|They Come from Dachau
Hilde König (born in Germany, 1924)
in conversation with Jennifer König, 1995
Fifteen years ago, I lived in a ruin rebuilt in the pit of its bombed rubble. This was Munich, and I was shacked up with my German boyfriend in the cheapest apartment we could find. We had no insulation, no heat; hammer a nail in the wall and you're back to nothing but rubble. At first, this pissed me off. I'm an American, damn it. I'm used to sheetrock and high-gloss paint.
It took learning a foreign language and discovering a past that was not my own to realize I was living in a museum where the price of admission was the horror of history.
Bombs falling on neighbors' houses, school getting canceled because no one's left to teach--these are stories on the evening news with pictures from places most of us will never see firsthand. Our current context for home-based conflict is 9/11, and it was indeed horrific. As a New Yorker living fifty miles north of Ground Zero, I still remember watching the Army trucks head south as I drove home early from work. I can still smell the burning stench as it wafted upriver. But that was one day.
Our soldiers see it every day. My father is a Vietnam vet, and he has spoken, on occasion, about the horrors he saw, and I have seen the horrors that war inflicted on him. But Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam--they are all far away, distant, out of sight, out of mind.
As a Jewish journalist living in Munich, I felt compelled to listen to the stories of my then future in-laws who remembered the bombings and the fear and the relief of liberation. They were not Jews. They were not Nazis. Hilde and Klaus were children living in a land taken over by a madman.
Hilde König (born 1924)
In 1939 I was at my grandparents' house in Nuremberg with my parents and my siblings. That was in August, a wonderful, warm August. We had our bicycles and wanted to take a tour when my father came and said: You can't go on a bicycle tour; it's war. For me war had always been something in the books, so I knew that it was something incredibly "gewaltig" (violent, huge, enormous). So we didn't go on the tour and when I went to bed that night (I had a wonderful, small room under the roof) I thought about the war coming and the air was so warm and the smell from the nursery--I couldn't imagine how it would be.
It was incomprehensible, this quiet, silent life--and war. The next day we drove to Munich because of the war. That was the end of August '39. And then it was very quiet for us, the next spring came and other things were important for me--that my braids were taken out. The war came from the North and my parents kept saying that it would be over before it would reach us. I left school at 16 and that was a freedom that was very important to me. I did my obligatory year of work and my brother Friedel was already in France. He sent things from time to time, chocolate or a piece of fabric, which always made us very happy. So it was a quiet, pleasant war for us; we didn't notice that there was a war.
Did Friedel write about how it was?
Yes, he wrote that it was very cruel at times. He was also young, about 20, but didn't write all that much, more between the lines, that there would be casualties even if the Germans stormed through France victoriously. There were losses as well. So I did my obligatory year of work and then started my apprenticeship down in Weilheim and there things got scarce, the food rations got scarce and you could hear planes from time to time.
So that was in '40 / '41?
No, that was already in '42. I forgot that there was the BDM-time (Bund Deutscher Mädel or the League of German Girls). For the young women there was BDM and for young men like Klaus [her husband], the Hitler Youth.
Klaus said that he was 15 and maybe too young to understand Nazism...
We dreaded going to the BDM, I remember that very well, that they put me on the table one day saying: That's how a German girl looks. Slim and blond with long braids and blue eyes.I was horribly embarrassed. Me with my skinny legs, standing up there. We always tried to dodge those weekly meetings. If you didn't have a good excuse like illness or some other commitment you were punished by having to stay longer or straightening up or doing some service. Delivering something.
And who punished you?
The leader, the BDM-leader. We had those uniforms like Klaus had, with the blouse and the button and I remember that once we all had to go to the Königsplatz because Hitler came and we had to stand in the first row when Hitler drove through with his boastful hand. I'll never forget that. I remember how they all shouted and cheered and I always tried to make myself small and hide behind the others.
Really? So you didn't like him?
No, not at all.
But at that time most of the people were so enthusiastic...
I know, they said that he was such a fine and handsome man. For me he was simply vulgar. That's how I saw him.
Did you know anything about the ideology then?
No, I talked about that with my sister Gertrud, why our parents included us so little. Why didn't they tell us about the whole political situation? We tried to live. We were young girls. We knew it was war, yes. Walter, my oldest brother, had already been killed. But of Hitler himself, we didn't know.
I saw an exhibition once with posters saying "Down with the Jews!" and "The Jews are our misfortune!"
Yes, I saw that, and also the star and the synagogue in Munich at the Kristallnacht...
You remember that?
Yes, I remember that there was a lot of excitement. I don't know. I wasn't in Munich at that time. I was already doing my apprenticeship. I think my father wrote something about the Kristallnacht in his journal. About the thing with the Jews, that they were persecuted.That, I noticed. But I didn't know why.
Did you not want to know the reason?
We knew a woman who emigrated to the States and we helped her pack and look after the children. But I don't remember. We knew they were persecuted, but not why. And we didn't talk about it, and it was strange, but in our home this wasn't discussed like it is today where the youth is interested and informed and open about how things were then. Politics wasn't an issue.
Did you ask your parents about that after the war?
No. My father didn't want to hear about that after Walter died in the war. From 1943 on, when Walter fell, I saw the war from a completely different perspective. My parents were always sad. I heard my mother cry all the time. Whimper. And after the war the Americans were there, which was really liberation, I have to say that clearly, it was liberation. A huge load was lifted. For everybody and for me. And I still remember how happy and relieved we were that it was finally over.
Tell us about when you listened to the radio.
That was on my second farm, where I did my apprenticeship. The French were there.
When was that? How old were you?
That was in '42. No, '44. That was the winter of '44/'45. There were three farms, and at the farm where I was, there were three French prisoners. And I knew French and spoke with them, which was nice. We were out in the fields together and so we talked. And one of them, Charles was his name, always told me:They have a radio, can't you listen and learn how far the Allies are already.If you got caught doing that you got the death penalty! And I was desperate to do it, so at night when everybody had gone to bed, I got up and sat in the kitchen and listened to the radio, the whole room blacked out, every slit. That was great, I'll never forget the feeling that things were moving! It was a station from Calais, a BBC station. When I heard that Beethoven theme, just hearing that was great. And whenever I hear that Beethoven theme today I still think of that situation where I was sitting there with my heart thumping, hoping no one would hear me listening to how far the Allies were. It was often very noisy and hard to hear, but I always tried and again the next day.
That was in English?
Sometimes, sometimes French or German. And the next day the French always asked me: How far away are they? How far away are they? Isn't the war over yet? And I remember a particular situation very well that was a bit earlier, maybe the summer of '44, when the Allied planes flew over our farm and we threw ourselves on the ground with the French. And there was a nightly air raid once, and our farmer who was a member of the NSDAP [Nazi Party], locked up the French and we were outside and they rattled at the windows and shouted: Bauer, du boche! Wir wollen raus! Flieger! (Farmer, you boche! [French derogative for 'German'] We want to get out! Planes! ) And he didn't let them out, fearing they might escape.
Tell of the time when you were in Munich. How was it in the city?
I was so tired from all the apprenticeship work that all I did was sleep. That was in Wotanstraße. There were a few air raids as well when we had to go down in the cellar, and we were scared. We sat along the walls and trembled. But that was after my brother's death, after Walter's death. And that death gave it a completely new dimension.
Talk about that.
My parents said: Walter fell and hopefully it will be over for us soon as well.
Talk about Walter.
I was on my first farm near Weilheim where I had to clean the floors, and my boss came and said to me: Get up. I have to tell you something. So I got up with the brush and the apron and she said: Your brother fell. That was in January '43. I collapsed on the floor in a puddle and cried. And she said: Come on, get up, you can go home. I went home to my parents. And after that, for many weeks, there was only blackness inside me. Because at home everything was dead silent, no one spoke a word, everyone cried. And after fourteen days I went back to my farm. I had to work.
Could you ever bury him?
No, there was a memorial service in our church for a few fallen soldiers and after Walter fell in Russia, my mother, sister and I always wanted to know where that was. We knew it was near Velikije Luki (near St. Petersburg, then Leningrad). That was in the Northern part of the front, a bit south of Leningrad. And a comrade from Walter came to visit; until then we had only gotten the message: missing. And the comrade came and gave us his diary and a few other things he had in his pocket and said that he and his comrade Walter Reber were in a trench and Walter looked out and shrapnel hit him in the temple and he died immediately. They had agreed before that whoever survived would notify the parents of the dead.
Does that diary still exist?
My sister Gertrud has it, with everything.
Was it written with German or Latin letters?
I think in German, but I don't know for sure. On my second farm, where I listened to the radio, the news in March was that the front was near, that the war could be over anytime soon. So with my handbag and my hat I went to my parents' who were evacuated in Wettelsheim near Treuchtlingen. Treuchtlingen was a railway junction then and it was very bad. Everything was a mess. That must have been right around the time when the Americans were in Nuremberg. I had spent maybe eight or fourteen days with another farmer and then the news spread that the Americans marched into Wettelsheim. So we hid first in a barn, and then we saw them coming with their tanks.
How did you know they were Americans?
Well, the news spread like wildfire: Die Amerikaner kommen! Die Amerikaner kommen! We were three women: the mother, the daughter and I. So we hid in the barn and there was a slit in the door. I was the first to peep out and Frau Lechner grabbed me and told me to keep back, but I said: No, I want to see this. So they came and were sitting on their tanks, all proud with their flags and their caps. I opened the door and walked out. They were maybe 3, 4 meters away. I waved and they waved back and it was great. A feeling of freedom, incredible to describe. Maria and the mother came too, and all the other farmers, and I asked something in English, whether they had already been in Traunstein, because I knew the three French POWs and wanted to know if they had been freed. That was something I wanted to know right away. But they couldn't know. They drove through the village and we all followed them and cheered and were glad that the war was over. The moment when the Americans were there was such an incredible liberation, the pressure was gone, it was just over, this horrible time. Even I felt the liberation, I who was better off than most. But there was so much misery that you heard and saw.
Before then, the Americans flew over the fields, very low. I could see him [the pilot] sitting in the plane, and we threw ourselves in the bushes because he could have easily shot us. Maybe he only wanted to scare us or he had to fly there, I don't know. I was maybe 19 or 20.
Did you think you'd die?
Yes. I thought: He's going to shoot us. We were all very scared.
Did you ever dream of it?
Yes, I remember vaguely. But there were dreams. It could have been much worse.
A completely different question: What did you hear about Dachau?
Stories. Like when you scare children with the boogeyman.
When did you learn for the first time that it wasn't only a work camp?
When we drove back from Treuchtlingen in 1945 on our bikes, my sister, my father and I. We came through Dachau and wanted to cross a bridge, and a cart for hay came the opposite way and it was filled with corpses. We had to wait at the bridge and saw these rows of carts and didn't know where they all came from and it was then that my father told us: They come from Dachau.