Heinz Kubernus, as a boy in Germany and today as a resident of Escondido, CA
Heinz Kubernus, 79, is a retired aerospace engineer from Escondido who survived the World War II bombing of Berlin and the Soviet army’s conquest of that city in 1945. This is his reminiscence.
Yesterday: Four years of bombing.
Today: The Russians arrive.
On April 16, the sky over Berlin was empty of enemy airplanes. The Americans and British had stopped their bombing. By then, Berliners had learned that what was coming was what they dreaded: the Russians.
Heinz Kubernus, age 11, was among those trapped and dreading the Red Army as it killed its way ever closer. With him were millions of women and other children who were largely alone. Most of their men, like Heinz’s father, were fighting battles in other places, if still alive.
News had preceded the Russians from conquered eastern Germany territory of indiscriminate mass rapes and murders. No woman was considered too old or too young. It was not only the age-old “right” of conquering soldiers, but also the cutting edge of blood vengeance.
Falling bombs were terrifying, but impersonal. They weren’t Russians caked with mud from fighting in the rain. Bombs didn’t have a week’s beard, weren’t drunk on stolen wine and didn’t smell like an outhouse. Bombs didn’t leer, snarl and smirk, and then move close, grasping and tearing.
In the two-week Battle of Berlin, the days crept across the calendar like a shadow. Researchers have concluded that about 100,000 civilians, 60,000 German troops and more than 100,000 Soviet soldiers died during the battle. So it’s understandable that the Russians were not in a good mood.
Heinz remembers that he and about 60 others were sitting in their cellar bunker, where they could hear the fighting getting close. Many of the Germans, certainly the SS units, were fighting to the last, because they knew the Russians were going to kill them anyway.
Three German soldiers took cover in their basement and started to fire at Russians from there, which, of course, would invite return fire from Soviet tanks. Heinz says all the women were screaming at the soldiers, “Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind? Stop this insanity!” They wanted them to give up or move out. They didn’t care which.
Finally, as the shooting subsided, the first Russians appeared in the doorway of the cellar. At that point, Heinz got his first lesson in cowardice, and it happened in his own family.
His paternal grandmother had been sheltering with Heinz and his mother throughout the battle. He had always known her to be a devout, sober woman, but the matriarch in her 60s completely fell apart.
“She’s screaming, ‘They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill all of us!’ She totally lost it, while people that you thought were nobodies rose to the occasion.”
The grandmother did the unforgivable in Heinz’s eyes.
It happened when soldiers barged into the cellar demanding to know where the women were. Shortly before, the women in the cellar had hid, hoping the Russians would go away, which they might have done, potential victims being plentiful elsewhere. However, his grandmother pointed to the hiding women and screamed, ‘There they are!’ — presumably to save herself. The women were then grabbed and raped.
Heinz never forgave his grandmother for that betrayal.
Did you observe that?
Heinz’s stolid composure wavered at the question and red rimmed his eyes. “Yes. Yes, I did.”
Was your mother among them?
“No. She had gone upstairs.”
Was she …?
“I don’t know. I never asked.”
But, you think …
You must have seen a lot of unflattering behavior, cooped up and stressed as you were.
“Let’s just say you get to know people.”
When the firing finally stopped and Russian control was complete, Heinz emerged onto streets that resembled a junkyard stretching into the distance, except that the pavement was littered with burning tanks and dead horses. The corpses of Russian soldiers lay under a gathering shroud of gray ash.
His job was scavenging, and he became pretty good at it. He went to the large anti-aircraft bunker a couple of blocks away to see Russian soldiers throwing food out the windows and prodding female civilian workers out of the bunker into ditches and raping them. He saw the bodies of their victims on the street.
The Russians controlled his area of the city for three weeks before they turned it over to the French for what would become their sector of Berlin.
Heinz and his mother slowly tried to put their lives back together and wondered what had become of their husband-father, Willy, who in 1944 had been transferred to the army in France. As the years became three, and then half of another, they assumed he was dead.
One day, a message came that Willy had been a French prisoner all that time and would be coming home. Heinz remembers the outburst of tears of joy on his mother’s face.
When he ran over to tell his grandmother that her son was alive, she told him she had been notified several days earlier.
Reunited, the Kubernus family joined the mammoth task of putting their city back together and patching their broken lives. Both tasks were done slowly and painfully, but with the dawning awareness that they were building a new — and different — Germany.
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
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