War-Torn Germany – How Did This Boy Survive?

A number of years ago, I had the memorable experience of listening to an order German man, Hans Bauer relate his experience of living in war-torn Germany in the early 40’s and what it was like to experience having one’s life turned completely upside down without warning.  The things he and his family experienced were never considered before the war, never taught by his family or in school and came completely unexpected.  His family was far from prepared (if it’s ever possible to be completely prepare for the horrors of war) and were thrown into survival mode with no idea how to do just that – survive.

Before WWII began in earnest, the Bauer family was just like any other industrious German family.  They lived in a medium sized town in a modest but nice apartment where many other families also resided with similar lifestyles.  Mr. Bauer would commute by train to a nearby larger city every day where he was employed by a large firm as an engineer.  Family life for the children included school and sports and spending time with their friends.  One of the sons, Hans , related how he often gave his mother grief by not eating what was placed before him.

For some bizarre reason, Hans disliked bacon.  I know, it’s hard to believe.  As I tell my wife, the only thing that’s better than bacon is bacon-wrapped bacon.  Anyway, back to the story.  Hans related that whenever he was served bacon, which was usually chopped up into smaller pieces and mixed with other foods, he would pick out the bacon pieces and place them around the edge of his plate.  He said he would call them “spectators” and allowed them to watch him eat the rest of his dinner.  Something only a kid would do.  This info will become much more relevant later in the story.

As the war broke out, it was more of a distant concern with little combat taking place anywhere near their town.  Then, almost without warning, their town and surrounding cities were heavily bombed by allied forces.  There was just enough advance notice that the Bauer family was able to quickly evacuate their apartment, leaving all their belongings behind.  After what seemed like hours, they finally had the courage to come up from the basement of their church where they, with many other families, had sought refuge and protection for the bombing.

It was still dark out as the bombing had taken place in the middle of the night.  There were fires everywhere and it was very difficult to recognize their neighborhood or any surrounding area.  It wasn't until morning that they were able to see the full extent of the devastation that rained down on them the night before.

More than 50% of the buildings, apartments and houses were totally leveled, many of which were still burning, giving off a terrible black, acrid smoke.  Slowly, others began to emerge from their make-shift bomb shelters, faced with what would change their lives forever.  There were a fortunate few whose dwellings were just slightly damaged while there were some that were miraculously completely untouched.

The Bauer family was unfortunately not in that later group, their apartment building was totally leveled and smoking, even though no flames were visible.  It didn't take long for shock to set in and a feeling that this all must be a dream or rather a terrible nightmare.  What was most important was that the Bauer's and their three children were safe, is spite of not knowing what to do next.  It was interesting to note that what was needed most was clean drinking water.  During those first several hours, what to eat wasn't foremost on their mind, but the shock and stress had created a powerful thrust for everyone.  Luckily, there was a stream about a mile from where they lived where water was available.

As the Bauer’s walked towards the stream, it was difficult to keep from being overcome with emotion as they saw things unspeakable.  Images of those who had perished and others who were consumed with grief by family members who were taken, haunted the Bauer children the rest of their lives.  As the reality of their situation set in, Mr. Bauer realized he needed to find shelter for his family and was at a loss as to where they could go.  As they walked back towards where their apartment once stood, Mr. Bauer noticed a sedan on the ruble strewn road that was only partially damaged.  Not having had the time to scout out a more suitable location for his family, all five of them climbed into the car and began to awaken to the true gravity of their situation.

Knowing they had temporary shelter and access to drinking water, the next concern surfaced as the younger kids began to complain they were hungry.  With no access to their belongings or any provision they may have had in their apartment, Mr. Bauer realized he needed to find food for his family.  After a tearful good-bye, Mr. Bauer left his family in search for food.

Fast forward three days - the Bauer family was still sleeping in the abandon car and the Bauer family grew ever more concerned about seeing their father again as well as being desperate for something to eat.  Three days without food, other than trying to eat roots and grass by the stream, had caused extreme stress for Mrs. Bauer as she was consumed with trying to calm her distraught children.

Then on the evening of the third day, the family was overjoyed to see their father returning to their aid.  Not knowing really what they expected, they were a little concerned when they didn't see their father carrying anything.  They had imagined he would return with a sack full of wonderful food – a picture they had dreamt about for three days.

Everyone jumped out of the car and ran to their father, Mrs. Bauer and the children sobbed as they embraced their father.  After a very emotional embrace with his wife and children, Mr. Bauer asked his family to return to the car.  After they all climbed back in the car, Mr. Bauer with tears in his eyes pulled out of his coat pocket the only food he was able to locate for his family.  He held in his had a small gift from God that was carefully wrapped in his handkerchief.

As the family leaned in close to their father with greater anticipation than opening any Christmas gift, their father slowly unwrapped their treasure.  It was a piece of raw bacon about four inches square.  Each family member took a turn smelling the bacon and were overwhelmed with excitement and later stated they never remembered anything smelling as wonderful as that raw bacon did that evening.

Mr. Bauer took out his pocket knife and began to cut off very thin slices of bacon and gave one to each family member.  Hans, the hater of all things bacon, said he remembers putting that thin slice of raw bacon in his mouth and just sucking on it.  He didn’t want to chew it because it would be gone too fast.  In spite of his previous dislike for bacon, he said he never remembered anything tasting as good or being as satisfying as that small slice of raw bacon.  It’s been a very powerful lesson for Hans all his life.

Hans went on to relate that his family was eventually taken in by another family that had a small room where the Bauer’s could stay while the very painful and often traumatic months of recovery unfolded.  Food and other provisions continued to be an extreme challenge and many ongoing days and nights were filled with the fear of additional bombings as well as the fear of having nothing to eat the following day.

Hans made an interesting observation at the end of his story.  He related how there were a number of industrious individuals who were somehow able to establish access to certain food items that were made available to survivors for a price.  Paper money had no value and was not used but precious metals including jewelry, wedding rings or any form of gold or silver was used to purchase these food items.  The most valuable commodity of all was food itself and the most valuable food item was “fat” as Hans put it.  In other words, the richest individuals during that time where those who had some supply of oil, lard or some type of fat.  This was highly sought after for the energy, calories and flavor it added to the limited supply of bread or basic grains that could found.

At the end of his story, Hans plead with us to put an ample supply of food aside for any possible occasion when grocery stores wouldn’t be an option.  He also stressed the need to have plenty of storable “fat” as part of our food storage.  All I kept thinking about afterwards was how valuable his story was and how we must learn from the experience of others.