Sep 122007

Hamburg, Germany was a major port of embarkation for emigrants bound for America during the nineteenth century. Since the Germans are good record keepers, detailed records were undoubtedly kept about these emigrants, our ancestors. My grandmother Ida Pohl was a little girl when she emigrated with her mother and siblings from Hamburg in 1893. As an amateur genealogist, I was frustrated to learn that most of these records were destroyed by British and American bombers during World War II.

Interested to learn more about what happened, I found Keith Lowe’s book, Inferno1, which describes the Allied bombing raids on Hamburg, Germany during World War II. I highly recommend this book to history buffs and genealogists alike.

It’s a difficult book to read at night before retiring. The sad eyewitness accounts are gruesome, and although riveting, they make for an uneasy night’s sleep. Lowe tells the story from both sides. He describes the mission preparation and the consternation, fear and courage of the aircrews as they dodged antiaircraft guns and Nazi fighter planes. He then describes the civilians in the aftermath of each raid. They suffered almost total destruction.

The Inferno is the firestorm that happened on the night of July 27, 1943. A firestorm is a ghastly thing. Everything burns. Temperatures can reach 1,400 degrees Celsius. Enough to melt glass and liquefy asphalt streets onto which people ran and soon died. It produces a suffocating smoke over a vast area and sucks the oxygen out of basement shelters where the doomed hid. The wind vortex created by the firestorm reached hurricane strength, up to 170 mph, enough to whisk children out of the arms of parents and pull the elderly down the street into the fire.

I learned why there are no emigration records. It seems unimportant now.

Lowe also describes the history of Hamburg and the rise of Nazi power prior to the war. I’ve often wondered how a people could witness such transgressions and allow it to happen. One quote2, about the persecution of the Jews offers somewhat of an explanation:

For me nothing was more devastating than the fact that nobody, not even those who opposed the [Nazi] regime most vehemently, stood up against this, but remained passive and weak. I cannot stress these facts too strongly. It was as if we were caught in a stranglehold. And, worst of all, one even gets used to being half throttled; what at first appeard to be unbearable pressure becomes a habit, becomes easier to tolerate; hate and desperation are diluted with time.

Perhaps it is the same with everyone in every age though. For example if you disagree with the current war in Iraq, what can you do about it? How can one person stop an administration?

  1. Lowe, Keith. Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943. New York: Scribner, 2007
  2. Page 27. Quoted from the diary of Mathilda Wolff-Mönckeberg

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