyed, though Königsberg Castle is intact.
Residential areas had been hit with explosive bombs. Buildings had collapsed and buried people in their bomb shelters. Those that had been able to get out had burned alive in the firestorms that were raging through the streets, their charred bodies grim reminders of this horror-filled night. I hear the adults talking about this, but I am numb to comprehending the full meaning.
On this day, I hear overhead a familiar hum and look to the sky. There it is. A single British reconnaissance airplane. Now I hear faint explosions of flak shells, fired at the plane and triggering at a certain altitude. They leave small puffs of smoke but do not hit the plane. Instead, I see what looks like ticker tape falling from the sky. Sheets of paper fall to the ground and I run to gather them.
The message on them reads, “Ob’s Sonnchen scheint, ob’s Mondchen lacht, wir kommon jede zweite Nacht.”
Translation: If the sun shines or the moon laughs, we’re coming every other night.
In anticipation of other attacks, we go to bed half-dressed, ready to jump up and put on our shoes should the alarm sound.
And yes, the British keep their promise. The next night, the sirens blare again! We hurriedly put on our shoes, grab a blanket and rush with Mutti to the basement bomb shelter. Many are already crowded on the narrow benches, but we find our spots, Mutti, Hardy, Edel and I. We hear the bombs whistle and explode, again and again. It seems that everyone is holding their breath. We hold on to each other.
When at last it grows quiet, the people in the shelter begin to murmur and shuffle about. The Luftschutzwart goes out to inspect the building.
“The roof is on fire,” he tells us. “And the big entrance door is partially barricaded with burning debris. Everyone must remain in the shelter! No one is allowed out until the sirens have signaled the all-clear!”
But my Mutti – she gets up. “Come, Hardy and Katharina. Take Edel by the hand and follow me,” she says to us.
She moves toward the exit, but the Luftschutzwart raises his hand to stop her. “Frau Podack, you must sit back down,” he tells her.
With quiet resolution, Mutti pulls out the pistol Papa had given her and threatens the man, pointing it at him. “Get out of my way!” she demands.
The Luftschutzwart holds up his hands and steps aside. “You’re a fool. You and your children could perish!” he exclaims. But Mutti pushes past him, and as we exit, others follow. Someone dumps the sand from the buckets on the burning timbers; we jump over these and reach the street.
The bomb that hit our building was an incendiary bomb, exploding and spraying phosphorus, which bursts into flames as soon as it hits air. We reach the big intersection; it is dotted with small burning heaps, and we carefully make our way between them. Suddenly Edel, who is only six years old, begins to cry. She wrenches loose from us and runs back to retrieve her doll which she had dropped. Mutti races back to grab her before she could be injured in the burning heaps.
Mutti leads us to the Feuerlöschteich across the intersection, one of many reservoirs that had been dug to hold water for the fire engines. She beds us on the edge and turns to me.
“In case of flying sparks, you must wet these blankets and cover yourselves. I must reach Opa and return home for some of our things. Stay here. Do not leave this place and keep a close watch on your brother and sister.”
Then, she was gone in the night.
From here, we could see nothing of our building, but occasionally, we could see a rain of sparks flying across the near roof tops. Edel and Hardy begin to sing and dance, enjoying the spectacle. I feel the weight of this night, three children alone in the dark, with confusion all around.
In the wee hours just before dawn, Mutti rejoined us to wait for Opa, and we were allowed to move away from the pond and to the corner of a house that had not been hit, to look toward the city. I saw the sky above the rooftops aglow, reminding me of the spectacular sunset at the beach house; the swirling sparks resembling a myriad of fireflies, the dark shadowed contours of the buildings in stark contrast. A frighteningly beautiful picture.
I stand transfixed, feeling no fear or horror, and I vaguely understand that I am finding comfort in a removal from the realization of the brutalities of war. I do not avert to the profane inhumanity of this night, the horrible way people have died, the massive destruction of property.
We learn later that Mutti had returned to the burning apartment to salvage belongings and food. She bribed one of the firemen with a slab of bacon to help her save some things from the apartment. She bundled silver and valuable goods, throwing them out the window. She was able to reach Opa to tell him what had happened to us. She had worked feverishly the reminder of the night, all the while worrying about her children.
Toward morning Opa came with horse and wagon and collected us from the Feuerlöschteich. Mutti had a new streak of grey hair above her right eyebrow. Opa chauffeured the wagon, avoiding the chaos of the inner city, to take us back to the relative safety of Kalthof, back to Gärtnerei Podack.
In this bombing raid the castle had been destroyed and most of the city lay in rubble, nearly completely destroyed. Königsberg Castle, once the residence of the Grandmasters of the Teutonic Order and Prussian rulers, was gone.
Opa and his men returned to the apartment with Mutti to save what they could among the things that Mutti had tossed out the window. By then, many things had been looted, but Mutti found her silver in the stairwell of a neighboring building. The fire on the roof had been put out and our apartment was undamaged. They were able to salvage other things from the apartment.
This did not last long, though. The following night, when everything had dried out a bit, the phosphorus began to burn again. Some days later Mutti, with Edel and me, went back to the apartment.
The staircase was intact, and we were able to reach our front door. We entered our apartment and walked down the hallway. The kitchen on the right side of the hall was undamaged, but on the left, there was a gaping hole; the floor was gone, the ceiling was gone, the apartment above us was gone, we could see the sky. Master bedroom, living room, dining room and the children’s room were all gone, but the length of wall between the big nothing and the hallway was still standing. The building eventually was completely destroyed by the constant re-igniting of the phosphorus fires.
Watching Mutti resolutely take charge in the bomb shelter, threatening the Luftschutzwart with the pistol, reminded me of the day in the park when Papa fired his pistol into the river. Mutti told me later that Papa had left her the pistol and shown her how to use it in case we were trapped in the shelter without hope of getting out – then she would have a way of mercifully ending our suffering.
I have often thought of my mother with the pistol in the cellar again and have reasoned it through as an adult. The split-second decision to get us out of the bomb shelter quickly, even against the orders of the Luftschutzwart, was the right one, the logical one. The big entrance door, the only entrance and exit for that block of apartments, was already partially barricaded with burning roof timbers. It would not take long for more of the roof collapsing into that corner, leaving us no way out. Rules that have been established estimating the greatest likelihood of survivability are not always universally applicable. Often common sense shows a better way. I firmly believe that Mutti handled the incident from her best instinct, a quick and correct assessment of the situation.
The bombing of Königsberg in August 1944 brought the centuries-long glorious existence and cultural bloom of the vibrant capital city of East Prussia to a cruel end. In April 1945, after a four-day siege, encircled from all sides, Königsberg finally was forced to surrender to the Russian forces. But that is another chapter in The Story of Katharina.