I’m Freezing: Berlin And The Winter Of 1940

We don’t get hot water in our apartments any longer, except for two days each week if there happens to be enough coal in the basement to heat the water and the building, too. There usually isn’t.

From a diary entry of January 12, 1940 in Berlin Embassy, by William Russell. The author was a clerk in the US Consulate in Berlin in the last several years before the war. Like so many others, he often wrote in his diary about the terrible cold in Berlin. The winter of 1940 was the worst in twenty-five years.

But this was Germany and cold winters are hardly unusual. Normally the Germans would not have been flummoxed. But this was the Third Reich and there were shortages of everything and this compounded the difficulties presented by nature. Trucks to haul coal from coal yards to apartment buildings were in short supply because many had been seized by the Wehrmacht – which had an astounding shortage of trucks. But even if trucks had been available to haul coal, gasoline was not available. And even had gasoline been available, fewer men were available to load and drive coal trucks because so many men had been drafted into the Wehrmacht. Of course, the biggest problem was the shortage of coal for civilians since industry and the military had first call.

The city government of Berlin finally gave citizens permission to go to the coal yards, which were located by rail points, and haul their own coal. Writes William Russell:

Baby carriages, children’s wagons, old suitcases, and gunny sacks were utilized to bring the lumps of coal from the railroad yards…

Wealthy people had an advantage over others. They checked into luxury hotels which normally had sufficient supplies of coal, particularly those hotels where foreign journalists lived. (And many lived in hotels.)

If one lived in an apartment house which had absolutely no coal and no staff to haul coal, then the residents had to take time off work every day and trek to the coal yards. This was required because none of the aforementioned ways to carry the fuel favored carrying large amounts of coal.

The very old and the very young, who had the most free time, had to make several trips to the coal yards each day. It got to be a common sight to see an old man of seventy-five or eighty years trudging along the streets with a heavy coal sack slung over his shoulder. Beside him usually walked a youngster pulling a toy wagon full of lumps of coal.

Families who had coal fired cooking stoves moved into their kitchens. Using bits of wood and scavenged coal a family could usually keep the stove burning and keep the temperature in the kitchen at forty or fifty degrees. Since there was a scant supply of hot water, people didn’t bathe. Two large galvanized tin washtubs were set up in the US Embassy so that American employees of the embassy and consular service could bathe on a regular basis. One had to sign up a day or more in advance.

Long distance trains were no longer heated. Neither were tramcars or subway cars or S-Bahn cars. (The S-Bahn was similar to the “The EL” in New York City (ELevated railroad). Much of this was torn down in Manhattan in the 1930s and the scrap iron and steel sold to the Japanese. My late father used to say he rode the EL as a child and then the Japanese shot it all back at him in World War Two.)

Elevated railroad in New York City, so called “suicide curve” above 110th St, 1896

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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