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The Final Days

By Fritz Gluckstein

In April 1945, the demolition crew to which my father and I belonged was working near an SS facility when a line of military trucks moved slowly down the street, pushed—we hardly could believe our eyes—by a group of SS men. It was an exhilarating sight, pure unalloyed schadenfreude. Surely, if even the SS no longer had gasoline, the demise of the Third Reich could not be far off. “Look at this,” a fellow worker said, “It’s getting on toward Ne’ilah,” referring to the final prayer service of the Day of Atonement.

Soon the sound of artillery fire could be heard, first in the eastern part of the city and then in all of Berlin. Public transportation ceased to function, keeping people from going to work, and artillery shells were hitting buildings or were exploding in the streets. But Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, did not give up. He managed to distribute a tabloid-size sheet of greenish paper called the Panzer Baer—alluding to the bear in Berlin’s coat of arms—which proclaimed in large letters: “At the gates of Berlin the enemy will meet his doom, just as Napoleon at the gates of Moscow. Be assured the inferior Russian soldiers are no match for our heroic fighting force.”

My parents and I were living in the western part of Berlin, sharing an apartment with two intermarried couples. We slept fully dressed on blanket-covered beds. Whenever the shelling became too intense, we went down to the cellar, often four or five times during 24 hours. Once, we had to leave the house for several hours until an unexploded shell in the building next to ours could be defused. However, we were fortunate indeed, because there was no street fighting close to us.

There was, of course, no electricity, gas, or running water. Since Berlin still had a sizable number of horse-drawn vehicles, many hand-operated water pumps continued to function in the streets. To get water from these pumps was now a risky undertaking. One waited for a lull in the shelling and then ran full speed with a pair of buckets towards the pump, hoping that not too many people would already be there. At times, because of incoming shells, one had to hit the ground. When this happened on the way to the house, all or most of the hard-gotten water would be spilled, meaning a return trip to the pump. On one of my water forays, I observed a group of Asian soldiers in German uniforms moving along pressed against the housing fronts. They truly looked scared, not perhaps so much because of the shelling but because they realized their fate should the Russians get hold of them.

One day, a neighbor and I were hovering in the doorway ready to rush to the pump at the next break in the bombardment when a shell burst in the street. Once again, luck was with me; I remained unhurt, but my neighbor was next to me on the ground, fatally injured.

Food had become very scarce, but shopkeepers began to give away whatever they had left without asking for ration coupons or money. It all happened in an orderly fashion; I recall no one pushing ahead or trying to get more than anyone else.

We had no more bread, and so I cautiously made my way to a baker two blocks down the street. Of course, I had taken off my yellow star. No Jew was wearing the star anymore. When I returned with a small loaf, Russian soldiers from Marshal Koniev’s army (as we later learned) had entered the house. We immediately tried to make it clear to them that we were Jews, and above all that I was not a German soldier. At first, they were skeptical, drawing a finger across their throats indicating that they believed all Jews had been killed. We showed them our stars and our identification papers with the large imprinted J, and fortunately, one of the men sharing our apartment knew enough Russian to explain our situation. It took some days for the reality to sink in before we could give in to our feeling of relief.

For us, it was over; we had survived. We had outlasted Hitler's Third Reich.

©2004, Fritz Gluckstein. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.