Growing up in Berlin in the 1930s, WWII

In 1931, when Birgit (Biggi to family members and friends) Paul was 3 years old  and about to turn 4, the family lived in Lichterfelde, in the outskirts of Berlin. It was an area with many children and Birgit enjoyed making friends on the playground. She was very excited about her upcoming birthday and told one of her friends that she was about to turn 4 on June 10.

“That’s great, are you having a party?” the little girl  asked. “Yes,” Birgit responded – she had not heard about any birthday plans, but a celebration sounded like a good idea. She invited her other neighborhood friends who then went home to inform their parents about the birthday party invitation.

Birgit somehow forgot to tell her parents about the party she was planning for herself. Hildegard had not made any preparations beyond the usual small family celebration. June 10 came and at 2 in the afternoon the door bell rang. Outside was a little girl wearing a fancy dress carrying a wrapped gift. She was soon followed by several other dressed up gift-carrying children. Hildegard  realized that this was a party and sent the maid out for cake and streamers. Birgit’s birthday party became a life-long happy memory.

In the mid-1930s the German economy was coming back thanks to  the large scale infrastructure program Hitler had launched. Germans believed in their country again after many years of gloom following WWI – the flu epidemic of 1918, the Hyperinflation, The Great Depression with mass unemployment were now behind and people began to have hopes for the future.


Birgit in 1943 wearing her first adult hat.

Hildegard and Bengt were living separately for 6 years during the worst parts of the Great Depression. While Hildegard and her children lived with her parents her two older sisters kept advising her to divorce Bengt and the best way to do so. Hildegard, however, insisted on keeping the family together and in 1938 their economy allowed them to re-unite.

As Hitler rose to power,  the other children began attending Hitler Jugend after school. Birgit and Heye were  not allowed to join because they were not German citizens. Being Swedish, they were outsiders in an increasingly nationalistic environment.

Once WWII started, however, Birgit appreciated the family’s Swedish citizenship, which prevented her brother and father from being drafted by Hitler’s army. As the war progressed her class mates started coming to school wearing black ribbons mourning fathers and brothers and other close male relatives lost in battle.

berlin 1937

Heye, Christa, Hildegard and Birgit watching a parade to celebrate a visit by Mussolini in Berlin in 1937.

In 1937, my grandfather took this picture of his family during a Nazi parade to celebrate a visit by Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Hildegard looks bored. The children are waving Italian flags – they were not allowed by their parents to have Nazi flags. Everyone were commanded to be out in the streets to celebrate the historic meeting of Hitler and Mussolini.

The war went on and the family got more and more used to bombings and food shortages. Birgit spent hours and hours lining up for the family’s daily rations of canned vegetables, rotten potatoes and other meager nutrition sources. Because Christa was a young child, the family was allotted a pint on milk per day. Birgit always remembers how upset her mother was when she accidentally spilled the precious milk in the sink: “Asch, die schone milch,” Hildegard cried as the milk disappeared down the drain. Hunger became a part of every day life.

Daily life was interrupted by wailing sirens warning about approaching bomb raids. Once the sirens rang, one had to find shelter fast and then wait until the attack was over. One day Heye was on his way home when he heard the sirens. At first he planned to enter the shelter where he usually sat out the raids, but something made him continue to a larger, sturdier built shelter further away. By the time he reached that shelter, the Allied bombers were almost above him. He manage to find safety and once the strike was over he walked home passing the first shelter, which had been bombed to crumbles – no survivors.

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