Wolf Biermann about the bombing of Hamburg and about guilt and punishment



Wolf Biermann, a Jewish communist German singer-songwriter, survived the bombing of Hamburg in 1943. He lived in East Germany until the mid Seventies when, during a tour of West Germany, East German authorities refused him re-entry. His songs and poetry had become too critical of the situation in East Germany. In the recent edition of Der Spiegel he is being interviewed about his experiences in Hamburg in 1943 and about dealing with that aspect of Germany’s past. As the interview was in German, I translated most of it - please bear in mind that all typos and errors are mine. In most instances, I decided to stick to Biermann’s fairly poetic way to speak German.

Q; Herr Biermann, as a child you survived the heavy bombing of Hamburg in the summer of 1943. Your father had been murdered as a Jew and communist in a concentration camp, and you were sitting in the basement of the house with your mother. What feelings might your mother have had?

A: My mother was happy about the bombing because she also was a communist - and because not only my father but my whole Jewish family had been murdered. The allied bombers were our friends, as one used to say in a childish manner: our allies which were supposed to liberate us from the Nazis.

Q: You managed to escape that inferno. Are there any direct memories? Do you feel like telling the story again?

A: I remember one night very well! Everything before is gone, everything afterwards is gone. This particular night has been burned into my memory. I was only six and a half years old, but it was never erased, in my little computer here. Of course, because you kept talking about it. That’s something you talk about. That’s somethng you talk about in the family, talk about with friends. And when you tell a story often enough it might happen that it gets changed a little bit without you noticing it, without you wanting it. But I can only tell you what I remember And I think that it is quite authentic - despite the long time which has passed.

In the first night our house didn’t burn, only the houses around it. Our house stood there like a single tooth in someone’s mouth. The next night, we were sitting again in our houses’ basement, and now our house was burning. Above us the end of the world! And in the basement people were sitting like animals. Soon it became obvious that we wouldn’t be able to get out as the heat was climbing down the stairs into the basement. With a pick-axe a prepared gap was made through a wall only half a brick wide: To the neighbours’ house, which luckily for us was burned down already! And then people - one after the other - with what little they could grab crawled through this hole in the firewall towards the neighbours’ house and disappeared.

I was sitting there alone with my mother. She was sitting there as if she was immovable, I don’t know why; I never asked her why. She was sitting there as if she was paralyzed or maybe because she was smart - because in such a panic everything you do is a mistake. It’s a mistake to leave: You run into your own death. It’s a mistake to stay: Death will come to you. Nobody is rational in such a situation. In a sense I was rational: I pressed my little head into my mother’s coat, into her lap and thus, I could breathe; the air was impossible to breathe elsewhere.

Then my mother realized we’d burn there. She took a little leather suitcase with our papers and a few photos of my dad who, just a few months ago, had gone through the fiery oven in Auschwaitz, as a Jew, as a communist. And she handed me a little bucket. A little aluminum bucket with a cover, there was mirabelle jam inside. My mother had made it. And I took my little bucket and then we got out. We crawled through the basement. Nobody was there any longer. What a sound it was! It is hell, it is hell’s fires. In hell it is not only hot but loud. The firestorm is screaming!

Even though we got out of the neighbours’ house, into the backyard, we couldn’t reach the street. But there was no other way. So we went through the fire - not metaphorically, but literally. We had wet towels with us and we pressed them against our faces and we made it. We didn’t burn and at the edge of the street we were walking towards the next big street. That was Hochbahnbr&uum;cke and the canal. In Hammerbrook there were as many canals as streets. Those all got filled since then.

But it wasn’t easy to walk in the streets: The firestorm was so strong that it converted streets into jets. Schwabenstrasse, where we lived, was located in a good way, aslant to the suction of the fire. But once you got into a street which was part of the suction, people started to burn like tinder and they had no chance. So we ran close to the walls to escape the storm. I saw how roofs were flying through the air; it was like in the movies, like science fiction, but real. The asphalt was burning and boiling. I saw two women, a young one and an older one, who were running across the asphalt whose shoes got stuck in the boiling asphalt. They pulled their feet out of the shoes but that wasn’t a very good idea either because they had to step into the boiling asphalt. And they fell and didn’t get up any longer. Like flies in the hot wax of a candle.

We had to go on. In such a situation you don’t think about the lives and the suffering of other people. And then we arrived at a factory which I knew very well. Often, I had walked around there, stealing little metal parts and putting them into my pocket: For my dad when he would get out of jail. He was a locksmith and mechanical engineer and he had tools. I always came back home with my pockets filled, my pants were hanging as low as my knees. But now everything was different, in the middle of the night, lit up by the flames, and in the yard of the factory people were running around as if they were all mad. Nobody knew where to go. Everybody was screaming - apart from the children. That I noticed, even then and I am still surprised today that a child would notice that: No child was screaming. Not a single child was crying. I think that comes automatically when desaster is getting to big, when danger is too huge, like a little animal would feel that it doesn’t make sense to scream any longer. Thus, you don’t waste your energy. It doesn’t matter whether you scream or not.

I didn’t scream either. With my mother I was running through the yard, holding my little bucket in my hand, and it was so hard to breathe. The towels had dried already. You urgently needed water. So people started to look for water for their towels. Everybody was holding something in in front of their faces, it didn’t go without. There was a steel door, and we got into a room, that was paradise. There, there was the most wonderful cleanest air you could breathe! So we ran in there very fast and closed the door. We were happy but above us the factory was burning, and suddenly there was an explosion. The room was filled with smoke instantly. My mother grabbed me and with luck we reached the steel door. Out of that grave! There was fire everywhere and we had to keep running.

What happened next I still can’t explain today. My mother was gone. She had just disappeared. I didn’t know whether she was in front of me, behind me, or next to me, or maybe she already was above me in paradise? I was standing on the side and I was lucky I wasn’t trampled to death; in mortal fear people are wild, without restraints. So I was standing on the side, next to the fire, with my little bucket, and I was waiting as if this was a bus stop. Mother will come back! Not trust in God, trust in your mother. I was waiting and waiting. And it was obvious: I was lost. I’d never get out of there, never, never! And suddenly my aunt Lotte found me, my mother’s sister, who lived in the same house we had lived in, and she was screaming “Emmiiiiii!” She was screaming for Emma, my mother Emmi. And she must have been close by and grabbed me. Later, she told me that one sentence: “If I hadn’t found you I wouldn’t have left the fire.” That was no mere phrase, my mother had lost my dad already, in the fires of Auschwitz - and now me?

So we went on. Of course! And like in many small factories there was a little house in the middle of the yard, for the caretaker or the administration. We ranin there. There, there were many other. But the fire was getting closer and closer. Like in our basement, it was crawling down the stairs, a fire which is moving very slowly, no flames, just the heat. And people knew: It won’t take much longer and we’re here like Hänsel and Gretel in the oven. So we stepped on the lid of a toilet to find water in the toilet tank. But there was no more water. So we looked in the toilet and found a little water, we put the wet towels in front of our faces.

Back into the streets? You might as well put yourself into the fires’ blaze. That was suicide. Impossible. But we had to go. We turned left, there was a canal, a bridge. My mother tried to reach the water with me near the bridge. We crawled through the handrail, down the canal’s bank and we finally reached the water. I still had had my little bucket - and suddenly I was gone! There was no ground, it was a steep descent. My mother was hanging over the handrail. When I surfaced again she grabbed my hair or jacket and pulled me out of the water. Up on the banks again! There was no way through! Now I was wet like a dog, that was very good against the fire. It was obvious we had to go through the blaze. So my mother took a deepo breath and then we ran across the street. The canal’s water was protecting me nicely. And on the other side there were steep banks, too. There was a big column from the elevated tram, in the water of the canal. And there was a bunch of people clinging to the column, everybody was grabbing onto it, because they wanted to stand in the water in order not to burn to death.

There were some I saw who were steeped in phosphor: They were burning like torches and they jumped into the water to extinguish the fire. But when they surfaced again they continued burning because that was a certain kind of phosphor as I learned later. That means it didn’t help them to jump into the water. But we were lucky, we weren’t steeped in phosphor. We crawled through the handrail, and a young man in uniform wanted to help us. Right then some piece is falling down from the bridge and smashes the main right in front of our eyes. We couldn’t help him any more so we left him. We reached the water, found a spot in the group of people and we were standing in the water. And I was standing next to an old lady who on every finger had a little suitcase or handbag, everything she could grab. And now that was al swimming on the water. I saw that from my low point of view, my head was right in front of her hand. And suddenly I see right in front of me how the woman’s fingers lose their grip, how the suitcase is floating away - and how the woman sinks. She was gone.

More and more pieces were falling down from above us, it became obvious, we couldn’t stay there. Some just stayed because they had no better idea, but my mother had a feeling we had to leave. So she grabbed me by my shoulders and swam with me across the canal. And on the other side it was idyllic! There was gras, there were shallow banks and there were a dozen other people who had escaped there. They were sitting there like in a loge: Nothing could fall down from above, and around them there was the panorama of a burning city which they could watch from a safe position. How wonderful! If you believe it or not, it’s true, I still had my little bucket in my hand. And as there was a g good lid on it nothing bad had happened to it even when I fell into the water, on the wrong side of the bridge. We opened the lid and it was the most wonderful mirabelle jam of my life, no surprise when your throat is sore, from the smoke, from the fire, from all the dirt, from all the anxiety! We passed the bucket around, everybody could taste from it, from the sweet stodge. It was paradise on earth, in the middle of hell!

Thus I came to see the morning, which of course, never arrived, because there was huge clouds of smoke over the city. The sun was nowhere to be seen. It was darker than during the darkest rainy day. In principle, it was night. It had been brighter during the night than now during the day because at night the houses were burning as torches. That was enough light.

Q: The survivors then met on the Moorweide, near the Hamburg Dammtor train station?

A: The survivors crawled out of this inferno and were being collected on the Moorweide next to the university, a beautiful, big, old park with mighty trees. Then, I didn’t know and I couldn’t know that by chance we had ended up in the same park where the Jews of Hamburg - including my grandmother Luise, my grandfather John, my uncle Kalli, my aunt Rosi, my cousin, little Peter - had to meet in 1942, just two years earlier, to be transported in cattle cars to death camps in Minsk where they - as I know now - were shot in the woods. I have to admit, no poet can think of something like this: The survivors of the bombing met in the park from where the Germans sent the Jews to death.

Q: You once noted that this event had been burned into your memory like nothing else in your life, that your “life’s clock” had stopped “in the fiery blaze of this one night”. Then, you were six and a half years old. Is that still true?

A: Well, don’t ask me about that, because no errors are so grotesquely wrong like the ones about yourself. I think that in that night the foundation stone for my songs and poetry was laid. I want to tell you why: You know that photo of the watch in Hiroshima, which in the moment of the explosion froze. When I saw that I suddenly thought “Ach, that’s me!” My little life’s clock, in my little human chest, also froze that night. And if I didn’t watch the world at least with one child’s eye, naively, I wouldn’t be able to write such poems and songs. Then, as punishment, I would have to write prose…

Q: You could write a novel about that night - if you could write a novel, as yu once said. What would that look like?

A: Of course, the joke, the idea, the temptation of this sad story would be to link the huge historical event with the little blister on your own chest, to fill the screaming dissonance with life, that punishment by humans, not by gods, is raining from the sky: the gods’ judgement as human judgement, presented by bombers. And that you’re torn apart, between delight and horror, that you have to risk your own death to have a chance to survive. For that the perspective of a child is not enough. It would be interesting to tell the same story from the perspectives of a young boy and of a workers’ woman who knows that her husband just went throught he chimney in Auschwitz and that, as smoke, he is watching, from above. That would be, if I had to write a novel, the tricky pivotal point, whichwould make everything interesting for other people, too. Only to show wounds, only to show how bad everything was, how terrible - that is the first naive and human reaction, but that’s not enough for grand literature. And when you write about something like that then it’s not enough to have big fires and big horror. Then, you have to produce literature.

Q: There are but a few who like you - authenticated by their own biography - could bring this together: with this doubled experience of horror. Maybe that’s why there’s this gap in German literature? Is that why nobody dared to describe the air war, an experience millions of people traumatized?

A: I don’t know. I think there are many different perspectives. Of course, the fact that most Germans got their deserved punishment played an emotional role in a paralyzing sense. Be it, because they were murderers, perpetrators, criminals, be it, because they watched all that and didn’t bravely oppose it - I mean a sort of guiltless guilt which you carry around in your soul. And you don’t like to touch that. That was the reason why they didn’t like to talk about it: Because it was so deserved! Because the bad was so good! That they sense. And the others didn’t experience that. Those were sitting in their trenches. For them, a Soviet rocket thrower is a different music than the humming of flying fortresses.

Q: What do you think today about the military benefits of those attacks?

A: I know until today there has been a debate on whether it was allowed to bombard Dresden as everything had been decided anyway. Was it allowed to annihilate Hiroshima while the Japanese were already almost down? That’s a question which is too difficult and too complex for me. I am not going to say yes or no about that. Of course, I am sorry that such a beautiful city as Dresden where to this date I have many friends was destroyed, including many innocent people. He who is happy about that must be a beast. Still: The only thing I - and not just I - accuse those allied bomber planes of is thatthey didn’t even have a few little bombs to destroy the gas chambers in which my father was gassed to death. To destroy the tracks, and the bridges, on which millions of people in trains of death were brought into the factories of death. In the sense of humanity, the bombs would have been to better use there than in Dresden. That’s for sure.