Life in Berlin 1946

Benjamin B. Ferencz

I shipped out to Germany without my dear spouse. At the time, except for a few of the highest-ranking people, no wives were allowed to accompany their husbands overseas. As soon as I sailed, Gertrude applied for a job with the War Department to work in Nuremberg. She was promptly hired as a secretary, but as soon as it was discovered that her husband was stationed in Germany, her employment was cancelled. The honeymoon would have to wait. My wife remained stranded in New York for several months while I was working very hard in the rubble of Berlin searching for evidence of war crimes. The Army bureaucrats were conquered by a stronger army—no force can stop outraged American women eager to rejoin their husbands. In due course, Army regulations changed. Dependents, including women and children, could finally be reunited with loved ones serving their country overseas.

My wife was on the first army transport of wives scheduled to sail from New York to Germany. Before the ship could leave port, it broke down. Departure was delayed for a week of repairs. No sooner had they set out to sea than fire broke out on board. Despite such minor incidents and ailments, the ship managed to reach harbor in September 1946, with its cargo of frustrated females. Unable to stop wives from reaching their husbands, the army counterattacked with its usual brilliance. They issued a new regulation—husbands would not be allowed to reach their wives! It was announced to all concerned that under no circumstances would husbands be allowed to come near the ship when it docked. They were ordered to wait patiently until the missing spouse was safely delivered to her husband in the designated, approved new living quarters somewhere in Germany. I considered such restraints as an unlawful assault on the sanctity of marriage. Duty called.

It was a real emergency. No sooner had my wife boarded ship than I was ordered to leave Nuremberg to set up the OCCWC office in Berlin. There was no way to communicate to my wife that I had been transferred. My plan of action was simple. With my usual respect for military authority, I obtained Berlin Military Command orders for me to proceed to Bremerhaven with authorization to arrest any war crimes suspects. I had no difficulty driving onto the dock. Military Police had set up a barrier and checkpoint. I explained my mission and waited patiently while a special security pass was prepared. I was asked my name, office, purpose, and the name of the suspect to be removed from the ship. When the name of the passenger happened to coincide with my own, the clerk raised an eyebrow. I said it was a secret operation and it was OK. The pass was issued. The ship was tied to the pier as I sauntered toward the gangplank. Suddenly a shout went out from a crowd of eager ladies leaning over the rail, “It’s Benny! It’s Benny!” I smiled and waived. They cheered.

I found out later that my dear wife had assured the 40 companions who shared her compartment five decks below sea-level, that her husband Benny would be at the dock. Her shipmates were waiting anxiously to see if she was right. I galloped up the gangplank amid hurrahs and slaps and hugs from all the ladies. Gertrude was rushing to meet me at the gangway. It was there that we embraced, amid laughter, tears, and kisses—until spotted in amorous embrace by the Captain of the ship. “Who let that man on board?” he bellowed. I presented my Berlin papers and the MP pass. “That’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” he screamed. “Get that man off my ship!” With two glowering MP giants hovering over me, I went quietly, as I was always wont to do under such circumstances. I did manage to warn my wife not to go to Nuremberg, and that I would meet her at the Bahnhof in Berlin. As I stood on the pier to wave goodbye to all the ladies, they bombarded me with slips of paper giving me names, addresses, or phone numbers of their husbands. I promised to contact them all, and I did. At least part of my mission was accomplished.

As for Gertrude, all I could do was return to Berlin and hope for the best. The Berlin Command had prepared a special celebration for the first arrival of wives. The station was decorated with American flags and every soldier awaiting his wife or family was assigned a car and driver to help the new arrivals. A military band was poised to break into welcoming music as soon as the train pulled into the station. As Military Command failed to provide me with the benefits given to all the others, I was assured, after they had checked the manifest, that my wife would not be on the train. Despite my protests, they had confirmed, with true military precision, that she and her luggage were safely en route to Nuremberg. I stood on the platform sadly as the train rolled in slowly and the band blared loudly. My head kept turning like a spectator at a tennis match as the windows of each car came and drifted by. Suddenly, to my surprise and delight, there was Gertrude standing in the train’s doorway, shouting, and waving furiously. I took her home to our little villa in Dahlem. The luggage was delivered the next day. Finally, our honeymoon began.

It was an unreal world. On the train en route from Bremerhaven to Berlin, Gertrude saw the devastation and destruction and had cried all the way. She knew that the Germans caused the war, but her sympathy for the innocent civilian victims moved her deeply. Russian troops that had conquered Berlin had fought fiercely for every house. In the horrors of war, some soldiers took rape as a reward for conquest. German currency, the Reichsmark, was worthless. Food for Germans was rationed, and in small supply. American cigarettes became the currency of choice, along with American soap and coffee. The black market flourished. The bomb-scarred Opera House in the Soviet Sector was quickly restored, and singers and dancers from the Bolshoi came to Berlin to show that Russian artists had more “Kultur” to offer than the murderous Nazis. Gertrude and I spent many happy evenings watching splendid Soviet opera and ballet that we could never have afforded in New York. The audience included high-ranking French, British, Soviet, and American officers. Some tickets were also reserved for Germans, who could be seen in the cold hall during intermission munching pieces of bread. They all recognized that it’s bad to lose a war; nations should consider the consequences before they start one.

The assessment of German responsibility posed difficult legal and moral problems. After Chief U.S. Prosecutor Jackson and the Prosecutors for the British, French, and Soviet Union had made their final arguments before the International Military Tribunal, most of their staff were eagerly heading for home. General Telford Taylor, as the newly designated Chief of Counsel for War Crimes, was now swinging into high gear. His assignment was to indict the supporting industrialists, politicians, and others who enabled the Nazi leaders to commit massive international crimes. His fresh crew of inexperienced lawyers would have to prove the violation of existing international laws. Time was of the essence. My job, as organizer and Chief of the Berlin Branch, was to scour the official German records in the Nazi capital to supplement evidence previously assembled in Paris and Frankfurt. It kept me and the supporting staff of researches and investigators hopping. My dear wife had been led to believe that our sojourn in Germany would only be a vacation. One learns often in life that sometimes compromises are necessary—even when one expects an overdue honeymoon.

Our staff needed all the help we could get. I kept tight watch on the work produced by each employee, and maintained close liaison with the lawyers in Nuremberg. Taylor was pushing the trials forward as desired by the Pentagon. The Berlin office had to deduce what evidence might be persuasive. Incriminating documents had to be found and rushed to eager attorneys preparing the “Subsequent Proceedings.” When one of our researchers quit, I managed to replace her with another woman who had studied German, and who was diligent and reliable and could fulfill a variety of essential tasks. Besides, she was pretty, and was also my wife. For some strange reason however, Gertrude seemed to resent having to ride to work in a cold open truck with other staff members while I was driven in a chauffeured limousine. She was disinclined to recognize that it might look bad if the boss showed favoritism to one staff member just because she happened to be his spouse. I learned that the army slogan “Rank has its privilege” may work in the military, but it’s not particularly suitable for domestic tranquility. My wife was a firm believer in equal justice for all.

From time to time, my dear Gertrude would interrupt my hectic schedule to remind me gently that we were supposed to be on a honeymoon. I decided that we should take an official vacation from the rigors of the cold Berlin winds of 1946, and we set out to see the world. Fortunately, we were able to benefit from many guided tours arranged for U.S. troops stationed in Germany. Accompanied by a busload of American army wives and schoolteachers, we visited the beautiful recreational centers in Garmish and Berchtesgaden, and took a tour through Switzerland’s most scenic cities. In Milan, we stopped to visit its famous opera house, and photographed the gas station where, when Italy was liberated, the Italian Dictator Mussolini had been left hanging from the rafters by his heels. The Resistance fighters also hanged his mistress at his side. I guess it added a certain romantic touch.

We looked forward to attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve in the Vatican in 1946. It was nightfall when our traveling group was unloaded at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome where, presumably, the Army had made reservations. The concierge expressed shock and regret that all the rooms were already taken. There were about 50 helpless women sitting on their luggage and weeping. It took me quite some time and effort to finally arrange lodging for all of them and for ourselves. We landed in a fleabag hotel with a solitary light bulb hanging over the bed. Since we were exhausted by the ordeal, and it was only 10 PM, we decided to rest before heading for the holy midnight celebration. We did not shut off the light and we kept our clothes on since there was no heat. Soon, I was awakened by my wife’s anguished cry, “It’s 2 A.M. Oh, my God!” That was as close as we came to prayer that night. We had missed the midnight mass. There was nothing left to do but go to sleep and blame it on Divine providence. The Pope is a kindly man, and I hope we will be forgiven. It took us a few days back in Berlin to recover from the stress of our recreational joy.