Ash Wednesday in burning Dresden

The effects of intense heat which has killed a number of people in a shelter.
The effects of intense heat which has killed a number of people in a shelter.
An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.
An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden, later in 1945.

For Victor Klemperer the bombing of Dresden had actually brought salvation. As one of the few surviving Jews in the city, he had spent the 13th February distributing official letters warning most of the remaining Jews to report for “deportation”. Few had any illusions about what this meant – they were either going to a concentration camp or they were going to be worked to death digging tank ditches somewhere on the outskirts of the city.

He had spent a terrifying night, separated from his ‘Aryan’ wife, the single factor that had prevented him from being sent off to the concentration camps before now. Re-united with Eva in the early morning she had immediately cut off the yellow star on his overcoat. From now on, in the confusion following the bombing, he would assume a ‘purely German’ identity. Like tens of thousands of others he had lost everything, including his identity papers, in the fire. Miraculously his diary, which chronicles life in wartime Germany in great detail, had survived.

Fortunately he was to survive the wave of USAAF bombers that raided the city just after midday and the random attacks of Mustang fighters that were sent to strafe and harass the rescue services during the day:

We walked slowly, for I was now carrying both bags, and my limbs hurt, along the river-bank [. . .]. Above us, building after building was a burnt-out ruin. Down here by the river, where many people were moving along or resting on the ground, masses of the empty, rectangular cases of the stick incendiary bombs stuck out of the churned-up earth. Fires were stilllburning in many of the buildings on the road above.

At times, small and no more than a bundle of clothes, the dead were scattered across our path. The skull of one had been torn away, the top of the head was a dark red bowl. Once an arm lay there with a pale, quite fine hand, like a model made of wax such as one sees in barber’s shop windows.

Metal frames of destroyed vehicles, burnt-out sheds. Further from the centre some people had been able to save a few things, they pushed handcarts with bedding and the like or sat on boxes and bundles. Crowds streamed unceasingly between these islands, past the corpses and smashed vehicles, up and down the Elbe, a silent, agitated procession.

Then we turned right towards the town again – I let Eva lead the way and do not know where. Every house a burnt-out ruin, but often people outside on the street with household goods they had saved. Again and again fires still burning. Nowhere a sign of attempts to extinguish them. [. . .] Not until we came to the hospitals, was I able to orientate myself.

An ambulance stopped on the open space in front of us; people surrounded it, stretchers with wounded lay on the ground nearby. On a little bench by the door of the vehicle an ambulance man was dispensing eye-drops; there were a great many people whose eyes were more or less badly affected. It was very soon my turn. ‘Now, dad, I’m not going to hurt you!’ He removed some dirt from the injured eye with the edge of a small piece of paper, then put stinging drops in both eyes.

Feeling a little relieved, I walked slowly back; after a few steps I heard the ugly hum of an aircraft above me coming rapidly closer and diving. I ran towards the wall, where there were already some other people lying, threw myself to the ground, my head against the wall, my arm over my face. There was already an explosion, and little bits of rubble trickled down on to me. I lay there for a little while longer, I thought: ‘Just don’t get killed now!’ There were a few more distant explosions, then there was silence.

… [They found an organised refuge …]

It was difficult to find a seat on the benches. The seriously wounded lay on the ground on stretchers, blankets or mattresses, some rooms were entirely organised as a hospital, filled only with people lying there. Soldiers and ambulancemen came and went, more stretchers were brought in. Where I found a place, it was perhaps in the middle room, there was a soldier on the ground groaning terribly, a strapping fellow with big legs and feet. Everyone who passed stumbled over his boots, the man, completely unconscious, was no longer aware of anything.

Much later, it was already late in the evening, a senior medical orderly called out that everyone would now get something to eat. Then a basin appeared with white packets of bread, two double sandwiches in each packet. But after a few minutes we were told: Each packet must be shared between two people. I shared with Eva. But what most people – though not, curiously enough, ourselves – missed more than food was something to drink.

At the beginning people had got hold of a little tea somewhere and distributed it by the mouthful. Soon there was nothing at all, not a drop of water, not even for the wounded and dying. The medical orderlies complained that they could not help anyone. The vigorous Waldmann felt tormented by thirst to such a degree that he literally began to fade away. He fell asleep, started up in a wretched state, he had been dreaming of drinking. New medical orderlies came. One put a bottle to Waldmann’s mouth.

Another, evidently a doctor, stood in front of the (wounded) man groaning on the floor. ‘The lungs?’ I asked. – Oedema, came the indifferent reply. After a while the groaning stopped, a little foam came from his mouth. But the man’s face went on moving for a long time, before he lay still. Later the corpse was taken out.

See Victor Klemperer: I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years

A pile of bodies awaits public cremation in the aftermath of the Dresden bombing.
A pile of bodies awaits public cremation in the aftermath of the Dresden bombing.

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