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Berlin

The women who raised the rubble

What we owe to Berlin’s Trümmerfrauen is easily forgotten, yet we stride through it everyday. In the aftermath of the WWII, they took on the gruelling task of clearing the debris that once choked the city.

Image for The women who raised the rubble
Photo by Sigrid Malmgren

What we owe to Berlin’s rubble women, or Trümmerfrauen, is easily forgotten, yet we stride through it everyday. In the aftermath of the Second World War, they took on the gruelling task of clearing the debris that once choked the city.

Hidden away in Volkspark Hasenheide, the seated stone Trümmerfrau by sculptor Katharina Szelinski-Singer might be one of the capital’s less ostentatious monuments. But it is one stone that no-one will tidy away, unlike the estimated 16 square km of rubble that defined central Berlin in 1945, the 400 million cubic metres of debris that blanketed Germany. The statue quietly, immovably testifies to the toil of those women who cleared it all brick by brick, nurturing the green shoots of Berlin’s recovery within a barren landscape.

The capital had been pounded by Allied bombing raids since August 1940 and suffered further devastation during the Red Army’s final push towards the Reichstag and the Führerbunker. Concrete stumps protruded from the ground, bodies lay everywhere, the remaining civilian population cowered in bunkers below ground.

The Trümmerfrauen emerged “like grey cellar mice”, says 77-year-old Liselotte Kubitza, to discover an “inferno”. She had spent almost the entire final three weeks of the conflict cowering in a rank Friedrichshain cellar with her twin sister and mother (her father had died in 1938) as the Red Army rumbled overhead towards their target.

At the cessation of hostilities, her family’s tiny fourth-floor room was a wreck and the 11-year-old was confronted with her first glimpse of the rubble. “One whole wall between us and the neighbouring flat had collapsed, parts of the ceiling had come down and all the windows were gone.” Spontaneously, her family began the painful task of clearing the destruction around them.

Across the city in Kreuzberg, near Anhalter Bahnhof, Dora Naß was confronting a similar spectacle. Having escaped flooded S-Bahn tunnels with her mother and 85-year-old grandfather, the then 19-year-old Naß surfaced, “to a silence from the grave”. Their house had been heavily shelled and gutted by fire. Stumbling through the ruins in the spring heat, they sought refuge with a friend who provided them with a roof over their head. From there, a daily struggle to eat and drink took hold – and that meant clearing space amongst the rubble to reach hastily arranged water points.

In that respect the Trümmerfrauen began their work spontaneously, out of necessity, but as the days after Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945 progressed, their activity gained a new focus. Some 15 million German men were missing, and for the women left behind, an ache for them to safely return took over. “We had to do something,” says Naß. “First and foremost because at the back of the mind you had that thought, ‘When my brother comes home, or when my husband gets home, it can’t be like this.’ And who else would do it? So the women did it together.”

An Allied work order lasting until 1946 required women between the age of 15 and 50 to report for work, and the process of salvaging a city from the ashes became more formalised. Companies could recruit these women (who earned better rations for their labour) in the rebuilding process and Naß worked until November 1945 at a construction company called Karl Möbis Bauausführungen. It was a period of intense, gruelling work where she was sent to assist at key sites around the city. At 6am she would set out, with a carrot and a lump of dry bread, trekking though the carnage to her designated site.

“I took my bread with me, but I had no time to eat,” she says. “At lunchtime, we would collect every single little piece of wood we could get our hands on to take home for the stove. I don’t understand how we survived on so little food. It was the same with sleeping during the war – you virtually didn’t sleep at all from the bombing. But you didn’t feel tired. Somehow, you just overcame it.”

Physical hardship was the norm for Naß and her peers and they carried out their exhausting work with bare hands alone. “We had no hammers, no shovels, no buckets, no gloves,” she says. “I wonder sometimes today how my hands are still even working. I look at them and can’t believe there is skin still on them at all.”

The work though was a distraction from the bitter disappointment and emotional turmoil Berlin’s survivors felt. As a young woman who had grown up almost exclusively under the Third Reich, Frau Naß admits the end of the war threw all her beliefs into question: “We were totally disillusioned, because as girls we had gone through the Hitler Youth,” she says. “You have to imagine how you would react if the whole system you had been brought up in simply didn’t exist anymore. People just couldn’t grasp it.”

For the younger Frau Kubitza meanwhile, life in the Soviet sector unfolded slightly differently, but in no less onerous conditions. Kubitza’s aunt and her three grandchildren had joined the twin sisters and their mother in the damaged room in Friedrichshain. A wardrobe and a makeshift curtain separated the seven of them from their neighbours. But nothing could spare them the rain coming through the roof, the drafts through the pane-less windows, the bed bugs or hunger pangs.

It was not until 1947 that the brood took a significant step out of their misery and that Kubitza, by then 14, got properly to grips with the rubble. “Mutti found a builder who could rebuild the flat wall for us,” she says. “But we had to find 700 bricks for him to be able to do it.” Because the family’s flat was on the fourth floor, hollow bricks with holes through the middle were required – precisely those that had shattered most easily during the battle for Berlin.

For several weeks Kubitza and her sister foraged in the debris, diligently collecting bricks and bringing them back to the apartment block where neighbours helped clean them for the builder. The young sisters then lugged them upstairs, despite being too weak to carry more than half a bucketful at a time. It was punishing work, but the completed wall changed the complexion of the post-war period for the Kubitzas and the following year the sisters happily began three-year apprenticeships.

The formation of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 meant the divergence of reconstruction efforts in the city. While Trümmerfrauen in the West continued to work for pay, in the East, a mixture of full-time and weekend volunteers chipped away at the mountains of bricks that still dotted the landscape. Roads were cleared first, then pavements, then the ruined buildings that pockmarked the city’s terrain.

As a member of the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth), Kubitza contributed eagerly to the weekend efforts on the numerous Subbotniks that were organised. For these young women coming of age after the war, the outlook was more optimistic than Naß’ generation, and the hours cleaning and stacking bricks passed by amidst teenage joking and flirtation with boys who had been too young to fight. Meanwhile, a song played over loudspeakers exhorting them to great efforts in the name of Germany’s future.

“Bau auf! bau auf! bau auf! bau auf! Freie Deutsche Jugend Bau auf! Für eine bessere Zukunft bauen wir die Heimat auf” went the refrain: “Build up, build up, build up, build up! Free German Youth build up! For a better future, we are building the homeland up…”

The effort to build Berlin back up was a long one. It was estimated at one point that the rubble would take 42,000 women working continuously for 25 years to clear. Kubitza personally remembers helping clear rubble until 1959, and even today somewhere like squatturned- tourist-trap Tacheles on Oranienburger Straße is essentially a Second World War bombsite. When Kubitza and Naß walk down the streets they cleared, they see the ghosts of Berlin past and buildings that once stood, like the shadows of those that stand today. “That will stay with me until the day I die,” says Kubitza.

Those who walk past them perhaps see simply two old German ladies. Naß is extremely modest about the contribution she made to Berlin’s reconstruction effort: “Words like ‘proud’ and ‘hero’ get misused. I just did what I could do. I managed to do something with my own hands, and I hope the people who look at me and see only an old woman understand what we accomplished.”

The Trümmerfrauen accomplished more than their physical deeds too, helping to shift expectations of what women could achieve (manual labour had previously been a man’s unique preserve). Significantly, their exploits were also a marked break from the role designated women by National-Socialism, that of chief baby-maker and Hausfrau. They became instead the women who cleared a path to modern Berlin and cradled a nascent new German order in their chafed and blistered hands. In his 1960 poem

“Die große Trümmerfrau spricht,” Günter Grass wrote, “Berlin lies strewn about, Dust blows up, then a lull again…The great rubble woman will be canonised.” Saints of the cinder block, they walk amongst us still.