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"Russians did everything at once." How General Berzarin brought Berlin back to life
General Nikolai Berzarin, the first post-World War 2 commandant of Berlin, was the very person that Berlin and its residents literally owed their lives to. But today very few people remember this feat of his. Ekaterina Dettmering, our compatriot from Germany, is the mind behind The Last Feat of Nikolai Berzarin project. And today the exhibition about this extraordinary person moves from online to offline.
– How did you come up with the idea of an exhibition dedicated to the first Soviet commandant of Berlin, General Nikolai Berzarin?
– The idea came up based on personal experience. I have been living in Germany for 15 years and my children go to a bilingual school. And then I take the children to school, turn on the radio in the car, and there is always some kind of negative vibes towards Russia on the radio. I drive back - the same thing. Once we were sitting in a cafe, and there was news on TV. And half of the airtime was devoted to Putin's visit to some country. This very fact shocked me: one minute was dedicated to Merkel, while Putin was given five, sure enough - in a negative context
When May 9 is approaching, all this negativity about Russia is lashed out with a vengeance, and I always wanted to understand why.
One day I heard my children being told that Germany was the worst-hit country in World War II. When I heard this phrase for the first time, I thought it was an accident. But then I heard it over and over again, and I have realized that there is actually such a point of view.
Since children are sensitive to any information, and in this case, it was repeated many times, so I realized that my children can be imbued with the idea that Germany was the victim in World War II, and Soviet soldiers were the aggressors. My grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought at the war, and I thought that my children, when they grow up, might ask me: "Mom, why did your grandfather attack Germany and hurt my friend Hans’ grandfather?" Can you imagine?..
This discovery turned out to be a great stress for me. I felt very unpleasant. And I wanted to do something, somehow put the understanding of what actually happened in the minds of my children and their peers. In our Russian-German school, children prepare presentations dedicated to May 9 and talk about their great-grandfathers who fought in the war. However, German schools do not hold such events. Even in schools with the Russian language of instruction, everything very much depends on the teacher’s desire and initiative, as well as the learning community in a specific class.
Among my German acquaintances, there are those who still feel emotional over the fact that they did not win in 1945. At the same time, they were not even born back then - they are 40 - 50 years old now. But there are other Germans who know and remember their history. They remember that the Soviet troops came and the famine ended immediately. Once one of them asked me: "Do you know why the square is named Bersarinplatz?" I didn't even know who Berzarin had been. So I did a Google search.
I went through a lot of topics looking for the one that could be interesting and understandable to children, evoke positive emotions, and could unite Russians and Germans. And all the time the name of Nikolai Berzarin came to the attention. The director of the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst invited me to research their archives. Thus, I read many documents of that time and realized that it was really necessary to make an exhibition about Nikolai Berzarin with an emphasis on Berlin restoration after the end of the war.
While searching for a topic, I had the opportunity to study the history of the Trümmerfrau movement - German women who had worked to clear the rubble. This movement existed in all German cities. But recently a book has been published that claims it is a myth, and these women were invented by Soviet propaganda. This statement is nonsense for Berlin. In my house there lived a woman who had worked on sorting out the rubble and this was how she got an apartment in a Stalinist house on Karl-Marx-Alley. Do they mean she didn’t exist? And there were many such women. That is, we see another attempt to rewrite history.
And most importantly, this movement was organized by General Nikolai Berzarin, the commander of the 5th Shock Army, which had taken part in the storming of Berlin. On April 24, 1945, he was appointed the first Soviet commandant of Berlin. The first thing he organizes the debris removal at the airport so that USSR planes with humanitarian aid could land there.
General Nikolai Berzarin with Soviet officers, April 16 - 20, 1945. Before the Battle of the Seelow Heights. Photo credit: bersarin.artozon.ru
– What was Berlin like back then? It was heavily bombed by the allies - the Americans and the British, wasn’t it?
– Berlin was completely destroyed. At first, Hitler's troops turned the city into barricades to stop Soviet tanks, blew up more than 200 bridges, and deliberately cut off the residents of the central and labor districts with high-rise buildings from the food supply. The buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. American and British pilots dropped phosphorus bombs on Berlin, and the entire city burned down and turned to ruins
By then, people were starving for several weeks. The water supply system was destroyed, and people drank water from the Spree River, where everything was drained and dumped, including corpses. Typhus broke out, many people simply died in the streets. There was no electricity. It is fair to say that if it were not for the Soviet troops and Berzarin’s organizational abilities, the city would simply die out and collapse, and there would be no Berlin.
When the Russian soldiers came, they first reconstructed the Karlshorst power plant and immediately arranged to feed the Berliners. That is, there were still battles in some districts, but food supply was already organized for local residents in the liberated territories.
– It is reported that Berzarin immediately arranged the distribution of meal tickets for all residents of the city, Was it so?
– Yes, it was. He did it right in the early days. Moreover, there was such an episode: the food distribution point was damaged due to shelling, and it was temporarily closed. So representatives of the Germans immediately ran to the Soviet command and asked if they could help somehow, maybe execute someone by shooing? Just resume operation of the food distribution point. For the local population, in fact, it was a big shock that the Red Army did not destroy but fed them.
– The most striking thing was how quickly a postwar peaceful life in Berlin had been arranged. As early as May 1945, the metro was opened, buses commenced operation…
– Yes, indeed! Russians did everything at once. I want to make another video on this topic. My aim is to show the pace of the city transformation and revival. Berzarin turned out to have excellent diplomatic skills - he managed to come to an agreement with everyone and engaged the residents in the city rebuilding.
Why did women take part in debris removal? They were not forced to. They were paid for this work with a higher nutrition standard, just as men engaged in hard labor. Later on, they were provided with accommodation. Very soon kindergartens and schools opened, so women could leave their children there. The issue was approached in a comprehensive manner. Therefore, having seen that they were given food and not been killed, the residents began to cooperate with the Soviet command. Human pragmatism won. Therefore, the city was restored so fast.
– After all, Berlin Philharmonic Halls resumed their operation in May, didn’t they? Symphony orchestras started performing, 30 cinemas were opened …
– Yes, life was literally in full swing. They organized radio programs that were broadcasted throughout Germany and told about things happening in Berlin. Those broadcasts were extremely popular. And there was a population shift to Berlin from all over the country. First, two million food tickets were printed according to the number of residents. But in a couple of weeks, the city's population increased by another 800,000 people. Apparently, on the one hand, those who had been hiding came out into the open; and on the other, a lot of people of art understood that they would be fed and given work there, so they shifted to Berlin.
Nikolai Berzarin managed to unite the efforts of everyone. He gave people the opportunity to show their best side. Thus, this incredible effect of restoring a peaceful life could be observed.
Peter Jan, director of the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst in 1995-2005 and author of a book about Nikolai Berzarin, said: “Post-war Berlin adored Berzarin” (quoted from an online exhibition).
– After his tragic death in June 1945, he became an honorary citizen of Berlin. But after the German reunification, his name was excluded from this list. Why was it restored later?
– After the reunification of Germany, there was a kind of clean-up of everything connected to Soviet times. But Nikolai Berzarin managed to do so much in 54 days of being the Berlin commandant that in 2003 historians and social activists united and proved that he was a man of merit, and the title of honorary citizen of Berlin should be returned to him.
He had a truly unique biography of a very good person. When he became commandant of Berlin, he met with representatives of all parties except the Nazi, which was banned. He also met with representatives of all confessions. He encouraged the resumption of political activities, helped organize local government bodies, and the Scripture knowledge instruction was resumed in schools at his direction. That is, he made it possible for everyone to work.
The memorial event dedicated to General Berzarin in the Friedrichshain district, Berlin
– Now The Last Feat of Nikolai Berzarin exhibition can be viewed online. But you do have plans to present it in German schools as well…
– In the autumn, we held an outdoor event together with a public organization that has been conducting street activities for children for 20-30 years - they arrange themed games. They make all parts for games from wood with their own hands. When I shared my idea with them, it turned out that many of them are from the Friedrichshain area and know the Berzarinplatz, and someone's grandmothers were engaged in debris removal. They offered to make a game that simulates the debris removal process, and I decided to give a tour. We showed Berlin before the war, during the war, and how it was rebuilt after the war. With reference to the city rebuilding, I talked about Berzarin and his role in this process. This approach turned out to be correct since a lot of residents of the Friedrichshain district know the history of the Trümmerfrau movement well, and the fact that it was Berzarin who established and greatly supported the movement bring out positive emotions from them.
After these three-day tours, I was offered to present my project in schools, but then strict lockdown began. Some schools opened last week only. Now we will consult with the teachers to discuss how we will fit our exhibition into the lessons, and I will try to spark schoolchildren’s interest in Berzarin.
Schoolgirls are giving a tour around The Last Feat of Nikolai Berzarin exhibition in Moscow School No. 2094. Photo credit: Последний подвиг Nikolai Berzarin/Facebook
In Berlin, there are about 20 gymnasium-level schools where Russian is taught; there are also several elementary schools; so the target audience is rather big. The most important thing is that there is a demand and there is support.
We also spoke to the Humboldt University of Berlin. They also supported us and agreed to host our exhibition in two languages. But it is still difficult to say when it will happen because of the current lockdown.
We also the Berzarin children chess tournament planned, and our exhibition will be also presented there.
Most importantly, I want the generation of my children and their peers to live in a harmonious world without a thirst for global revenge and looking for enemies in other countries.