A Desperate Time
Gertrude Larson was 22 when she was forced to dodge the bombs dropping out of the sky over Vienna and watch on as the Austrian city was reduced to rubble, chaos and despair
THE AIR-RAID SIRENS CAME with a calculated regularity, sounding every morning at about 9am, bringing all activity in Vienna to a halt. We would rush to the shelter as the Allied bombs above us dropped indiscriminately.
Emerging some two hours later when the all clear was given, we never knew what we would find. Was our house still standing? Would it be our turn next? Life had become an uncertain day-to-day existence and a feeling of impending doom hung over the city. The air-raids were becoming more sustained and on September 10, 1944, we lost our home and grandmother, too.
Vienna was coming to a standstill: trams stopped running and were left abandoned on their tracks; buildings were reduced to rubble; shops were ransacked by people desperate for food.
A dairy warehouse had been damaged in one attack and, as it was being demolished, people jostled to get closer to grab items such as butter that might have fallen in a crevice. My mother and I managed to come home with a few eggs before they were crushed in the pandemonium.
The customs warehouse in the Third District was badly damaged and people were walking in freely and helping themselves to whatever they could find, coming out with Persian rugs and cowhides over their shoulders. It was a strange sight and there was nobody to stop them. All law and order had broken down. To get home we had to duck in and out of doorways, as planes directed their guns into the streets below.
When we returned to our apartment building, we had to take refuge in the cellar. Above us we could hear the fighting. The pounding was relentless, day and night without let up. Then the shelling finally stopped and I dared to leave the cellar and step outside – all around me was utter devastation. The houses on the other side of our street and further along were piles of rubble and people were stumbling about, dishevelled and bewildered.
I picked my way through the rubble
Buildings were reduced to rubble and shops were ransacked by people desparate for food
to the corner. Some distance away I saw a Russian soldier in his huge coat with a machine gun on his arm. Racing back to my building, terrified, I yelled, “The Russians are here!” Soon our neighbours were pouring into the cellar where we were huddled together fearing the worst.
We blackened our faces with soot to appear as unattractive as possible, but it did not save four of the women. I sat in the darkest corner and somehow escaped.
It was a fearful night. The next morning we went back to the thirdfloor flat we were moved into after ours was destroyed and prepared to face whatever was to come. There was fierce fighting, heavy mortar fire and the sky was red from fires engulfing the city. It looked like the end.
We had lost all sense of time and existence. There was no tomorrow.
When the infernal din finally stopped, we became aware of heavy footsteps outside our door. It was followed by a hard knock. We made no sound. The knocking persisted before whoever was behind the door began to force it open. Fearing for our lives, we opened the door and found a big Russian soldier. He was young, fit and strong. He spoke rapidly and wanted to know why we had not opened the door when he knocked. Mother understood every word, she had grown up in Russia and spoke the language fluently, but did not answer, making signs that we were deaf.
But this big Russian man was different from the others. He assured us that we had nothing to fear, that we were under the protection of his captain, who would move into the vacant flat opposite ours.
He was overjoyed when my mother at last spoke to him in Russian.
Sitting with us in our small kitchen, as though this was the most natural thing to do, he told us about his village beyond the Urals, his mother, his sisters, and about his life. There was no war now. The world was at peace.
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