I had a diary but it was lost in the bombing but I can remember many things. When we left school, we had to do a year on the land or another compulsory year. If you didn’t complete your year and have a card stamped, then you wouldn’t get a job afterwards. For my compulsory year in 1939, I was helping in a house of a member of the Nazi Party; helping with 2 children; a girl aged 5 and a boy of 2. The lady was called Charlotte Pabsleden. She was very scrupulous with money. They were not nice people. Originally the man was a banker. But I often went hungry. 1939 to 1940 was very hard. My toes were frozen. I had to collect the coal for the fire. I wasn’t allowed to work on the land because my mother wouldn’t let me. I didn’t marry and had no sisters, because of the war, but after the war in 1945 I became a teacher.
May we go back to the beginning? When were you born?
17 August 1923. When I went to school I was the youngest in the class. I was very well behaved until then. Then I became quite naughty! We had an allotment…..took over the mortgage of an allotment in Haunchenhausen (?) where we lived. My father built a little house on this allotment where you could sleep a night from time to time. In 1933, we spent the whole year living there because of poverty. My father drank a lot of alcohol and my grandmother hoped that if we lived in this allotment, he would be at home more. It is embarrassing to say this…..my mother was very hard working in the home. My father didn’t want her to work. Before she married, she was a telephonist. My father trained as a butcher and then worked in the slaughterhouse. He was an intelligent man and worked his way up until he was effectively running the slaughterhouse.
Where is Haunchenhaesen?
North east…..in the north of Lichenbach (?).
Did your father fight in the First World War?
He wasn’t a soldier at the front; he was digging graves and such like……..this is a photo of us on the allotment. My father built the house with the help of friends. I helped by removing nails from egg boxes for use in the construction because it had to be made very cheaply. I was a very optimistic type of person. When I was at school, I forgot all the problems at home. These are my first photos with my own camera that I got for my 12th birthday. The house we built, we kept adding bits on to it. My father was sometimes bad tempered – moody and then he had lung cancer and died when he was 67 in 1958. He was a very talented man; sensitive to music and such like but he threw his life away; it’s so sad.
Were you close to your parents?
To my mother; I was more afraid of my father. You couldn’t tell what he was going to do next. My mother spent a lot of time teaching me to read; reading books; sewing clothes because we had so little money and that was the best inheritance from my mother, learning these things. Here is a photograph of me at my conformation when I was 13. I spent 2 extra years at school. There were extra classes you didn’t need to pay for so instead of leaving after 7 years of school I could stay 8, 9, 10 without paying. I stayed in school til I was 15 and a half and the reason I could do that was because it was free. You had to take an exam and if your parents couldn’t afford it, you were supported by the State (?) for the extra years. I passed the exam. There were only 2 such schools in Berlin where you could do that. I was very lucky and I had very good teachers. One amazing teacher who taught German, drawing, music, German literature. I love German literature and I love the language and I hate to see it losing its ?
Were you a bright pupil?
Yes, I was good at school. We had a typical English miss – Miss Bear…..the head master was a Nazi. He was young and blond and everyone adored him; me too! Before he became the headmaster he had done an exchange with America and loved American culture. I would also have had the chance to go on an exchange because I was good at English but I was too lazy to learn the vocabulary. I liked maths as well. My maths teacher said I should go into a technical profession. But my father wanted me to leave school early to become a stenographer but I would have been very bad at that. I always had bad marks for typing. I was good at numbers and geometry. I have my mother to thank for my first job as a technical drawer and I am grateful to her. I hated the war but it is thanks to the war that I had the profession I had. From 1st April 1940 I worked for Siemens. They were looking for people who could do technical drawing after only a short period of training; a 5 month period of training. It was very decisive for me, 1940. I registered to take this course at Siemens but my father didn’t want me to do it. Siemens ran the training school and that coloured my whole life. It taught me to be independent and the quality of the training was very high. I registered even though my father didn’t want me to. He wanted me to earn money straight away.
So Siemens paid you to train?
Yes; we were paid 75 Marks a month, which was a lot. Another advantage was that because Siemens was a firm that was basically supporting the war and was needed to make equipment for the war effort, the workers were essentially protected and didn’t have to go and do the compulsory war work that others were having to do from the age of 17.
I still don’t understand why your father was so against it?
He was against me spending those extra years at school because he wanted me to earn money as soon as possible and he thought that a stenographer could earn good money straight away but as it turned out, he was quiet as soon as I got this job.
So you started working for Siemens in April 1940?
Yes and the examinations were in October 1940 and then we were sent to our working place. I passed with good marks and went to the Wernerwerks, in the north. There were 2 Siemens; Siemens Halske who did telephones and Siemens Schuckert who did motors for the railways and things and I was with Siemens Halske. Firstly I was in the laboratory and we were doing wax copies. You would have a piece of paper with a sheet of wax on it and behind it was a purple machine and the engineers had measured particular curves and we had to copy these curves onto the wax so it could be duplicated.
Curves for what? For making telephones?
We weren’t told; just measurements from the laboratory. I was very bored by this. We had an arrogant boss in our section and he didn’t like the way I behaved. I put my work on the table and stepped back and he didn’t like that. He said I was too proud and criticised me for it. I swapped places with another girl who wanted a job in that office and applied for a job in the construction office and got it. I wanted to think for myself. That was 1st January 1941. I had to go on another training course.
Were you still living at home then?
Yes; still at the allotment. We stayed there til we were bombed out in 1943. An air mine (?) was dropped near by and all the walls had been blown in. My mother had been given some crystal glass before the war by some Jewish friends and in the blast, shards had embedded themselves in the furniture. I was given a holiday because I was ill in 1943 and I was sent to recover near Braunswieg (?) in lower Saxony….
The English version is Brunswick I think.
So I went there for a holiday and when I came home my parents picked me up from the train and then we didn’t get off at out normal stop and my father told me we were going to his sister’s house and when we got to Aunt Lisa’s house, I saw my little bed set up in the sitting room and I knew that we weren’t going to be able to go back to the allotment. Then we were allocated a small flat……Do you want to hear about the Jewish friends?
There were friends of a friend of my mother and they were potato dealers – a married couple with 2 sons and lived near Frankfurter Alley (?) and the woman had a brother who lived nearby in the Knorr Promenade (?) In August 1939, when we got the ration cards, this Jewish family had very few ration points, and although my father didn’t know anything about it, my mother and I helped when we got extra rations. They were very kind people. In 1939 we went one day to the house of the sister of the mother of the Jewish family. She lived around the corner from them and the door was sealed – blocked off by the police. We continued to the family’s house and she was crying because her sister had been taken away; deported. It must have been at the beginning of 1940 that we got a post card from the younger son. He was 22 or 23. The oldest son and the father were deported first, and then the mother and youngest son were deported. The card just said we are on a journey. I heard they went to ? – one of the concentration camps. Many years after the war, I spoke to someone who survived that camp and he said that this man had died in the camp. The Jewish family had been a very well off family but in the end they had nothing. My mother gave them pullovers and warm underwear when she heard they were going on this journey. We were putting ourselves in danger just for talking to Jewish people because it was forbidden to have friendships with Jewish people. We were putting one foot in prison by doing this. I was very torn at this time. I had a childhood friend from East Prussia called Gunther who was with the motorised SS unit. Equally I had Jewish friends. My father was a social democrat but my uncle was a communist. In 1934, an SA man called Kurt Eckert had been shot and the police came to our apartment first and were shooting; firing the guns in the flat and then they went upstairs to my uncle’s flat and searched it but didn’t find any weapons but he was still taken away, but later released. They were strange times. I would never have got the extra school years if I hadn’t said I would join the BDM. The headmaster said we all had to join the BDM. In 1937 I registered for the younger version, the Jungmadchen and that meant I could stay at school. I had to collect with a box house to house for the poor. Hitler’s birthday was the 20th April and the evening before I joined the Jungmadchen group. In the August I was 14 and that’s when you moved up to the BDM. I had to go to one meeting in May and then they forgot me! I never went to BDM. It was an administrative oversight.
You could see that the Nazi party was bringing economic prosperity?
Naturally. The motorways were being built. The unemployed were found jobs. There was economic improvement but we didn’t see what it was leading to – war basically – the Germans wanted to rule the world.
Did your parents broadly approve of the taking of the occupied Rhineland and the Anschluss?
We didn’t celebrate at home, but we celebrated at school. In 1935/36, everyone had to have a picture of Hitler in their home and a Swastika flag and in each block of apartments there was a man called the Block Warden. He was in the National Socialist party and he knew where the Jewish people lived and would report back on who didn’t have the flag & picture. My father didn’t want these things but we had to have them. Instead of buying a flag, you’d buy a circle of material which had the Swastika on it and you’d take a red cloth and sew this circle onto it to make the Swastika flag and then after the war people would take off the circles and you’d see a lot of red flags with a patch in the middle where they’d all taken off the red circles.
Can you remember the out break of war and the sweeping victories of 39 and 40?
It all started when I was doing that compulsory year and looking after the children. A month before war started we received our ration cards and we had to have black our curtains. We had to pile up earth in front of the cellar windows for defence against shrapnel because the cellar was going to be used as an air raid shelter.
So you were expecting it then?
I am sure it was expected. Even in 1939, we had siren tests and bombing raid rehearsals. So we all had our air defences. I would have to practise taking the children down to the cellar. We always had to have a pail of water in the cellar in case of fire with a long mop-like stick to help stamp out fire and that was 39/40 and it was continually developed. We were given gas masks right after the beginning of the war – bit by bit. We were taught about the different types of bombs at Siemens. We would be called together for training sessions and also the air defence warden would go to the houses in turn to tell people. It was announced when he was coming – next week there will be an air raid practise. Wherever possible – in restaurants and schools and so on.
How severe was the rationing?
The Block Warden gave out the ration cards. I can’t say how big the rations were but we had cards for fat, bread, cake, material, cigarettes and meat, and I think milk. There were special ration cards for shoes. From 1936 onwards, butter was in short supply. My mother once lost her ration card wallet and that was really terrible. There was a lot of black market trading and a lot of the people who were supposed to give out the cards didn’t do it fairly.
Was there a point when you knew that war was inevitable?
My father said in 1933 when Hitler took power that it meant war. I was 10 years old and I remember my father was lying in bed reading the paper and the headline was Adolph Hitler takes over and my father said “This means war.” The Nazi’s knew how to get people on their side with propaganda and other things and I was no exception to this. With my school, I took part in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. We wore white dresses with an orange belt and we had to dance. In 1937 there was a celebration of 700 years of Berlin. In 1938 there was a celebration called “Happy Folk” which took place in the Olympic stadium and there was a joke at the time about a lady who goes to her local shop and says “Half a pound of butter please” and he says “I haven’t any butter.” She says “I’ll have a quarter of coffee pleas” and he says “I haven’t got any coffee” and then she says “Well, I’ll have 5 eggs then” and he says “I have no eggs.” She says “What have you got?” He says “I can sell you two tickets to the Happy Folk celebration!” These are photos of me and my friend dancing – practising for the Olympics. We practised for weeks. We sang all the songs – it was like a mass psychosis because they made so many things better basically. Albert Speer had these enormous plans for Berlin. It was going to be a great Germania with these magnificent buildings that were going to be built. There was a big celebration in June 39 on the longest day, for the solstice in the Olympic stadium and Goebbles spoke and he described the enemies – England, France….and we thought ‘Here we go.’ He drew a picture of England and France as the enemies. There was no going back. We already had Polish civilian prisoners in 1939 who had been sent to work at Siemens – straight after the start of the war. They had to wear a little diamond with a little P in the middle and the eastern workers had a bigger badge – a rectangle with Ost written on. They were civilians, including women. Maybe the others were from the Ukraine or Rumania. I am not sure if they were already there. The Polish were definitely there, but I can’t remember about the others. I liked to work in a section where they put together telephone relays into big columns to make telephone exchanges and there were a lot of Polish workers there and sometimes we’d help by giving them some food. It was forbidden though and the overseer who sat in his glass box and watched the workers kept staring at me. I thought I am in trouble but it turned out that he was staring at me because, as he said later, it seemed the women did this work better than the men. After that there were many more women sent into that section. He could see I really enjoyed working in that section. I was always preferred to work more manually than theoretically.
Can you remember the fall of France?
Yes; there was a big map in every office within Siemens and every good German had a radio which was known as Goebbles Gob! Whenever there was a success, which was often, there’d be a special announcement and a Franz Liszt prelude would be played on the radio – we listened to the radio at work. There was a loud speaker so we could hear it. Then we’d go to the maps and move the glass headed pins to show where the front had moved to.
Just to be clear – was there one big map in one office in Siemens, or were there lots of offices each with a map?
In every single office in Siemens.
Were you working on the equivalent of a factory floor or an office?
I was in a construction office but in every office where you’d normally have a blackboard there was a map.
After the fall of France, were you expecting Britain to collapse?
Were you aware of the air battle going on over England after that?
Yes we heard about that.
Were you personally aware – with people talking about it and hearing it on the news – were you expecting that the war would soon be over after that and that Britain would collapse?
Yes we expected that. We were bombarded with films; weekly reports in the cinemas and there was a song called Bombs on England; a Nazi song. I loved to go to the theatre and we add refrains to a known song at the end….we are swimming to England, or we’d have a character who was Churchill dressed up as a bulldog. Then there was the English defeat at Dunkirk and the song was “We’re hanging our washing on the Siegfried line.”
Did you ever think Germany would invade England?
Nothing so concrete. Somehow I didn’t feel totally comfortable with the whole thing. I was afraid there would be repercussions. I could see this wasn’t going to go on forever.
You knew about the air battle going on over England and there was lots of propaganda – pictures of downed Spitfires and so on but was it ever explained why it petered out?
The girls were all in love with the pilots – they were our heroes. I used to love going dancing. There was so much going on, I didn’t really notice. When war was declared, dancing was forbidden and for me, that was almost harder than having rations. When France was taken, we were allowed to dance again!! To be honest, what happened in France wasn’t so important to me as the fact that I could go dancing again. We were young things and dancing was everything! When we went dancing before the war, I particularly liked the Luftwaffe soldiers! Uniforms are very sexy! I liked the navy second and the army third! We were so young; we didn’t really understand the political background. It happened to us…..one of my colleagues had a friend in France and got silk stockings and amazing possessions appeared after the invasion of France; especially the wives of officers with their furs.
The bombing of Berlin on 1st August 1940 – what are your memories of that?
It was in Charlottenburg. It was close enough to the S Bahn (?) line that you go past and see it. Everyone went to look at the bomb crater.
Can you remember a sense of a premonition – worried that bombers could reach that far?
All the boys were sent to the flak stations after this bomb and there were gunners on the Siemens roof after that. I was always scared when there were sirens, but when Goering said “You can call me Meyer” we just laughed at the big mouth. But I was really scared when the sirens went off or when there was anything unexpected. I found it very strange and threatening, these enormous spotlights that the flak teams had and shone them in the sky. I was scared that the allies could bomb Berlin.
At the end of 1940, did you have a sense that the war was going to go on?
I began to have that feeling. Before there had been discussions with Russia about not attacking. There had been anti-Russian exhibitions showing the Russians in a bad light; communists holding knives in their teeth. There was something impure in the whole thing; there was sure to be a hitch somewhere. We put some words to music which said “Have you got your Hitler picture? No, no, Molotov is getting us on!” There was a real tension and in 1941, I watched an early show in the cinema with my mother and it said Germany was marching to Russia (?) – June I think. The mood was very low then and from then onwards. We started making up parcels for the soldiers. It was a very bad time and I was particularly moved when I heard about Stalingrad. At the time, I had a kidney infection and I knew my young friend, Gunther, was in Stalingrad and he didn’t come home.
Then the Battle of Berlin started with the bombing in 1943.
Yes, that was very bad. We had bunkers or cellars in Berlin where we could go. But we were young and we carried on. We went swimming and……carried on. In 1941 I was at a riding stables in Pommen, which was Poland. There were French prisoners there. When you are young you don’t take it so seriously. We made ourselves look smart and we went out and if soldiers where there on holiday, that was great, particularly when you are 16 or 17. In 1944, I was sent for more training on electronics with 7 other girls. Us girls had to work more and more as all the men were called up. It was on the river about 100km away. We drove up to the Baltic coast and for the first time I saw the Baltic Sea. ?? was totally destroyed but I wanted to see the beach. There were some soldiers up there that we knew and …..you know. We were young; we could cope with more. It affected my mother a lot worse. After the war she went into retirement and lost a lot of weight. But also after the war, my mother helped me to become a teacher and I taught everything except for Russian.
Were you still in Berlin at the end of the war?
Yes, I was there the whole time. On 22nd of April, we had the first Russians in the area. On 28th April, I had been at work at Siemens and came home and (she shows them her drawing set) – it belongs to Siemens, not to me, but we were told to take them home each evening, so that if Siemens was bombed, some would survive. I never went back again. There was a German amateur film group and I was a member of this and we made films and I learnt how to take photographs. After the war, the Russians all wanted their photographs taken and we set up a studio in a villa and we took photographs of them and lived pretty well. We got good food from the Russians and a lot of cigarettes. The Russians insisted that I lit up immediately. So I’d light up and then when they went, I’d put it out and stick it in my pocket and take it home for my father. This is Nikolai (showing photograph ??) and he looked at me and said “You blond girl, come with me to Odessa and I’ll give you beautiful clothes!” But I resisted. I was lucky; I wasn’t attacked or molested. In our street we had the Russian commander and if anyone gave any trouble, you’d say you were going to see the Russian commander. That protected us. The Russians made sure the children got food at school but we were all very scared of the Russians. I taught from 1945 and the Russians always made sure there was food in the school even if they had to bring it in especially for the children. Maybe it was different in other places, but we were pretty lucky. I can’t say anything bad about them; I had no bad experiences with them.
When you were first working for Siemens, what were your working hours?
I went every day on the S Bahn. We didn’t work at weekends. I took the tram from Honchenhausen to the S Bahn and then got on that which was an electric train and then got to Siemens and had to be there at 8am and I left at 4pm. We had a canteen and employees could go and have lunch in the casino.
Did you have to give in ration coupons in the canteen?
Yes, you gave up bits of your ration card and you got vouchers and gave those in and got your food.
In the summer of 1940, what sort of things would you do at the weekends?
We’d go to ? where there was a beach and a lake and a friend had a sort of kit boat that he built. He was a soldier and he told me and my friend Edith to use the boat when he was away. We had a key to the boat house and so we went out in the boat and we went swimming. I had a friend who my mother wanted me to marry. He worked at the chemists and made medicines and cosmetics and so on. He was very solid but he didn’t dance! That was the problem! He didn’t kiss well either! He was called Hans and he was 8 years older than me. He wasn’t a soldier because he had bad asthma. Here I am with Hans in this picture. Here’s my class. I had 54 kids to teach!
Thank you so much. It has been absolutely fascinating.