We know that we live in an almost perfect world, right? Snow is a cause of wonder, not of suffering. We’re surrounded by healthy, beautiful people. And we’re mostly safe – although we should do a better job of locking our cars.
It’s true that many people are going through a rough time financially. But still. When you see a homeless person going through a garbage can, you know that he will probably find enough to ward off hunger, which is how it goes in a land of plenty.
I had lunch in Danville today with a woman who has known the other extreme. Brunhilde was born in 1935 in Germany. During the war, she and her mother and three sisters were relocated to the Sudetenland, but when the Russians came in 1944-45, they sent them back to Germany, to Berlin. I’ve traveled from Prague to Berlin on a train ride of about five hours, a journey through the mountains that I would highly recommend. But Brunhilde and her family walked. Not only was it was a walk of several weeks without proper clothing or nutrition and sleeping by the side of the road, but they were often stopped by Russian soldiers, who would frisk them for valuables and abuse her mother.
Once in Berlin, they found it was a shell of a city, a pile of rubble after years of bombing. There was nothing to eat or wear, no way to keep warm, and they lived in “a hole in the wall,” said Brunhilde. Berlin’s 3 million inhabitants were starving, and she described it vividly. They knew the water running in the streets might carry typhus but they drank it anyway because it was all they had. They dug in a nearby park for roots to eat, and they boiled leaves, even poison ivy. Since they didn’t have enough water to properly wash the leaves, chewing them would leave sand and dirt in their teeth. As Brunhilde remembered these bleak meals she pointed to her teeth as though she could still feel the grit.
Then something wonderful happened. Food began to trickle in. The Berlin Airlift had begun. The Berliners were given packages of dried food, precious milk, eggs, soups and warm clothing. Brunhilde smiled dreamily remembering the taste of those treasured reconstituted eggs delivered by the Americans.
And this is how Brunhilde ended up in Danville today. Last spring she saw on the news in her home in Sonoma that Vice Mayor Mike Doyle, now mayor, was going to attend a reunion of the Berlin Airlift in May. She knew she had to write and thank him for saving her life and those of her family, and located the Danville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber CEO Melony Newman ended up talking to Brunhilde, and she soon knew this was a connection the vice mayor would be pleased to make, and they corresponded by letters and phone calls. Melony and Mike arranged for lunch downtown today with Brunhilde and they kindly invited me to join them. I have an abiding interest in Berlin, since my son has lived there for almost a decade and I’ve visited three times. I also wrote [Web Link a story] in June about the mayor’s part in the Berlin Airlift.
The Russian zone surrounded those of the Americans, British and French after the war, and in June 1948, Stalin ordered a halt to supplies passing through to the Western sectors. The Russians planned to starve those Berliners so they would come to them for food and become Communists.
The Americans began flying food in through a pre-established air corridor, and eventually, the airlift was landing aircraft at two-minute intervals 24 hours a day in all kinds of weather. They even persevered through the brutally cold winter, the worst in years.
Brunhilde said she and her mother would walk great distances to pick up their rations. Her mother was also thankful to find work as a "rubble woman," to help clean rubble from the streets and to salvage bricks for reconstruction, cleaning them with her bare hands. In 1952 she was working extra hours in order to afford to buy a coat for Brunhilde when the building collapsed, killing her. Brunhilde recalls that neither she nor one of her sisters had coats to wear to the funeral.
She shared photos with us of four beautiful little girls and a leaflet from her mother’s funeral. She also had an invitation to her wedding in 1955 to an American soldier, who brought her back to the United States where her two sons were born. She spent most of her life in San Francisco but moved to Sonoma when she retired. Eventually her father had made it back to his family after being released from a Russian prisoner of war camp, and he lived with Brunhilde here for more than 30 years. She saw to it that he was buried in his village in Germany.
What a life Brunhilde has led, from peril and deprivation to lunching in Danville with the mayor. Her emotions would overcome her when she realized she was sitting next to one of the very brave and very kind G.I.s who had saved her family from starvation so many years ago. And Mayor Doyle was honored to spend time with his new friend from the land that has been so grateful for the American help they received in their time of need, even after they had been mortal enemies. And I was happy to be included.