a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Germany trip: Schweinfurt

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 16th, 2004

Zeughaus in background; the building now houses the local newspaper
Maddie and cousin Stefan in front of Schweinfurt
“Zeughaus” medieval arsenal.
Wartime photo of the structure here.

I was born in Schweinfurt forty six years ago. My parents left for America soon after. (With me! of course.)

I grew up knowing a little German for baby dummies — Kuh, ich bin fertig, and most impressively Herrschaftsbombenelementnochmal (cow / I’m done / uh-oh we’re in for it now). Then one spring my folks got a set of records and a book and proceeded to teach us German, so we’d be able to say something when we went to Germany that summer. Oddly, our first sentence was a petty complaint: “Der Tee ist gut, aber die Tasse ist zu klein.” — “The tea is good, but the cup is too small.” My brother and I would write down everything. It worked pretty well. We’re still good at petty complaints.

Exotic Schweinfurt
Schweinfurt, Germany — West Germany back then — was about as different as my nine-year old brain could imagine a place to be from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They had cars, but different ones. They had lots of little stores you had to go to — one for bread, one for meat, one for ice cream and treats. There were church bells ringing all the time. Everything looked old and important. Everything was squeezed together — so you could walk to places instead of having to drive. You returned bottles and their little wired-on caps, in boxes of sixteen. You didn’t drink Coke, you drank Limonade (kind of like Sunkist soda), and if you were lucky you got a little bitty ice cube. No one ate corn on the cob or watermelon. And mainly there was this huge family I was suddenly part of, including kids my age, a grandpa with cherry trees to pick and beehives to care for, aunts and uncles around every corner.

World War II
Schweinfurt was and still is the site of a number of ball-bearing factories; during World War II this made it the target of repeated bombing by Allied air forces. The first raid was a 230 B-17 bomber attack on August 7, 1943 that damaged the city’s factories. Because the bombers had no fighter escorts, many were shot down by German pilots; the attack cost a staggering 36 planes and 341 airmen. A second unescorted attack on October 13, 1943 was remembered as “Black Thursday” — by the Americans: of 291 bombers that began the mission, 60 were lost along with 639 airmen.

The combination of poor tactics and great distance from Allied airfields gave Schweinfurt the distinction of costing about the same number of airmen their lives as Germans — mostly civilian. Of the roughly 1100 Schweinfurters who died, 362 perished in Allied air attacks on February 24-25, 1944. According to one source, Schweinfurt was bombed 22 times with over 590,000 bombs. While production was temporarily affected, the need for ball bearings was so great that facilities were simply spread out and rebuilt.*

Whether this made the Schweinfurt missions fruitless or poor decisions is for historians to decide. The human toll was beyond doubt. While visiting the cemetery in Schweinfurt, I saw numerous graves alluding to the air attacks either directly, or by date and implication — mothers and children buried together. That’s not to say there weren’t enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich in town; my aunt showed me a photo of her husband’s family home — the one I was sitting in — with long Nazi banners trailing from the windows. Sometimes I think simple pageantry seduced as many as ideology did.

Just as catastrophes like the Black Death or Thirty Years War of old were transmuted into dark fairy tales, so the ordeal of World War II has echoed down at least one generation: the “bombenelement” in that earliest of my German words meant “bomb element.”**

The word ‘Schweinfurt’ itself is as prosaic as it can possibly be: “swine ford,” a shallow spot in the Main River for pig herds to cross. Its poet laureate Friedrich Rückert once half-seriously lamented something to the effect “You could have been Wineford, or Mainford, but no, you had to be Swineford.” That’s OK. It’s a pleasant place to visit and to live. The industry may be struggling now, but people seem to be making a go of it. The city has one of the de rigeur pedestrian zones most German cities do, but with narrower streets that make the shopping zone seem like an outdoor mall. There are more Turkish people there now than I remembered, selling Turkish staples from trailers on the market place, or sitting on chairs out on the sidewalk — a bit annoying to some older Germans not yet used to that.

It’s my home away from home, with a dear aunt in town and a dear uncle nearby, with long gone grandparents and their Oberndorf house and cherry tree and beehives, with a Cramerstrasse courtyard we’d play soccer and ping-pong in, with a hospital I could show my little girl and say, “Yes, I was born there.” And see her eyes get big and round as if that was important.

[Germany 2004 travelogue: home]
* The World War II information in this post comes from an utterly fascinating “Third Reich in Ruins” web site maintained by Geoffrey Walden. The site features a number of photographic comparisons of Germany, including Schweinfurt and Würzburg then and now which are quite striking — in many cases buildings and streets have been so well restored that there’s a very ghostly quality about the wartime photos. Many of the “before” photos were taken by Mr. Walden’s father Lt. Delbert Walden while stationed in Germany in 1945-1946. Via “Ruins,” you can read an American pilot’s account of Black Thursday here. For all that Schweinfurt was more of a legitimate military target, Würzburg fared much worse: some 3,000 to 5,000 people died in the fire-bombing of March 16, 1945. Just over a week earlier, U.S. forces had crossed the Rhine at Remagen. — According to a note on his website, Mr. Walden is currently serving in the Middle East. I thank him for his service, and wish him good luck.
** I didn’t know that as a boy — all I knew was that it clearly meant “red alert,” and that it was the longest and scariest word in human experience. It doesn’t really mean anything; one literal translation would be “lordship’s bomb element once again.” For all I know it’s only used in our family.

One Response to “Germany trip: Schweinfurt”

  1. » Blog Archive » Book Review: Among the Dead Cities, A.C. Grayling Says:

    […] dam-buster or Peenemunde rocket production facility attacks, the USAAF’s attacks on Schweinfurt ball bearing plants, or similarly motivated and targeted attacks on oil and gas production […]

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