Sixty-nine years ago today, starting at 19:58 on 27 November 1944, the Royal Air Force launched Operation Tigerfish in the skies over Freiburg. In the space of just 20 minutes, 292 Lancaster bombers dropped 3,000 bombs and over 11,000 incendiary devices on the city, concentrating on areas to the east and west of their main target, the railway line. The old part of the city (Altstadt) and several areas to the west were very badly damaged, in some cases flattened. Some 2,800 people were killed, thousands more injured and/or made homeless.
It’s an uneasy date in the calendar for me, associated with conflicting feelings that I’m sure I don’t need to spell out here. I don’t want to spell them out, actually, either, as I’m not sure I can put them adequately into words; and doing so might oblige me to justify them to others or leave chinks in the logic that can be picked at too easily.
I find myself poring over pictures of then, now, before then, trying to reconstruct a city I never knew that has been replaced with the one I have grown familiar with and feel lucky enough to be able to call my home. The images I keep coming back to over and over again are the ones that are, in every sense of the word, closest to home. Unterlinden, a mere 40-odd metres from where I lay my head at night, looked like this before the war. You see a tree, the crucifix and the statue of Mary at the centre of the scene. Today it looks like this. It’s bustling in a different way now that the area has been pedestrianised, and things like palm trees and cafe tables have replaced the carts of yore. Otherwise, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking not much has changed. The statues are still there, even if they’re slightly hidden by the foliage of the tree in high summer.
Now, though, look at this image, possibly taken in 1944. It hits me in the pit of the stomach every time I see it. The first time I was shown it, I wasn’t even aware it was Unterlinden. The moment of realisation was a long and painful one.
This week the Christmas market has opened, and Unterlinden is once again filled with the festive scent of Glühwein and decked out with fairy lights, including the tree (which was replaced in the 1950s, in case you were wondering, so at some point after this picture was taken). The stall closest to the crucifix sells an assortment of cosmetics and gifts for the home. Among its wares: those effervescent scented “bath bombs”.
At the risk of sounding glib, though not wanting to end on a sour note, I’m just going to sign off thus…
Make foam, not war.