Bongs, Rolf: A Man goes through the City, from "Cities 1945 – Reports and Confessions" publ. by Ingeborg Drewitz, in Eugen Diederichs Verlag 1970 Düsseldorf/Cologne/Munich/Kreuzlingen
Reproduced with the kind permission of Heinrich Hugendubel Verlag Munich
Düsseldorf in the Year 1945.
Sand between your teeth. Sand in your shoes. Bits of mortar. Dust. Dirt. With so much sunshine, every breath of wind swirls it up in the air.
Crossways in the Rhine, between Düsseldorf and Oberkassel, lie the broken arches of the bombed old bridge: like the bulging back of a green snake. Blockage. Dangerous currents in the water. A boy balances on the girders, crossing from the left to the right bank, runs breathless into the cellar of the Academy of Arts. Neither the Germans nor the Americans shoot at him.
Düsseldorf is under artillery bombardment. Cannons against a city. Like in the Middle Ages. During these 7 weeks, over fourteen hundred people will be killed on the right side of the Rhine.
The dead city. Two-thirds of the inhabitants have fled. 30 000 trees used to stand in the city's streets and parks. 20 000 are ripped, burned, smashed, naked skeletons.
In the harbour a ship with fuel was sunk. Careful. The authorities are still enforcing order. Eight people are executed, one is hanged in public. In January there are two heavy snowfalls, February is free of frost, the barometer indicates fine weather. 516 people die as a result of "violent influences". What does this mean? Official language.
In March the Americans occupy Oberkassel. Through loudspeakers they make an announcement to the people of Düsseldorf that they will not shoot during the early morning hours, so that the women can go shopping. An American takes books into his quarters. Souvenirs. For the USA. He writes his name in a book by Herben Eulenberg. Then suddenly the soldier has to hurry away. The book is left behind. A man picks it up.
On 17th April the Americans take the exhausted city, with 800 men and 8 tanks, without firing a shot. We are free. There are still 857 000 marks in the city treasury. Reichsmarks. The Reich has been destroyed. We are free. Who is to blame, who pays the debts, what about guilt?
A man goes through the city. He comes from a camp. Prisoner of war. Ex-prisoner. He sat behind barbed wire and looked out at the open air. He does not tire of walking around the city. He isn't shooting any more. He sleeps on a thing which had been a fine chaise-longue around 1920. Hills and valleys. Broken spiral springs poking out. When it rains, the man has to set up a bucket and bowls. "Why are you walking around? Haven't you got anything else to do?" He says (to himself): I have to look at this, absorb it, burn it into my mind, so that I can never forget it. As I did in the war. Look and bear witness.
Changes are beginning to take place. The Americans demand that the dead lying on the street (yes, sir) and in the ruins, who nobody had bothered about, should be buried. They order us to shovel narrow lanes through the rubble, so that they can drive around in their jeeps. No post. Theatre and museums closed. On 1st May the savings banks open their counters. The spring is hot and sunny. The stadium was hit by 400 shells; but on 14th May the swimming pool is opened, at the end of May athletes are allowed to use the track and field. No more shooting.
18 000 houses have been destroyed. On a piece of wall hangs a note: we're still alive. Twenty notes. Wherever a piece of wall has been left standing: scribbled news. 20 000 soldiers from Düsseldorf are dead or missing. Nobody's coming back. 6 500 people died in the city or have disappeared. Under the rubble. In the "house-books" (name, cryptic enough) 6 346 Jews were recorded. They were horribly murdered in the East. 1 465 people of Jewish faith were able to escape to England or overseas. Scatter ashes on your head, says the lovely young Israelite girl to the man. And: Shalom. That means: peace.
We are free. In August what is called the "first dwelling elevation" takes place; in December the cattle are counted. There are just as many civil servants, employees and workers of the city council as at the beginning of the war. (Look at that). In Düsseldorf 2 000 children are born, 600 are illegitimate, 5 000 people die.
A man goes through the city. He sees a woman collapse on the street. She is starving, says the doctor. Of 1 200 people with tuberculosis of the lung, 229 die. 45 000 people are living in bunkers. Half the city is destroyed. 158 square kilometres. Ten million cubic metres of rubble. Every breath of wind swirls up sand, mortar and dust into the air. You can feel the grit between your teeth.
In June the Americans are relieved by English troops. In September they announce an emergency building programme for apartments. They supply building material on army lorries. They give away 15 000 Canadian wood-burning stoves. (The man gets to love the short, plump, silver-coloured oven: he builds his first room around it, a garret in a five-storey house at the Rhine.)
A strange discovery is made. The city was attacked by planes 243 times. But above all, incendiary bombs were dropped. The city and the houses burned down. But underground, water pipes, gas, electricity, telephone and the sewers remained largely undamaged. Life can begin again sooner than in other cities.
In the city feverish activity begins. Work is being done at every end and corner, as if our lives depended on it. It's about life. About a new life. The broken high-water dykes are being built up again and reinforced. The hospitals are fixed up in a makeshift way. The supply of water, gas, electricity has started to get going. From 12th May the news-sheet of the Military Government has been published: "Ruhrzeitung", on 18th July the "Neue Rheinische Zeitung" comes out. A new channel has been blasted out of the ruins of the Rhine-bridge, in order to free up the entrance to the harbour. Daily life continues: the people of Düsseldorf pay 26 .5 million in council taxes and contributions. However, on 17th July the first public concert is held, on 1st October Heinrich Hollreiser takes over the Opera and the City Orchestra. From July there are theatre performances again. People walk between piled-up walls of rubble into the theatre.
A kind of mad rush has taken hold of the people. Everyone is "on the way" somewhere, in order to bring or take something or other somewhere else. Glass for the windows. Wood, mortar, plaster, paint, nails, fibre boards. A wash-hand basin of porcelain, metal sheets, iron, nuts and bolts. Bedsteads, blankets. In this place the man stored his suitcase. In that place furniture was put for safe-keeping. (Stolen.) Somebody hid a typewriter there. Back and forth. In trains, of which only the wheels are still in order. And everywhere on the streets are queues of people. It's a matter of life and death. We are free. No more shooting. Our fear has gone. Well, partly anyway.
In a shop the man gets hold of an iron tub for 5 marks. That's made out of the head of a V 2, says the salesman. In passing the man hears two little girls arguing: "I bet you a war that what I told you is true." Betting a war. In Hunsrückenstrasse, number 13, one single house has been left standing: the pub "Fatty's Studio". Undamaged, unchanged. Walter Lemke serves soup to his friends there every evening. Plans. Hopes.
Everywhere in the city, in broad daylight, on the banks of the river Düssel, rats run around, over the streets, in the rubbish bins, in the cellars, through the rubble, along the canals. They don't run very fast. They are fat. They sit still and observe the humans. Cheeky. They seem to be prepared to attack. They multiply in the underworld of the city. There's no enemy to put a stop to them. The man stands on the street and watches them. The way they eat. The way they quarrel. How they squeak. How they bite each other. How they mate.
On the mounds of rubble, in the ruins, on the walls of burnt-out buildings, everywhere moss, grasses, flowers, bushes and birch shoots establish themselves. Above all birch trees. The weather is favourable. Where do all these seeds come from, which cling onto the weathered surfaces, germinate, put down roots, open and blossom, which are beginning to cover the desert? They come from the flatlands, from the Lower Rhine, from the Grafenberger forest. They are in the air, the wind bears them here and the wind scatters them. Life. Where the bombs lie in their graves, where corpses decompose under the rubble, where walls crumble with decay, in the rain and wind, the heat of the sun and the cold. In the past the seed which fell on asphalt would perish. Now its hour has come.
In Derendorf there is an old woman who dries flowers, herbs, grasses, leaves, adds a pinch of ground human bone (at present in plentiful supply), a pinch of dried toad, excrement of dog and cat, urine of a stallion. This remedy works for everything, unwanted pregnancies, open legs, broken vows of love, bleeding hearts. The old woman lays the cards and prophesies the future from reading the hand. The whole city is talking about her. The man sees how people sneak into her house. Who knows anything about the next day, year, decade? The old woman. Dreams, wishes, prophecies.
People can buy anything they want to have. On the street. In houses. Sheds. At hefty prices. Everything. The queues of people waiting in front of the shops for whatever food can be had for the newly printed ration-cards: very little and bad. But butter, eggs, cheese, bread, margarine, strophantin, cigars, cigarettes, chocolate, schnaps, electrical devices of all kinds, insulin, everything, all on the black markets. As nobody can pay the prices demanded (everything once worth something seems to have wandered off), those who can try to go into business themselves. Worthy citizens. Countless people start to distill schnaps and sell it. Ten thousand cigarettes, but only for cash. Flour, potatoes, coal, briquettes? You can have everything. Come up to the northern cemetery, turn left, directly behind the chapel, where the angel of marble stands. The one which only has one wing. The man comes. No goods. Hook to the chin. Get the money. Gone. Robbers. Gangs of robbers have been getting together, the "Hellweg" gang is the worst. On a November afternoon, the man sees the fur-coat torn off a woman's back, her companion knocked to the ground with a single blow. It happened as fast as lightning. A nightmare. By the time the victims have been helped back onto their feet, the robbers are long gone. This year 52 people will be murdered in Düsseldorf. It's a matter of life and death. Everybody knows it, or senses it. The man walking around sees it on every corner. Prepared for the worst. The demobbed soldiers still wearing their military kit, some of them with a POW on their backs, DDT powder in their sleeves and trouser legs. Life. No more shooting. They are free. They are reaching for freedom. They want to feel it in the flesh. Everywhere. People making love like mad.
In May the streets get their old names back. What happened to Heinrich Heine? At the beginning of June the first trams start running. The windows have no glass, or are boarded up with planks. Sirens howl in the evenings, scaring the citizens off the streets: curfew. It is enforced with live bullets. (Why?) We are free. Statistically: 100 men can choose between 172 women. At the end of July the first coal-train comes from the Ruhr region to the gasworks. (A lot of people steal loads of coal. Cardinal Frings declares that such deeds don't count as sins.) The ferry service between Oberkassel and Düsseldorf is resumed. Five and a half million people are transported across the Rhine.
The City Council announces: "We warn everyone against moving to Düsseldorf." (The man walking around in the city where he was born has never heeded this advice.) At the beginning of August lessons are resumed in the schools. About 1 000 teachers are employed to educate 38 000 children. At the Academy of Arts 122 students try to learn something from 10 professors. Ewald Matare becomes their Director. English sappers build the Freeman bridge. In October the first ship in the harbour unloads flour. On 10th November the children make their way through the city (after 7 years) with brightly coloured lanterns, singing their St.Martin's songs. The saint divides his cloak. What can a poor man do with half a coat? The empty windows in the dead facades become black, sightless eyes. Not a single potato in the city, no fresh vegetables. (Next to the man stood a painter named Ensor. I would love to have painted the children and a city like this, says he.)
Every day something new happens. They are trying to clarify the past. Based on Heissenbüttel: one old Nazi curses another old Nazi.
Bills are paid. But there's no more shooting. The Adult Institute of Education has reopened. Wolfgang Langhoff has become General Director of the City Theatres. Düsseldorf's loveliest monument, the equestrian statue of Electoral Prince Johann Wilhelm von Gabriel Grupello, returns to the market-place in a "celebratory procession" from a mining tunnel in Gerresheim. On 22nd December the dancer Hella Nebelung opens her gallery in a half-destroyed villa (it wasn't a house, but rather a mansion) on Hofgartenstrasse. The ceilings shake whenever there's a celebration (voilà).
On the same day they start to rebuild the Oberkassel bridge. Demolition chambers are built into the pillars. Again. Same as ever. No more shooting. On 28th December a hurricane strength storm rages over the city at windforce 11. A hundred houses collapse, fifteen people are struck dead. The man goes through the city. He sees that a façade is starting to sway, shakes and then, without losing its great coherence as a wall, hits the street like a flat hand and smashes into pieces. The man writes in his notebook for 1946: pax, bonum et libertas. We are free. No more shooting. It's a matter of peace.