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Berlin Airlift helped German girl survive her fractured youth

A life salvaged from a lost childhood

By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 23, 2008

OBERURSEL, Germany — Somewhere between Berlin and Bohemia, Traute Grier’s youth got blown away by war and occupation.

"We had a ruined childhood," Grier said. "We had nothing."

Some semblance of a normal childhood returned when American pilots began parachuting in candy to the kids of Berlin in the summer of 1948. But for many of them the time for play had passed.

Still, the gesture meant something.

It certainly did for Grier, who will attend ceremonies this week marking the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. U.S. and German commemorative events are planned for Berlin, Frankfurt and Wiesbaden, where the airlift was first launched.

"We feared the Americans would leave, that the airlift would be too much of a hardship," said Grier, now 76. "They could have hated us Germans, but they didn’t. They performed their mission, and some [70 in all] even gave their lives just to feed us."

Sixty years ago Tuesday, the Soviet Union instituted a land and water blockade of West Berlin. At the time, West Berlin was under the control of U.S., British and French forces, while the Soviets held sway over East Berlin. On the surface, it was an untenable situation, since the city itself lay deep within the Soviet zone of occupation of postwar Germany.

Two days after the blockade started the first relief flight left Wiesbaden for Berlin. Despite initial setbacks, the effort soon evolved into a smooth-running, conveyor belt-like operation. The Soviets lifted the blockade May 12, 1949, though flights continued through September. In the end, the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 delivered about 2.3 million tons of food and coal to the 2 million residents of West Berlin.

Grier said most people don’t realize just how razor thin the line was between success and failure. Only the barest of essentials, items such as coal and soap, sugar, corn meal and potatoes, made the manifest. Though grateful, Grier said the supply of goods per family was rather meager. Milk and meat were treats that graced a table maybe once a week, if that.

Army Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the ranking U.S. official in occupied Germany, feared that whatever the Allies flew in might not be enough. Clay said as much to Ernst Reuter, the de facto mayor of Berlin.

"Do what you are able to do; we shall do what we feel to be our duty," Reuter reportedly told Clay. "Berlin will make all the necessary sacrifices and offer resistance — come what may."

Grier, who lives north of Frankfurt in the town of Oberursel, still shudders at the threat of Berlin falling to the Soviets. While she readily acknowledges the crimes of Nazi Germany, Grier said Soviet soldiers continued to exact revenge well past the cessation of hostilities. (The Soviets lost well over 20 million people, by far the greatest loss of life in the European theater.)

"We hated them," Grier said. "When they came into Berlin they were like animals. You were so afraid of them you would almost pee in your pants."

German soldiers returning home from battle would suddenly disappear, she said. A woman Grier knew left one day to visit somebody in a city hospital. Somewhere along the way she was gang-raped by Soviet soldiers.

"Nineteen times," Grier gravely said. "I will never forget that number."

Nor will Grier ever forget the hardships of World War II, or its precarious peace.

"Even today, it hurts me to throw things away," she said.

Born in Berlin, her father, a taxi driver, was sent to Paris to fight. He never returned. In 1942, Grier’s mother sent her to live with a family in German Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Grier remained there until 1944, when, at the age of 12, she returned to Berlin for the final stand.

As Berlin came under direct siege, "we practically sat in the bunker day and night," said Grier, who developed an ulcer during this harrowing time. "There was nothing else to do."

After the war, Grier studied to be a seamstress. She didn’t particularly like the work, but it allowed her to make her own clothes and later provided a steady, albeit paltry, income. It was around this time that the airlift commenced.

"It was interesting to watch the planes take off from Tempelhof (Airport)," Grier said. "I never had a sweet tooth, but I remember the Hershey bars coming down. It was rare to get such food."

Grier recalls her mother bringing home a long-eared rabbit that they named Susi. The plan was to fatten up Susi for a holiday meal, but the rabbit became a pet and gained a reprieve.

Several years later, the young seamstress won a deliverance of her own when she met and married a dashing young Army dental officer named Ervin Grier. The couple bounced around the States for more than a dozen years before returning to Germany to care for her ailing mother.

In recent years, Traute Grier has been a regular at just about any event commemorating the Berlin Airlift. The operation saved Germany, she said, and likely kept much of the rest of Western Europe from going communist.

"That part of history, what the Allies did for us," she said, "should never die out."


Airlift events

The following is a quick listing of Berlin Airlift commemorative events in Wiesbaden and Frankfurt:

Thursday: Events in Wiesbaden, Frankfurt and Berlin mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift. Invitation only.

Friday: Through Sunday, the Wiesbaden Kurhaus presents a special exhibit celebrating the airlift and German-American friendship. Open to the public.

Saturday: Until midnight, a section of the Wiesbaden Kurhaus will be decorated and "open" for business as the legendary Eagle Club.

Sunday: Wiesbaden Army Airfield holds an Open House from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Static display of aircraft, food, music and other entertainment.

— Kevin Dougherty

Sixty years ago, Traute Grier used this transportation pass to make her way around postwar Berlin. Alongside the pass are a pair of old U.S. military payment certificates from that era.
KEVIN DOUGHERTY / S&S

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