Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

Berlin’s House of the Wannsee Conference

Monday, August 14th, 2017

The stately House of the Wannsee Conference – Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz – overlooks the Havel River in the quiet suburb of Berlin-Wannsee. However, the palatial country estate has a sinister past. In January of 1942, an infamous meeting was held in its dining room with fifteen high-ranking representatives of Nazi ministries and the SS (Schutzstaffel – Protection Squadron) in attendance. They discussed details of the planned “final solution to the Jewish question.


House of the Wannsee Conference, since 1992 a memorial and educational site. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

House of the Wannsee Conference, since 1992 a memorial and educational site. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

Final solution to the Jewish question

The Final Solution to the Jewish Question (Endloesung der Judenfrage) was a Nazi plan to systematically exterminate the Jews during World War II. At the time of the Wannsee Conference, the decision to exterminate the Jews in German-occupied Europe had already been made. The main purpose of the meeting was to discuss collaboration between agencies. A secondary goal was to arrive at definitions of who was Jewish, who was of mixed race, and who should be spared. At the Wannsee Conference it was decided that persons of mixed race of the first degree (with two Jewish grandparents) would be treated as Jews. This would not apply if they were married to a non-Jew and had children by that marriage. Such persons would be sterilized. Persons of mixed race of the second degree (with one Jewish grandparent) would be treated as Germans unless they were married to Jews.

History of the House of the Wannsee Conference

Originally referred to as Villa Minoux or Villa Wannsee, the estate is now known as “House of the Wannsee Conference.” The spacious mansion was built in 1914 by German factory owner Ernst Marlier. Six years later, Marlier sold the house to Friedrich Minoux, a German industrialist and financier. When Minoux was convicted of fraud and went to jail in 1941, he sold the estate at market price to a foundation that was controlled by the SS. The SS used the villa as a conference center and guesthouse and held the Wannsee Conference in its walls in 1942.  In 1943, the Third Reich Security Main Office purchased the residence. Following WWII, the villa served various functions until 1992, when it was turned into a memorial and educational site on occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference.

Free Exhibit at the House of the Wannsee Conference

In 2006, a permanent exhibit opened on the ground floor of the villa, entitled, “The Wannsee Conference and the genocide of the European Jews.” It is free to the public. Although the Wannsee Conference is the central focus of the exhibition, there are many documents on display about the history of Jewish persecution, anti-Semitism and racism in the 1920s, Third Reich propaganda posters and leaflets and photos and books about Jewish ghettos. The exhibition was one of the best I have visited in a long time. The estate is small enough to allow for full absorption of the information provided. Given current events around the world, the visitor cannot help but wonder what humankind has or has not learned during the past 75 years.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


The Battle of Berlin Ended WWII

Monday, July 17th, 2017


The Battle of Berlin was the last major European battle fought during World War II. It pretty much ended the war, but at a huge human cost. It was primarily fought between the Soviet and the German armies. Altogether, nearly 200,000 soldiers died during the last three weeks of World War Two, almost as many as the United States lost during the entire war.

Seelower Hoehen – preceding the Battle of Berlin

The Red Army considered Seelower Hoehen (Seelow Heights) – a region located about 56 miles east of Berlin – the “Gates to Berlin.” Soviet leaders speculated that breaking German positions at Seelower Hoehen would clear the path to the capital. To that end, on 15 April 1945, Russian forces launched one of the most powerful artillery barrages in history. After three days, the German Army was all but crushed, and mainly old men and the Hitler Youth were left to defend the area. German resolve to continue to fight was largely due to fear of Russian retributions. On 19 April 1945, the Red Army defeated the German forces once and for all and advanced on the capital.

The Battle of Berlin

The road to Berlin now lay open. By 20 April 1045, the Soviets began to bomb the city, and within a few days, the Red Army had completely surrounded Berlin. The Soviets completely outnumbered the Germans in terms of men and equipment.  Once they entered Berlin, the fighting became fierce. The city was taken street by street and building by building. Casualties on both sides were high. Over a three-week period, the Red Army fired more than two million artillery shells into the already devastated capital, a city that had been continuously bombed by British and American aircraft since 1943. The total tonnage of ordnance fired by the Russians during the Battle of Berlin exceeded the tonnage of all allied bombing of the city during the rest of the war.

Why did the Russians fight so hard for Berlin?

A generally accepted explanation is that Joseph Stalin, Premier of the Soviet Union, was desperate to get to Berlin before the Americans did. Why? Stalin wanted to seize the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut, a German nuclear research center in the southwestern part of Berlin. Stalin knew of the American atomic nuclear program and also knew that the Russian nuclear program – Operation Borodino – was lagging behind. It was Stalin’s hope that Soviet scientists would find information at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut that could advance the Russian program. As it turned out, Soviet scientists discovered three tons of uranium oxide at the institute, which facilitated the work on their first nuclear weapon.

Where was Hitler during the Battle of Berlin?

Cut off from the reality of the fighting above, Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany, was holding out in his underground bunker beneath the Chancellery. On 30 April, he committed suicide together with his mistress Eva Braun. They had married only hours before. Their bodies were partially burned in the rubble outside the bunker.

The End of the Battle of Berlin

On 2 May 1945, Germany surrendered. A Russian infantry soldier, Sergeant Shcherbina, raised the Red Flag on the top of the Reichstag The war was over. The final count was:


82,000 Russians killed during the battles of Seelower Hoehen and Berlin,

275,000 Russians wounded or missing in action,

2,000 Russian tanks destroyed,

2,100 Russian artillery pieces destroyed.

100,000 Germans killed,

200,000 Germans wounded,

480,000 Germans captured,

the City of Berlin reduced to rubble,

100,000 German women raped.



For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of


Bueckware is Stoop Merchandise

Monday, September 21st, 2015

Bueckware is a German word that translates into “Stoop Merchandise.” It is a clever expression that alludes to the need for the sales person to have to stoop beneath the counter to unearth the goods.

Bueckware – WWII 

The term originated at the onset of WWII when Germany’s Nazi government rationed certain items, in particular foodstuffs and textiles. Producers and shop owners reacted by holding back some merchandise and storing it out of view. Generally, these were luxury items, such as chocolate, eggs or sausage. By hiding the goods from view, they were officially no longer on hand. When it came to finally selling the coveted items – and they were sold only to a select group – the shop owner had to literally stoop (buecken in German) beneath the counter to come up with the goods.

Bueckware – East Germany

During the communist era of East Germany the situation was similar. Bueckware referred to items that were locally scarce, could only be obtained through bartering, or were intentionally held back for friends, relatives and important persons. In those days, Bueckware often consisted of daily necessities. Shop owners would stoop beneath the counter to unearth hard-to-come-by items, such as exotic fruits, building materials, electrical outlets and replacement parts for cars. Bueckware also referred to items that were sold illegally, such as record albums from West Germany. Matthias Kaiser in Der Eichsfeld Report, Art de Cuisine, Erfurt 2009, states, “the pigs must have grown up without livers during those years because these popular innards were so scarce that they were available only as Bueckware.”

Bueckware – West Germany

Bueckware also existed in West Germany during those days. But the term had a slightly different connotation. During West Germany’s post WWII economic miracle, Bueckware referred to illegal items, such as pornography.

Bueckware – Today

The term has not disappeared. These days, Bueckware refers to the cheaper no-name brands of merchandise that are located on the bottom shelves at your grocery store. While the pricy brand-name products with higher profit margins are located at eye level, customers are forced to stoop down to the lower shelves if they wish to purchase the less expensive items.

Learn a new word and let me know if you need help with the pronunciation.

Bueckware at Ralphs, Photo © J. Elke Ertle 2015

Bueckware at Ralphs,
Photo © J. Elke Ertle 2015


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Schloss Cecilienhof – Cecilienhof Palace

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Schloss Cecilienhof became international known as the site of the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Prior to the end of World War II, the palace had served as the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm, his wife, Duchess Cecilie von Mecklenburg-Schwerin and their six children. Located southwest of Berlin, Germany, the English Tudor-style building resembles a Grand English Country Manor with its half-timbered walls, bricks and many chimneys. With a total of 176 rooms, Cecilienhof is considerably larger than it seems.

Schloss Cecilienhof - Cecilienhof Palace

Schloss Cecilienhof – Cecilienhof Palace

Schloss Cecilienhof’s Pre-1945 History

The castle was the last palace to be built by the Hohenzollern, a dynasty that ruled Prussia and Germany for 500 years. The German Emperor Wilhelm II had Schloss Cecilienhof built for his eldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm. Construction began in 1914 and was completed in 1917. After only one happy year together in their new home, the royal couple remained separated for the rest of their lives. Even before the revolution of 1918, the Crown Prince rarely found time to be with his family. The Duchess and her six children continued to live at the palace from time to time until 1920 when Schloss Cecilienhof was confiscated. The royal couple’s two oldest sons, Wilhelm and Louis Ferdinand, remained at castle to attend public school in Potsdam. But when the Red Army drew close to Berlin in February of 1945, the Duchess and all of her children fled without being able to salvage many of their possessions. At the end of World War II, the Soviets seized Cecilienhof, which was located within the Soviet Zone of Germany.

Schloss Cecilienhof and the Potsdam Conference

From July 17 to August 2, 1945, US President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee Joseph Stalin convened at the Schloss Cecilienhof to decide the future of Germany. The three Allied powers decided to meet at the palace because the capital itself was too heavily damaged.

Prior to the Potsdam Conference, thirty-six rooms and the Great Hall were renovated and furnished with furniture from other Potsdam palaces. The Hohenzollern’s furniture had been removed by the Soviets and stored elsewhere. Cecilie’s music salon and writing room, Wilhelm’s smoking room, library and breakfast room as well as the Great Hall (where the Potsdam Agreement was signed) were among the rooms that were renovated and used during the Potsdam Conference. The various delegations were housed in the suburb of Potsdam-Babelsberg.

The Great Hall at Schloss Cecilienhof where the Potsdam Agreement was signed

The Great Hall at Schloss Cecilienhof where the Potsdam Agreement was signed

Schloss Cecilienhof’s Post-1945 History

After the Potsdam Conference had ended, Soviet troops used the palace as a clubhouse for a while. Later, Schloss Cecilienhof was handed over to the state of Brandenburg. In 1952, a memorial for the Conference was set up in the former private chambers of Crown Prince Wilhelm and Duchess Cecilie. The East German government used the palace for state receptions and other important meetings. In 1960, part of the castle was turned into a hotel. Today, part of Schloss Cecilienhof still serves as a museum. The hotel is temporarily closed for renovations and expects to reopen in 2018.

Since 1990, Schloss Cecilienhof is part of the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin UNESCO World Heritage Site.



For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.





Potsdamer Platz Part 2

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Potsdamer Platz following World War II

Following World War II, Berlin was divided into four sectors. Three of them–the American, British and Soviet occupation sectors–converged at the Potsdamer Platz. That geographic oddity resulted in the Potsdamer Platz becoming a center for black market activities. Since black market trading was illegal, the convergence of three sectors meant that one had to walk only a few feet to cross sector boundaries and could conduct black market activities before drawing much attention.

Potsdamer Platz in October 1945

Potsdamer Platz in October 1945

Potsdamer Platz following construction of the Berlin Wall

In August 1961, the Berlin Wall went up. It divided the bustling Potsdamer Platz into two halves. What had been a busy intersection became a desolate wasteland. Since the S-Bahn (elevated train) traveled briefly through East Berlin on its route from one part of West Berlin to another, the Potsdamer Platz station, located in the eastern sector, was closed off and patrolled by armed guards. Trains ran through the station without shopping. The corresponding U-Bahn (subway) route was closed entirely. After the remaining bomb-damaged buildings on both sides of the Wall were cleared away, only two structures remained standing: Weinhaus Huth and the Hotel Esplanade.

Weinhaus Huth at the Potsdamer Platz

The wine merchant Christian Huth acquired the land in 1877, built his villa and started a wine business. His grandson Willy Huth erected the current building on the same spot thirty-five years later. Weinhaus Huth survived World War II virtually undamaged and became known as “the last house on the Potsdamer Platz.” The reason it survived was its steel construction. The ultra-modern construction method was chosen so that the heavy wine bottles could be stored on the building’s second and third floors.

For forty-five years, Weinhaus Huth stood alone at the Potsdamer Platz, next to the remains of the Hotel Esplanade. Both were in the British sector close to the Berlin Wall. Following the death of Willy Huth in 1967, his widow sold the land and buildings to the City of Berlin.

Hotel Esplanade at the Potsdamer Platz

Hotel Esplanade went from being one of Berlin’s most luxurious hotels to a bombed-out shell that stood alongside the Berlin Wall at the Potsdamer Platz. Built in 1907, it included the famous Kaisersaal (emperor’s hall) where Emperor Wilhelm II hosted exclusive Herrenabende (men’s evenings). In the “Golden Twenties”, the Esplanade held popular afternoon dances. Well-known movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo visited here.

In the last years of World War II, bombs destroyed ninety percent of the famous hotel. Only the Kaisersaal, the breakfast hall, the stairwell, and the washrooms survived. After the war they were restored, and the Esplanade became a popular nightclub. During the 1950s, it hosted elaborate balls, and scenes of the movie, Cabaret, were filmed here. My father, a professional photographer, photographed many of the events at the hotel.

Also visit to read about the history of the Potsdamer Platz prior to World War II.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.




Nadezhda Popova Died

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Nadezhda Popova died earlier this month. She rose to deputy commander of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment during WWII. At the young age of 15, Ms. Popova joined a flying club. After graduating from pilot school, she became a flight instructor. At age 19 she became a pilot in an all-female regiment, the night bombers. The ages of these women ranged from 17 to 26.

bi plane flown by the Night Witches during World War II

bi plane flown by the Night Witches during World War II

In jerry-rigged onetime crop dusters, these female aviators flew 30,000 missions over a four-year period. They had no parachutes, no guns, no radios, and no radar. Their cockpits were open. If hit by bullets, their planes would burn like paper. Yet, they dumped 23,000 tons of bombs on their German adversaries. Ms. Popova flew 852 combat missions and was shot down several times, but never seriously wounded according to a 14 July 2013 article in the New York Times.

Usually, these two-seaters, made of plywood and canvas, were flown in formations of three. Two would serve as decoys. The third would slip through the darkness and drops its two single bombs, one under each wing. The triad would then switch places until all bombs were dropped. In the last stages of each bomb run, they would shut down their engines so that the Germans could only hear the hiss of the air flowing across the wings. Because it sounded like a broomstick in flight the Germans called them Night Witches.

Ms. Popova, one of the Night Witches, was 91 when she died according to a 13 July 2013 article in The Washington Post.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.




Dresden’s Green Vault

Monday, May 27th, 2013

If you are planning a trip this summer that includes Dresden, Germany, be sure to visit the Green Vault (Gruenes Gewoelbe). It houses the largest collection of Europe’s most precious art objects. The Green Vault occupies two floors of the Dresden castle with over 21,500 square feet on each level. The original Green Vault is located on the first floor and houses more than 3,000 works of art in gold, silver, precious stones, ivory, ebony and amber. The baroque rooms themselves are famous and a feast for the eyes. The Green Vault took its name from the column bases and capitals (column tops) that were once painted malachite green.

The second floor houses the New Green Vault with a collection of well over 1,000 pieces. The New Green Vault is constructed in a modern style, which keeps the focus on the objects on display. It contains many pieces of baroque jewelry and unique works that were created by the royal goldsmith, Johann Melchior Dinglinger.

Golden Coffee Service - the pieces were made by court goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger around 1700

Golden Coffee Service – the pieces were made by court goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger around 1700

The history of the Green Vault dates back to 1547, when elector Moritz of Saxony added a west wing to his castle. Originally, the rooms were used as private chambers for important documents and jewelry. But between 1723 and 1729, Augustus the Strong turned the once private chambers into a public museum.

When the Second World War loomed, the art treasures were removed and taken to the Koenigstein Fortress. On February 13, 1945, near the end of World War II, the city of Dresden was bombed, and the historic Green Vault was severely damaged. Three of the eight rooms were totally destroyed. The art objects were confiscated by the Red Army and transported to the Soviet Union.

Following World War II, the Green Vault was completely reconstructed. In 1958 the Soviet Union returned the treasures to Dresden, and in 2004 the New Green Vault was opened on the second floor of the rebuilt Dresden castle. In 2006 the historic Green Vault was reopened, as it had existed in 1733, the time of its founder’s death. Click “like” if you enjoyed this article.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.