For 15 hours beginning on the night of February 13, 1945, Allied warplanes unleashed a firestorm over Dresden, dropping more than 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the German city. Tens of thousands of citizens and refugees were burned alive, crushed by falling debris, or suffocated as the firestorm consumed the city’s oxygen. After the war, Dresden resident Hans Schröter wrote to his neighbors’ daughter to describe the fate of her parents during the bombing and his despair over the loss of his own loved ones. (The “20th of July” refers to the failed assassination attempt in 1944 on Adolf Hitler, led by high-ranking members of the German military.)
August 5, 1945
I only just received your letter with its sad contents — my belated, heartfelt sympathy to you. But so many are experiencing the same. Fate’s turn was the worst for me. I don’t have any interest in living longer. I stand completely alone in a miserable world — no purpose or sense anymore — because what is there to work for? I have had to sacrifice my family and seven friends to Hitler’s crazy idea. If only the 20th of July had been successful! But you are happy — you still have your husband, your child, your home — I wish you the best from all of my heart, but now I want to describe the events on February 13th and 14th to you. It was terrible and I will never forget it for the rest of my life.
Saturday evenings and Sundays, I was at Marienstrasse 38-42. I am deep in thought about my loved ones — hopefully, I will be taken soon — all I am lacking is opium. I will tell you the story: we were all in the cellar, we in 38, your parents with Eulitz in 42, had all survived two attacks successfully and thought we would live to get out of there. But that would unfortunately not be the case. With the second attack, the door of #38 was destroyed, so that only the emergency exit for 40 and 42 was left. As we got to #40, the flames from the stairwell hit us in the face, so to save our lives we moved with haste. Everyone acted very calmly. The electric lighting failed, but we had flashlights and petroleum lamps at hand. To get through the exit required great courage, which many could not seem to muster, and perhaps this was the case with your parents. They thought, perhaps, we would survive in the cellar, but didn’t factor in running out of oxygen. When I ran out, I saw my wife and son standing in Marienstrasse 42 so helplessly, but I had an older aunt from Liegnitz, and I wanted to save her, so I said to my wife, I’ll be back in 2 minutes. But when we came back in just that amount of time, my loved ones had disappeared, and I searched for them in the cellar, on the street — they were nowhere to be found. Everything was in flames, it wasn’t possible to get through, and since I couldn’t find my family, I summoned once more the little bit of courage that I had and went over to the Bismarck memorial and waited an hour across from the little house until the roof caved in. Then I went 30 meters along the Ringstrasse and waited there until daylight, and everything that you saw was so gruesome that you can’t describe it, everything was covered with burned corpses.
I went with great haste to my home and office, to find my loves still living, but that didn’t happen. They lay on the street in front of house 38, so peaceful, as if they slept, you can imagine what I was going through. At that point, I determined where my in-laws and my comrades could be dug alive out of the cellars. For this, I summoned two men from the Wehrmacht since none of my associates were there. When we opened the emergency exit to #38, such a tremendous heat came out, that it was impossible to get into the cellar. So we went in through the entrance to #40, went through the bathroom, and through its cellar to get to #42. The cellar in #42 was full of corpses, I counted 50 of them. Eulitz was there, I couldn’t recognize your parents, since everyone was on top of each other. Just seeing it was terrible.
Afterwards, I described everything to the local commando in the Leskästen on the street. Then I got sick with a respiratory infection and couldn’t be present at the burials, because of that, everything is unknown about the event that wasn’t written down. One more thing remains to tell you about. The cellar stairs of #42 had caved in, so the people couldn’t get out. I hope that you can imagine all of this gruesomeness for yourselves. I greet you and your family,
Schröter’s fate is unknown.
Andrew Carroll’s Legacy Project (online at warletters.com) is dedicated to preserving and collecting correspondence from all of America’s wars. If you have a World War II letter you would like to share, please send a copy (not originals) to: the Legacy Project P.O. Box 53250, Washington, DC 20009. Or e-mail WarLettersUS@aol.com.