The Pains of War
Wednesday, April 4th, 1945.
The time is somewhere between 6:19am and 7:44am. Forty B-17’s belonging to the United States Eighth Air Force leave Molesworth, England with the objective of bombing the Nazi air base in Fassburg, Germany. On approaching their target, the carriers encounter cloud cover. Unable to complete their original mission, the aircraft took advantage of a nearby “target of opportunity,” and drop their bombs on an armament factory located in a nearby town called Unterluss.
On the ground, the bombs are falling on my mother.
Sunday, May 30, 2004.
Today, I am standing on that same ground. I have traveled thousands of miles to stand on this ground in this small town in Germany. U.S. military aerial views from that day confirm this location. It was the place of her gehenna – the place where she lived and starved and suffered as a slave laborer during World War II. Today it is a soccer field.
I try to imagine what it must have been like – to hear the drone of the approaching airplanes, the whistling of bombs falling through the air, the explosions drawing nearer and nearer and knowing that death is approaching at a rate of 150 miles an hour. I raise my eyes to the sky. Instead of the sky darkening with the approach of forty massive Flying Fortresses, it remains blue and cloudless and… blessedly…. empty. “I ran out of the barracks,” I hear my mother say, “and all I could think about was your brother in the nursery and I started running and I hear bombs exploding, the earth shaking. From the corner of my eye I could see other women running too – all of us heading in the same direction towards the nursery, towards our babies. I snatched Michael up so hard he starts screaming. There wasn’t time to think about anything except to run, to run as fast as I could. I knew I’d be safe if only I could reach the edge of the forest. I could hardly breathe. My heart was pounding in terror. If only I could reach the trees! If only I could reach the trees!”
That evening, as Combat Mission #351 is writing up its report, my mother wanders through the forest in search of shelter. It is early spring and the night is cold.
“Our squadron crew dropped general purpose and M17 incendiary bombs with good results on this target. We made four passes at 12,000 feet. There was no enemy aircraft opposition….there were no casualties… returned to base between 1542 (3:42PM) and 1613 (4:19PM).” Altogether, the Allied mission dropped a total of 461 bombs. By this time, the Allies were using napalm in their bombs.
When my mother creeps back the next day, the German armaments factory where she has been a forced laborer for over two years is completely decimated and in flames. The barrack containing her pitiful belongings is still smoking and reduced to rubble. The reconnaissance photographs taken three days later show 15 small buildings damaged or completely gutted. These small buildings were the pitiful living quarters of the foreign laborers – men and women from Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and Poland – who were brought to Unterlüss from their homelands against their will and forced to work, replacing the men gone off to war and keeping Hitler’s German war machine moving at full throttle. Refusal to work meant either death or a concentration camp – essentially one and the same.
On this ground that I stand on there were, indeed, casualties. The nursery where female workers were forced to leave their babies while they worked twelve and fifteen hour shifts was completely destroyed. “Babies and mothers lay dead, burnt, mangled and twisted….babies we held and sang to and tried to care for while their mothers worked their shift in the factory….the babies were always hungry, always crying… there weren’t any diapers to speak of except what we could tear up from our clothes… our milk dried up because of lack of food…..” Her voice would trail off. Become silent. I often asked her to tell me more about that day, but she never did. “Be grateful” she’d say sadly, “that you have never known war.”
I was young when I first heard this story. When her hands were busy at some task and her thoughts were free to roam at will, they often traveled back to her experience in the German Reich: how she was taken from her home in Krakow by the Gestapo wearing her apron and house slippers; exposed and humiliated, filing naked past a German doctor whose cursory glance was supposed to determine her fitness for work; locked in a freight car while Gestapo with guns and dogs prevented anyone from escaping during the long, long journey to Germany; walking 3 kilometers each morning deep into a forest where the munitions factory was hidden to prevent detection by the Allies; burnt fingers and hands from hot metal each day; swaying from fatigue and hunger; wearing a bag of kasza tied to her waist with a piece of rope to prevent fellow prisoners from stealing it and assuaging their own hunger; my father throwing her a few beets wrapped in a cloth over the barbed wire fence; constantly under guard by the Gestapo to prevent acts of sabotage; wearing the obligatory letter “P” on her ragged clothes to identify her as a Pole at all times; witnessing the loss of hope, the attempts to escape, the suicides. And always, inevitably, if I remained quiet, she would return to that day when the Allies dropped their bombs and the babies died. Always, she came back to this particular story. It was like a photograph from her past that she pulled out frequently and looked at over and over again, looking for answers, looking for a clue.
That day in April when the Allies were dropping their bombs, it was the closing days of the war. Hitler continued to be in denial, but Germany was tottering to its knees. The Allies were trying to bring it to a swift end. Air forces were striking from above while ground troops were advancing from the east and west liberating the infamous concentration camps of Dachau, Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen, Nuengamme, uncovering Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews and liberating seven million forced and slave laborers- French, Belgians, Greeks, Italians, Ukrainians, Russians, Czechs, Danes, Finns, and Poles. Their exile was over.
On April 14, 1945, ten days after the bombing by U.S. Combat Mission #351, the British Wiltshire Regiment marched into Unterlüß and liberated the town. My mother, my father, and what remained of the four thousand European men and women held captive as slave laborers in that small German town, were free.
My mother is dead now. Listening to her labor those last breaths I thought about her hard life and especially the war experiences and the day the babies died. It was right up there with the most important events in her life. I knew this because she told it so often. When she became infirm, she’d ask me to come to lie down next to her so we would “talk” but I knew it was just a ruse to get me to listen to her talk. That’s what I thought about the night she was dying, how that event, more than any other was now etched in my mind. From her, to me.
Even before her death I have begun to search for information about that very small town in northeast Germany. It exists. Libraries, research, translations from German and many months after her death my heart starts pounding with a discovery. That discovery brings me here, to this very spot.
There is no monument of any kind to identify the events that transpired here. All is tranquil and serene but once, almost sixty years ago, blood was spilt on this ground. It is holy ground and no one knows it.
From here I go to the local town cemetery in search of the other thing that I’ve traveled so far to see. In one corner of the cemetery there are three gravestones located in fairly close proximity to one another if you just follow the gravel walkway. The first gravestone is little more than a huge rock, its surface rough and unpolished. It identifies Russian, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, French and other “unknown” adults – victims of Hitler’s racist policy that forced them to be transported to an unknown land against their will to work, to suffer and subsequently to die, alone and without family. The gravestones do not say all these things but I know this because I have the memory, passed on to me from my mother.
Further down I find what I have traveled these thousands of miles to see. On another rough hewn rock lies the testimony “Here lie 34 Russian children.” The third, located in front of an enormous evergreen, reads “Here lie 4 Italians and 23 Polish children.” Fifty nine years later I am face to face with the external evidence of the day that lived in my mother’s memory all of her life. My research discovered that the “57 children killed in the bombings were buried in the local town cemetery. Twelve Polish women in childbed also died in the attack.”
I kneel and pray.
Later that evening I take myself to the one Catholic church in this small, predominantly Lutheran town. I have never been here before but I know this church. My mother prayed in this church and it, too, loomed large in her memories. Once a month, the Poles could attend mass. They were forbidden to hear mass with the local Germans and fraternizing with the other ethnic Catholics was also not allowed to prevent collaboration and possible sabotage. Everyone had their own mass. Two armed Gestapo stood at the entrance, checking that everyone who entered wore the obligatory badge: a square piece of yellow fabric with a purple letter “P” sewn to their clothes on the right breast. Music, singing, or sermonizing was strictly verboten. The only thing audible was the hacking, coughing, and oftentimes, the crying of the assembled individuals. The priest said mass, distributed the Holy Eucharist and everyone returned to the barracks.
The church is tiny and the interior rather austere with old wooden benches and hard kneelers. No seat is really inconspicuous in such a small space. A stranger would be recognized immediately no matter where they sat so I choose a bench in the middle. I am early which gives me plenty of time to look around and watch the parishioners gather. I must be in someone’s assigned pew because first one elderly women sits next to me and then another on the other side. I feel strangely comforted.
The Mass is said in German but it doesn’t matter. It is the ancient ritual of the Mass known to me from my earliest years. The priest gives a sermon which I do not understand but I catch the soothing tone of his voice and his earnestness and he smiles towards his congregation as he speaks and I wish desperately that my mother could have heard such a voice so very long ago when she was here in this church. I can’t help myself. I start to cry. I cry for my mother whom I miss more than I can say. I cry because she mourned the women and children that died that day all the remaining days of her life. She had no way to make peace with their deaths. I cry for a lifetime of her having to take antidepressants to deal with her sadness. The women sit closer to me but say nothing.
When everyone has emptied out of the church I go to the stand of vigil lights. I press money into the collection box and light all the remaining unlit candles in honor of all the unknown forced laborers buried in the cemetery but especially the mothers and babies. They are not and never have been forgotten. I pray for them and for my mother who lived and could not forget. And I whisper, yes, mama, I am grateful that I have never known war.
Photo by Edward Knab, Unterluss, Germany.
The fate of hundreds of thousands of Polish women as forced laborers during WWII is told in: Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.