When will we ever learn?

Margaret Rossiter


Margaret Rossiter

THE CARDBOARD boxes filled with the Christmas decorations were stacked on the stairs landing. Moving them into the ice-box of the attic was a job I kept on postponing..... tomorrow and tomorrow.

THE CARDBOARD boxes filled with the Christmas decorations were stacked on the stairs landing. Moving them into the ice-box of the attic was a job I kept on postponing..... tomorrow and tomorrow.

Eventually, because they were an accident waiting to happen, “tomorrow” finally came on the 13th February. As I was stacking the last box, the lid fell open, and amongst the scattered coloured glass balls, I found the small traditional pretty straw decorations that I had bought in a street market in Dresden when I visited that city in 2008.

That morning, the news on the BBC announced that the 13th February marked the 70th anniversary of the two-day unrelenting bombing of Dresden in 1945. In a period of 48 hours, wave after wave of British and United States planes dropped a succession of explosive and phosporous bombs on one of Europe’s most beautiful cities - the “Florence of the North.” The fireball that resulted killed at least 25,000 people. Because the fire sucked up the oxygen in the air, most of those died of asphyxiation. No estimates have ever been made of the number of survivors who later died because of damage to their lungs.

It was a long car journey from Franken in Bavaria on that day in June 2008 when I visited Dresden. We drove through the former Iron Curtain into a countryside where watch-towers still stood on hilltops and large barns still marked the sites of the collective farms of the DDR. We dropped off a granddaughter at the university, located a hotel, and then the city was ours to explore for a few days.

It was still a building site. During a half-century of Communist rule little more than the essential services were restored. The once handsome suburban squares were still enclosed by gaunt, blackened ruins. Since re-unification, restoration has been focused on the city centre.

While some of that work involved the restoration of the old classical Baroque buildings, much of it had been concentrated in the re-building of the devastated business streets. Here, all is modern. On that day in 2008, the glass and aluminium structures on the streets by the River Elbe glowed in the reflection of a bright June sun.

“This is a city of light,” I told myself, forgetting for a moment that it had been a city of terrifying light on two days and nights in 1945.

And then I remembered an old family friend, now dead. He had been in the skies above Dresden during those fateful two days. He was a very young man, serving as a radio officer in Bomber Command in the RAF. Like all veterans of war, he rarely spoke of his experiences, and then only in brief refrences. He was always grateful for his survival, saying, on one occasion, that he was amongs the 25 per cent of his squadron who had survived.

Dresden was only very briefly mentioned by him. It was another mission in his Halifax Bomber, another target. It was a night flight. You located the target. The bombs were dropped. You did not think of people, only strategic targets. The plane did a fast turn-around and got away as quickly as possible. Terrified. Getting away was far more hazardous than getting there.

The target was the enemy and that enemy was the evil of Nazism. In the Catholic Cathedral we found a small symbol of the viciousness of that evil. A modest wooden plaque recorded the be-heading (yes the be-heading!) of six young Poles in one of the city’s squares in 1942. They had been found guilty of sedition. The youngest was just 14.

There is still a debate on the bombing of Dresden. It did not have heavy industry. It was not strategically or military located. It was an beautiful Baroque city. It is said that Churchill was emphatically not in favour of its destruction but that Stalin demanded a “trophy.” In the exigencies of war, our old family friend, was a cog in the wheel in the presentation of that trophy.

It was while having a coffee-break during our walk-about Dresden that day in 2008, that I recalled that not only had we a family connection with the skies above Dresden in those mid-February days of 70 years ago, but we also had a tenuous family connection with some people on the ground.

At the wedding, some years ago, of the first cousin of the granddaughter we had just dropped off at university, I was introduced to an elderly man, the grandfather of the groom. At the age of 10, he, his younger brother, his mother, his aunt and his grandmother had joined a long straggle of refugees fleeing before the advancing Red Army. In those early weeks of February, the weather was very cold. They had left their homes and everything they owned behind them, carrying only some food and a few pathetic clothes. All except his grandmother; she insisted on taking with her a small sewing machine. She was a gifted needle-woman and would not be parted from it. They were heading towards the Elbe which they hoped to cross and find some refuge in Dresden.

But grandmother’s slow pace, and the burden of the machine, which all of them had to share in carrying, slowed them up, and on the nights of the 13th and 14th February they were sheltering in an old oak wood on the eastern bank of the Elbe just 20 miles north of the city. The memory of the orange glow in the sky over the distant Dresden is still seared on this grandfather’s memory. And - by the way, he said - the family still has his grandmother’s sewing machine.

When leaving Dresden, I told my granddaughter that we would never again experience the devastation of war in Europe. We would not be so stuped, I said. Wrong! In looking at the nightly television news, I see pictures of old men and women crawling from cellars into the snowy streets of Ukraine as they dodge the bullets in search of food.

Bob Dylan sings: “When will we ever learn?” When, indeed?