My mother-in-law Gerda Drews was a teenager living in Berlin during World War Two. In this interview, she describes her family’s tragic experiences after the battle of Berlin, when her city fell to the Soviet Army in May 1945.
Note from Elinor: My husband was born in Berlin after the war and emigrated to Canada as a young man. His father Kurt Drews flew with the Luftwaffe, and his mother Gerda Kernchen lived through the bombing of Berlin and its occupation by Russia in 1945.
Gerda was eleven years old when the war began. She is now 91, and still living in Berlin. I interviewed her on tape. She doesn’t speak English, so the recording was translated by my husband.
This is Part Two of two parts. Last week Gerda described what happened during the war, when Berlin was bombed 363 times. To read it, click: The Bombing of Berlin.
By Gerda Drews
When the Battle for Berlin started in April 1945, I was staying with some relatives on a farm south of the city. The farm was filled with German soldiers who were in full retreat.
There was little hope that we could hold out against the Russians, but I wanted to be with my family when the worst happened, so I left the farm on April 28th to return to Berlin.
As I walked along the road, I was passed by military vehicles filled with more German soldiers. They were trying to break through to the north of Berlin. There was a rumour that there was an opening there, where they could escape from the Russians and surrender to the Americans instead. We had heard some terrible stories about what was happening to the German people as the Russians advanced.
I made it to the train station, but it had been bombed to pieces, so there was no train. Instead I caught a ride into Berlin with a truck full of soldiers.
Artillery shells were landing on both sides of us. The Russian multiple rocket launchers called Stalin’s Organs fired one rocket after another. I could see the contrails of the rockets flying over my head. They were firing into the centre of Berlin.
When I left the soldiers to turn towards my neighbourhood, I saw one of my relatives pushing a baby carriage towards me with her two little girls. She was trying to make it to her parents to stay with them. She yelled at me as she passed: “Watch out! Watch out! They are shooting at us!” There were shells landing all around us.
I made it to our cottage in Wittenau, a suburb on the northwest edge of the city. The door was locked and nobody was home. I let myself in with my key and went into the cellar we used as an air raid shelter, and locked myself in.
Suddenly the trap door opened, and it was my father! My family – my parents and little sister — had moved into the nearby bunker, or bomb shelter. They were convinced I had been killed. My father came to see if the house was still standing.
At first we couldn’t make it back to the bunker because the shelling was too heavy. Finally there was a break, and we ran all the way to the bunker.
There we stayed for days while the fighting raged outside. We didn’t know what would happen to us. We were also worried about my older brother Heinz, who was fighting with the German Army on the eastern front.
Note: The bunker has since been destroyed, but here is a similar bunker that is still standing in Berlin, used for grain storage.
Note: The battle for Berlin lasted more than two weeks. Three and a half million troops from both sides, Soviet and German, took part in the vicious fight. Some ten thousand tanks and eleven thousand aircraft were involved.
Millions of shells were fired into an already devastated city, killing about 250,000 people, including civilians and soldiers on both sides. There was no other operation of that scale in World War Two. These photos were taken during the battle.
We remained inside the bunker for days, but we didn’t have enough food for everyone, so three men from the bunker snuck out and came back with a bag of flour. I decided to try to get flour from the nearby bread factory. When I left the bunker, I realized that the Russians were on the roof of a nearby school – I could hear the bullets whistling past.
I made it to the factory and the owner gave me a small bag of flour and I brought it back to the bunker. When I think about it today, I can’t believe how stupid I was.
Note: The German commander surrendered the city on May 2, but the fighting continued sporadically for several days. This iconic photograph shows the Soviet flag being raised on the German Reichstag, the seat of the German government.
Finally, on May 5th, the shooting outside stopped. We were terrified. Russian soldiers battered down the door and entered the bunker.
They said two words in German: “Women, come!” Then our neighbour’s mother was raped. It was horrible. They kept several women inside the bunker, but while they were preoccupied, some of us, including my family, managed to escape.
We thought we would be shot the minute we went through the door. There were bodies lying everywhere, both German and Russian.
We ran across a field towards our house. Everywhere there were trenches dug by the German defenders. At the entrance to our neighbourhood, there was a huge trench that we had to crawl through. But we reached home safely and my father hid us in the cellar, and covered the trap door with rugs and blankets.
However, there was no escape. I prefer not to talk about what happened when the Russians arrived at our house and discovered us, because it is too painful.
The front-line Russian troops who did the fighting – as a woman, you didn’t have to be afraid of them. They shot every man they saw, even old men and young boys, but they left the women alone.
It was the ones who came afterwards, the second echelon, who were the worst. They did all the raping and plundering. They went through all the houses and took whatever they wanted. They stripped homes of every single possession, right down to the toilets.
Note: One estimate says that two million German women were raped by the Soviet Army. In Berlin, 100,000 women were raped, often multiple times, and 10,000 women died as a result. These figures are disputed by Russia.
This photo is from a 2008 German movie, based on the anonymous but authentic diary of a woman who was raped numerous times. For more info click on the title: A Woman in Berlin.
The Russians forced everyone to work. The city had been practically demolished by the Allied bombers, followed by weeks of shelling and street fighting. The roads were blocked with rubble, and they had to be cleared.
It was a monumental task, because you had to remove the rubble from the roads by hand. All the tram lines were down, and everywhere there was burned-out wrecks of wooden tram cars. The defenders had used them as roadblocks, so of course they were wrecked.
Most of the work was done by the women. My mother and I picked up rubble, and so did all my female relatives. It was a difficult job, chipping all the mortar off the bricks by hand so they could be used again.
There is a name for women in Germany who cleaned up after the bombing: Trummer Frauen, translated as “Rubblewomen.”
This photo shows what a challenging task they had.
But everyone worked hard, and the city gradually began to emerge from the wreckage. After just one month, the first trams started to run again, and some streets like this one were cleared for traffic.
All the utilities in the city had been destroyed. Women had to do their washing by hand, using public pumps.
Then a new tragedy befell my family.
After two months of Russian occupation, Berlin was partitioned into four zones: each controlled by the British, American, French and Russians.
My neighbourhood ended up in the French zone. But while the transfer was taking place, there was one two-day period when nobody was in charge.
During those two days, the Russians seized the opportunity to round up 50,000 people for deportation to prison camps. My father had been too old to join the armed forces – he was 48 years old, and a naval veteran from the first war. But because he had served as an Air Warden for our neighbourhood, the Russians considered him a Nazi official.
On August 10th, my father was ordered to report to the local police station. Then two men came to the door, and told my mother and me to bring a suitcase full of his clothing, as he was being taken into the country to help with the fall harvest.
Hastily we packed the suitcase and took it to the police station. At the rear of the station, we could see men being loaded into the backs of trucks and driven away. People were crying and calling out to each other.
I jumped on my bicycle and followed the trucks, along with hundreds of other people who were frantically trying to see where the trucks were going. Eventually the Russians drove the crowds back with gunfire.
I never saw my dear father again.
In the months that followed, my mother and my little sister and I had a bad time on our own. We were alone and unprotected, and we were very hungry.
People from the city began going from farm to farm, trying to buy or barter something for food. The 1944 potato harvest was still stacked in large heaps over the winter, covered with sacking. Farmers would allow people to go and root around in the leftover piles of potatoes, most of which were rotten. You would have to plunge your arms into a slimy mass of rotten potatoes, and if you were lucky, you would find a few good ones.
Here’s a photo of German women, bringing food home from the countryside to feed their families.
The best things to trade were flints for lighters, salt, paper, and schoolbooks. After a few months, the farmers began to demand silver, linens and anything else of value. Eventually there was a saying: “The farmer has everything but a Persian carpet for his pig!”
We had to go farther and farther afield to find food. This desperate search for food was called “hamstern,” which is to behave like a hamster. Magdeburg, the site of a large sugar refinery about 160 kilometres west of Berlin, was a good place to go hamstern because the Russians had not been there and stolen everything.
The winter of 1945-1946 was very difficult. My mother’s family had been forcibly ejected from their home in eastern Germany because that part of the country now belonged to Poland. At one point there were thirteen people living in our two-bedroom house, all of whom were hungry.
This photo shows displaced German women and children, travelling to the west with their belongings.
Ration cards were issued by the Allies, numbering one to six. Level six was the highest, which allowed 2,000 calories a day for the working man. Level one provided next to nothing. The occupying forces took turns issuing food. We were happy when it was the turn of the Americans, because they had the most to give.
Finding work wasn’t a problem, since the process of reconstruction began immediately and all hands were needed. From sewing uniforms for German soldiers during the war, I now sewed shirts for Russian soldiers, and I did knitting and piecework to sell.
By spring 1946 our relatives had all found places to live and moved on. In June there was a widespread call to go to the country and help with the harvest. My cousin and I went to a farm near Magdeburg. I didn’t receive any money, just room and board.
One day I was mucking out the pig sty in my apron and rubber boots when a handsome young man and his brother appeared. They were out hamstern, looking for food. It was Kurt Drews, recently released from a Russian prison camp, and his brother. Their accent told me they were from Berlin, and it turned out they lived not far from my home.
Kurt began to visit me and soon we were in love. I was 18 years old, and he was 21. I had led a very sheltered life, and I wasn’t allowed to go to any social events since my mother thought this was inappropriate as long as my father was in prison.
One evening I walked Kurt to the bus stop, and on my way home I was accosted by some French soldiers. By this time our area of Berlin belonged to the French zone. I had a narrow escape from them, and my mother decided to let Kurt live with us for protection. But she refused to allow our marriage. “Not until your father comes home and gives his permission,” she said.
(Note: There are recorded instances of rape by members of other Allied forces, although nothing on the scale of the Soviets.)
We really wanted to get married, so on my twentieth birthday – the day I reached the age of legal majority and didn’t need my father’s permission – we were married. It was December 1, 1947.
We made a lot of preparations for the wedding. We traded some things for flour. I had saved some poppyseed oil and sugar from my time working at the farm, so we were able to bake a wedding cake. Nothing ever tasted so good as that cake!
Kurt and Gerda Drews on their wedding day, December 1, 1947.
(Kurt served in the Luftwaffe during the war. To read his story, click here: My Visit to Peenemünde.)
In 1953, I finally learned what had happened to my father.
A man came home after spending years in Saxon House (Sachsenhausen), the prison camp located north of Berlin in Soviet-occupied Germany. I went to his house and showed him a photograph of my father. At first he didn’t recognize him, but then confirmed it was my father.
He told me my father had been working in the camp kitchen when he caught dysentery and died back in 1947. The man wrote down the details and signed the paper, so that my mother was able to collect a small widow’s pension.
(Note: Sachsenhausen in Soviet-occupied Germany housed about 150,000 political prisoners from 1945 to 1950, one-third of whom died in captivity. The facility is now a public museum.)
That same year, we also found out what had happened to my older brother Heinz, who had disappeared after the war without a trace. Naturally we assumed he was dead.
But he had avoided almost certain death at the hands of the Russians by changing his identity and hiding out with a farmer’s family in East Prussia, now part of Poland.
He finally wrote to us in 1953 under an assumed name, and then returned to Berlin with the farmer’s daughter, whom he had married. It was a very happy reunion!
After Kurt and I were married, we moved into a house in the same neighbourhood, just down the street from my mother. We had two boys, born in 1949 and 1953.
My husband’s uncle had worked for the Berlin Transit Authority since 1903, just like his father before him. He helped Kurt get a job there. Kurt started work in terrible conditions – low pay, filthy workplace, no electricity – but he stuck it out. He remained there for 39 years, the fourth-generation Drews to work for the same company. My younger boy Jurgen also went to work there, and he is the fifth generation.
On August 13, 1961, when the boys were still quite young, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall and divided our city in half. The wall went up at the end of our street, just a few blocks away.
Fortunately for us, our home was on the western side. We lost contact with our friends and relatives on the other side in East Germany, and the wall was a constant reminder of the Soviet presence.
I was always worried about my boys getting shot! They used to throw rocks against the trip wires along the wall, just to see the floodlights come on and the guards run along the top of the wall with their machine guns.
The wall came down in 1990 and Berlin was unified once again. The Americans, British and French withdrew from Berlin in 1994.
My older boy Heinz, named after my brother, emigrated to Canada in 1974 and became a mining construction manager. He and his family live in Invermere, British Columbia. My husband and I made so many trips to Canada that we considered it our second home.
My first boyfriend was the man I married, and I was married to him for 63 years. My husband died in 2010. I’m in fairly good health and I still enjoy sewing and baking, watching soccer, and especially spending time with my children and grandchildren.
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And here is a recent photograph of my brave mother-in-law Gerda Kernchen Drews, with a special German-style cheesecake she baked for us during her last visit.
Thank you, Gerda, for being a loving wife, mother and grandmother. And for having the courage to survive a terrible war that caused so much grief to so many millions. You are an inspiration to the younger generation.
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MY FAVOURITE VETERANS
The amazing story of Gerda Drews, along with twenty-seven other original stories from Wartime Wednesdays, are available in book form. For more info, check out the book cover titled My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes, at the bottom of this page.