I will never forget that horrible week. It all started on a cool crisp morning, there had been a fresh fall of snow, which was not unusual for Köinisberg, the city I was resident in when the war was drawing to a close, for that time of year. My family and I lived in a grand house in the middle of town, mahogany staircase, crystal chandelier. We had really benefits from Nazi rule. However I digress. This morning I remember distinctly as we were rudely awoken by artillery fire audible as being just outside the city. I froze in bed paralysed with fear, as any twelve year old boy would have been, until my grandfather, a man in his late sixties, burst into the room running whilst shouting "the Russians are on the edge of town! Get up! Get dressed quickly and pack 1 suitcase of whatever you can fit and meet me outside the front door in fifteen minutes!" Grandfathers tone was rushed and edgy, I could tell he was worried. Naturally I obliged to what he told me to do. I first dressed myself and then went across the large teak lined corridor helped my younger brother, Franz, then the tender age of five, to dress and pack as he seemed to be struggling.
I walked down the mahogany staircase, suitcase in my left hand, holding my brothers hand with my right. The domestic staff were rushing around, the air of distress was very obvious. It was then that my mother burst through the gold gilded doors of the drawing room into the foyer, resplendent wearing a mink coat, a large diamond broach attached to the right hand side collar. She made a wide sweeping motion with her hand. The room fell silent as the staff lined up in front of her. She thanked each of them for their service and dismissed them to find their families and hopefully escape. It was shortly after ten in the morning when we left our house, little did we know for the last time. Mother began to sob uncontrollably as the horse and cart lurched forward.Eventually she gained enough composure to ask grandfather where it was that we were to be going. "Gottenhaven", replied grandfather, "there is a ship there that will take us to Kiel, where we will be safe."
By the second day of the journey we were trudging over the frozen water of the bay. I watched on as gradually people that were too tired to carry on walking sat down in the snow-covered ice only to be swallowed by the harsh snow of the Prussian winter. One of the most heart breaking things that I witnessed was when the ice sheet would break and the icy water would devour a caravan and all of its occupants without questions or a second thought. Nobody stopped to help the poor innocent souls because sadly we all knew it was too late for them, they would have passed on.
Three days later we arrived at Gottenhaven. The city was teaming with life from every orifice. We made our way through the crowded streets towards a ship that was towering above the city. It was like it was beaconing to us. The great ship, Willhem Gustoff, stood silent in the dockyard. The ship in its pre war life was a cruise ship for supports of the Nazi party. We had been on the ship twice before the outbreak of war. However as it sat in the docks she seemed a little worse for wear. The grey paint was rusting, some of it appeared to be peeling off, but nobody seemed bothered by that, after all it was a symbol of hope to us now refugees, a symbol of getting back to some form of safe normality in the fatherland. And everybody without exception wanted to get on that boat.
The quay was a scene of madness, verging nearly into a full scale riot. People were desperate to secure a place on the ship. At first the Nazi navy uniformed personnel at the desk were only letting those with travel papers or proof of Nazi party membership on-board. At that time that still counted for something. Luckily my father, who was then fighting somewhere in Italy, was a commandant for the S.S. and an active member of the Nazi party. Hence why we had our pristine house in the centre of town, that we fled. We were lucky, our place on board was guaranteed.
When we boarded the Gustoff we found she was already very crowded. All the cabins in the lower part of the ship were occupied so we were forced to take residence in the overcrowded dining salon. Once an impeccably furnished room now a shadow of its former self with all the fine regalia removed. We managed to find a corner in the room and immediately claimed the space as our own. By six in the evening the ship was finally under-way. After six hours of waiting in port the room had become nearly unbearable to be in. It had become immensely warm and was filled with a cocktail of rank, disgusting smells such as sweat and babies dirty nappies. However these were nothing compared to the smell of the soiled clothes of the senior people on board who were unable to find the bathroom in time.
By seven all the lights of the ship were turned off due to safety concerns. After roughly ten minutes of total darkness and near silence somebody remembered what day it was. It was the Fuhrer's Birthday. The ships lights were promptly relit and the radio was hastily switched on so as to listen to Heir Hitler's speech, as had become a custom. His rambling voice had only just stopped when it happened. There was an ear piercing explosion, followed by another, followed by another. The Gustoff shuddered and immediately began listing to her port side. Mother screamed and grabbed hold of Franz and I as grandfather shouted "out! Out! We have hit a mine!"
In the moments that passed while we climbed the crowded staircase to the boat deck the Gustoff had become heavily listed , so much so that it seemed as if we were scaling a vertical wall instead of the gentle slope of a staircase. After reaching the top of the stairs we managed to grab onto the handrail on the starboard side of the ship. I was at the end of the row now hanging beside a uniformed Nazi officer and his family. It was funny, he was the first person I saw on that ship wearing a swaztica armband. His wife was shouting frantically at him, "do it! Finish it!". The terror in this woman's eyes was unimaginable, she could only see one outcome. The man took out a pistol from the left hand pocket of his jacket turned to his two blonde haired daugthers and mouthed something that looked like "I'm sorry" and shot them in the head, followed by his wife. The bodies slid across the dark wooden deck of the ship before falling with a large splash into the ocean. The man then turned the pistol on himself and pressed the trigger, but nothing. He turned to me almost desperate asking if I had a pistol. Shocked from what I had just witnessed I couldn't muster an audible reply, I just shook my head, and with that he let go of the handrail and slid across the frozen deck following his wife and children into the next life.
Soon the water lapped at our feet. The coldness hit you like an express steam train had just ploughed at top speed directly into you. I struggled for breath as the ship gave a sudden lurch and water rose further, so much so that I along with mother, Franz and grandfather were tossed into the sea. I had to begin swimming. I was struggling to see where mother, Franz and grandfather were as we had become separated when a wave came and swept me into the safety glass lined promenade deck. The place was rapidly filling with water, my only means of escape cut off by the rising water. I banged the glass helplessly, knowing too well that it would not break. It was then that I noticed the silver gleam of an object in an open coat pocket of a dead frozen body that was floating past. I swam to the body and grabbed the silver object, knowing that this was now useless to the owner but may still be useful to me. I examined the object. I was in luck. It was a gun. I paused. I could end it. Take my own life. Avoid the suffering of drowning. But no. I aimed the gun at the glass and pulled the trigger praying there was a bullet inside. The glass instantly shattered and with a hard push it gave way and broke. I pulled myself through the glass opening and found myself stood on the side of the ship. I pulled five people through the opening and the ran to the now side of the ship and jumped once again into the freezing water below.
I swam away from the Gustoff and miraculously found myself beside my family who were still in the water. My mother embraced me, tears down her face for her lost boy. Soon an unoccupied eight man raft, wreckage from the ship, floated by. My grandfather directed us towards it, first Franz was pushed up onto it, then mother, followed closely by me. I turned to assist grandfather up, but he was gone. Nowhere to be found. He was never to been seen again. Of course it was only when morning came that we grasped the full extent of the devastation and disaster that has occured the night before. There were children with life vests on, only you couldn't see their heads. Let's face it, an adults life vest on a child doesn't work, after all their heads are a lot heavier then their feet and they drowned. After seeing that I could never sing songs about little ducklings to my children. I still can't today.
My grandfathers body was never found during the recovery, but I shall never forget him. It was him that shepherded us from the ruins of Koinisberg and him who made the ultimate sacrifice in order to save his family. He will never receive an iron cross and nobody except for my brother and I will know of his courage. I will never forget that terrible night, for that was the first insight I had of the true meaning of war. For me that was my war.