This is an edited excerpt from chapter 6 of “Urchin at War: Volume 1” by Uwe Siemon-Netto (1517 Publishing, 2021).
I walk out of her front door, turn right, and go down a few steps to the basement, hoping vaguely that its door is open, allowing me to inspect the venue where I spent so many eerie nights in my childhood. But the door is locked. Still I linger on for a while, wistfully reminiscing about the space beyond, wondering, Why am I feeling so serene? Why am I smiling? Why don’t I get goose pimples? Why am I not overwhelmed with dread? Why am I actually filled with a mysterious kind of gratitude Ulrike or anyone much younger than I could not possibly comprehend?
Of course, I shall never forget my foreboding when entering that dank, dark room night after night and often during daytime as well. We used to hurry down there knowing that we might not come up again alive and a slow death by fire or suffocation under tons of rubble could very well be our fate.
Of course, I remember the creepy atmosphere in that room lit by one candle on a wooden table. I remember the bunk beds lining the walls, the foul smell of their straw mattresses, and the frightened faces of neighbors curled up on them, their bodies jerking in anguish to the rhythm of the blockbuster bombs detonating nearby.
Of course, I recall seeing thick smoke and flames seeping into our basement through cracks in the outside walls. I remember how nauseating that smoke stank. It was a biting blend of chemicals, burning beams, and pulverized bricks wedded to the pong of rotting potatoes in the storage spaces behind the bunk beds.
Of course, I recollect worrying. Will I see my playmates again? Will Heini, Gerhard, Karl, and I be able to do mischief in the street as soon as the sirens wail, the first “all clear” and then the second? Will we once more harass trolleys? Will we be fit to face up courageously to our rivals, the urchins of Kantstraße, one block north of us? Will we play cowboys and Indians or Bedouins at Tauchscher, the traditional Leipzig masquerading season at the end of August? Will Herr and Frau Michael, our greengrocers, be there to open their shop? Will I have a school to go to after the British bombers had finished their nighttime task of destruction and before American planes showed up overhead for their daytime raid?
And yet these are secondary reflections, a mere backdrop to the multilayered gratitude I feel: Naturally, I am thankful that I survived unharmed. But more importantly, I am cognizant of the powerful lessons for life I owe to those nights in the air-raid shelter. To begin with, I learned that in moments of extreme danger, I turn stone cold. I sense no fear, and I don’t panic, but I don’t turn inert either. I act emotionless and logical, like a robot.
I have no reason to take personal credit in this disposition that proved of great value later in life, for example, during the Vietnam War, which I covered over a period of five years as a combat correspondent. It is a gift I have not earned through any works of mine. Agnostics may call it a gift of nature; as a Christian, I know it to be a gift from God.
Most other lessons I learned by observing human beings while we were being bombed. I learned to act “like a Christian gentleman in calamitous circumstances,” as my nineteenth-century grandmother phrased it: to show any signs of fear would have been ungentlemanly. I also learned what kind of a woman I would look for later in life; my wife Gillian has many of the qualities Omi (my grandmother) possessed. I especially learned that humor, including salacious wit, has its proper place in moments of great danger, including during the prospect of death.
In my wartime school of values, Omi was doubtless the principal, although my mother too was an inspiring teacher. As soon as the bombs fell, her least lovable trait—which later in life I identified as narcissism—evaporated, and she became downright selfless. No sooner had sirens sounded the “all clear” than she jumped on her bicycle and pedaled long distances through burning streets. When she returned hours later, she sometimes told us how she had to duck the machine-gun fire of American fighter-bombers trying to pick people off the streets when the US Flying Fortresses had completed their missions. This happened during the daytime when the US Army Air Force attacked, not at night when the British bombed us.
“What were you doing cycling off after these air raids?” I asked Mutti (my mother) later. “Making sure that our friends, relatives, and acquaintances were alright. There was always someone who had lost his home and needed my help.” “Were you not afraid when American planes chased you down the streets?” “No,” she answered. “All I felt was numbness, which enabled me to do what I had to do.
I understood what she meant.
The most significant education I owe to the air war was theological, and here Omi was my teacher. As soon as she heard the sirens, she slipped into one of her best dresses. In the winter, they were always black, in the summer occasionally dark blue accentuated by small polka dots, thus resembling the habit of some orders of Lutheran deaconesses in Germany. Usually, she wore a choker around her neck and lorgnette on her nose.
One night, we had a brief dialogue that I believe contributed to my decision to enroll in a Lutheran divinity school almost half a century later. There was a bombing lull after the first wave of Lancasters had unloaded their wares on us. We knew that a second wave was underway, but for now there was silence, except for the howls of the fire engines.
“You look very beautiful in your best dress, Omi,” I complimented her. “But, mein Junge, I dress festively every night. Haven’t you noticed?” “I know, Omi, but today you look particularly lovely! Why do you always change clothes for the air raids?”
“Because I might meet the Lord that night.”
“But he won’t see you in your wonderful dress when you meet him. It will have burned with your body.”
“True, but Christ sees us coming before we die.”
“Does this mean that dressing up for Jesus will get you into Heaven?”
“Of course not. We won’t go to Heaven for what we do in life. We are saved by God’s grace for believing that Christ died on the cross for our sins. You will learn this in catechism class soon,” she said, stroking my head.
Not until I was a seminarian in Chicago twenty years after Omi’s death did I realize that between two waves of RAF attacks on Leipzig she had taught me the 101 of Lutheran theology: Pious deeds don’t win you brownie points with God. Instead, you are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s redeeming work for you on the cross.
Our discussion continued, however:
“So why do you put on your best dress before you die?” I asked Omi.
“To give Christ the honor. That’s all, not to win any favors from him.”
“But if Jesus sees us coming, why does He not stop us from getting killed?”
“Because his kingdom is not of this world. He said so to Pontius Pilate before his crucifixion.”
This was the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine in a nutshell. It made sense to me then, when I was a seven-year-old urchin. It made sense when much later I covered the construction of the Berlin Wall, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam War as a journalist. It just made sense. I doubt that I would ever have come to believe in a gracious God in adult life had it not been for the recollection of this short discussion with my grandmother between two Lancaster attacks.
A further lesson Omi taught me then has not always proved helpful in my later career but enabled me to look at myself in the mirror: don’t be afraid to speak your mind!
This is an edited excerpt from chapter 6 of Urchin at War: Volume 1 by Uwe Siemon-Netto (1517 Publishing, 2021), pgs. 117-122.