The phenomenon military historians label “Total War” was introduced in World War I and characterized much of WWII, with long-range aerial bombing campaigns which virtually erased such geographic novelties as borders, fortresses and defensive redoubts. Such adjectives as impregnable and unassailable no longer had real-world meaning. Most of all it meant that civilian populations differed from combatants mostly in their inability to fight back, or in many cases even to sustain themselves with the basics of human sustenance. In much of Nazi Europe’s cities, civilian factory workers lived along the edges of the very manufacturing centers which they served and the very facilities the bombers sought to destroy.
Along with Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Darmstadt, the city of Kassel has the distinction of being one of Germany’s targets most severely hit by Allied bombers. Located in the Hesse region of west central Germany, Kassel was headquarters to the Fiesler aircraft plant and the tank-producing Henschel factory, as well as being a key rail transportation hub. Particularly devastating was the night of October 22-23, 1943 when 569 Royal Air Force bombers dropped 1800 tons of high explosives, including incendiaries, on the downtown area. The resulting firestorm killed 10,000 people – mostly civilians – with flames still burning one week later. More than 150,000 were left homeless so that by the time the U.S. 80th Infantry Division liberated the city after bitter house-to-house fighting, with even more devastation between April 2-4, 1945, the population was only 20% of that in 1939.
A 1947 snapshot reveals residents of Kassel clearing the wreckage in city center. The U.S. Marshal Plan would bring much-needed assistance in returning the ancient city to normal.
My dear and patriotic Utah friend Barbara was born in the midst of war to a Kassel family whose home – built a decade before the Columbus voyage – had been repeatedly damaged by bombs that obliterated 90% of their city’s center. Her father had been missing and presumed lost since his U-boat had blown up and sunk off the coast of Norway and she and her twin brother Rolf , lived with their mother and maternal grandmother who had weathered the loss of many relatives. For a while Barbara’s grand-mother had worked as the only female trolley car driver in all of Germany during the war years.
Even after the war’s end and life under the occupying Americans began, surviving amid the ruins of a city where hunger and misery were constant companions was a daily test, with garden produce and wheat cereal making up their greatly reduced diet. By 1947, still with no knowledge that their father and one shipmate had indeed survived the sinking of their vessel and been imprisoned by the British, the approach of Christmas held little promise for the family.
It was a cold and unpromising Christmas Eve as the children and their mother and grandmother walked homeward. A large American car began to pass before suddenly stopping nearby. As they watched, a tall woman with long blonde hair and a stylish red coat – probably the wife of an American officer – exited the rear passenger door and approached the family group. Smiling, she presented them with a small handheld gift, kissing them each on a cheek, before driving away into the gathering gloom.
The recipients of the strange “angel’s” gift found themselves in wondering possession of four chocolate Hershey bars. Returning home, their Christmas Eve celebration saw the mother carefully break the first Hershey bar into four equal pieces, each of them marveling at the sweet creamy chocolate marvel which they feasted over ever so slowly. For Barbara it was the first taste of chocolate in her four-and-a-half year life, and one she would never forget. For most of the next week, they would follow the same routine until all four bars had been shared in a communion-like ceremony, an image of the kind blonde-haired American in the red coat an enduring part of what would be a lifetime Christmas memory.
In time, the hearts of the family –including the father who had survived the war and come home – softened to the point that a former American missionary had their blessing when he courted and won the heart of their Barbara. This year, as in each year since, the first Christmas gift under Barbara’s American tree will be a be-ribboned package containing four Hershey bars.