THE BEGINNING – 1940 BIRTH − APRIL/MAY 1943
In a small town in lower Saxony, Northern Germany, it was in the month of April 1943. The wind was howling around the house and rattling the windows. Tiny hailstones were lashing on the roof.
We were happy to be indoors. The fire crackling in the coal range was keeping us warm. Sitting on the toilet doing the usual ‘wee’ while the grandfather clock chimed twelve midday was just an everyday event for a little girl approaching three years of age. The solid wooden door to the kitchen had remained slightly ajar. There was a sound of crockery clattering as Granny prepared lunch in the big cosy premises. I often sat in the sunlight that splashed into the common room, the kitchen, beneath the slightly pink vine of clematis at the window, watching the shadows on the polished table and listening to the way Granny ran the household. I had thin, wispy, ash-blonde hair and with a little elastic band, a short ‘palm tree’ as Granny called it, was crowning the top of my head. She liked to brush my hair several times a day, once more tying the thin hair together. I felt trusted and important.
I was edging myself off the toilet seat, getting ready to jump off. This was not easy as I was wearing knee-long, home-knitted underpants and trousers made of an old boiler suit.
I called out to Granny, ‘Can you help me pull up my pants?’
At that moment a towering large body of a man pushed the toilet door wide open and quipped, ‘Hallo, your father is home!’
The pallid and gaunt-looking man in his military uniform jarred my nerves. A forage cap partially covered his head. My mouth slowly opened, my lower lip sagged. The sight was too disturbing. I trembled uncontrollably. I just burst into sobs, a flood of tears rushing down my face. At that moment I should have remembered the cold hard sound of the jackboots on the bare concrete floor. That sound alone should have warned me, but it all happened too quickly. I couldn’t escape to anywhere. I was young in years then and found it impossible to believe that the world was older than I was.
Although Granny came to my rescue, that first encounter with my father did not endear me to him. I don’t think he was very impressed with me either, as I was crying and I was very frightened. It’s so strange, the things I remembered.
Bad Pyrmont prided itself as a famous spa town treating people with arthritis in hot springs. The town was set in a valley surrounded by undulating slopes where the sun shone on the longest day. Juicy, dark red cherries were dangling near to the ground in August in villages surrounding Pyrmont and women with woven baskets filled to the brim with their produce sold their fruit for small change, to passersby, chatting to the travellers in front of their houses.
‘You love cherries, don’t you, Dutte?’ Granny told me. ‘We will drive in a coach and get some fruit when the bombers don’t pass over our town any longer.’
A military hospital town, Bad Pyrmont was twenty kilometres away from the Pied Piper town, Hamelin. It took ninety kilometres by train for us to reach the industrial town of Hanover. The war casualties were taken care of in the hospitals or in converted private homes in Pyrmont. Bright red crosses painted on the grey slate roofs of the stately homes offered protection from Allied bombers. The Geneva Convention forbade bombing attacks on buildings and vehicles revealing the Red Cross. The protection of the Red Cross was not always absolutely adhered to, as accidents did occur at times. Sirens alerted us of the enemy forces invading Pyrmont. We hid in an air-raid shelter to prevent bombs falling on us. I hated those places and started screaming in the dingy dark area. My father, when home on furlough, hit me in panic on the backside. He had only been home a few days.
Everybody in the shelter whispered and listened for falling bombs and felt apprehensive. Was the shelter safe? We heard a continuous kind of crackling, interspersed with the rattling of machinegun fire. Another time, soon after, Father swept me up and rushed me into the cellar; again, the other family members followed, fragments off shells falling on the roof. They had been fired off by the anti-aircraft fire. The thunderous ricocheting noises were very upsetting to a small child. Granny told me in later life that it sounded as if somebody was beating a gigantic carpet between heaven and earth.
In the cellar, a flickering wick sat in a lid of a shoe polish tin, soaked in mutton fat and waste oil. This provided us with a faint light. The windows were shaded with thick black-out paper, day and night. It was a great offence to show a glimmer of light, as it would guide the bombers towards the town.
In 1935, my father, a tall, blonde, good-looking young man, was in the prime of life. His mother, living in Pyrmont, played contract bridge with my mother’s mother. They arranged a meeting between my father, Lojo, and my mother, Ruth. Both enjoyed ballroom dancing and were introduced to each other at the Schloss Stuben, the romantic, cosy, castle restaurant with dancing facilities. Ruth and Lojo had been disappointed with former eligible partners they had been sweet on. Father and Mother were soon tying the knot as rumours of an oncoming war were spreading.
My father, Lojo Habicht, was thirty years old, with an athletic body, handsome to look at and assumed an aristocratic demeanour. Mother, at twenty-five years of age, could be described as a slender and pretty lady with straight dark hair tied back in a chignon. She was a lady par excellence: staid, never stepping out of line. At the time they lived right in the jaws of glitter and glare. She dressed in a classical style and spoke in a clipped manner.
Father was a Research Chemist working for Colgate-Palmolive in Hamburg. Soon after the wedding, some weeks later, he was posted to Boston, USA, and offered an international-orientated position. Mother had been in London learning English for six months at a younger age. Both decided to remain in Germany to take care of their older mothers as their husbands had died. Gustel’s husband, mother’s father, had been a major in the army and father’s father had been a veterinary surgeon. It came to light much later in life that Father’s eagerness not to miss the excitement and adventure of the up-coming conflict in Europe must have played a big role in his decision to be back in Germany at the time.
In late 1939, Mother was living in Hamburg-Wandsbek. Father was recruited into the Wehrmacht (the German army) in late 1939 and stationed in the police headquarters in Altona on the other side of the city of Hamburg. He was shocked by the military discipline and the harsh behaviour towards the rookies employed by the non-commissioned officers. The group in unison were made to face and salute a huge portrait of the Fuehrer, leader of Germany, and also had to salute the officers of higher rank by standing to attention and calling out ‘Heil Hitler.’ The paying of tribute to the Commander in meek and thin voices upset the man in command. ‘Louder,’ he cried. The soldiers repeated the obligatory words once more with more conviction, but not enough volume. ‘Louder,’ roared the higher-ranking officer, as if his honour was at stake and Hitler’s too. The atmosphere was thick; one could cut the air with a knife. It felt as if the Fuehrer was present and he felt very insulted.
The Captain in the Camp yelled, ‘Your voices sound like a gramophone record switched on low speed.’
Father recalled, ‘We were in mufti ready to go home on furlough. We had to change back into our uniforms. We were chased back into the football field and subjected to another military drill. Left, right, knees bent. We had to crawl on the ground in the mud, a humiliation I will never forget. Finally, our furlough was granted. I was able to go home and be with my family for ten days in Wandsbek on the other side of Hamburg in early 1940.’
Mother had two boys: Michael, born in 1936 in April, and Frank, born in December 1938. Freda, a young girl, was helping mother with the boys. Father coming home but not having much time very soon demanded his marital right. He insisted on his male privilege. The contraceptive pill had not been heard of in those days. Mother, against her will, had to consent to sexual intercourse. It turned out to be a bruising, terrifying affair. The sombre truth became a fact. I was in my mother’s womb when she was under paramount stress. Bombs were raining down on Hamburg. Military aircraft of the RAF were droning in the distance or close by, firing at each other, often entangled in an aerial dog fight.
Father was back in training; Mother in the coming months had to scuffle in and out of the murky and dingy air-raid shelter exchanging a few stilted words in a whisper with neighbours, women and children, when hiding from the immediate danger of bombs falling. The feebly glowing electric lamp only threw a faint flicker of light into the sinister small space.
The atmosphere was very tense, the air musty and smelly. Thin woollen blankets supplied by the war effort covered the mothers and children, their thin bodies. Some of the women were carrying their future child too. The idealisation of ‘Motherhood’ was part of the Nazi re-shaping of society. Posters made by the propaganda machine portrayed a healthy young mother and a child living against an idyllic rural background, the picture’s subtitle reading ‘Support the Work of Mother and Child.’ Women were expected to bear children for the forthcoming healthy Aryan generation. After all, Hitler was talking about a ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ for the up-and-coming master race (Herrenvolk). Hitler’s heroes, festooned with iron crosses of course, could not have children; only women could fulfil that task.
Hitler had been the Chancellor since 1933. Hitler’s ideology insisted on gaining more Lebensraum (space to live in). Through intimidation he managed to take possession of Sudetenland, which was part of Czechoslovakia at the time. Hitler started war against Poland in the beginning of September 1939 to re-unite Danzig and East Prussia with Germany as it was part of Germany before the First World War. Poland was no match for the well-equipped German army. The Russians, also from the East, attacked the country just over two weeks later, just to join in the fray.
Poland was annihilated within weeks. Warsaw was the first city to be bombed to rubble by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). Tens of thousands of the general population were killed. This was a Blitzkrieg (a war that went as fast as lightning); all-out attacks from the air and ground hit the country into submission. The Polish army was badly equipped.
In early 1940 Hitler occupied Denmark and Norway. The British had already declared war in September 1939 on Germany due to the invasion of Poland. Bombing raids were carried out on some cities in Germany; the Germans bombed major English cities, too, to retaliate the attacks on the German towns.
Father in the meantime had been trained for the forthcoming Blitzkrieg in the West to overrun Holland, Belgium and France. After all, he was the man with a cause who wanted Hitler to win the war. That offensive lasted from 10th of May to the end of June. The German army simultaneously swept across the Low Countries as far south as the Riviera. Italy attacked France on 21 June but only gained a few hundred metres of territory. This narrow occupied area was in due course declared a de-militarised zone.
Holland suffered the most crushing defeat in 1940. While German armoured forces smashed westward across the border, paratroopers were dropped behind the lines to seize bridges and air fields. The Dutch forces resisted, demolishing canal locks to flood the lowlands in a desperate attempt to slow the German advance. In spite of their efforts, the Dutch could not halt the German invaders. Within four days they were compelled to surrender or the Germans were going to bomb the cities. Nevertheless, the enemy forces bombed Rotterdam repeatedly before the deadline until two days after the surrender. We arrived at the conclusion the attack did not endear the Dutch to the Germans.
The Dutch royal family escaped to safety to London in mid-May before the deadline of the surrender and remained in exile until after the war. Their children went to Canada and remained there until after the war. The wife resided in Canada for a long time too.
On 10 May 1940 Father went as part of the much-boasted Blitzkrieg with a horse and wagon and three other comrades towards the Dutch border. When approaching the frontier, a German flag nearby flapping in the wind caused the horse to bolt and it vanished through an open gate into a meadow. The wagon hit a power pole; my father was flung off the vehicle and broke his right arm. Their means of transport had been destroyed, their equipment and personal belongings were scattered all over the field. A medic picked up father, his rifle, steel helmet and also his army book. The other men joined another company. A Red Cross aide took Father, confused and flustered and not knowing whether he was lucky and or unlucky, to the nearby field hospital which was close to Muenster. His arm was set in plaster. He went home on a troop train to recuperate. My father later discovered that his three fellow soldiers were killed in Holland. With the benefit of hindsight at that time, he contemplated on his good fortune. He had to endure the accident but indeed he had been spared the same fate.
Also in the fighting on the Western Front, the British who had been battling in Belgium and Northern France were made to retreat to Dunkirk. The soldiers were evacuated by a flotilla of ships across the Channel. Although it had been a resounding defeat for the British Expeditionary Force, it was a miracle that so many young men returned safely to England. The German casualties were comparatively light too.
The so-called ‘Battle of Britain’ was fought in the air. It raged from early July until early September. The battle turned out to be a real victory for the RAF as the Luftwaffe (air force) lost many experienced pilots.
In the meantime some of the most experienced German troops had been siphoned to North Africa to fight under General Rommel.
For my father, though, he was cooling his heels in a training camp in Hamburg – Bergedorf, closer to Wandsbek than Altona where his training had begun. It gave father the opportunity to visit my mother on an occasional weekend and also recover from his wounds.
The bombing on major cities continued.
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