For all its notoriety the attack on Dresden was nothing like as severe as those on, for example, Berlin Cologne, Essen and Hamburg. But the German town whose fate moves me most is the old northern town of Duren.
Maria is nearly 65 and born and raised in Duren. She’s a friend of Francis’ so we’re invited to her small apartment. To this day, I’ll never quite know why it should have happened like this but within one hour of our coming Maria has rushed to her bedroom and brought out for us the two blue-bound volumes she has kept so close for over fifty years. They were given to her when she was a little girl by the grandmother with whom she was so close and who was so anxious that her little grand-daughter should be the one German child who understood what had befallen her family, her community and her country. It was from her grandmother and these books that Maria learned what had happened to her city.
By 1900, Düren was among Germany’s richest cities (with 42 millionaires and 93 factories) and had a population of 27,168. Forty-four years later on the 16th of November 1944 the town was attacked by the Royal Air Force – 485 Lancasters and 13 Mosquitoes. The sirens sounded and the residents went down into the cellars. By now, they and all their fellow citizens of all the towns and cities of Germany knew plenty about air-raids, so they just sat there, shuddering at the noise and vibration, praying they wouldn’t sustain a direct hit and waiting to come out and clear up the mess.
But when they came out to clear up the mess, there was no mess to clear up because there was no town. There was just rubble. Duren was no more.
The whole thing had taken about 40 minutes.
Of the 22,000 inhabitants, 3000 were killed in the air-raid – quite low thanks to the excellent provision of shelters and air-raid procedures – and, except for the four souls who for some reason chose to stay with their town, the entire population was evacuated to central Germany.
In 1945, the piles of rubble that were once the city of Duren were located on the main fighting front, and one of the bloodiest battles was fought on Düren’s district area in the Hürtgenwald. On the 25th of February 1945, U.S.troops crossed the River Rur at Düren.
Unlike at Deir Yassin, they kept the name and, Germans being Germans, painstakingly and lovingly they rebuilt their town just as they rebuilt their country.