Freiburg: from rubble to rebirth

According to an eyewitness who survived the bombing, the residents of Freiburg never saw it coming.

They had every reason to think they’d be spared: Their small city in the foothills of Germany’s Black Forest had no military installations, and it was not on the Allies’ target list. Plus, they knew that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had studied there and thought his sentimentality would protect their town.

Even on November 27, 1944 — as the drone of airplane engines echoed in the valley — the people of Freiburg took little notice.

Emil Philipp Rödelstab was among them. A minister and archiepiscopal advisor, he knew that the front had moved closer to Freiburg and every day he saw bombers flying over the city. Yet day after day, nothing happened. Even the destruction of Freiburg’s railway tracks and bridges a few days earlier had already been “almost forgotten,” he wrote. 

That’s why when he and his colleagues heard the airplane engines early that afternoon, they sprinted to the window rather than take shelter.

“A magnificent spectacle!” he wrote. “The bombers looked to us like silvery birds, their contrails like long white tails. [They were like] flying Christmas stars in the clear, cold blue sky.” As the bombers flew off without incident, he wondered where they had carried out their deadly mission.

That evening he sat down to dinner at about 7:30 in the Sacred Heart Church in Stühlinger, and then retired to his room to pray. At about 7:45 he heard the familiar drone of the airplanes again. Then came the screams. “Flares in the sky! Everyone into the basement!”

He grabbed his coat and hat, but as he scrambled for the basement he could already hear the roar of the low-flying aircraft and the first explosions.

For 20 minutes we stood in the hallway in the basement, our hearts pounding, as the inferno around us shook the earth and made the walls of the basement tremble. We were silent and we prayed. After the first 10 minutes, the bomb strikes came closer to us. There was a huge blow and a gust of air that made the whole house shake. The windows shattered, the door to our cellar fell in, and a cloud of dust made breathing difficult. The electric light went out. We lit candles and looked for water in the laundry room to moisten the handkerchiefs and keep the dust out of our noses and mouths. I put on the gas mask. Then we began to pray. Had our last hour struck? … The faint light of the candle and the intermittent flashing of torches gave a ghostly light in the smoke and dust of the explosions. Minutes felt like an eternity, because outside, it was hell.”

Operation Tigerfish” lasted only 23 minutes. But in those 23 minutes, 292 Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers dropped 3,002 explosive and 11,523 incendiary bombs on Freiburg. When it was over, one-third of the city’s homes had been leveled, and the historic old town — as well as the suburbs of Neuburg, Betzenhausen, Mooswald, and Stühlinger — were engulfed in flames. 2,797 people died in those 23 minutes and almost 10,000 more were injured.

The main shopping street of Kaiser-Joseph-Straße, above, is reduced to rubble; in the distance is the Martinstor, one of the two medieval city gates that still survive. Photo via Wikipedia.

Above and below: Only the spire of the Münster is recognizable after the bombing. Photos via Traces of Evil and Prospect Magazine.

I was utterly unaware of this history the first time I visited Freiburg. In fact, I was so charmed by the Altstadt that I mistakenly gushed in a travel article about Freiburg’s “beautifully preserved medieval ‘old town.’”

It’s an easy mistake for the first-time visitor, because the city feels old, and some of the ancient structures — including the Münster, the Schwabentor and the Martinstor — did survive. But the Freiburg we know today is actually a lovingly detailed reconstruction, built out of its rubble on the city’s original street plan.

The Schwabentor, above, is one of two medieval gates that still exist, out of the original five.

The Kornhaus, formerly a granary dating to the 1400s, was razed in the bombing. It was rebuilt in 1970 based on historical photos.

The illusion is wonderful, and I’ve fallen in love with it.

But, curious to unveil the “real” face of Freiburg, I started researching and collecting some old postcards last year. That’s how I came across a 1933 issue of National Geographic magazine with a lengthy report on Germany’s “Gateway to the Black Forest.”

There were some charming anachronisms in Alicia Overbeck’s article, like the subhead declaring that “DUELING AGAIN IS LEGAL.”

… in Germany a duel-scarred face is regarded as an asset. My daughter was telling me about an Adonis who lives in the fraternity house opposite her school, ‘He’s so handsome, Muddy,’ she sighed. ‘So handsome! Why, his face is simply carved with dueling!’”

Other references were chilling, like the photo caption stating that “… from the portico of a house in the row facing the right side of the Cathedral many Hitler mass meetings were held preceding the recent election.”

How sad and ironic that a similar photo would be shot a few years later, as a record of Hitler’s destructive legacy.

But, in spite of Freiburg’s almost-total devastation — and subsequent reconstruction — I was awestruck by how familiar the descriptions in this 1933 article still rang.

The place is delightfully neat. I have lived here a year now and have never found even an approximate slum. The streets, down to the smallest, are immaculately clean, and during the warm weather flowers are everywhere …”

On … market days, the cobbled square is covered with stalls protected by cotton umbrellas or makeshift awnings, on which are piled crisp, newly picked vegetables, delicious fresh fruit … poultry, rich, dark-brown Schwartzwald honey, and mountains of flowers.”

Close to Schwabentor is the Bear, generally conceded to be the oldest inn in Germany. … The Bear Inn appears on Freiburg’s town records as a going concern in 1390, and since that date the names of its proprietors are all on file. This is somewhat of a miracle when you consider that the poor old Bear … has survived … the onslaughts of Austrian, French, and Swedish armies …”

The most distinctive note of the Freiburg wine industry is that some of the vineyards are actually a part of the city. … A friend of mine, who lives not more than ten minutes’ walk from the Berthold Fountain, had last fall a wine harvest of more than 790 gallons from the grapes growing on the hillsides behind her house.”

The surroundings of the city, too, are charming. Right to its stately medieval gate sweeps the Schwartzwald, mile upon mile of pine, spruce and fir … Between tall, clean-limbed trees, unimpeded by underbrush, paths branch out through this vast forest. At every cross-trail is a signpost carefully marked with directions and distances; and all the recognized hikes are designated by definite insignia, so that by following your red or blue diamond … you will be certain to arrive at your appointed destination.”

But most of all, I was thrilled to recognize some of my favorite haunts among the old photos.

Inspired by the Ghosts of History project, I set out to duplicate the images. I didn’t get very far, though: In every frame, there were flagpoles and nets and scaffolds and trees where none had existed before.

If you look closely, you can still see the painting of St. George and the Dragon under the scaffolding, above.

I didn’t even get close to duplicating the next photo. But at least I gave the locals a good laugh as I lay on the ground and then squished myself into a doorway while trying to get the right angle.

One of those locals later approached me as I was photographing an unusual fountain inside the Münster.

My German is weak — and Hansjörg spoke only a bit of Spanish — but I was able to gather that he was five when Freiburg was bombed. He still remembers vividly.

“That one went dry,” he said, gesturing toward the skull fountain. “All of the water dried up, except for one source.” He led me around the back of the nave to point out the single, precious font of clean drinking water. “This one still ran, because the water came down from the mountains.”

How fitting, I thought, that in 1944 the Münster had again become a place of shelter for the people of Freiburg — and a source of water, just as it had been centuries before.

Hansjörg then led me to the carvings on the exterior of the old cathedral.

I’d noticed the crowns and cannons on a previous visit, evidence that war had found Freiburg before.

But this was the first time I noticed the plaque on the front of the old minster.

My heart broke for the almost 3,000 people who died in the bombing. But I couldn’t help being in awe of the decades of work — and the love — the survivors put into rebuilding their old city.

In doing so they not only preserved their history, but they also recaptured the very soul of what made Freiburg so special to that National Geographic correspondent in 1933 … and to me, almost three quarters of a century later.

I won’t be in Freiburg this evening to hear the peals of the bell Hosanna echo through the narrow streets, as they have since 1258. But I’ll be there in spirit — and I’ll pray that Freiburg and her people will never again face war.

Contemporary text and images © Heather Munro.