“This is the image of an urchin!” exclaimed my wife, Gillian, when she first saw the photograph on the opposite page. “You have not really changed. You just look older,” she continued. “You must use the word urchin in the title of your memoirs,” decreed the novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford; Barbara and her Berlin-born husband, Robert Bradford, have been friends of ours for more than half a century.
The photograph was taken in Leipzig during World War II when I was about seven. My life then was marked by nightly air raids. Sometimes there were also daytime alarms. If not, I went to school in the morning and undertook exploratory expeditions into the smoking ruins of neighboring apartment houses in the afternoon. I played pranks on tram drivers and their passengers. I took music lessons from my mother and studied Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and the history of the Saxon dynasty under my grandmother’s guidance. Teaching her grandson to be a Christian and a monarchist was her way of shielding him against the all-pervasive National Socialist ideology.
I was born in Leipzig, where urchins are called Griewatsch. Like all urban urchins, we were impish and loudmouthed, but neither bombs, nor hunger, nor personal misfortune made us whimper. This is one key message of the present book: “A document humain, a little chronicle of the soul of more or less an entire generation,” as historian Michael Stürmer wrote in his foreword to the German edition of my memoirs.
More precisely, it is a chronicle of a very small age group growing up in one of the most turbulent and bloody times in recorded history. We were born after Hitler came to power, or just before. We were on the receiving end of the war he had caused: bombs, starvation, and shame—all costs of his hideous crimes. We were only children but were keenly aware of what was happening to us and around us. Because of this, our childhood impressions were uncommonly incisive, if indeed it was a childhood at all.
I believe that, in my case, it was a childhood. I saw, heard, and experienced dreadful things, yet I played and laughed with other children in between air-raid alarms. I was taught the same Christian values as my ancestors but under more extreme circumstances, including the horrific discovery, at the age of seven, that the government of my country was murdering millions. Yes, some of us did hear about the Holocaust, even though we were so young!
Keeping a record of such strong recollections for the benefit of future generations in other parts of the world seems imperative to me now that I have entered the final stretch of my earthly life. Most educated Anglo-Saxons have received detailed reports about World War II from the perspectives of their own military, of German soldiers, of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, of eminent scholars, and of former Nazis who grew rich writing contrite memoirs. With this book, I am adding one further angle—an urchin’s eyewitness account.
This account of an urchin emeritus might not be representative of all of Germany, since I was brought up in the city Hitler despised the most. Our mayor at the time of my birth, Carl Goerdeler, had been the civilian leader of the resistance against the National Socialist regime since it came to power and was ultimately hanged for this. More significantly in the context of my story, the Führer hated us for our racial imperfections. And there is something to this bias: We Leipzigers owe our reputation of being smart and crafty to the fact that we are mutts of varied provenance. Our ethnic blend has forged the Leipzig character: foxy, peripatetic, forever curious, and therefore mostly well-informed—traits that explain why it was in Leipzig, in 1650, that the world’s first daily newspaper appeared and why it has spawned such a disproportionately large number of journalists, myself included.
We are mongrels because Leipzig lies at the crossroads of the Old World’s two most important trade routes. Therefore, it became the venue of the world’s oldest international trade fair more than 850 years ago. Every spring and every autumn, horse-drawn wagons from the east, west, north, and south, laden with all conceivable wares, rumbled into Leipzig’s market square.
Leipzig’s cosmopolitan flair evolved thanks to the mélange of people these two trade routes brought into town, where they mingled merrily with the lustful locals, thus adding to the luscious looks of Leipzig’s ladies. Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, Venetians, and North Africans poured into Leipzig centuries ago. Soon that list grew to include French, British, Dutch, Scandinavian, Russian, and Polish traders, and then Turks, Persians, Chinese, and Jews, the latter turning the city into the world’s leading transshipment center for furs until Hitler came to power.
This is an excerpt from the introduction of Urchin at War: Volume 1 by Uwe Siemon-Netto (1517 Publishing, 2021), xv-xviii.