Life inside the bunkers

Ever wonder what life was like for Berlin kids in WWII? Author Regina Schwenke experienced it firsthand as a five-year-old and recalls nights in an overpacked air raid shelter. On Sep 21, Schwenke guides a special tour of Fichtebunker.

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Photo by Dario-J. Laganà,

Regina Schwenke remembers her nights spent at the Fichtebunker in war-torn Berlin.

Fichtestraße in Kreuzberg is a peaceful street filled with turn-of-the-century buildings, their large balconies overlooking lush trees, cosy cafes and yoga schools. Who remembers that the huge, round brick building at Fichtestraße 6, a former gasometer built in the 1870s, once served as a shelter for mothers and children as the Third Reich’s capital was being pulverised by Allied aerial bombings? Regina Schwenke, now 75, certainly does.

From May 1943 to the autumn of 1944, the five-year-old, her mum and her brothers and sisters spent almost every night in the Fichtebunker.

Inside, we felt safe.

“Our house was partly destroyed by bombs, and the cellar was too small for all the tenants. And since we were five children, people said we should go somewhere safer. They basically wanted to get rid of us! My mum knew a Catholic priest and he was the one who helped us get a space at Fichtestraße.

We’d walk all the way through Urbanstraße – from Neukölln’s Manitiusstraße, that meant a 45-minute walk every day. I was five then, and it was quite a walk! Once there my mum would leave the pram in front of the entrance and show our permit to the Blockwart. We always had room 238, always slept in the same bunk bed… but we couldn’t leave our stuff there. Every morning after the Entwarnung (all-clear signal) we had to pack everything up and go back.

It was very stuffy and crowded in there, but we would make friends and play. And we were glad when we saw them again the next day because it happened again and again that families would not come back – they would have been killed during the bombings or somehow left Berlin.

But we were kids, and to put it simply, the war was not all sadness and tears. We collected shrapnel, had a look at the remains of bombed houses and checked the bodies that lay in the streets after a bombing to find out if we knew anyone. Somehow we could do that… only when we found children we knew, that would make us cry a lot.

Once inside the bunker, we felt safe. We had our ‘cave’ under the staircases, where we’d play music with combs and harmonicas. The bombs felt like faraway thunder and sometimes the bunker would sway a little, but we were not afraid.

Meanwhile, our mothers would exchange recipes for poppy seed cake made out of coffee grounds or Kartoffelpuffer made out of potato peels. Or they would knit or use pairs of tights to make new clothes for us… we all dressed in that scheiß-brown, black or that grey called Nonnengrau. Our mums would also read each other letters from the front, and when one of them lost her husband the others would comfort her…

By the end of the war there were over 30,000 of us in the bunker. It was meant to shelter 6000 people! My sister Rita, who was three years older than me, was epileptic and it was very difficult for her to breathe sometimes… every time she had an attack, my mum asked us to leave the room and talked very calmly to her. So many people were pouring in each evening that the Blockwart had trouble checking the permits.

I remember that one time – my mother was part of the Bernhard Lichtenberg group that helped hide Jews for a short period, and one evening we had to leave for the bunker but we had a Jewish woman at home. My aunt gave us her passport and we took the woman with us to the bunker. We claimed that she was a relative from the west of Germany and no one noticed anything. She was probably the only Jew who ever got to sleep in the Fichtebunker.”

The Schwenkes stopped going to the bunker in the autumn of 1944, when the attacks increased. They found refuge first in the nearby Nikodemus-Kirche on Nansenstraße and later in the cellar of their house until the last day of the war on May 8, 1945.

Regina Schwenke is the author of the memoir Und es wird immer wieder Tag, available in English under the title And Another Morning is Breaking. She’ll be giving a special tour of the Fichtebunker on September 21 at 11am (€15, reservation required).

Fichtebunker, Fichtestr. 6, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Südstern. Regular tours organised by Berliner Unterwelten e.V., Sat-Sun 12:00 and 14:00, Thu 16:00, 90 min, €10 (reduced €8, children €6), English-language tours possible upon request. www.berliner-unterwelten. de, Tel 030 4991 0517

Originally published in Issue 119, September 2013.