I have often wondered what happened to Heinrich Preuss when the end came… when thunder and fire and brimstone destroyed his home town. His and mine.
He lived at number 92 Gabitzstrasse in a city then called Breslau, So did my parents and I. He lived on the mezzanine floor, raised a few feet above basements. We lived a floor higher. I passed him frequently as I went down to the basement to fetch my bike to cycle to school. Only the concierge and his kids lived at that dark lower level. They had small widows that allowed only a foot or two of light to penetrate. I pitied them. Who could have foreseen that living down there would give them a far better chance of surviving the end?
Herr Preuss lived on the well-lit mezzanine – an elderly man, probably over sixty, though at my age my judgement about the age of grown-ups would not have been reliable. As a carefully brought up little boy I always greeted him politely. Herr Preuss responded – at least in the beginning. He had no suspicion that I was not fit to be greeted. I was, after all, blond and Aryan-looking – at least as a child.
The last years of the Weimar Republic had been years of great tension in Germany. Governments fell with great frequency and new elections had to be called. On election days residents displayed flags to show their affiliations. Each flat had a socket on the balcony for holding a flag. Supporters of the Weimar republic hoisted the red-white-and gold flag that had been the emblem of the liberal revolution of 1848 and had, since the abdication of the Kaiser, become our national flag. However, those who still hankered after the ‘good old days’ of the Kaiser displayed the black-white-and-red emblem of that period while in less bourgeois areas you would see the red hammer and sickle banner of the Communists. Increasing numbers, however, came to hoist the swastika flag of the Nazi movement.
Our family hoisted no flag. My father, as a civil servant, thought this inappropriate.
Herr Preuss displayed the swastika flag. He did more: He had the brass nameplate outside his flat replaced by one showing two swastikas, one before his name, the other after. I innocently continued to say a polite “Guten Morgen” as I passed him but he snapped “Heil Hitler” and when I did not return this greeting he repeated it in the peremptory bark of a Prussian sergeant-major: “Heil Hitler” and raised his right arm. His name, after all, did mean “Prussian”. Even then I did not raise my arm, so he turned his back on me and from then on he ignored my existence. Perhaps, even earlier, he had seen me in the company of my black-haired mother and had come to suspect my “race”.
I have one more clear memory of Herr Heinrich Preuss. Late in 1938 Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, the German-speaking border areas of Czechoslovakia. We in Breslau had two days’ advance notice: Gabitzstrasse was taken over by columns of military vehicles such as I only knew from a newsreel I had seen: tanks and armoured cars and trucks with caterpillar tracks. They were queuing for access to the Autobahn. My father and I braved the drizzle to go down to the street to see. Dad, a veteran of the World War I, remarked on the equipment of the troops. “We never had such splendid raincoats. I slept in wet clothes for much of that war.”
Then I saw Herr Preuss. He was carrying a can of coffee and served hot drinks to troops who stretched out mugs from the tanks. He greeted them with the Nazi salute but ignored me. Once he seemed to turn and look as if he was about to say something. Perhaps he wanted to say “See what we German supermen can do!”
At the end of our block – as on many other blocks – there was a Litfasssaeule, a round poster column on which public announcements and adverts were pasted. They acquired a new use under the Nazis: loudspeakers, pointing in four directions were fixed to the top of them. They relayed Hitler’s speeches and martial music and massed speaking choirs bawling Nazi slogans. “Fuehrer befiehl, Wir folgen” – Leader, command! We follow. We shut our windows to muffle the sound but I noticed that Herr Preuss kept his windows wide open.
I can’t be certain, but he may also have been among the idlers who stood around to watch our cases being loaded when we emigrated in 1939– three months before the outbreak of war. Just in time!
The Nazis lost that war but few Jews survived to see the Red Army march in. What happened to Heinrich Preuss then? I wonder. Did he scarper like the Nazi big boss, Gauleiter Hanke, as the Hitler regime collapsed? I doubt Herr Preuss would have behaved so ignominiously. He seemed such a stiff-necked old man.
So what could have happened to him? He was too old to be called up for the regular army but as the end approached he would have been drafted into the Volkssturm – a force created to throw even the old and halt and maimed into battle. By now the Red Army had surrounded the city and Breslau – newly designated “Fortress Breslau” – remained besieged for three long months. 35,000 troops defended Breslau and 10,000 of the Volkssturm. Throughout those months the town was shelled day and night and – when weather conditions permitted – bombed from the air. But the Red Army did not seize the town. Their main thrust was towards Berlin.
For 76 days the town had to be supplied largely by air and for the last 16 days even ammunitions could only be brought in by plane.
In Breslau the Volkssturm was employed to blow up whole rows of apartments that had, until then, remained habitable. This was to open lines of fire for the defenders. They were also used to clear an airstrip to supply the beleaguered garrison – and to allow Gauleiter Hanke to scarper. Twenty thousand buildings were levelled in those last days of Breslau.
A block of apartment houses bounded on one side by our street – Gabitzstrasse – was contested, day and night, for all of eight days. In fierceness this struggle was much like that for Stalingrad, though on a smaller scale. Fighting went on from house to house, floor to floor and room to room. The area all around Gabitzstrasse was left a heap of smoking rubble. Those in the cellars – like our concierge – had a slightly better chance of surviving.
Many years later, when I visited what had, by now, become the Polish town of Wroclaw, I could only recognize one single building from before the war in that vicinity — the Karolus Kirche, the church of St Carolus, rebuilt by Polish Catholics. Even that had undergone puzzling changes. The squat Romanesque towers had disappeared. Instead there stood slender Gothic towers. A Polish historian explained to me: “Some of our Poles believed the Romanesque style is Germanic and alien to our national culture. Of course they are wrong. Poland has some fine Romanesque buildings.”
But the destruction was not total: The battle had by-passed some quarters. My first school, a mere child’s walk from Gabitzstrasse 92, was only scarred by a few bullet holes.
Losses on both sides were heavy. German statistics record 6,000 soldiers dead and 10,000 civilians. The Volkssturm commander committed suicide. So did some 3,000 civilians. Could Herr Preuss have been among of these?
The attackers’ losses were even heavier. A vast Russian military cemetery now exists a short walk south of the park where I played as a child. Most of the graves are simply marked in Cyrillic script “An officer of the Red Army”. Where the Soviets buried their common soldiers I never discovered. Nor did I find a single German army cemetery. This did not surprise me – even German civilian cemeteries from before the war had disappeared. One marked on my pre-war map was now the site of football fields. Curiously the main Jewish cemetery – Lohestrasse – though damaged and stripped of marble gravestones – had been preserved as a historical monument, thanks to the efforts of a Polish scholar with a sense of history.
Did Heinrich Preuss survived these ordeals? If he did, there were others awaiting him.
The entire German population of Silesia – some 2 million people – were expelled in the years following. Large numbers were packed into cattle wagons. Some of these were left standing at railway sidings in the bitter cold. Typhus broke out. Marauders robbed the ‘expellees’ and raped the women. Many died but so tightly were the wagons packed that the dead remained upright until, eventually, the wagons came to be unloaded.
The newly arriving Poles had been through similar ordeals – they had been peremptorily expelled from Eastern parts of Poland when Stalin seized these lands and annexed them to the Soviet Ukraine.
All this happened a very long time ago. Herr Heinrich Preuss remains only as a memory – probably to no one except the little blond boy with the bike – now a bent-over old grey-beard, but he still wonders whether at any time before his death Herr Preuss had started to think about the slogan that the loudspeakers had been bawling into his wide-opened windows: “Leader, command! We follow.”