BONN When the bombs fell on October 18, 1944, Klaus Becker was helping at a christening as an altar boy. 75 years later, the high-ranking cleric remembers in detail how he experienced the day and the weeks afterwards as an eleven-year-old.
Last Friday was the 75th anniversary of the most devastating bomb attack on Bonn in World War II. Prelate Dr. Klaus M. Becker (86) was right in the thick of it as a young boy in Bonn. On the occasion of the commemoration, Thomas Michael Krause spoke with him.
Prelate Becker, the Allied air raid on the city took place in the morning. Where were you at that time?
Klaus M. Becker: On that Wednesday morning I was serving as an altar boy at a baptism. That was top secret, because it was the baptism of a young woman, about 19 years old, who came to Germany as a Russian forced laborer and was assigned to the Fleischhauer restaurant on Meckenheimer Strasse, now Thomas-Mann-Strasse.
A Russian forced laborer?
Becker: At Fleischhauers, Nadja was completely integrated into the family and as a result adopted her religious beliefs, but it was practically impossible to baptize her. The Nazis would have never tolerated this and would have arrested all those involved immediately. The preparatory lessons and then the baptism, confirmation and First Communion were given and administered by Father Wachowsky of St. Mary's Church. He later become a prelate and diplomatic pastor in the Federal Republic of Germany, because he spoke twelve languages.
Where did the mass take place?
Becker: In the house chapel of the Bonn city deacon. At that time it was only accessible from his apartment. So one could be reasonably safe from disturbances. Only Pastor Wachowsky, Nadja, the Fleischhauer family, my mother and I were present. The son Heinz and I were servers.
And then everyone went to Fleischhauer's?
Becker: Yes, shortly before 11 am, we were in the private rooms of the family above the restaurant. We had just arrived there, when the first bombs were already falling. The general alarm was given much too late, the bombing had already begun.
Where did you go to get to safety?
Becker: We quickly ran down to the air-raid shelter. The light flickered and with every crash the plaster came down from the ceiling. The air pressure pressed us against the wall. After that there was silence.
Were you afraid?
Becker: Of course! I shouted: "We have to get out of here!" Outside we had to go through a huge white cloud of dust. We felt our way along the walls of the building to today's Budapester Strasse, which at that time still was part of Sternstrasse, and from there to the bunker at the Stadthaus, today's "Haus der Bildung".
The bunker is still there today.
Becker: The doors were not closed yet. We were still joined by people who wanted to go inside. Opposite Fleischhauers an air mine had fallen into the cinema "Kammerspiele". Later we learned that many visitors died.
What was it like in the bunker, which was probably overcrowded?
Becker: Many people prayed in fear. The bunker shook during the bombings. We stayed there until afternoon, until about 4 pm. The bombing lasted only about 10 minutes, but we didn't know if there was anything more to come.
Do you know what happened to the Fleischhauer family and Nadja?
Becker: They all survived the attack. I don't know what happened to Nadja after the war.
The inner city must have been a big inferno. Where did you live?
Becker: My parents' house was on Hundsgasse at the corner of Brückenstrasse, in the so-called Rheinviertel. The Brückenstrasse was the extension of the Friedrichstrasse and led to the Rheinbrücke (Rhine Bridge). Bertha-von-Suttner-Platz didn't exist then. It was a densely built-up area.
How did you get home?
Becker: It was still possible to get to Friedensplatz, which was then called "Adolf-Hitler-Platz," but Friedrichstrasse was not passable. Everything was burning on both sides. That's why we continued along Wilhelmstrasse. At the Red Cross station at the Regional Court we were supplied with eye drops against dust, smoke and soot.
You had to go around the city center...
Becker: Yes, from there we tried to go on to Johannes Hospital. The street had several bomb craters. I stumbled, but my mother just pulled me away when a piece of wall fell on exactly this spot. From Wilhelmsplatz we struggled our way along Kölnstrasse to the city center. I had to rest on the steps of the Stifts Church. There we heard a terrible noise from the church. Perhaps part of the arch had just collapsed. We immediately jumped off the steps and hurried back on our way to the Johannes Hospital. From there we walked over the Wachsbleiche road down to the banks of the Rhine. There were some dead lying there along the way. But because there were bomb craters and fires everywhere on the Rhine, we had to go back again, once again past the bodies.
Today's buildings between Alten Zoll and Wachsbleiche stand on a huge heap of rubble.
Becker: Exactly, and the Rheinviertel was the actual Old Town of Bonn. It was divided in two by the access road to the Rhine Bridge. The northern part, called "Kuhl", was a densely built-up workers' quarter. The southern part was middle-class.
What did you try next?
Becker: Via Johannes Hospital and Friedensplatz we walked to the Sterntor, behind that a hotel was ablaze. Passing the main post office we made it to Münsterplatz and then wanted to go on to Markt. Beethoven was still standing on his pedestal. But there was no getting through on Remigiusstrasse either; so better Kaiserplatz and Hofgarten. In the Hofgarten I had secretly laid out pages with sermons of the Münster Bishop of Galen against the Nazis days before. An aunt had obtained the notes and typed them several times with carbon copies.
The university could have celebrated its 126th founding day on that day...
Becker: That hadn't stopped the Allies from destroying it to the ground. The castle burned so badly that we couldn't get past it. But the statue of the Virgin Mary of Regina Pacis, the Queen of Peace, at the top of the façade of the main building, had survived the fire unscathed.
How did you get into the city center?
Becker: We went in the arch to the Stockentor, but behind it everything was completely destroyed. One of my friends and his family burned to death there. The next attempt was the Koblenzer Tor. But it was impossible. Through the gate, it looked like the opening of a red-hot coal stove. We didn't even try to get to the Alten Zoll or the banks of the Rhine. In the Rhine wing of the castle was the university library, which had not been completely evacuated before the air raid.
You didn't know if your home existed anymore and certainly didn't have any belongings with you. Where did you and your mother stay?
Becker: Via Hofgarten, Kaiserplatz and Hauptbahnhof, which had remained intact, we pushed our way through to Noeggerathstrasse, where an aunt of mine lived. Her house was spared. We passed by the town's chancery house, where we had been at the secret baptism in the morning. The chapel was destroyed by a bomb.
What time was it by then?
Becker: It was evening. The way through the ruins and flames had cost us several hours. The huge destruction, debris, flames and dead people... The people from the bunkers tried to get out to their homes. One did not know whether they were still standing. Then we stayed with my aunt overnight.
Were you able to go to your parents' house the next morning?
Becker: Yes, by the next morning the fires had receded. We wanted to try the shortest way, via Meckenheimer Strasse and Friedensplatz, past the smoky and smoldering rubble. At the corner Hundsgasse / Brückenstraße was the flower shop Radermacher, which was not destroyed. It still stands today.
It was the direct neighbor to your building?
Becker: Our house was the first one next to it and appeared to still be standing. It was Hundsgasse 15 with the "Friseursalon Kartäuser". The next building, the "Bäckerei Viktor", was completely burnt out, like all other houses on Hundsgasse.
Your parents' house had remained halfway intact?
Becker: The roof and the top floor had burned, having been apparently extinguished by the fire brigade or an emergency team. First we fetched our emergency suitcases from the air-raid shelter, which we had deposited there as a precaution. It was an old wine cellar, because my great-grandparents had a wine shop there.
Did you go into the apartment again?
Becker: I went up to the third floor. Under the open roof lay a not yet detonated incendiary-stick bomb. It was 60-80 cm long and had small nozzles from which blue flames came. I took it and threw it down into the yard. There was no one there, so it couldn't do any damage.
So this incendiary bomb had not burst in the house, but it had not yet burnt out. Was the house still habitable?
Becker: No, and it even collapsed after the air raid on December 28. The rubble was later gutted by the local inhabitants for firewood. We had to leave our home and the city. We wanted to go to Eitorf, where we had relatives.
How were you able to leave the city?
Becker: We crossed the Rhine Bridge with our emergency suitcases. Only foot traffic was possible. There were holes in the roadway caused by bombs. You could see the Rhine flowing beneath them. From Beuel we wanted to take the Bröltalbahn railway to Hennef and from there on to Eitorf.
When did you come back to Bonn?
Becker: We stayed in Eitorf until 1946. In Bonn we later shared a small apartment in Adolfstrasse with another family. Everything was very cramped, but we were happy to have a roof over our heads. My father did not return from British captivity until 1948.