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50 years later, Dresden firestorm can still blister

DRESDEN, GERMANY — DRESDEN, Germany -- On the apocalyptic night when the British bombers came by the hundreds, Ingeborg Hommelsheim crawled from the cellar of her family's burning home to find the Dresden sky a red dome of fire.

It sucked the air from her lungs, burned her hair and tore her suitcase from its handle. Friends who had been caught outdoors earlier were blackened like logs. Those who had sheltered in water tanks were boiled alive.

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Across the city, American soldier Kurt Vonnegut listened to the attack from deep in a meat locker near a barracks for prisoners of war. Decades later in his novel "Slaughterhouse Five," he would unabashedly call the attack a "massacre" comparable to Hiroshima.

Germans such as Mrs. Hommelsheim have never felt free to be so blunt: For half a century the country has dodged the issue of what level of grief and anger is acceptable concerning the 70,000 dead of Dresden. But with this week's 50th anniversary of the bombing, the specter of the tragedy will be too close to ignore.

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That's why the country will be paying careful attention when German President Roman Herzog speaks at commemoration ceremonies beginning Monday, wondering if at last a German leader will accuse other nations of inexcusable behavior in the war in which Germans behaved worst.

In its death toll, destruction and debatable morality, the bombing of Dresden that occurred Feb. 13 and 14, 1945, indeed invites comparison as Europe's Hiroshima. Dresden, like Hiroshima, was attacked chiefly to kill and terrorize civilians in a war already being lost on the battlefield.

But where the Japanese embraced Hiroshima as a symbol of their losses and the beastliness of war, the Germans have kept Dresden at emotional arm's length. They've never reached a consensus on what their feelings should be, and officials and public commentators usually grow edgy when anyone tries.

Anyone doubting the depths of this awkwardness need only ask Mr. Vonnegut how much reaction he has gotten from German readers to his Dresden book, a 1966 anti-war novel that still generates letters from American students.

The response to the German version?

"Virtually zero," he answers. "No letters or calls."

Not even a passing remark during his later visits to Germany?

"Nothing. Not at cocktail parties. Not on the street."

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Don't mention it

There are some Germans who would just as soon have President Herzog say nothing at all about Dresden, or else place the ultimate blame on Germany.

"I beg your pardon, but he may not say that this was a war crime," shouts Moritz Mebel, a Berliner who strolled through the ruins of Dresden a few months after the bombing.

Mr. Mebel thumbs through the browned pages of a pocket diary from those days, rereading his description of the city as he found it.

"It was a horrible place," he says. "Only ruins. And of course at first I asked myself, 'Was this necessary?' But then I remembered Hermann Goering's words after the bombing of Coventry in England -- 'Koventrieren, ausradieren.' ['People of Coventry, wiped out'], and Germans were applauding. So there you go."

Others, having acknowledged German guilt, as well as their own personal guilt for not having objected to the militarism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi era, now wonder why they can't also openly condemn the likes of Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the British air chief marshal who ordered the Dresden raid.

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"It was a crime," says Mrs. Hommelsheim, now 69, and she wonders why "one criminal is put in jail and one gets a monument," as Harris did in England. But when she parcels out the blame, she, too, adds her country to the list.

"We know the reason for this war crime was Hitler," she says. "The bombing was the payback we got from other Europeans whose countries we had destroyed, whose people we had killed."

To the relief of many, Mr. Herzog has indicated he will continue dodging some of the tougher issues of Dresden. He has already said he won't call the bombing a war crime, in deference to Germany's good relations with the British.

The potential awkwardness of the Dresden anniversary has been further complicated because it comes only 17 days after the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

Mr. Herzog attended those ceremonies, too, standing quietly while prominent speakers angrily asked God never to forgive the Germans responsible for the murder of millions of Jews.

Issue claimed by Nazis

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One problem for Germans who would like to be able to decry Dresden as an injustice is that this territory of grief was claimed long ago by unreconstructed Nazis, who were later joined by other right-wing radicals. No one else wants to admit sharing common ground.

But all the debate over grief and blame becomes so much sophistry when pitted against the accounts of those such as Mrs. Hommelsheim, who was 19 then.

The attack came as a surprise. The city had virtually no military targets worth bombing and no large concentrations of soldiers. What it had mostly was 300,000 war refugees from the east, swelling Dresden's population to nearly 1 million.

The first wave of bombers came about 10 p.m., sending the Hommelsheim family to the cellar. They emerged after a half-hour to see fires burning nearby, but their house only had minor damage.

Three hours later, about 1:30 a.m., the second wave came. Other families already bombed out of their homes sought shelter with the Hommelsheims. When it became apparent that the house had collapsed above them, sealing them in the cellar, they dug their way into neighboring basements, one after the other, until they found their way out.

Thousands suffocated

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They were lucky. Thousands suffocated in basements when the developing firestorm consumed all the oxygen in the air above.

When they finally emerged the firestorm was in its fury, howling with high scorching winds. They gradually made their way toward the edge of the city with blankets wrapped around their heads.

The next day they were strafed by U.S. fighter planes. Then came the U.S. bombers to finish off what was left of the burning city in the last wave of the attack.

When the Hommelsheims returned two weeks later, the collapsed stone walls of their house were still warm. Bodies were piled and stacked everywhere.

On one corner a woman still leaned against a wall sheltering her two small children from the sky. All three were dead.

Estimates of the death toll have varied from 30,000 to 200,000, although scholars say the best estimates are of around 70,000. Tellingly, most of the recent German accounts have cited estimates far lower, usually of about 35,000.

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Lately Dresdeners have begun to open up a little bit in talking about the attack. They have also become more free in expressing their anger.

When the queen of England visited the city last year, some Dresdeners booed. Mrs. Hommelsheim was pleased when she heard about that.

A symbol of the city's new willingness to confront its feelings about the attack, even if the rest of the country won't, is an archaeological dig at the city center, in a vast grassy plaza that was covered with buildings before the bombers came.

Although the main archaeological objective is to reach the foundations of medieval buildings, excavators have first had to dig through the filled basements and bulldozed rubble from February 1945.

They have turned up thousands of relics from the night of the attack, as if a vast time capsule had been sealed as the first bombs fell.

Locals are allowed onto the site Saturdays, and every week about 1,000 people take advantage of the opportunity.

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"You hear people saying, 'Here was where my grandfather lived,' or they recognize their own basement," says site manager Brigette Katzenwadel. "On the one hand people are very interested. But for some it is also very painful to see this. It brings back all the memories."

The finds include an odd pair of clay masks, apparently from the basement of an artist who was killed in the attack. One is unmistakably a caricature of Hitler, depicting him with the features of a vampire. The other resembles Hermann Goering.

Memories still haunt

Mrs. Hommelsheim is among those still haunted by their memories.

For years she trembled and grew short of breath whenever planes passed overheard. The torment proved almost unbearable in 1948, when she was living in West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift, a U.S. and British effort to bring the city food during a Soviet blockade.

The focus of Dresden's newest efforts to be reborn is the ruin of the Frauenkirche, the 18th-century church that stood as one of the most beautiful highlights in the city once known as "the Florence of the Elbe."

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A campaign is under way to raise nearly $200 million to rebuild the Frauenkirche from the pile of rocks that has sat at the site for 50 years.

But this, too, has stirred mixed emotions.

Even Mr. Vonnegut, ever willing to mourn for the city's dead, is disturbed by this attempt to prettify this image of war's power to destroy. But in searching for the deeper significance of the Dresden bombing after all these years, he has been as baffled as the Germans.

"I don't know how to deal with it really," he says. "It is an event so enormous, yet, finally, so utterly meaningless."


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