Right after World War II ended in 1945, Berlin, Germany, was a desolate place to be. It was the coldest winter in history, and thousands of people froze to death or died of starvation. I was 15 years old, an American teenager.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Germany in the early 1920s. My father worked as an engineer for General Electric in Philadelphia until, like so many others, he lost his job during the Great Depression. But in 1939, he was offered a good position in his field of expertise at an electric company in Berlin. Against the advice of our friends, we boarded a German cruise liner. I was 9.
Three days at sea, the war broke out between Germany and Poland, followed by declaration of war by France and England. We tried to return to the United States, but circumstances prevented it, sealing our fate. Our anticipated two-year stint stretched into seven long years of survival that included air raids, evacuations, an icy winter in Silesia and the final big battle for Berlin by the Soviets.
In the aftermath, we struggled to survive under Russian occupation in the destroyed city, often going hungry. Ugly mountains of concrete, overturned tanks, heaps of rubble and charred trees lay everywhere. A sense of hopelessness had cast a pall not only over those who lived there, but also over the landscape. But one day—one of many dreadful days below zero—it snowed.
Gentle snowflakes covered the injured scene with a merciful mantle of pure white. I put on warm clothes and walked alone through our deserted neighborhood, breathing in crystal-clean air in deep gulps. The snow mercifully transformed the war-torn city into an immaculate dreamscape.
I walked over to the bombed-out apartment house next to ours. It had received a full hit in March 1943, when our area of the city was targeted for destruction by the bombers. By miracle our apartment block survived, but many others were gone. I shall never forget the catastrophic night it happened. I remember being aware then, at 13, that my childhood was over, buried beneath the ashes of that terrible night. For two years, I believed I could hear voices and tapping coming from the bodies that lay under piles of concrete. I had recurring nightmares that people were still alive in there.
But the snow now made the sharp edges of the ruins softer. I listened to the swirling silence of the falling snow. Now, at last, all was quiet—even inside my head.
The AARP Bulletin’s "What I Really Know" column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit short personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Reader Eleanor Ramrath Garner of San Diego recalls a first snow. She’s the author of Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany, a memoir.