Notes on German Culture

Precious family photos that survived WWII

This photo was taken in 1934, at a portrait studio in Königsberg, the beautiful 700 year old medieval city that was once the capital of East Prussia. In that peaceful and optimistic year, none of the residents could foresee the terror that would befall them only ten years later.

Summer 1940…Ellen Tschutter just before her marriage to Alexander Simoneit

In August 1944, Königsberg was targeted by the British RAF for indiscriminate firebombing of its civilian population. On the 29th and 30th, 189 bombers attacked with 450 tons of explosives and used a new type of bombing to carry out one of the most devastating attacks of the war. It was described to me by firsthand witnesses. The first wave of bombs caused traditional destruction. As survivors and first responders came out of their shelters and basements to survey the damage, they were caught by the second wave…this time by phosphorous bombs. People were sucked into a vortex of fire so intense that their bodies shriveled to the size of infants. Those who tried to escape by jumping into the castle lagoon were boiled to death. The city burned for several days.

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but out of a pre-war population of 350,000 perhaps as many as 100,000 remained after the aerial onslaught of 1944.

The medieval city center, consisting of the quarters Altstadt, Löbenicht and Kneiphof, was completely destroyed. Along with it the Dom cathedral, the castle, all churches of the city, the old and the new university and the entire warehouse district.

The survivors were very lucky…but only if they were able to safely evacuate the city before it was surrounded by the Red Army in mid January, 1945. The unlucky were condemned to face an army that was authorized, in fact openly encouraged, to rape, murder and plunder at will.

The twice lucky survivors, who escaped in time… right after Christmas and before January 15th… now faced the “Flucht”, which was the escape westward via any means possible. Those who boarded ships faced death by drowning. Panicked people crowded the docks to get onto the luxury ship Wilhelm Gustloff …it was packed with women and children and seriously wounded soldiers. But on its first night in the ice cold Baltic Sea it was torpedoed several times and 9,400 people  drowned, 5,000 of which were children. For comparison, the 9,400 that were killed was a tragedy six times worse than the famous Titanic sinking where 1,500 people drowned. Later the ship General von Steuben was sunk with 3,000 passengers who drowned.

There were not enough ships either and no gasoline for cars, so most people simply had to walk, pulling small carts holding their youngest and oldest family members, trying to keep moving on snow covered gridlocked roads, forced to leave their dead unburied along roadsides in the freezing cold of January 1945.

The young lady in the photo was lucky three times over ..she survived the entire ordeal, but with not much more than her life and some precious photos and a resolve to start a new life.

She ended up in Lübeck, in the western part of Germany, near the huge POW holding area where her husband was being held for a few months after surrendering at the end of WWII. This was in the British Zone which was just far enough to be free of the Russians and was overcrowded with fellow East Prussians. As the Cold War heated up, she and her husband, as well as many people who already lost everything once,  were wary of communism spreading to Western Europe. Options were to emigrate to the US, Canada, Australia, or South America. The US was chosen and in 1956, after 6 years on the waiting list for immigration, she and her husband, two sons and a daughter traveled by ship to New York on their way to Chicago, where she made a new life and lived happily as a US citizen to age 80.

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