Witnessing the Battle of Berlin

Marcel Krueger talks to 85-year-old Frau Petenati about her brutal memories of Berlin during the Russian invasion of 1945…

Friedrich-Wilhelm-University, 1945

To say that Jutta Petenati has led an eventful life is an understatement. Born in Weimar Berlin in 1928, she grew up in Nazi Germany, survived the Battle of Berlin in 1945, was incarcerated by the KGB-predecessor NKVD in one of the famous ‘GPU-cellars’ in 1947, barely escaped a second arrest (and deportation to a Soviet GULAG) two years later, and finally manage to finish her studies to become a teacher in West Berlin in the 1950s.

Up until German re-unification in 1990 she could never visit her family in East Berlin for fear of another arrest, and GDR authorities even denied her parents an exit permit to attend her wedding in 1952.

At 85, she conducts the weekly meetings of a retired teachers club, is a member of the association of Stalinist victims in Germany (Bund der stalinistisch Verfolgten), is active at the Centre for Witness to Contemporary History (Zeitzeugenbörse or ZZB), and a few weeks ago a Russian camera team recorded an interview with her that was aired to an audience of six million Russians.

Her main intention in that interview was to show that many people had seen through Hitler even before he was elected in 1933: “My father, who was a Socialist and worked for Siemens for over 30 years said: when they elect Hitler, that means war.”

I visited Frau Petenati for coffee and cake on one of the last days of the waning Berlin summer. I wanted to speak to her mainly about her experiences with the Soviet secret service for an upcoming book, but soon found myself enthralled by her memories of the Battle of Berlin.

Designated the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation by the Soviet Union, it was the final major offensive of World War II in Europe, with the aim of defeating all German forces in Northern Europe and capturing the capital of the German Reich. During the fighting in the city Jutta Petenati, like so many other Berliners, was a direct witness to the death throes of Nazi Germany.

‘On April 30th 1945, I was sixteen years old had started studying to become a kindergarten teacher. But the classes had stopped and my classmates and I were made to work for the Wehrmacht, so I worked as a nurse in the auxiliary hospital in the basement of the Rotes Rathaus.

As the Russians were nearing Alexanderplatz, it was deemed that the basement no longer was safe, and we were ordered to transport our patients to another makeshift hospital in the Hotel Adlon on Unter den Linden. One of the other nurses, an older BDM-leader, got a three-wheeled small transport from her parents, who had a grocery shop. We could fit two stretchers on the loading space, and I was ordered to travel alongside the patients to help carry the stretchers…

“These were drives through hell, through destroyed streets, ruins with dark, gaping holes for windows. We could hardly breathe; the air was full of sulphur because of the artillery fire – a bit like New Years Eve these days. Dust was swirling around like a fine fog, so we could hardly see where we were going. Groups of dead and wounded were everywhere, so we had to swerve from left to right with our little cart all the time.

“On one such trip we were transporting a young soldier who had been shot in the stomach, and his screams for his mother were bloodcurdling. He died shortly after we had delivered him to the Adlon. On the return journey there was suddenly a strange clacking noise, as if someone was throwing pebbles against the side of the car. Only later did I realise that this must have been shrapnel from the shells exploding nearby.

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Ruined streets around the Reichstag in 1945. Image by Mark Redkin.

“During another trip a soldier suddenly came running from the Friedrich-Wilhelm-University (today the Humboldt University) to our car and shouted: ‘Are you girls mad? You are being shot at – you can’t just drive through here!’ We carried on nevertheless, only to find out upon arrival at the Rotes Rathaus that the hospital had been evacuated and the basement was empty.

“Someone told my friend Uschi that the nearby university would be safe for the time being, so we went there. We spent the night in the basement of the university, sleeping on the old books that had been stored there for safekeeping. We were joined by soldiers and other civilians who had fled to the university. It was a long night – all around us was the noise of the battle, and I was worried for my parents who did not know where I was or what had happened to me.

“Only in the afternoon of the next day, May 1st, did some soldiers dare to walk out again, and we followed them out into the yard. The sun was shining, as if it didn’t care for all the chaos on Earth. Another soldier suddenly came running from the direction of Wilhelmstrasse and the Reichskanzlei, Hitler’s chancellory and shouted “The Führer is dead, the war is over!” How he could have known this I have no idea, as it was only announced later that Hitler had killed himself. I do remember an eery quietness on that day though – the shooting had stopped, and it seemed there was at least a lull in the fighting.

“I said to Uschi: “Thank god it’s over – let’s just head home!” As Uschi was living in Kreuzberg, where the Russians already were, I invited her along to come with me to my home in Schlegelstrasse, which was not far from Unter den Linden. We then walked up Friedrichstrasse, where suddenly a large group of people emerged from the U-Bahn and trapped us between the U-Bahn exit and an anti-tank barrier on Weidendammer bridge. I assumed that this group of people was one of the groups from the Reichskanzlei who were trying to reach other Wehrmacht troops in the capital. Then someone suddenly shouted: “Look, there’s Bormann and Axmann!”‘.

Arthur Axmann was the German Nazi leader of the Hitler Youth (Reichsjugendführer) from 1940 to the war’s end in 1945. He was the last living Nazi with a rank equivalent to Reichsführer. Martin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery (Parteikanzlei) and private secretary to Adolf Hitler, was one of the top Nazis and a rumoured successor to Adolf Hitler. Axmann survived the breakout and was later captured by the Allies, while Bormann vanished in the chaos of battle. His skeleton was only found during construction work in 1972.

Friedrichstrasse 1945

Friedrichstrasse 1945

‘I saw them both running towards Lehrter Bahnhof (what is today the Hauptbahnhof) with a group of other people. Uschi and I were still trapped in the crowd at the barrier, when suddenly a shell exploded next to us. It was all chaos and panic, people were screaming and running around.

“My friend had fallen to the ground and her legs were covered in blood. I looked around, searching for help, and saw a soldier lying on the ground. His legs had been torn off by the blast, and he was gesturing towards me. I was the only person still standing and, by a miracle, had not been wounded. The soldier said to me: “Girl, take my gun and shoot me!’ I was completely shocked, and could only think “How is it that he can talk with his legs blown away?” It was worse than a nightmare.

“I turned back to Uschi, grabbed her under the arms and hauled her around the barrier. There were some Belgian labourers with some sort of one-wheeled hand cart, and they helped me to put Uschi, who was screaming out in pain, on the cart. I wanted to get to Scharnhorststrasse as quickly as possible, where my aunt was working in the hospital there (the Bundeswehrkrankenhaus today).

“On both sides of this street were corpses, but I was in a kind of trance and didn’t notice anything properly. One thing I do remember clearly though: I saw my first female soldier. She was Russian, wearing boots and a skirt, and sitting on an armoured vehicle. Her head was hanging down onto her chest. She had no visible wounds, but she was certainly dead.

“I did not see any living people on that journey, aside from perhaps a few grey shadows hiding in doorways. I managed to bring my friend to the hospital, where they eventually removed 36 shell fragments from her legs. I promised to tell her parents as soon as possible, and then hurried home, which was thankfully just around the corner.

“When I finally reached Schlegelstrasse, there was a dead horse lying on the pavement in front of our house. Men and women were kneeling around it, cutting pieces of meat from the animal. My stomach almost turned. I went into our basement and into the arms of my mother, who was relieved to have me back alive.

“Suddenly there was a mouth-watering smell of fried meat – the neighbours had placed a small pan on the little stove we kept in the basement and started to fry the horse meat. I had to retch; despite being without food for hours, I could have never eaten the bloody meat of that animal, especially with all the images of the dead and wounded in my head. I felt tired, sick and dirty. I had been wearing the same clothes for days, and I was so happy when my mother said: “We have some water for you.” In the small laundry next door I undressed and thoroughly scrubbed myself from head to toe with the last piece of soap.”

For Jutta Petenati and all the other civilians trapped in the city the ordeal finally ended on May 2nd, when the Berlin garrison surrendered unconditionally to the Soviet attackers, followed by the unconditional surrender of all German troops to the Allied Forces in Europe on May 8th/9th. 125,000 civilians are estimated to have perished during the battle.

We will follow up with a second installment of Frau Petenati’s story and her experiences in the Russian zone of occupation and the GDR at a later point.

You can support the work of the ZZB by donating and/or attending one of the monthly talks at the Circus Hotel on Rosenthaler Platz.

Marcel Krueger is a writer and blogger living in Berlin. His essays and stories have been published in the Daily Telegraph, Reykjavik Grapevine,…

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