A struggle to survive

Senior Airman Nick Emerick/ U.S. Air Force file photo
Traute Grier attends a ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift in June 2018 in Frankfurt, Germany.

Survivor of Berlin Blockade recounts experience

Traute Grier’s childhood was overshadowed by the bombings of World War II, and as she grew up, the hunger and uncertainty of the Berlin Blockade.

Grier was a teenager in 1948 when the Soviets blocked West Berlin from all supplies. Food was rationed, coal was rationed, electricity was rationed.

It was a very difficult time, Grier said, and she was thankful the Western Allies—France, Great Britain and the U.S.—did not surrender West Berlin to the Soviet Union, but secured the essential supplies for the western part of the city by aircraft. During the Berlin Airlift, planes landed and departed every two minutes.

The Berlin Airlift was a masterpiece of logistics with so many planes flying into Berlin on a daily basis. In addition, the Soviet Union, even though not willing to risk a third world war, did not approve of the way the Western Allies circumvented their blockade, and tried to make it even harder for the Allies by flying maneuvers and approaching the Western airplanes closely.

“We went through hell,“ Grier said. “First, the war —sitting day and night in the basement, and then the hunger. I must say, it was horrible. And then, when help was coming from above with food … It was dangerous for the aircrews, too. The Russians flew right next to them. I knew a man—he was a pilot—he could see them through the windows. They flew so close. That was all harassment.”

Grier’s family had to adapt to the conditions created by the blockade.

They had four hours of electricity on one side of the street, Grier said, then it was turned off and the other side of the street had electricity for four hours. Her mother sometimes got up in the middle of the night when they had electricity from 2-6 a.m. and cooked food for lunch. She then wrapped the dish in newspaper and put it under a thick cover to keep it warm until lunchtime.

Their apartment was lit with petroleum lamps and candles. Usually, people went to bed early to save petroleum, candles and coal. It was necessary to learn how to handle the dark, Grier said, which was hard for her, especially in winter, because she was a fearful girl. The dark stairwells frightened her.

Even with supplies landing every two minutes, many West Berliners were starving, and there was little variety in the food they did have.
“One day, potatoes and soup, and the other day, soup and potatoes,” Grier said.

Many people—including Grier’s mother—hopped trains into the Eastern zone to trade for food on the black market. They traded valuables for vegetables and other food items since they were not allowed to buy food there.
If Grier’s mother was not finished by 7 p.m. she would have to stay overnight on a farmer’s porch. Curfew started at 7 p.m. in the Eastern zone. Once, Grier said, she accompanied her mother and stayed with her overnight on the porch. Early in the morning, she secretly went into the fields and stole some potatoes.

When going back to West Berlin, people were always in danger of being checked by the Eastern police, who would confiscate their goods. Usually, the train drivers knew in advance if police were waiting at the station and would honk twice to let people know so they could jump off the train. People from the West would stand on the steps outside of the train, or travel on top of it, Grier said, which is why the drivers went slowly anyway.
Grier said she still remembers the summer of 1949, right before the end of the blockade. Her family had a big balcony with flowers, and when they were sitting there, they saw the airlift planes flying over them.

“That was very impressive. They flew so low, and we lived pretty close to the airport. I always had to think that a few years earlier, there were also planes flying. Not that low. But they dropped bombs,” Grier said.

Directly after WWII, the people in West Berlin did not like the Americans; they had bombarded them, she said. “They were not our friends. But then… when they helped us during the blockade not to die of hunger … the former enemies became friends,” she said. “The Berliners were so thankful. It was so important to us.”