Thursday 27 April 2017

Villagers embraced as they learned of Hitler's death

Kim Bielenberg on how his two sets of grandparents, who were living in Nazi Germany, responded to the death of Hitler

The Bielenberg family pictured at their home near Tullow, Co Carlow in the 1950s. Christabel with John, Nick, Peter and Christopher.
The Bielenberg family pictured at their home near Tullow, Co Carlow in the 1950s. Christabel with John, Nick, Peter and Christopher.
Kim Bielenberg's grandmother during WW2

In the days before the surrender of Germany in World War II, the Irish Independent reported how Éamon De Valera had offered his sympathy to the German people on the death of Hitler.

In two crisp paragraphs, the paper recorded how the Taoiseach and the Minister for External Affairs "called last evening on the Dr Eduard Hempel, the German Minister, to express his condolence".

De Valera argued that to refuse condolences "would have been an act of unpardonable discourtesy to the German nation and to Dr Hempel".

It was a pedantic and foolish diplomatic gesture, and it was not appreciated by my grandmother Christabel Bielenberg, when she learned of it later on. She was my grandmother on my father's side of the family.

Many in Germany were hardly stricken with grief at the demise of Hitler in the Spring of 1945, and even if they had been sympathetic, they were so busy trying to guarantee their own survival - finding food and keeping a roof over their heads - that they had little time to mourn him.

Christabel was living in the village of Rohrbach in the Black Forest with her three sons, including my father, Nick. My grandfather Peter, who had been released from Ravensbrück concentration camp, was in hiding in the woods after escaping from an army punishment squad.

My grandmother heard the news of Hitler's demise as a group of villagers sat around a crackling wireless in the Gasthaus Adler, where she stayed with the three boys. A sudden stillness overcame the room, as the announcer reported that the Führer had decided to die a "hero's death", and that Admiral Dönitz had taken over.

After a momentary silence, the villagers got to their feet, held hands and embraced.

However, it was another mundane detail that told my grandmother that the war was finally over.

She was standing alone at a crossroads, when she spotted a screwed-up Lucky Strikes cigarette packet, discarded by the side of the road.

She knew at that moment that Allied troops had passed by and she said to herself, "So that's it. It's finished - the War is over."

In the following days, she visited the Mayor in the Town hall, and found that the mood was less one of grief, and more one of hilarity.

She noticed that the portrait of Hitler was suddenly missing from the wall. The Mayor had burnt it in the Stove on the previous day.

At that point, my grandmother was moved to tell a joke about Hitler looking at his own portrait. He says to his picture: "I wonder what will happen to you and me after the war is over".

The portrait answers back: "I don't wonder, I know. You will be hung, and I will be unhung."

As she tells it in her memoir, The Past is Myself, they all erupted into laughter, and she was still laughing as she left the Townhall.

My grandparents felt lucky to have survived the war with their three sons. Many of their friends perished in the War, including friends who had taken part in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

In the final days of the war, as the German army was retreating, there were still horrific incidents in the village of Rohrbach.

Senior German army officers moved into the village. A local electrician Alois had refused to co-operate with the army in fixing telephone wires, and my grandmother saw him being taken away along with a teenage deserter.

There was a sudden crack of rifle fire from the woods as the pair were shot.

When the Germans were finally defeated that May, the threat came from vengeful French troops from the Allied side who moved into the Black Forest, and my grandmother was appalled by incidents of rape.

When an old man in a remote farmhouse was shot dead as he tried to protect his wife, my grandmother travelled by bicycle to a nearby town to express her outrage to a French military commander.

My grandmother was born in London, and her family background was Anglo-Irish. She had gone to Germany to study singing and married my grandfather soon after Hitler's accession to power.

After the War, Christabel and Peter fulfilled a long-held ambition to move to Ireland and start a farm.

They lived on their farm near Tullow in Co Carlow for the rest of their lives. My grandfather acquired much of his knowledge about agriculture from a self-help guide, Teach Yourself Farming.

For my mother's family, the Schulenburgs, the events of the last days of the war were just as momentous.

My maternal grandfather, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, had been executed by the Nazis in the previous year for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944.

My grandmother Charlotte was placed under house arrest in Trebbow near the town of Schwerin in North Germany.

In the final days of the war, the German armies were retreating, but after the terror of the Nazis, the family faced another imminent danger - the Russian army advancing from the East.

Towards the end of April, Charlotte decided that it was time to flee towards the West. My mother, aged five, and her sisters and brother, were loaded on to a makeshift horse wagon, with a roof covered in a carpet, and the convoy set off. They could hear the thunder of guns from the battles to the East.

My grandmother feared bombardment by low-flying aircraft as they made their way slowly across country on the horse and cart. Sometimes huge crowds thronged the road heading West - the way was blocked with soldiers, civilian refugees and army vehicles.

Some of these convoys of refugees were bombed, but my mother's family was lucky, and only once had to shelter from the threat of bombing under a tree.

As they passed along the Baltic coast, they could see the wrecks of bombed ship towering out of the water. They finally reached the home of a family friend in Schleswig Holstein - a house packed with refugees - and slept in the hall on sacks stuffed with straw.

By the time the family had completed its hazardous journey, the war in this region was all but over.

Hitler died on April 30, British troops arrived at the house where my grandmother was staying soon afterwards, and the complete surrender of German forces came on May 7.

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