Up from the Cellars

Kevin Ostoyich

Kevin Ostoyich

Valparaiso University

Prof. Kevin Ostoyich was a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in summer 2018 and was previously a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in summer 2017. He is Professor of History at Valparaiso University, where he served as the chair of the history department from 2015 to 2019. He holds his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Prior to moving to Valparaiso, he taught at the University of Montana. He has served as a Research Associate at the Harvard Business School and an Erasmus Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. He currently is an associate of the Center for East Asian Studies of the University of Chicago, a board member of the Sino-Judaic Institute, and an inaugural member of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum International Advisory Board. He has published on German migration, German-American history, and the history of the Shanghai Jews.

While at AICGS, Prof. Ostoyich conducted research on his project, “The Wounds of History, the Wounds of Today: The Shanghai Jews and the Morality of Refugee Crises.” The Shanghai Jews were refugees from Nazi Europe who found haven in Shanghai, and thus escaped the Holocaust. For this project Ostoyich has interviewed many former Shanghai Jewish refugees and has conducted research at the National Archives at College Park, MD, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. At Valparaiso University he co-teaches a course titled “Historical Theatre: The Shanghai Jews,” which fuses the disciplines of history and theatre. To date, students of the course have co-written and performed two original productions based on the history of the Shanghai Jewish refugee community: Knocking on the Doors of History: The Shanghai Jews and Shanghai Carousel: What Tomorrow Will Be. In addition to his work on the Shanghai Jews, he is currently working on projects pertaining to the experiences of ordinary Germans during the bombing of Bremen, German Catholic experiences in nineteenth-century Württemberg, German Catholic migration, and U.S.-German cultural diplomacy during the first half of the twentieth century.

Click here for an article by Ostoyich on the Shanghai Jews.

He is currently trying to interview as many former Shanghailanders as possible. If you would like to be interviewed or know someone who might want to be interviewed, please contact Professor Ostoyich at kevin.ostoyich@valpo.edu.

Part Three of Rubble Child’s World: Stories from Bremen’s Ruins

In this 75th anniversary year of the end of World War II, AGI is pleased to present this four-part series of ordinary Germans’ recollections of that time.


In the Introduction to her outstanding work of oral history of German women who lived during the Second World War, Alison Owings wrote that since the conclusion of the war, “German women seem to have been gladly and cursorily dismissed from the world’s consciousness as irrelevant to the past, the present, and the future, and certainly to non-Germans.”[1] She asks, “What could their actions and their inactions possibly have to do with us?”[2] Just as with popular depictions of the Third Reich and the Second World War, narratives of the postwar period tend to utilize a top-down approach. The standard narratives turn from Hitler to statesmen such as Truman, Churchill, and Stalin, and tend to emphasize how the Allies divided and structured West Germany and East Germany within the new geopolitical reality of the Cold War. Scant attention is paid to how the end of the war and its immediate aftermath were experienced by ordinary persons. What were ordinary women thinking and doing when they emerged from cellars to ruins and occupying soldiers? Two accounts written by women of their interactions with occupying soldiers give us some indication of these often overlooked mentalities of history.[3] They allow us to glimpse this history up from the cellars.[4]

Woman #1: I can still remember the time around the 8th of May 1945 very well

I can still remember the time around the 8th of May 1945 very well.

On the 26th of April, I was cycling to acquaintances in Woltmershausen in order to pick up a grain mill. Upon turning into the Huchtinger Straße, I suddenly saw tanks rolling on Auf dem Bohnenkamp. The shock made me shake all over. I turned on the spot and rode back home as fast as I could. There I alerted my sisters-in-law, my father-in-law, and together with the children we hid in the cellar. But it was not long before we heard foreign voices—they were there!

I gathered all my courage and left the cellar. Two soldiers approached me. They looked terrifying, weapons at the ready, helmets wrapped in nets. In my school-English I stuttered again and again: “No soldiers, only women and children, no soldiers, only women and children,”[5] but they pushed past me and verified for themselves.

After they had inspected everything—the small house where my sister-in-law and I lived, the larger house where my father-in-law with daughter and family lived—they withdrew. We thought it was over, but then, to our extreme horror, a tank was already rolling onto our yard with a jeep behind it, we were occupied by five or six soldiers in total.

We feared the worst, but our fear proved to be unfounded.

We feared the worst, but our fear proved to be unfounded. We were permitted to stay in our apartments. The English set up places to sleep in the former “boys’ room” in the large house with mattresses, which they had organized; my father-in-law’s room served as an office. Cooking and eating were conducted in our small house, a decision that proved advantageous for my sister-in-law and me.

The English required, however, that the house door remain open, because the cook, Charly—we learned the name later—had to prepare the tea early in the morning. We were very concerned, the thought of an open house door did not please us a single bit. We circumvented this directive by locking the house door and then having my sister-in-law reopen it early in the morning.

Charly had thoroughly examined our kitchen stove; he then took a broom and subjected the stove to an extensive cleaning. Afterward, we could no longer recognize our old kitchen stove. Charly cooked, baked, and fried like we never thought possible. Naturally, he did not have to worry about fuel; they fetched coal in their jeep from the nearby dairy. Likewise, they procured eggs and poultry from the surrounding villages. Often something was leftover for us; for example, Charly only utilized the stock from a chicken; we received the boiled meat – a feast for us!

The highest-ranking soldier was Stanley; he sat in the office and also spoke some German. He was initially very reserved toward us, almost hostile. His attitude toward us changed gradually, not least because of my little daughter, who, in fact, had initially greeted the English with the words: “Beat it, you Russians!” but who, with the impartiality of a child, drew nearer to them, which not only earned her the name “Blondy” but also the coveted chocolate.

Germany surrendered on the 8th of May. No feelings stirred inside me—only relief. The war had taken from me my husband, my apartment, from my two children their father. Whatever may come could not be any worse.

The war had taken from me my husband, my apartment, from my two children their father. Whatever may come could not be any worse.

The English prepared for a victory celebration. Again they procured everything possible with their jeep, among other things several dimions[6] with wine, but also beer. The celebration was supposed to take place in our small parlor, our bedroom lay immediately next to it and there was no key. Our concerns mounted regarding the alcohol; naturally, we were afraid. We asked Stanley to keep an eye on the celebration. Around 22:00, he appeared in the parlor, asked everyone if they had had enough, no one dissented and the celebration was over, and the soldiers left our house. We could sleep calmly.

A few days later the English departed. They left behind for us so much food that we were taken care of for the following weeks, above all though with flour and sugar for “Blondy’s birthday cake”[7] —my daughter turned four years old on May 31.

We were the defeated enemies, but the English had behaved very humanely toward us, nevertheless, we were glad when the “occupation period” concluded.

Woman #2: The Terrible Last Days

The last days of the war were terrible, in Bremen-Burg there was no bunker, we sat in the boiler-room.

Then on Good Friday 1945, there was a violent attack, and the planes flew over our garden so close that one could make out the pilots in the cockpits.

Then we moved finally into the cellar, because it was no longer possible to stay in the apartment, because Burg lay under artillery bombardment. A projectile had gone a hair’s width by my face and penetrated into the wall.

On the day of the 8th of May, I sat with the landlady in the cellar and removed the rank insignia of the German Wehrmacht from the uniforms of her sons. Outside one heard tanks rolling, then there was knocking and two Englishmen stepped over the threshold. They were very friendly and laughed. When they saw the detached insignia, they said, “Oh, very good souvenir” and pocketed everything.

Then they looked through the house, rolled a writing desk and the piano into another room and set up a shoemaker’s workshop in the dining room. (We were able to pull the nails out of the parquet floor later.)

Then a third Englishman came into the house. When he saw the soldiers’ pictures on the walls, he demanded that they be taken down. My landlady, who was very attached to the pictures of her sons, began to cry. Then the Englishman put an arm around her and said: “Mama, no crying, U.S. Commandant is Jew!”[8] We took out the pictures, and I put in the frames pictures of my three brothers, who had emigrated to the U.S. in the twenties. They all had English dedications. Then we set up a copper lamp that was in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, so that everything looked properly American. When the soldiers came, they admired the wonderful pictures and were rather friendly.

We set up a copper lamp that was in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, so that everything looked properly American.

Then chickens arrived on a truck and the English built a chicken coop out of camouflage nets. My husband helped them. We received eggs and one chicken and in the afternoon they came with tea and conversed with us in the large laundry room. One of them had lost his whole family in London from a German V2 attack. He showed us pictures of them and cried.

We also washed for the English.

We lived in the cellar for one week, then they came and said that we should move back upstairs (Nothing sleep good cellar, get sick!).[9] In the garden they tied the mattresses to a rope and my husband stood on the balcony on the first floor and pulled everything up. We even had fun with one another and, despite the language difficulties, we laughed a lot.

Given that now in Burg many roofs and glass panes were missing, the chief of the Burmester Shipyard gave my husband the authority to give all the plywood and glass that was left over from shipbuilding to the population. Thus, slowly a makeshift restoration began.

An English plane lay in the Lesum at the destroyed Burger Bridge. It was a jarring sight, the soldier dead at the joystick, for him, too, a mother cried.

For my birthday on May 17th our English left again. On the house steps they had lain fabric, from which I could sew aprons and pillows. Perhaps they had taken it from someplace else?

I am today[10] 77 years old and long-since a widow. But I remember the war and postwar periods so vividly as if it were yesterday.


Postwar history is often structured around the policies of statesmen and geopolitical alliances. The plot is usually of how the policies of the Allies forged new sensibilities among the German people from the top down. There seems little room for depictions of laughter, tears, and chicken shared by ordinary English soldiers who marched into towns and ordinary Germans who emerged from cellars. The two accounts here provide hints that the shifts in relations between the Allies and the Germans were not necessarily simply created from above. As we follow these women as they emerge from their cellars, we see individuals who had become weary of the war and who, although initially shocked by the first personal encounter with the enemy, quickly adapted to the new reality of the occupation and were relieved that the war and its concomitant bombings were over. The rapidity by which the enemies of yesterday became the friends of tomorrow in the two accounts is striking. While it is possible that much of this was simply a survival instinct and play-acting to some degree—one thinks of the quick photo switch and the intentional display of the Statue of Liberty lamp—there do seem to be genuine empathetic engagements in these early encounters, such as when the second author writes how the English soldier showed pictures of the family he had lost to a German bombing attack.

The most prominent theme running through the two accounts is the continued appreciation after fifty years for the humane treatment afforded to the authors and their families by the English occupying soldiers. To war-weary women who had lost belongings and loved ones, the simple act on the part of the English of leaving boiled chicken and fabric, or flour and sugar for “Blondy’s” birthday cake, could and did go a long way in changing mentalities. As the initial frightening sights of tanks, guns, and helmets gave way to conversations in broken German and English, new types of encounters transpired and new types of relations formed. With the din of war subsiding, erstwhile enemies could start to listen to each other directly—albeit in a rough mixture of German, English, and hand signals. Stripped of the state propaganda of war, foes could reshape their relations with each other. The radical change in the relationship is evident in the depiction of English pilots in the second account: Toward the beginning of the account, the author depicts the violent attacks of English pilots; at narrative’s end, the author writes of a downed English pilot and thinks that he, too, has a grieving mother.

Although these glimpses up from the cellars are fleeting, they reveal much about the transformative quality of personal interaction and social exchange. People are not abstractions, and war comes easy to those who forget this.

Kevin Ostoyich dedicates this article to the memory of his grandfathers, George H. Jordan, Jr. (January 5, 1918 – July 11, 1994) and Steven M. Ostoyich (June 21, 1921 – February 7, 2009), both of whom fought for the U.S. Army during the Second World War.

Kevin Ostoyich wishes to thank Marion Alpert and all the wonderful archivists and staff members at the Staatsarchiv Bremen for being so welcoming and helpful over the years and Dean Jon T. Kilpinen of the College of Arts and Sciences at Valparaiso University for his ongoing support.

The research for the “Rubble Child’s World: Stories from Bremen’s Ruins” series was conducted while Kevin Ostoyich was a guest professor at Reutlingen University. He wishes to thank Regine Lechler-Fiola, Richard Schilling, and Baldur Veit for their friendship and support.

The texts in this article were translated from the original German by the author.

[1] Alison Owings, Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993), xxiv.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Prior to writing a magisterial tome on the subject, Sir Ian Kershaw noticed that “a comprehensive study of German mentalities in the last months [of the war] has not yet been attempted.” Ian Kershaw, The End: Germany 1944-45 (London: Penguin Books, 2011), xv-xvi.

[4] The two accounts presented here were submitted in response to a call from the Bürgermeister of Bremen in 1994 for the citizens of the city to send in materials pertaining to the end of the Second World War in preparation for the 50th Anniversary of VE Day in 1995.  Over 100 individuals sent in materials, which are presently housed in the State Archives of Bremen (Staatsarchiv Bremen). The archival reference number for the collection is 9, S 9-25. Note: The identities of the two authors have been withheld.

[5] This is written in English in the original.

[6] This is most likely an alternate spelling of “dymions.” Dymions are vessels often used for wine.

[7] This is written in English in the original.

[8] Note: The original is a rough mixture of English and German.

[9] This is her rendition of their communication.

[10] In 1995

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.