“Berlin Miracle,” Ensign, Oct. 1978, 18
We were only one Berlin subway stop away from home when the air-raid sirens began wailing. From past experience, we knew we had a little over five minutes before the bombers would arrive and I waited tensely, feeling the increasing anxiety of my three sisters, Edith, Esther, and Ursula as we all tried mentally to make the subway move faster. Fortunately, Mother was there. Her mere presence kept panic at bay, but she moved quickly too, when we reached our stop, shepherding us out on the platform.
She had to shout to be heard over the sirens: “Run girls! We can get home before the bombs hit!” She started running with us, then stopped, smiled, and said, “Don’t worry.”
Frenzied, we shouted, “Mother, hurry!”
“It’s all right,” she said. “We don’t need to run. Suddenly, I know where the bombs will fall tonight, and we will be untouched.” Then, she pointed out the places the bombs would hit and walked unhurriedly along with us. We were still nervous, but the serenity of her faith was contagious. And by the time we reached home, we had seen the bombers go overhead, heard the bombs burst, and seen the fires begin in the locations she had pointed out.
When I think of faith, I think of my mother and the assurance of God’s love that she carried with her everywhere. Because she leaned on the Lord for support, she was constantly upheld; and the lessons she taught us by example have been the foundation for my own testimony.
I remember the spring of 1943; the American planes overhead were beginning the saturation bombing that would hasten the end of the war. On the eastern border, our soldiers—among them my two brothers Horst and Arno—were fighting the Russian army. Our father, the branch president, had resisted the Nazi party and his artistic skills had been put to work in a government mapmaking office far away from us. Mother was alone with four teen-age daughters—and the Lord.
The bombing was continuous for weeks, and we soon became aware that our neighbors watched Mother when the sirens began to wail. If she was calm, we were safe. If she was agitated, they expected the worst. And they were never misled.
On one of the occasions she was tense, a pattern of bombs fell only five blocks from us, starting raging fires, and burning to death those who had survived the bombs themselves. No one in that area survived. After that, we added to our petitions the prayer that we would not be home if our own area was bombed.
One Sunday in March 1945, as we sat in Sunday School, we heard the sirens begin; and this time Mother felt that our own area was endangered. She was right. For blocks our street was smoking rubble, but our own building, miraculously, was still standing with only the roof damaged.
Later we learned that two phosphorus bombs had dropped into the sixth-floor attic, but two courageous occupants had raced upstairs, scooped up the bombs, and hurled them out into the street. On any other day, we would have been home in that apartment building.
As 1945 dragged on, we knew that the war must end soon. On April 20, the Russians entered Berlin—preceded by their reputation for rape and plunder. These fears were the worst yet, but Mother’s unfaltering faith gave us confidence. The Russians were taking the city street by street, and on April 25 they were only two blocks away, just on the other side of the Spree River. The firing was so heavy that no one dared step outside, not even to get water from the pump in the courtyard.
Our U-shaped apartment building curved around an interior courtyard which provided the only access to the little basement compartments where each family normally stored possessions. During the bombings we had practically lived in these compartments; and that’s where we huddled now, to keep away from the bullets. As the Russian soldiers broke into our street, the firing stopped. We saw them search all the houses, routing out hidden German soldiers, without doing much harm. When they left, we relaxed. The war must be over at last.
Eating a little lunch and chattering happily in our relief, we were unprepared for the Russian soldier armed with a machine gun who appeared—seemingly out of nowhere—behind us. Taking his time, he studied each of us in turn, then looked back at Edith. His eyes lingered, and lingered again.
Without raising her voice, Mother said quietly in German, “Get up and walk slowly toward the main part of the basement where the other residents are. Don’t let him know you are afraid.”
Stiff with fear, we each filed out ahead of Mother, the soldier following closely until, by a quick maneuver, he cut Edith off from the rest of us. She ran into the courtyard and Mother ran after her, but the soldier jerked his machine gun up, his finger on the trigger. Mother stopped. Helplessly I tried to protect her by putting my arms around her. One of the men in the courtyard said something in Polish to the soldier, but he would not be distracted.
Then suddenly, another Russian soldier appeared and spoke quietly to the first soldier. Slowly, he lowered the machine gun. Immediately Mother whispered to Edith, and we dashed into the basement.
The second wave of soldiers caught up with these two—the one who had menaced and the one who had protected. Miraculously, we avoided attracting their attention. After they left, Mother gathered us together and we offered fervent prayers of gratitude and supplications for assistance.
But what precautions could we take against a recurrence? Mother remembered that our brother Horst had said the soldiers, sometimes unwilling to climb stairs, would check only the lower floors. We took some food from our apartment and went to the bombed-out attic, which became our home from 25 April till 5 May 1945. Only one boy knew where we were and he faithfully brought us water every day. The shooting and bombing were continuous but we were unharmed.
After Victory-in-Europe Day, we returned to our apartment. Since Mother had faithfully followed the advice of our Church leaders to store what food we could, we still had some provisions. When these ran low, the miracles continued.
The first miracle was when a Nazi storehouse was thrown open only two blocks away so that the German citizens could take what they wanted before the Russians arrived to confiscate the provisions. Mother hurried us off with big sacks and we arrived to find people swarming like animals from one room to another, dropping what they had already taken as they lunged and fought for new delicacies.
For a few terrifying moments we endured the panic and shoving, but, afraid of being trampled when we were knocked to the floor, we struggled on our hands and knees back outside, simply picking up the food that other people had dropped in their greed. We returned home with loaded pockets, dragging bulging sacks.
Everyone in the apartment house gathered in the basement with his collection of food, and we bartered back and forth until each family had a well-balanced supply. Ours was huge. With rationing it would last five or six months. We spread it on our dining-room table, amazed.
Tears came to mother’s eyes as in a broken voice she prayed, “Lord, Thou hast blessed us so bounteously. Surely there are people in our branch who are starving. I fear to send the girls to find them. Thou knowest those in need. Please send them to us.”
About an hour later, the doorbell rang. Peter Garg, Father’s counselor and acting branch president, had come to check on our needs. Mother brought him in and showed him our table, stacked with food.
“Oh,” he marvelled. “How did you get so much?”
Mother recounted the details, then asked, “Brother Garg, there must be some of the members, older women especially, who haven’t food.”
“You’re right. Many are starving to death.”
“Would you dare to take them food?”
Brother Garg made trip after trip, literally saving the lives of several branch members. Unselfishly, Mother cooked and baked to feed others, even though she did not know how long it would be until we could get more food. Remembering Elisha and the widow, she testified to us that the Lord would provide for us if we shared with others. That faith was yet to face its greatest test and receive its greatest answer in the second miracle.
In the fall of 1946, Father came home. Our brothers had survived but were still absent. And food was extremely scarce. We could only afford a loaf of bread a month. Often our full daily ration was only two potatoes a day for the six of us. Mother ate almost nothing, insisting that those of us who worked or went to school needed the nourishment more. We pleaded with her, but she weakened steadily until she could barely move from room to room.
About 8:30 one morning after we had all left, Mother sensed that she could not go on much longer. Lying on the couch, she prayed earnestly to the Lord for about half an hour, expressing her desire to stay and care for her family and her utter faith in the Lord. “I can do no more. I know thou canst send help if it be thy will.”
As she finished her prayer, peace rested upon her and she sank back, assured that help would come. Each time the front door of the building opened, she listened to the footsteps climb the stairs and each time felt, “No, that isn’t for me.”
About noon, the door opened once more. She listened. “That’s for me,” she sighed. When the bell rang she dragged herself to the door and opened it. There stood a complete stranger, a major in the American army, with a huge box of food in his arms. In broken German, he greeted Mother by name and asked, “May I come in?”
He put the box of food on the dining-room table and went back to his car for more. Overwhelmed, Mother wept, “How did you know we needed food so desperately?”
The major seemed puzzled himself and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he explained awkwardly. “This morning about nine o’clock as I went to work, I passed the PX and something seemed to literally push me inside. I bought more and more, even though I knew we had plenty of food at home. Then I called Church headquarters here and asked for your name and address. And here I am.”
“But how did you know whom to ask for?”
“I didn’t,” he said, sounding even more puzzled. “At a church meeting once, I saw your four girls and happened to hear their name. That’s all I can explain.”
It was a miracle to both of them. They looked at each other, both awed, then he left. He came back every week for the nine months he was stationed in Berlin, bringing food as well as medicine for Mother. We tried to pay him, but he would accept nothing. We accepted the miracle, but we still wondered why he had been chosen in our hour of need. The explanation came when he was saying goodbye to us after his transfer orders came.
Mother asked, “Major, you have been so wonderful to us. How can we ever repay you?”
“You already have,” he replied soberly. “This war has been so terrible that I could not believe God still loved us. When I found you, Sister Hilbert, I had lost my faith. Now I know that he pushed me into that PX so that I could know again the feeling of serving him. And so I could meet a family whose faith has not wavered even through horrors worse than I have yet encountered. It is I who am indebted to you.”
Many wounds were healed during that farewell. And I realized again that Mother’s faith had shielded us throughout the war—not only from physical harm but from the more deadly dangers of fear, selfishness, and hatred. With such a mother, how could we ever doubt!