Victor Klemperer's Dresden Diaries: Surviving the Firestorm
Victor Klemperer, a Christian of Jewish descent, wrote what many feel is the best account of what day-to-day life was like for Jews in Third Reich Germany. In all liklihood, the bombing of Dresden saved him from being sent to the Auschwitz gas chambers. Here is his diary entry describing his survival of the Dresden firestorm.
We sat down for coffee at about half past nine on Tuesday evening, very weary and depressed because during the day, after all, I had been running around as the bringer of bad tidings, and in the evening Waldmann has assured me with very great certainty (from experience and remarks he had recently picked up) that those to be deported on Thursday were being sent to their deaths ("pushed on to a siding"), and that we who were left behind would be done away with in just the same way in a week's time -- then a full-scale warning sounded. "If only they would smash everything up!" said Frau Stuehler bitterly, who had chased around all day, evidently in vain, to get her boy freed from the work duty.
Had there only been this first attack, it would have impressed itself upon me as the most terrible one so far, whereas now, superseded by the later catastrophe, it is already blurring into a vague outline. We very soon heard the ever deeper and louder humming of approaching squadrons, the light went out, an explosion nearby ... Pause in which we caught our breath, we knelt head down between the chairs, in some groups there was whimpering and weeping -- approaching aircraft once again, deadly danger once again, explosion once again. I do not know how often it was repeated.
Suddenly the cellar window on the back wall opposite the entrance burst open, and outside it was bright as day. Someone shouted: "Incendiary bomb, we have to put it out!" Two people even hauled over the stirrup pump and audibly operated it. There were further explosions, but nothing in the courtyard. And then it grew quieter, and then came the all-clear.
Big fires on the other side of the Elbe
I had lost all sense of time. Outside it was bright as day. Fires were blazing at Piranaischer Platz, on Marschallstrasse, and somewhere on or over the Elbe. The ground was covered with broken glass. A terrible strong wind was blowing. Natural or a firestorm? Probably both. In the stairwell of 1 Zeughausstrasse the window frames had been blown in and lay on the steps, partly obstructing them. Broken glass in our rooms upstairs. In the hallway and on the side facing the Elbe, windows blown in, in the bedroom only one; windows also broken in the kitchen, blackout torn in half. Light did not work, no water. We could see big fires on the other side of the Elbe and on Marschallstrasse. Frau Cohn said, in her room furniture had been shifted by the blast.
Klemperer's diaries covered the years 1942 to 1945.
After a while, it must have been after one o'clock, Eva said: 'Air raid warning.' -- I didn't hear anything.' -- 'Definitely wasn't loud, they're going round with hand sirens, there's no electricity.' -- We stood up, Frau Stuehler called at our door 'Air raid warning,' Eva knocked at Frau Cohn's door -- we have heard nothing more of either -- and we hurried downstairs. The street was as bright as day and almost empty, fires were burning, the storm was blowing as before.
As usual there was a steel-helmeted sentry in front of the wall between the two Zeughausstrasse houses (the wall of the former synagogue with the barracks behind it.) In passing I asked him whether there was a warning. -- 'Yes.' -- Eva was two steps ahead of me. We came to the entrance hall of no. 3. At that moment a big explosion nearby. I knelt, pressing myself up against the wall, close to the courtyard door. When I looked up, Eva had disappeared, I thought she was in our cellar. It was quiet, I ran across the yard to our Jews' cellar. The door was wide open. A group of people cowered whimpering to the right of the door. I knelt on the left, close to the window. I called out several times to Eva. No reply.
Taking shelter in a bomb crater
Big explosions. Again the window in the wall opposite burst open, again it was bright as day, again water was pumped. Then an explosion at the window close to me. Something hard and glowing hot struck the right side of my face. I put my hand up, it was covered in blood. I felt for my eye, it was still there. A group of Russians -- where had they come from? -- pushed out the door. I jumped over to them. I had the rucksack on my back, the grey bag with our manuscripts and Eva's jewellery in my hand, my old hat had fallen off. I stumbled and fell. A Russian lifted me up. To the side there was a vaulting. God knows of what already half-destroyed cellar. We crowded in. It was hot. The Russians ran on in some other direction, I with them. Now we stood in an open passageway, heads down, crowded together. In front of me lay a large unrecognizable open space in the middle of it an enormous crater.
Bangs, as light as day, explosions. I had no thoughts, I was not even afraid, I was simply tremendously exhausted, I think I was expecting the end. After a moment, I scrambled over some vaulting or a step or a parapet into the open air, threw myself into the crater, lay flat on the ground for a while, then clambered up one side of the crater, over the edge into a telephone kiosk.
I don't know where my wife is
Someone called out: 'This way, Herr Klemperer!' In the demolished little lavatory building close by stood Eisenmann senior, little Schorschi in his arms. I don't know where my wife is -- I don't know where my wife and the other children are. -- It's getting too hot, the wooden panelling is burning ... over there, the hall of the Reich Bank building! We ran into a hall, it was surrounded by flames, but looked solid. There seemed to be no more bombs exploding here, but all around everything was ablaze. I could not make out any details; I saw only flames everywhere, heard the noise of the fire and the storm, felt terribly exhausted inside.
After a while Eisenmann said: We must get down to the Elbe, we'll get through. He ran down the slope with the child on his shoulders; after five steps I was out of breath, I was unable to follow. A group of people were clambering up through the public gardens to the Bruehl Terrace; the route went close to fires, but it had to be cooler at the top and easier to breathe.
Then I was standing at the top in the storm wind and the showers of sparks. To the right and left, buildings were ablaze, the Belvedere and probably the Art Academy. Whenever the showers of sparks became too much for me on one side, I dodged to the other. Within a wider radius nothing but fires. Standing out like a torch on this side of the Elbe, the tall building at Pirnaischer Platz , glowing white; as bright as day on the other side, the roof of the Finance Ministry.
Slowly thoughts came to me. Was Eva lost, had she been able to save herself, had I thought too little about her? I had wrapped the woollen blanket -- one, I had probably lost the other with my hat -- around head and shoulders, it also covered the star. In my hands I held the precious bag and -- yes, also the small leather case with Eva's woollen things, how I managed to hold on to it during all the clambering about is a mystery to me. The storm again and again tore at my blanket, hurt my head.
It had begun to rain, the ground was soft and wet, I did not want to put anything down, so there was serious physical strain, and that probably stupefied and distracted me. But in between there was constantly present, as dull pressure and pang of conscience, what had happened to Eva, why had I not thought enough about her. Sometimes I thought: She is more capable and courageous than I am, she will have got to safety; sometimes: If at least she didn't suffer! Then again simply: If only the night were over!
Others are burning in the prison
Once I asked people if I could put my things on their box for a moment, so as to be able to adjust my blanket. Once a man addressed me: "You're also a Jew, aren't you? I've been living in your house since yesterday" -- Loewenstamm. His wife handed me a napkin with which I was supposed to bandage my face. The bandage didn't hold, I then used the serviette as a handkerchief. Another time a young man, who was holding up his trousers with his hand, came up to me. In broken German: Dutch, imprisoned (hence without braces) at police headquarters. "Ran for it -- the others are burning in the prison."
It rained, the storm blew, I climbed up a little further to the partly broken down parapet of the Terrace, I climbed down again out of the wind, it kept on raining, the ground was slippery. Groups of people stood or sat, the Belvedere was burning, the Art Academy was burning, in the distance there was fire everywhere -- I was quite dulled. I had no thoughts at all, no more than occasional scraps rose up in my mind. Eva -- why am I not worried about her all the time -- why can I not observe any details, but see only the theatrical fire to my right and to my left, the burning beams and scraps and rafters in and above the stone walls?
Then the calm figure of the statue on the Terrace made a strange impression on me again -- who was he? But most of the time I stood as if half asleep and waited for dawn. Very late it occurred to me to jam my bags between the branches of a bush: Then I could stand somewhat more freely and it was easier for me to hold my protective blanket around me. (Incidentally Eva had had the leather case after all: Anyhow the bag and the rucksack were burdensome enough.) The feeling of the encrusted wound around my eye, the rubbing of the blanket, the wetness also had a numbing effect. I had no sense of time, it took for ever and didn't take so long at all, then dawn began to break.
The burning went on and on. To the right and left of me was still blocked -- all the time I thought; to have an accident now would be wretched. Some tower glowed dark red, the tall building with the turret on Pirnaischer Platz seemed about to fall -- but I did not see it collapse -- the ministry on the other side burned silvery bright.
A burning corpse
It grew lighter and I saw a stream of people on the road by the Elbe. But I did not yet have the courage to go down. Finally, probably about seven, the Terrace -- the Terrace forbidden to Jews -- was by now somewhat empty, I walked past the shell of the still-burning Belvedere and came to the Terrace wall. A number of people were sitting there. After a minute someone called out to me: Eva was sitting unharmed on the suitcase wearing her fur coat.
We greeted one another very warmly, and we were completely indifferent to the loss of our belongings and remain so even now. At the critical moment, someone had literally pulled Eva out of the entrance hall of No. 3 Zeughausstrasse and into the Aryan cellar, she had got out to the street through the cellar window, had seen both numbers 1 and 3 completely alight, had been in the cellar of the Albertinum for a while, then reached the Elbe through the smoke, had spent the rest of the night partly looking for me (...), had in addition observed the destruction of the Thamm building (thus all of our furniture) and partly sitting in a cellar under the Belvedere.
Once, as she was searching, she had wanted to light a cigarette and had had no matches, something was glowing on the ground, she wanted to use it -- it was a burning corpse. On the whole, Eva had kept her head much better than I, observed much more calmly and gone her own way, even though pieces of wood from a window had struck her head as she was climbing out. (Fortunately, the skull was thick and she was unharmed.) The difference: She acted and observed, I followed my instincts, other people saw nothing at all. So now it was Wednesday morning, the 14th of February and our lives were saved and we were together.
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