Secret Aerial Photos: Book Provides Fresh Glimpse of Berlin's Destruction

Following the end of World War II, photographer Hein Gorny took spectacular aerial shots of the ravaged German capital. His son Peter explains how Hein defied a flying ban imposed by the Allies and managed to snap the dramatic shots.

Photo Gallery: Berlin After WWII Photos
A.C. BYERS/HEIN GORNY/COLLECTION

I remember holding the small photo album in my hands. My father showed it to me when I was ten, shortly after the war. He had carefully glued in contact prints where the enlarged images were to be placed later on. It was the draft layout of a book.

My father, Hein Gorny, worked as an advertizing and wildlife photographer and hardly ever took photos of the city. But this was his planned book on Berlin, showing pictures of the city before and after the war. I found the aerial photos particularly striking.

Long black shadows from trees and jagged, shattered facades covered the black and white photographs. These were the first, if not only, photos of Berlin taken by a German photographer just a few months after the end of the war. At the time, in the winter of 1945/46, the airspace over the city was tightly controlled by the Allies, and German nationals were banned from flying over Berlin.

Somehow, my father managed to get on a plane. I remember my parents commenting that he had done something which "was not really allowed." I don't recall how he did it it. My parents were getting divorced and my mother, my sister and I moved away from Berlin. But the shadowy aerial images remained etched in my memory. I also remember the photos had something to do with an American friend that my father probably met in the 1930s in New York.

Attempt to Leave Berlin

My mother, daughter of the philosopher Theodor Lessing, was "half Jewish," according to racist Nazi law. Many of our friends had already left Germany by the late 1930s. My parents also wanted to get away and build a new life for themselves in New York. My father had already been there and found a studio to rent. Shortly after the birth of my sister in February 1939, they wanted to take off for the US with a tourist visa because an immigrant visa for the United States was no longer available.

We rented out his studio on Kurfürstendamm, one of Berlin's main boulevards, to photographer Karl Theodor Gremmler and his wife. However, an official from the US Consulate called us, probably to ask us a question about the visa. When the call was answered by Gremmler's wife instead of my mother, he ended the conversation. He must have guessed our plans. Our tourist visas were canceled and we had to stay in Germany.

Not long after that, in Oct. 1939, we returned to our old studio in tragic circumstances. Gremmler had died in an accident in September 1939 while he was photographing the German army's invasion of Poland. It became increasingly difficult for my father to find advertizing work -- especially after an incident which almost led to him being banned from working.

The Wrong Image

My father's many photographs, which were distributed by a picture agency, included a photo of a woman throwing her child into the air, poised to catch it. The German National Railway (Reichsbahn) used the image for their advertising campaign until it was revealed that the woman in the photo was my mother. My father was accused of trying to ridicule the Reichsbahn by using a Jew to advertise for them. In vain, my father tried to explain that it was an unfortunate coincidence that the railroad had selected that image from several hundred photos.

The regime tried to blackmail my father, saying he must leave my mother if he wanted to continue as a photographer. He refused. After that he no longer got major commissions from German companies or public institutions. He had to give up advertizing photography and went on to make a living by taking portraits of horses and dogs.

I saw him a few times after the war in the autumn of 1945. He was traveling with an American military photographer, Adolph Carl Byers, who had come to Berlin in the summer. Somehow Byers managed several times to sneak my father into a small American plane. He took several trips during autumn and winter 1945/46. The flights probably took off from Tempelhof Airport, which the Americans had taken over in July 1945.

Suspicious Plane

Eventually the plane, which circled repeatedly around the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, was noticed and reported to the British military police. The American plane was identified by its number plate. They did not take the incident any further.

Before he pressed the shutter release, my father composed the photos in his mind. To position the Leica or Rolleiflex at the right angle, they circled several times around a site. For him the most important thing about these shots was the shadows. Without shadows, my father told me, aerial photographs look lifeless. Once he called off a flight because clouds suddenly blocked out the sun. He was incredibly picky when the light and shadow weren't right.

His always paid great attention to detail. In his studio, he would sometimes spend hours rearranging the lights until the effect was right for his Linhoff plate camera.

He was a perfectionist. But his book of aerial photographs was never published. My father worked tirelessly, preferably at night when he had his best ideas. To keep himself awake, he had developed a taste for so-called "pilot's chocolate" during the war. It contained the stimulant Pervitin and was created to keep bomber pilots awake on their long flights to England. Friends and acquaintances returning from their flights brought him some back. In the end he became addicted to it.

His addiction affected both his work and private life. My parent's marriage ended at the end of 1944 when my father divorced my mother to marry a co-worker, who he soon also left. When he married my mother a second time, he promised it wouldn't happen again, but his promise didn't last. In 1946 he divorced my mother, who then moved with my sister and me to West Germany. He went to a clinic several times for withdrawal treatment, but he never overcame his addiction. He died in 1967.

The aerial photos taken by Adolph Carl Byers and Hein Gorny were published 65 years after they were taken, through the Berlin-based Collection Regard. The photos, which his son Peter Gorny had thought were lost, were included in the exhibition "Hommage à Berlin," devised by collector Marc Barbey in 2011. The book of the exhibition has been published in German, French and English. Information on odering the book can be found here.

This story originally appeared in German on SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal, einestages.de

Adapted from an interview by Solveig Grothe

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