April 30, 2015 / 5:18 PM / in 3 years

Germans listen to fading voices of war's last survivors

BERLIN (Reuters) - Huddled with her younger brother and scores of other children in a Berlin bunker, Gisela Teichmann was gripped by fear rather than relief when the German army capitulated 70 years ago on May 8, 1945, bringing the war in Europe to an end.

A Russian armoured vehicle is pictured at the junction between Ritter Street and Alexandrinen Street in this undated photo taken May 1945 in Berlin. REUTERS/MHM/Georgiy Samsonov/Handout via Reuters

“There was no rejoicing. We were scared. The Russians were here, we were awfully frightened of them,” recalls the 80-year-old west Berliner whose father was killed on the Russian Front.

“The Russians used to come into the shelters saying ”Frau komm“. That meant they were going to rape the women. I can still hear the women shrieking. I remember the Russians saying ”Uri, Uri“, when they wanted people’s watches. It was a dreadful time.”

Just 10-years old at the time, she recalls eating dry bread, stealing food and scrounging cigarettes from British soldiers in the western sector of the city they occupied. The streets near her home were reduced to piles of rubble and the charred remains of buildings poked into the sky.

For decades she blocked out the worst memories.

“It was bewildering, uncertain. Now, it is moving to talk about it,” said spritely Teichmann who, seven decades on, is still wary of Russia, still ashamed of her nationality when abroad.

Nazism, the Holocaust and the devastation wrought by the war continue to exert a strong influence on German identity and politics.

But as they near the end of their lives, many Germans who lived through it are talking more openly and younger generations are grasping at their last chance to hear personal accounts.

The trend has intensified around the 70th anniversary of May 8 with media running stories about the last days of the war and tales of German civilian suffering, tales subsumed even a decade ago by national guilt over the war.

“There is a yearning for memory,” said historian Paul Nolte of Berlin’s Free University. “We are seeing an increasing appetite for individual stories about people’s fates.”

Media are reporting the little-documented rape of German women by U.S. and British soldiers. Books have appeared on war orphans, unwanted children fathered by Soviet, U.S. or British soldiers and ‘disgraced children’ of Wehrmacht soldiers born in occupied countries.

A show at Germany’s Historical Museum about 1945 features biographies from 12 countries. They include a Norwegian resistance fighter and a Berlin policeman who joined a Nazi murder squad (Einsatzgruppe) that killed some 150,000 Soviet civilians and later returned to his former occupation in Bremen.

A general view shows Voss Street in Berlin, April 20, 2015. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

A major documentation center on the Nazis opened on Thursday in Munich on the site of the former party headquarters. And Berlin has organized special tours and a series of open-air photo exhibitions entitled “May 1945 - Spring in Berlin”.

DEFEAT TO LIBERATION

Polls show a clear shift in attitudes. A Forsa survey for the Koerber Foundation think tank found 89 percent of Germans view May 8 as a day of liberation.

Only 9 percent see the end of the war as a defeat, down from 35 percent a decade ago.

Slideshow (8 Images)

“For a long time there was no strong identification with May 8, Germans saw the end of the war as a defeat, capitulation and upheaval,” said Sven Tetzlaff of the Koerber Foundation.

In the years directly after the war, many Germans who had gone along with Hitler’s Nazis preferred not to mark it.

British veteran Bernard Levy, who arrived at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp days after it was freed, recalls defiance from some Germans, in particular members of the SS.

At the end of the war, regiments of German troops on trucks drove through the northern town of Celle, recalls Levy. One man in striped camp clothes shouted “Hitler kaputt” at the SS men on a truck. One of them leapt off and started beating him.

Seeing the incident, another bystander shot his pistol in the air, prompting the SS man to jump back onto the truck.

“These guys felt undefeated, betrayed by the surrender,” Levy, 19 years old at the time, told Reuters.

For the establishment of peace in Europe, it was essential that that notion die its natural death. After World War One the “legend” that the German Army’s defeat resulted from betrayal on the home front took root and helped propel the Nazis to power.

In a month in which the trial of an SS “bookkeeper” at Auschwitz topped the news and Athens presses for war reparations as it tries to renegotiate the terms of its bailout, there is little prospect that the potency of the war will fade.

“World War Two affects how our neighbours see us and how we shape our politics. The question constantly arises: Are Germans done with their past, with their responsibility?” said Tetzlaff.

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Stephen Brown and Ralph Boulton

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