The photo above was taken in 1937 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 seven years later.
My parents lived in Königsberg and were married there in 1940. The picture above leaves no doubt that it was a happy time for my mother. I also remember a photo of them when they were first engaged…in 1937… in a rowboat on a large castle lagoon, the one pictured below. And stories of how they had dinner in the somewhat spooky Königsberg Castle’s Blutgericht (Blood Court), a restaurant in a space once used in medieval times by the Teutonic Knights as a courtroom for capital crimes. And how they would go to the famous Café Schwermer and sit there for hours just talking, slowly nursing their Kaffee und Kuchen, under the massive old oaks that shaded the outdoor seating area in summers. Those happy years would end in August 1944.
The evening of 29 August 1944. On that night the city of Königsberg was targeted by the British RAF for indiscriminate firebombing of its civilian population. After dark, 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. 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.
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.
It so happened that my father was home on military leave on August 29th and both my parents were in their apartment, lucky to survive the repeated phosphorous fire bombing. Lucky because their apartment was near the airport at the edge of the city, away from the hell storm in the central district… they covered themselves in wet blankets and escaped the rapidly expanding fire, running to safety through the Friedländer Tor, one of the medieval gates of the original walled city.
The survivors were very lucky…but only if they were able to safely evacuate the city before it was surrounded by the Red Army after mid-January, 1945. 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.
But most people were not aware of the imminent danger…. the official permission to evacuate came too late. Everyone was aware of the newsreels of what just happened at the border town of Nimmersdorf. That village was briefly overrun before the Russians were repelled…but the rescuers found old men, women and children who were all killed by an army that was authorized, in fact openly encouraged, to rape, murder and plunder at will.
When the order finally came to evacuate East Prussia, chaos ensued. Those who boarded ships faced death by drowning. Panicked people crowded the docks to get onto the Red Cross 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.
Regardless of the risk, there were not enough ships to evacuate everyone. There was no gasoline for buses and cars either, 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. Russians were slowed by heroic German soldiers who sacrificed themselves to gain time for evacuating civilians, but there was no time to delay, not even to bury those who starved or froze to death… they were forced to just leave their bodies on the frozen ground along roadsides. What made it all worse was that January 1945 was one of the coldest months on record in a land where winters were always icy cold. My mother’s grandmother was 79 years old and too weak to make it…she was one of the many who died on the Flucht.
So this was the horrifying and deadly scenario that my parents faced, just 5 months after surviving the fire bombing. On New Year’s Day there were just two weeks before the city would be surrounded and under siege. But as fate would have it they were again lucky. First to actually be together at such a crucial time, and second to successfully escape westward right before the official evacuation started.
This happened only because my father served in a unique job within the German military. He was continuously moved west of the front lines due to his job as a code-breaker in an elite Luftwaffe unit on the Russian Front. As vastly outnumbered German forces retreated westward, the Wehrmacht High Command issued an order that this Code-Breaker unit was not to be stopped at checkpoints, nor forced to join last- ditch combat groups. It was important that this group not be captured by the Russians. Then, as this unit moved westward through Königsberg, my father was able to find my mother. He convinced her to leave her job and everything else behind and got her on the books as a secretary to his unit commander… and so they both moved westward, just in time.
Their trek west was still not without risk. My father’s group moved by train and the female members of the unit were moved separately by a military bus. The train was strafed by British and American fighter planes several times during the trip but was not disabled. Once it was stopped at a checkpoint by orders of General Schörner, whose mission was to hold back the Russians with a last-ditch defense, using every soldier that he could find, especially those travelling by train…men going home on leave, small units traveling to a new assignment, even the wounded men who could still fire a weapon. Some tense hours passed while papers were checked and verified with Berlin, but eventually the Code Breaker Unit was allowed to proceed again, although on a different train. Meanwhile, the women’s bus also had an incident…the driver was blinded by heavy blowing snow and swerved off the road, sliding down a deep ravine. The women were unharmed and waited for many hours until a retreating army unit spotted them from the road…logs were laid down the incline and the bus was winched back up to the road. The bus continued its trip before the Russians arrived.
My parents went on to survive the war but would never see Königsberg again.
They ended up in Lübeck, in the western part of Germany, near the huge POW holding area where my father was 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 most of the East Prussians that survived the Flucht . As the Cold War heated up, many people who already lost everything once, were wary of communism spreading to Western Europe. Many of these people decided to emigrate to the US, Canada, Australia, or South America. My parents chose the US and finally, in 1956, after 6 years on the waiting list for immigration, they traveled with their three kids by ship to New York on their way to Chicago. They made a new life and lived happily as US citizens, my mother to age 80 and my father to age 87.
Some notes on the history
The city of Königsberg represented a long history of Germans in the northern countries along the Baltic Sea. It represented the 700 years that Germans were crusading for the church, building cities, developing farming estates, and governing the populations adjoining the Baltic Sea.
Königsberg was founded by Teutonic Knights in 1255 during the Northern Crusades and named in honor of King Ottokar II of Bohemia. The German-language name Königsberg literally means “King’s mountain”. This fortress city of the Teutonic Knights eventually became the capital of their Monastic State of the Teutonic Order, which included in modern reference: West and East Prussia., parts of Poland, part of Lithuania, and all of Latvia and Estonia.
After the Catholic Knights became Lutherans in 1525, Königsberg became the capital of the Duchy of Prussia and in 1701 it became the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. The Brandenburg Elector Frederick III of Hohenzollern became Frederick I, King in Prussia. Because Berlin and Potsdam in Brandenburg remained the main residences of the Prussian kings, soon “Kingdom of Prussia” was increasingly used to designate all of the Hohenzollern lands, and thus the former ducal Prussia became known as East Prussia, with Königsberg as its capital.
As time progressed, the Baltic port of Königsberg developed into a German cultural center, counting among its residents the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant and the writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. Even Richard Wagner lived in Königsberg for a while.
The land of East Prussia, famous as the breadbasket of Germany, was also known for its landed aristocracy, the Junkers, who contributed with great honor to the officer corps of the German Army.
After WWII, 700 years of German rule came to an end when East Prussia, West Prussia, Pommerania and Silesia were removed from Germany and split between Russia, Lithuania and Poland. Overall, 17 million ethnic Germans were expelled from their traditional homelands. These 17 million people lost everything they owned, but they were the lucky ones…2 million of the expelled died during the largest forced migration in the history of the world.