By Anica Heinlein, CARE Berlin
May 8, 1945 marked the ending of the Second World War with the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht. After six exhausting and brutal years at war, the guns finally went silent. Much of Europe, including Germany, was in ruins.
The Berlin of 1945 is nearly impossible to imagine for someone like me, born in the 1980’s. Only once in my lifetime did I receive a true impression of how German cities must have looked like in May 1945. It was when I visited the city of Mosul in Iraq in 2018. It had been recaptured by Iraqi troops just a year earlier. I saw rooms missing outer walls, as if the residents had just woken up for breakfast to find part of their kitchen missing. Buildings were blown sideways by the bombing, like trees swaying in the wind. Left, right and centre, every square meter of the city was covered in rubble. There was an ever-present danger of unexploded missiles and live ammunition. Just picturing what the civilians had gone through before the weapons were finally surrendered left me speechless and desperate. Human suffering and your own emotional connection to it gets elevated to a completely different level when you witness it in person. Even if you’re “only” walking the same streets months later.
Distant memories of war
The Second World War now lies 75 years in the past. Those who lived through this period are gradually leaving us. The generation after mine is growing up without grandmothers and grandfathers that can recount their firsthand experiences of hunger, displacement, suffering and destruction. Twelve million people from the eastern territories and settlements of the German Reich became refugees. Almost five million homes, mainly in the cities, were destroyed or damaged. In Europe and the Far East, at least 55 million people lost their lives. No one in the Germany was spared the consequences of this war started by their own elected leadership.
The coldest winter
After the armistice was signed in 1945 and the war came to an end, Germany faced drought, famine and one of the coldest winters of the 20th century. Temperatures hovered at or below -20 degrees Celsius between November 1946 and March 1947. Thousands of people starved and froze to death that winter.
And then, out of nowhere, came an unexpected act of kindness. American citizens decided to lend a helping hand because they didn’t want to turn a blind-eye to the suffering they witnessed in Berlin, Cologne, Munich. They also sent help across the European continent where communities and countries were in similar desperate situations. This act of kindness was all the more touching given that Germany and the USA fought against each other during the war.
“How great and admirable are those who provide their fellow human beings, who are complete strangers to them, with these gifts?”
Ruth Andreas-FriedrichBerlin, February 18, 1948
A very special delivery
Despite the losses every nation faced after the war, 22 American welfare organizations decided to help those in need across the Atlantic. In the following years after, over 10 million CARE Packages® were donated, packed and delivered to Germany. One hundred million packages supported families across Europe. Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, a woman from Berlin, wrote in her diary on February 18, 1948: “How great and admirable are those who provide their fellow human beings, who are complete strangers to them, with these gifts?” The Germans themselves could hardly grasp this incredible gesture by the USA.
Does this legacy now mean Germans should have a strong commitment to compassion with those in similar conditions today? Should we still be concerned or feel responsible for acts and behaviours that our generation neither caused nor experienced firsthand? Everyone may have their own views towards this big question.
What will forever remain, are the selfless, incredible acts of kindness born out of a war that brought so much pain and destruction. For me, personally, it is heartwarming to know that my ancestors were shown such compassion by strangers. But more broadly, such a gesture of reconciliation and support by people who had been considered the enemy just a moment ago, remains one of the most incredible acts I can imagine to this day.
Unfortunately, history does tend to repeat itself. But it also provides us with the opportunity to repeat acts of love and compassion. We can choose not to turn a blind eye on each other’s misery and suffering. It provides us with the opportunity to also give back in that spirit of kindness and generosity that emerged out of nowhere from the darkness in 1945. There’s a CARE Package® needed for many parts of the world. And we are all in a position to give it in different ways, together.