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Living hungry, in fear

Minnesota woman endured life in war-torn Germany


Elisabeth and her twin sister in their First Communion dresses made from a parachute. Contributed photo

Memories of hunger’s ache don’t go away. Even after 70 years, Elisabeth von Berrinberg thinks about her family’s daily struggle to put food on the table during the war years in Germany.

“The potato peels I flush down the disposal are thicker than the ones we once dug out of garbage cans. The heels from loaves of bread are still tastier at the time I discard them than the moldy bread we devoured at many meals. Even the tough outer leaves of the lettuce in my refrigerator taste better than dandelions.”  Von Berrinberg, who lives in Minnesota now, admits that she still feels guilty when she prepares a meal.

On her first day of school in 1939, von Berrinberg’s world was turned upside down. World War II began when she was 6 years old and living with her family in Wurzburg, Germany. She and her twin sister and parents lived in a four-story apartment building next door to her grandparents, “Oma” and “Opa.” “We were a close-knit family,” said von Berrinberg.

The war years meant living with hunger, fear and other hardships. There were  countless nights that howling sirens woke her and her family from their sleep and sent them to their cold, moldy cellar where they took refuge during the air raid warnings. “I was proud of our beautiful city,” von Berrinberg recalled. “Its numerous church spires reached into the skies, and its narrow streets still reflected the splendor of bygone eras.” Amazingly, the historic city had been spared from the bombing until just weeks before the war ended in 1945.

Food rationing during the war meant the family members had to wait in line for hours every day to get their ration of bread, milk and meat. It was not unusual for someone to faint from exhaustion or to suffer heatstroke while standing in line. Von Berrinberg was nearly 13 years old by the end of the war, when there were further food restrictions and one person was allowed just one pound of meat a month, one-fourth of the allowance five years earlier. They did their best to stretch their food ration. There were three kinds of butcher shops in Wurzburg. The regular butcher shop sold roasts of beef and pork, which took most of their monthly meat ration’s stamps. Another type of butcher shop allowed them to stretch their rations, for horsemeat. The third shop offered even better bargains, but the meat that was sold was from cattle that had to be killed.

During the war years, their coffee wasn’t made from beans. It was a substitute called Ersatz, and it tasted like brown water. It was roasted barley with a dash of chicory. By the end of the war, the  family’s diet was mostly potatoes, moldy bread and even dandelions. “They can be eaten raw like a salad,” said von Berrinberg, “but without the proper ingredients for a vinaigrette dressing they were not too tasty, especially for us kids.”

When she and her sister wore out their shoes, their grandfather would nail rubber from an old bicycle tire over the holes. When they grew out of their shoes, he would cut off the tips to make room for their toes. In the summer, they would go barefoot or wear sandals that their grandfather carved for them.

The family’s creativity was useful in all kinds of ways. When the roof over their heads gave out, they were able to make repairs using the wing tip of an airplane that had crashed in a field nearby. And the fabric used to make their First Communion dresses came from a parachute which was bought by her grandmother on the black market.

Cigarettes were scarce in Wurzburg, and there were long lines of people waiting in front of the tobacco shop. Von Berrinberg said one of her favorite pastimes was walking the streets looking for cigarette butts or chewed up remnants of cigars. She collected them and brought them home to her grandfather who unwrapped the butts and shook the tobacco out and rolled up new cigarettes. He cut up the cigars and put them into his pipe. Her grandmother did not appreciate her efforts, complaining loudly of the “nuisance” habit.

On an evening in February 1945, the family narrowly escaped death and injury by reaching their cellar just in time before bombs hit Wurzburg. When they emerged from their shelter, they saw flames and burning debris all around them. All of the windows in their home were broken so they were forced to move to a small cabin southwest of the city.

One month later, the sirens rang for the 335th time since the beginning of the war. It was the night of March 16, and von Berrinberg describes it as “a night in hell.” She and her sister and parents hid near their cabin in a dungeon, a 4-foot square manhole, used to store a water meter. For 19 minutes, hundreds of Royal Air Force bombers dropped 400,000 bombs. “The impacts felt like an earthquake. Our shelter began to rock,” said von Berrinberg, “and we had to hold on to one another to keep from being slammed against the walls. Our ears began to hurt.” When the bombing stopped and they crawled out of their shelter, they were devastated to see the city was ablaze.

Eighty-eight percent of their beautiful Wurzburg was destroyed in those few minutes by the British Lancaster bombers. The city’s churches, cathedrals and monuments were damaged or destroyed. An estimated 5,000 people were killed and tens of thousands more were left homeless.

As von Berrinberg and her family looked toward the city, they saw flames and smoke, and they heard the sound of collapsing buildings. Their most terrifying thoughts were that her grandparents were there in the city somewhere. Determined to find them, they walked past mounds of stone, ash, debris and burned-out houses and lifeless bodies. They wore gas masks as they searched the city for hours.

Their prayers were heard. Von Berrinberg’s grandparents had survived, miraculously, by wrapping themselves in blankets and crawling through a burning gate to safety. They made their way with other survivors to the Residenzplatz where their family found them. “We barely recognized them at first,” she said. “Their eyeglasses were gone, and their hair and eyebrows had burned off… But they were alive… No words could express our feelings at that moment.”

When asked if she has ever had nightmares or flashbacks because of the traumatic events of her childhood, von Berrinberg said she does not. “Just sad recollections, in particular whenever I watch the History Channel, which brings back memories.”

Elisabeth von Berrinberg survived the bombing of Wurzburg in 1945 and wrote a book, The City in Flames. This photo was taken around her 80th birthday. Contributed photo

Elisabeth von Berrinberg survived the bombing of Wurzburg in 1945 and wrote a book, The City in Flames. This photo was taken around her 80th birthday. Contributed photo

Von Berrinberg wrote about her childhood and wartime in Wurzburg, Germany, and her family’s survival in her memoir, The City in Flames. Wurzburg, in the region of Franconia, North Bavaria, had a population of 108,000 before the war.  By the time the Allies arrived in the spring of 1945, the population had fallen to about 37,000 residents. After the war, the food shortages continued. The family, desperate for food, began doing laundry for the American soldiers in exchange for food and cigarettes and candy.

The streets in Wurzburg were eventually cleared, and the city began to be rebuilt. Over the next 20 years, the historical buildings were replicated, mostly by the women because the men were either dead or taken as prisoners of war.

Ten years after the war, von Berrinberg married a veteran of the Korean War who was stationed in Wurzburg. They moved to America in 1955, and she has lived in Minneapolis since 1960. She raised a daughter and worked as a darkroom technician. “The last time I was home (in Wurzburg),” she said, “was in November  1997 to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday.”

Von Berrinberg said that being a war survivor has taught her gratitude and the value of an ordinary life. She gives presentations on her experiences to schoolchildren in the Twin Cities. Following one program, a young boy told her she should write a book. And so she did. The City in Flames was published last year. The book is available from bookstores and

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