Note: This is the third “circular” letter that Arthur sent out.
Personnel Office, OMG(US)
24 February 1946.
Washington’s birthday in billets (I’m typing what I then wrote here in the office as it offers typewriter service), breaking the thread of work, which can easily consume practically all of one’s time here in Berlin. Berlin! After six weeks here I still have difficulty at times realizing that the little home town boy is really in Germany. Although the surroundings are, in a measure, exotic, German flora, architecture, costumes, people and other ocular manifestations are not sufficiently different from our familiar home environment to keep one constantly aware of the many miles between us. Most of our associations are so completely American that the background sights and sounds of a foreign nature don’t sink in very deeply after the first adjustments have been effected.
However, occasionally one is made acutely conscious of the fact that things are not as they are at home; passing wrecked and devastated shells which were once homes, with the remaining walls pitted and splashed with gunfire; occasional concussion from the demolition which is constantly going on, mainly in the Russian Sector; seeing the many graves of Russian soldiers, buried where they fell by the roadside in the first fierce sweep which they made into the city, each marked by a slim red wooden pyramid about four feet high and capped by the familiar red star of the Soviet Union; watching the German civilian employees of our military government in their strange clothing ensembles, hurrying to and fro between office and mess for the one hot meal a day which is given to them by our organization, clutching their personal tableware and chattering in their guttural tongue; trying to get a bit of American colloquialism across to one’s German typist, whose frank bewilderment at the ways of Americans is most amusing; directing a housemaid in her present duties insofar as they deviate from her established custom; or watching a squad of POWs, guarded by a G.I. with M-1 rifle over his shoulder. These are the noticeable superficial differences.
But last Sunday the grim facts of life in a devastated city were made horribly apparent to George, Harold and me, for we took the OMGUS sightseeing bus through downtown Berlin. It was a beautiful day, about the only consistently good one we have had since the first of the year, and the streets were thronged with sightseers of all the Allied forces; Czecks, British, French, American, Poles, Danes and Hollanders, Russians, and a medley of uniforms which I could not recognize. Many of the Russians were in fur hats, some with almost pure Mongolian features. A couple of Russian women soldiers swagger past, – hard peasant figures, greatcoats and fur lined boots. And among them a thin trickle of local residents, the Master Race, reduced to a more ignominious role in the new order of things. And occasionally a German mother wheeling a baby through the shattered ruins, – the new life looking strangely out of place in the powdered wreck of the old.
Our first visit was into the British Sector along the main streets through which the forces of Russia swept, annihilating everything as they went, past the former broadcasting tower of D.N.B. and the Berlin Exhibition buildings, to the Olympic Stadium where so many of the large Nazi rallies were held. The stadium is intact, and is now being used for Allied athletic events. Then through the main east-west artery which cuts through the city and with four or five names at different points, but ending, as it approaches Alexanderplatz, as Unter den Linden.
During the entire trip I saw no areas where the masonry was completely pulverized, for gaunt walls and chimneys surmount the pile of rubble which lines both sides of the main streets. In much of the area most of the walls stand erect and occasionally there is a building which seems to have been only superficially damaged. In many buildings shopkeepers have patched up the front of the first floor store with plywood, masonry or any material on which they could lay their hands, and have reopened their shops, bravely carrying on in the midst of the desolation. Everywhere the streets have been cleared and in most cases the sidewalks are passable, though in spots they are roped off because of the danger overhead. Occasionally, you see a shop from which the rubble has been completely removed and the floor is swept clean. It is my guess that in most cases these were stores which sold valuable articles which might withstand the fire and bombing, – jewelry and such, and that the rubbish has been cleaned out and carefully sifted to permit salvage of any precious articles which may have survived destruction and looting – or maybe looters did the cleaning out, who can tell?
The Tiergarten, lovely and historic woods which once lined the highway is permanently gone. A few desolate trees are still standing, stripped of their beauty, but most of the old trees are reduced to stumps which look like the remains of beavers’ operations, for even the stumps have been split down to practically nothing by the hatchets of the people, desperately seeking any wood to burn in their little stoves to moderate the cold of a Berlin winter. The avenues of statues in the Tiergarten stand stark and unadorned, many of them overthrown and broken. Half way through the Tiergarten the Russians have erected a temporary memorial on each side of the road, showy and pretentious, with heroic sized paintings of Stalin, Churchill and Truman on one side and a crude reproduction on the other of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt as they sat together at one of their conferences. A quarter of a mile further down the street is the Russian monument to their war dead, crude and blatant, with wreaths and flowers spread over it and an armed guard with tommy gun marching grimly back and forth. And in the background is the blackened ruin of the Reichstag Building, significantly witness to the fact that all of the destruction was not the result of Allied might.
Under the Brandenberg Gate, chipped and scarred by bullet wounds, and into Unter den Linden with its palaces, museums, opera houses and such, most of them ruined beyond redemption but still mute evidence of the beauty and glory which was Berlin in the lush days. At the end, is the remains of the leading Protestant church of Berlin, originally a magnificent bit of Renaissance architecture, now completely useless. But strangely enough, although the masonry bears evidence of the destruction, the huge copper figures of Christ, Gabriel, angels and saints, stand apparently unharmed. Across the Spee River and around the former palace of the emperors of Germany, through the fashionable hotel and shopping center – the scene is the same, one of unreclaimable ruin, until the bus finally stopped at the Reichschancellry and we are permitted a half hour to roam through those empty halls to view their former magnificence. Furniture wrecked and upholstery ripped apart, safes burned open in nearly every office and at the end, the office which was Schickelgruber’s, grim reminder of the inevitable despot’s transitory glory. I picked up just one souvenir (I didn’t want much) a little calendar for the year 1943. And on the back of each of the monthly sheets is a recital of the highlights of Naziism; the birthday of Hitler and the day in 1933 when he became Reichschancellor – strangely enough January 30th, the birthday of Franklin D. Roosevelt-, the death of Horst Wessel, the Angriff on the Western Front, the invasion of Denmark and Norway, and all of the other supreme moments which they wished to remember. And, strangely out of place, as you thumb through the leaves you are suddenly shocked to find this entry, “16 Mai – Muttertag”. Mother’s Day, in the midst of horror and destruction.
And so through another hour of war’s aftermath, and back to our really lovely little community of Dahlen, our billet area. The trip was just a table of contents, – at our leisure we want to return, now we know what we want to look for, to spend more time in the spots of greatest interest and to get more pictures, for we really took very few that afternoon, due to cold fingers and lack of time.
And now I must leave you to return to my billet, for we are giving a tea this afternoon for the Baron and Baroness, a tea at which they will have a few things which will be a genuine treat to them, including cigarettes, cognac and possibly champagne, sweet cookies, butter, sugar and the like.
The past few days we have been having a touch of real winter, – several inches of dry snow, ice, and cold winds right off the North Sea. Right now it looks as though we were in for another snow storm, the sky has blackened and the wind risen; it might even assume blizzard proportions if it were not that the weather here is so fickle that it never does anything long enough to make it of great consequence. —– The “B” mess is working out delightfully, in addition to the luxury of breakfasting at home, we have had several light dinners. Elsa has done things with the food which are lacking at Harnack Haus and they are extremely welcome. It is amusing shopping at the Army Commisary. Many staples are only obtainable in large cans and we are forced to buy 2 lbs. of black pepper, six lbs. of cocoa, half gallon cans of fruits, vegetables, baked beans and such. I think the answer will be for several messes to pool their purchases to avoid overstocking on items which are necessary in small quantities but ludicrous in the volume in which we must purchase them.
I am still waiting patiently to get my first word from most of you good folks, but hope springs eternal and I hope I will soon receive the treasured missives.
Best regards to you all,