Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Some important points to survive a fire in a building.

Six years ago I never had reason to give the dangers of a fire a second thought. Fires were something I read about in the newspapers. But then horror struck and my youngest daughter Ellinor got caught in a fire at the 6th floor of an apartment building in Paris.

She woke up when her little studio already was filled with thick, black smoke and tried to get out. In her panic and fear she did everything wrong. She opened the door and tried to get down the stairs through the smoke. On the way she inhaled carbonmonoxide- and cyanide gases and managed only to get to the 3rd floor. It was pitch dark and five a clock in the morning. – When the firemen found her, her heart had stopped beating. She got reanimated, but her life was already ruined by irrevocable brain damages.

I will use Ellinor’s example to give you some clues about how to survive a fire in a house. Ellinor is for me the brutal example that fire and horror can pay a visit to any one of us, at any time.

The smoke and the gases

Most of the causalities in fires are caused by the smoke and by the gases. Ellinor would have been with us today if she had had a smoke detector in her studio. A very simple device, that rings loudly if it senses smoke. The smoke detector also buys you time to reflect on what to do next, which is a very imortant factor. Your most dangerous enemy is panic, then you do everything wrong. Fifteen seconds of reflection can save your life.
The smoke contains very dangerous gases: carbonmonoxide and in the worst case, cyanidgas. The cyanid comes from burning plastic and it destroys your brain cells immediatly.
The smoke that emanates from a fire or from a glow elevates to the ceiling until the room is full, seeps under doors and travels in corridors. The smoke reduces the visibility to zero and creates total darkness. Even experienced firemen can loose their way.
The most dangerous moment comes when the smoke gases meet the fire, then they can explode with a terrible force.

Contain the fire

A fire must be contained, from inside or from outside a room. If you are in a room with a fire outside, it is better to stay inside and wait. Maybe you need to open the window to air out the smoke. Put wet towels by the door.
Ellinor opened the door and rushed into the fire. She had a big window two meters from her bed, which she could have opened. If she hade stayed, she would have been saved by the firemen.
If you see a fire in a room, close the door and windows. It is amazing how long a door can withstand a fire.
Oxygen feeds the fire. Lack of oxygen makes the fire die out.


People in panic tend to flee the way they came in, especially in public spaces. They flee from a danger, to what they percieve to be a safe place. Children often hide under a table or in a closet, where they sense a safe haven, while firemen search for them.
In many hotels and apartment buildings there are specially concieved fire exits and fire stairs. People tend to avoid, out of fear, these narrow and dark passages. However fire exits may also be locked or blocked. In a big fire in a discoteque in Gothenburg in Sweden, all fire exits were blocked, which caused many deaths by smoke inhalations.
Another danger is the false sense of collective safety. In panic you loose your rational thinking and do what the others do. One horrible example occured during a fire in the London underground. Panic stricken people continued to go up towards the smoke and fire in the escalators, despite efforts by the personel to stop them. On the upper floor they found a certain death.

Preventive action

The most important thing is to be aware that a fire can occur in any place at any moment. Therefore it is necessary to try to create an unconscious pattern of behaviour when you enter public places, hotels, discoteques or an unknown house.
Smokedetectors? Fire extinguishers?. Where can I get out quickly? Check the fire exits!
Trust your senses and, most important, trust your nose. If you sense smoke – get out quickly.
If you are surprised by the smoke, lie down , breathe, calm down and think – what shall I do next? Those reflective seconds can save your life.
If you can – exstinguish the fire and close it in or out. Warn other people or wake them up. All the neighbours of Ellinor managed to get up on the roof, nobody bothered to wake her up.

All these points and conclusions are the result of seminars arranged by the Swedish Board of Fire Protection and insurance companies through my initiative. Firemen, fire engineers, psychologists, communication specialists and ordinary people discussed how a fire works and how people react to it.
I hope that you, the reader of this paper, will remember some of these very imporant points. They might, one day, save your life or someone else’s.

Photo by courtesy of free.photo.com and Svenska Brandförsvarsföreningen
Written by Erik Edelstam

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The Expulsion - the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Germans after the Second World War

Between the 26th and the 28th of January a conference about genocide is held in Stockholm, the International Forum of Stockholm. Over 1000 delegates from all the world is participating, including the secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, and members of governments. The aim is to try to find out how genocides can be avoided in the future. There are horrible examples in our later history like former Youguslavia, Rwanda, Congo and the Armenian massacre 1915. The worst and biggest ethnic cleansing and genocide in our time is never mentioned. It is not correct politically to do so. The risk is to be branded as neo-nazi.. - But in the name of humanity I take the risk. The fact is that 14 million people was driven away from their homes and that over a million died on the way. How could one ignore such a catastrophy? Read more about this terrible ordeal...

Some years ago, I stood in the pouring rain at the Bregenzstrasse in Berlin in an attempt to look for the shadows of my parents in 1941. - My father Harald, then a young, good looking, enthusiastic attaché at the Swedish legation in Berlin, with high ambitions and my mother Louise, innocent and sweet, with dimples in her cheeks and my new-born brother Carl in her arms, lived in one end of the street.
Bregenzstrasse is a little street in the vicinity of Kurfürstendam. Easy to seal off from both sides. There were almost only Jews living in the quarters. Harald woke up many times during the night by trucks; the rush of spike clad boots, commando shouts and screams of anguish.
He used to run down to the entrance door, dressed only in pyjama and waved in so many he could of the despairing people who looked for cover. They hid in the little apartment, crouching and trembling. Next day he was forced to let them go. There was no lifeline - the Swedish government had even forced a J in the passport of the Jews to differ them from the other German citizens.
Harald, who felt completely powerless regarding to this, proposed to his boss, the envoy Arvid Richert, that one perhaps could give these people a kind of passport of protection, like what his college later gave the Jews of Budapest. - Richert got white in his face and raged: - Do you want to throw us in war with Germany?
And that was it.
The Jews were driven from their homes, deprived from all possibilities of support and were put in a kind of quarantine of deprivation and starvation, till it was time for eradication.

In January 1945 the time came to the Germans themselves. In a way their own genocide. In any case, for some of them. A result of Hitler’s merciless politics.
It is called the Expulsion (der Vertreibung) - the ethnic cleansing of 14 million Germans from central and Eastern Europe. Hitler had cleaned out many groups of people, but this expulsion was something quite different.
Today the world has been shocked by what happened in former Yugoslavia, where Muslims, Croats and Serbs were driven away from their homes. Like cattle, with a scant hope of returning home again. The concept of ethnic cleansing has become very familiar, which one hears in all sorts of different contexts. One often hears:” The worst ethnic cleansing since World War II...” - But what happened then?

Very few people today have a slightest idea what happened all these Germans the years after the war and the tremendous suffering they had to endure. Nobody has, anyhow, been interested. The common idea is that the Germans got what they deserved. An idea that, 59 years afterwards, it is, perhaps, time to revise. The subject is very touchy. A former German ambassador warned me, that to bring this topic up today in Germany, might classify you as a neo-nazi. Anyhow, the Expulsion represents a big white area on the historical map.

My own introduction to the Expulsion was the book of Marion Dönhoff, the founder of ”Die Zeit”: ”Namen die keiner mehr nennt”, in a dusty antiquarian shop in Berlin. She had big estates in East Prussia and had to flee as the Red Army approached. She left on her riding horse in - 25º cold and snow storm and joined the fleeing population on the full packed roads. After two weeks she halted her horse at two a clock in the night, at the big train bridge, crossing the river Nogat, by Marienburg, near Danzig.
The bridge was deserted, but she heard a strange, clattering sound, as from a three legged being: ”...soon I saw three figures in uniform, slowly dragging themselves over the bridge in silence: One of them was walking with crutches, one with a stick and the third had a big bandage round the head, and the left arm hanging down limb... For me this was the end of East Prussia: three dead sick soldiers, dragging themselves over the Nogat Bridge to West Prussia. And a woman on horse, whose ancestors 700 years before, had pushed, from west to east, right in to the great wilderness on the other side of the river, who now was riding back to the west. - 700 years of history was now wiped out...”

The story of Marion Dönhoff is typical and tells much about the historical background. The laborious and industrious German burghers and farmers colonised Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages, often invited by local lords. From the Baltic States, through Prussia, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia (Czech Rep and Slovakia today), down to Hungary and the Balkan, they cultivated the land and founded thousands of cities and villages. The First World War changed all and a big part of the German population in these areas became minorities under national governments. The second word war made things worse with the Nazis as a ruthless occupation force, terrorising all these countries. The ethnic Germans became the scapegoats as the Reich fell apart in ruins. - The situation was a bit different in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, since they were purely German areas since the 13th century.

During the Second World War, several politicians on the allied side demanded that the Germans in these areas should be driven away. The first one to air such thoughts was the Czech, exiled premier, Eduard Benes. The British government agreed.
During conferences, the fate of the Germans was sealed. Stalin wanted to keep the eastern part of Poland, that he got from Hitler in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and as compensation Poland would get East Prussia, West Prussia and Silesia. And then the current population must go. Roosevelt and Churchill promised help with transports. Stalin beamed. Churchill said in a speech:”...a clean sweep will be made...”
An other question that came up, was the matter of ”reparations of war damage” in the devastated Soviet Union. Stalin wanted German labour. Request was permitted. The result was that around 875.000 people, mostly elderly people, women and children, was sent to mines and slave camps, and were the greater part perished of starvation and hardship. The responsibility of Roosevelt and Churchill in this program is undeniable.

One can divide the Expulsion in three phases:
1. The Soviet phase with flight from the terror of the Red Army.
2. The flight from revenge, primary from Poland and Czechoslovakia.
3. The organized expulsion from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Balkan.

The first phase opened when Stalin launched his winter offensive, ”Uranius”, against East Prussia, the 12th of January 1945, with 2.2 million soldiers. Facing them was 400.000 Germans. The Russian soldiers were highly motivated and had been instructed to kill so many Germans they could and that included the civilians. After reconquering his own devastated fatherland for years, each man was filled with revenge.
The population knew what was in store for them. During the fighting in the autumn, the Red Army had conquered some communes and been driven away again. What they left was horrible. Murdered civilians in all houses, raped women and something that would be repeated during all the conquest - naked women crucified to barn doors. These incidents were ruthlessly used in the Nazi propaganda to strengthen the resistance.

The violence against the civilians was documented where it was possible, for example, when German forces reconquered areas, like in Metgehten, a suburb of Königsberg, in the end of January 1945. The chocked soldiers could not believe their eyes, when the entered the town.
Big piles of dead bodies littered the streets. Most of them were women and children. Few were men. Nearly all women had been beaten to death or stabbed with bayonets. A big number were mutilated, especially by the genitals, and had cut off breasts. In the biggest pile, they counted to 3.000 dead. In one place people were driven down in a big bomb crater and then blown to pieces by explosives. I all buildings civilians lay dead. Several trains that had come with fugitives stood motionless, full of dead. A witness saw the rests of two women, who had been tied to their ankles and torn apart by two cars, which had driven in opposite directions. In a big villa, 60 surviving women were found. They had been raped 60 - 70 times per day. The villa had obviously served as a brothel. Half of the women had to be taken to psychiatric institutions.
A bit outside, in the village Gross Heydekrug, stood an abandoned tank, which had been dragging four naked women in ropes. In the church a young girl was nailed to the cross of the altar, with to German soldiers strung up on each side... - A bizarre biblical metaphor of pain and suffering.

The road to the west was filled with hardships and suffering for the fugitives. - When the Russian tanks advanced north from Poland, they cut off the German territory in several places. The population was thus caught in pockets and could not flee west by land. Instead they moved to the coast and the harbours where they hoped to get on a ship. The German navy then organized an evacuation that far surpasses the one made in Dunkerque in May 1940.
1,5 million fugitives and 700.000 soldiers were evacuated by 790 boats of different sizes from January to the end of the war. The admiral Dönitz, who was the successor of Hitler, delayed the final capitulation, just in order to evacuate as many as possible from the east.

But the evacuation could not be made without sacrifices. The 30th of January the passenger ship ”Wilhelm Gustloff” sailed out from Pillau, the harbour of Königsberg, with 6.000 fugitives on board. Outside in the snowstorm, waited the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of captain A.I. Marinesko. Three, well-aimed torpedoes sank ”Wilhelm Gustloff”. Despite the storm and cold temperature, the escort ships saved 1.100 people. The same submarine sent the hospital ship ”General von Steuben” to the bottom. It was painted white with red crosses, carrying 3.500 wounded soldiers. The worst sinking was ”Goya”, with 7.000 fugitives on board. There only 183 survived.

The problem was that the Red Army chased the fugitives as much as the German soldiers. The endless columns of charts that crossed the ice if Frischer Haff from Königsberg, towards the harbour Pillau, were bombed without mercy. On the roads the Russian tanks simply mashed the fugitives with their chains, mowed them down with their machine-guns or liquidated them at the roadside.

After the Russians came the Polish army, polish militia and civilians who should take over the country. They co-operated closely with the Soviet occupation authorities and participated in the looting and the killings. Polish fugitives from the eastern parts took over the houses of the Germans. The former owners were thrown out in the street. The provision of food stopped completely. Famine and diseases like typhoid and cholera ravaged.
Later the Allies started to organise train transports to the west. They became veritable trains of horror, that was constantly stopped and plundered by hooligans and armed gangs. The conditions soon became so unbearable that the Allies had to stop the transports.
Of course there were exceptions. Decent Soviet officers were chocked by the violence. Solsjenytsin, who participated in the fighting of East Prussia, wrote in the ”Gulag Archipelago” that rape and the following murder of the woman, almost was considered as a combat distinction. Individual Poles gave Germans food and shelter and helped them cross the border. In many farms the Polish workers hid the German owners.

The inhabitants of Silesia that fled from the Red Army, mostly tried to get to Dresden. The city had not been bombed any time during the war. Thanks to the exquisite art treasures and the unique baroque architecture of the town, it was considered as an open city, like Rome and Paris. No military installations or industries were in the vicinity. A safe place.
The 13th of February the Royal Air Force attacked with a first wave of planes during the night. The city was packed with refuges, around 200.000. The night after the next wave came. A total of 1.400 planes participated. As if it was not enough, 450 American planes made daylight bombings, which completed the destruction.
The city was engulfed in a firestorm, never seen since the destruction of Hamburg in 1943. Very little was left. The figures concerning the number of perished are very unsure, but it is estimated that between 150.000 and 200.000 people died and 400.000 were left homeless. It shall be noted that in Hiroshima, around 50.000 people died.

In the rest of Europe, revenge struck hard on the ethnic Germans. It was like in Poland. In Czechoslovakia the Germans had to wear white sleeve badges with an N (Nemec, which means German in Czech). The Germans had to take off their hat for every Czech or Soviet officer they met.
In Prague, the end of war massacred thousands of civil Germans. At Uti 2.000 women and children were tossed from a bridge (Vaclav Havel had a commemoration plate put up at the place in 1990) and the Czech militia detained hundreds of thousand people in concentration camps. The old German camps were handy. No food was distributed and diseases ravaged. People died like flies. The ethnic Germans got the same treatment as Czechs and Jews had before.
With all the free looting, rapes and other atrocities, it must be said that the majority of the Czechs were revolted and ashamed over the treatment of the Germans. Vaclav Havel later publicly apologised for these events.

In Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania the ethnic cleansing followed the same pattern. The German inhabitants had to leave their farms, houses and business with what they could carry in a suitcase. No valuables were permitted. It was just to hand over the keys. - Here the Germans were particularly struck by the deportations to the Soviet Union.
Most of the Germans were put in labour camps. Those who could not work, like women, children and old people, were put in special starvation camps, were most perished. A witness tells about the starvation camp in Jarek. In June 1945 there was 25.000 prisoners. In May next year there was only 2.800 left. Other starvation camps were Rudolfsgnad, Gakovo, Mitrovica or Molidorf.

Those who were driven away from their ancestral lands came to a Germany that thanks to the bombings not could provide shelter for its own population. Nothing worked and food was scarce. The fugitives got no fugitive status of the Allies, which did that they could not get help from the Red Cross or other help organisations. They were in fact busy repatriating the displaced slave workers that the Nazis had brought in to Germany during the war. The question of the expulsed Germans was regarded as an ”internal German affair”.
In this situation Germany received more than 13 million fugitives!
Around two million of the expulsed Germans are estimated to have lost their lives, due to starvation, liquidations and other hardships.

The ethnic Germans had a terrible fate. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were surely Nazis, but the majority were simple farmers and artisans who did not care much about politics and just wanted to live in peace. The tragedy is that the governments that drove out the Germans treated them in the same way as the Nazis had treated their own people.
Now some facts start to emerge, concerning the Expulsion. Witnesses and victims dare to testify. Governments apologise. For the victims, it is perhaps not enough. One witness said:
”...It is difficult to loose all you have, but unbearable when you loose your identity and your history...”
Written by Erik Edelstam