Berlin Airlift Turns 60: A Firsthand Account of Post-War Berlin

Traute Grier was 16 years old when the Soviets cut off West Berlin from the rest of the world. Here, she recounts her desperate struggle for survival, her terror of the Russians and how friendships developed between the Americans and occupied Germans.

When the bombs rained down on Berlin on April 28, 1945, my mother and I cowered in the bunker of the Karstadt department store in Hermannsplatz, in the city's Kreuzberg district. At the time I was 14 years old. "What on earth will happen next? What if the Russians come -- those beastly and uncivilized people?" I wondered, shaking with fear. This is, after all, how the adults spoke about the Russians.

Suddenly, a pipe burst and within seconds the bunker filled with water. I grabbed my mother and said: "We can drown at home as well." And then we ran -- from house to house, fleeing the wheezing Russian Katyusha rockets, which seemed to never end. It was a nightmare.

And then the Russian soldiers came. Filled with hatred, they just took whatever they wanted. In our house a woman and her daughter were raped a number of times -- this kind of thing happened quite often. If a woman resisted, she was brutally beaten.

Besides constant fear, we were also gripped with hunger. I saw how people literally ate the garbage off the streets and desperately tried to fill their stomachs with potato peels and grass. My mother and I went foraging together. We climbed on the roof of a train and rode out to Schönefeld in the eastern zone. There we snuck into fields and stole potatoes or turnips, constantly on the lookout to make sure we weren't caught. We had no other choice; we had to eat something.

The Heroic Airlift

In August 1945 the Western Allies marched into Berlin and the city was divided up. My mother and I lived in Neukölln, in the American sector. We were very happy about this -- they gave us food and slowly life became more bearable again. But it was not to last.

Stalin's chicanery against the Allies, which had been going on for months, reached its height in the complete blockade of West Berlin as of June 24, 1948. Every overland access route was blocked and the supply routes of the British, French and American sectors were cut off.

Stalin's aim was to force the Western powers to retreat and to place Berlin under his Communist yoke. It was a prospect that terrified us: We could not imagine anything worse -- to fall into the hands of the Russians, who we had encountered when Berlin had fallen three years earlier. All our hopes now rested on the Allies.

And they didn't let us down. Only 48 hours after the city had been cut off from the world, the Allies flew the first plane to Berlin to supply the city with essentials -- the beginning of an airlift that would end up lasting over a year. Despite threats from the Soviets, the Americans and the Brits kept at it, supplying us with food and coal through three flight corridors. Every three minutes a plane landed at Tempelhof airport and several planes were always in the sky overhead.

"There was no time for repairs on the ground," the husband of a friend, who was an Airlift mechanic, told us. "Most of the work had to be done in the air. We often had to quickly come up with something on board the plane to make sure we would land safely again. On top of that, there was a constant threat from Russian planes. From my plane, I could see them as they flew right next to us."

These pilots and men risked their lives for us -- and that despite the fact that we Germans had been their enemies in the war and had killed many of their countrymen. It was clear to us in Berlin that if the Americans could defy the Russians, we also had to get through this, even though it was really though at times.

Collapsing from Hunger

There was a shortage of food and coal and there was hardly any work. The department store Karstadt, where my mother had worked, was in ruins. To somehow keep our heads above water, she toiled in Russian rhubarb fields or heaved heavy tree trunks onto trucks. Eventually, though, she managed to land a job at the American barracks in Lichterfelde.

I remember how she used to save her food and biscuits for me. That's how she managed to get me something warm to eat, regardless of how empty her own stomach was. Sometimes she even collapsed -- that's how malnourished she was.

At home we carefully had to plan when we would cook, as we only had electricity at certain times. As a result it was not unusual that my mother would get up in the middle of the night at 2 a.m. and start boiling some potatoes. To keep them warm she would then wrap the saucepan in newspaper and cover it with a blanket before going back to sleep. The next day we would have potatoes, the following day potatoes with soup and the day after soup with potatoes. We were thankful for what we had.

Then came the cold winter of 1948-49. We hardly had anything to burn and if we did try to heat our home, it was just one room. We always went to bed in thick sweater and scarves. However, we did have happy times during the blockade as well. One of them was a youth camp on the Pfaueninsel in the Wannsee (a lake on the outskirts of Berlin), which the city had organized with the help of the Allies. At the Luise Palace it was magically beautiful. We played games, slept in tents and there was plenty of food. It was a break from our tough every day lives -- a balm for our souls and stomachs. Every two weeks another group of children would go to the camp.

Small Acts of Kindness

I had another happy experience one morning on my way to school. As I walked past the barracks at Tempelhof airport at 7 a.m., as usual, a group of US soldiers came out of the building and walked towards a bus. Suddenly, one of the soldiers walked over to me and pressed two or three oranges into my hands. Nice, juicy, sweet oranges. That was something. I was totally flabbergasted. Even though I had learned English in school, I could only come up with a short "Thank you." Then he ran away and disappeared into the bus.

My mother was given a similar culinary treasure. At the time she and a group of women were heaving piles of heavy tree trunks on to trucks when one of the vehicle's wheels broke. The American driver was at his wits' end and starving, so one of the women gave him a piece of bread. The next day he took the whole group into the barracks and gave each one of them a cup of coffee. "That was something very special -- a delicacy. Something totally different to the coffee substitute that tastes like nothing," my mother told me excitedly.

Relations between the Allies and Germans became more and more relaxed and developed into genuine friendships. At the beginning, for example, Americans were forbidden from speaking to German girls. I can remember that one of my school friends and her "secret" American boyfriend wanted to marry around 1948, but were not allowed to. Later many encounters between American soldiers and German "Frolleins" resulted in marriages.

I also got to know a very courteous, good looking American with a good heart. He swept me off my feet with his dark, slightly curly hair and beautiful eyes a la Clark Gable. That, however, was not until 1955 and he was not an airlift soldier. Three months later we tied the knot. And since 1962 I've been an American citizen.

This article originally appeared in einestages , SPIEGEL ONLINE's new Web magazine devoted to history and memory.

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