A while back I took the little red-haired girl into downtown Hamburg, stopping on the way to finally explore this huge, hulking mass of concrete about a mile west of the city centre. We must have ridden by it a hundred times already in the ten years we’ve lived here, but never went for a look inside.
It was built during the war and used to be a bunker. It’s one of many scattered throughout the city, most of which are now painted over and dressed up to blend so easily into the surrounding streets, you can go by them every day without noticing what it was originally built for. But this one is not only so much bigger than the others, it sits alone at the edge of a huge empty lot. You can’t miss it.
It was designed both for air raid flak defenses and as a bomb shelter for residents, completely self-contained with its own water, power generation and sewage removal systems.
Local legend has it that the British occupation forces wanted to level it after the war, but gave up after a few attempts to crack the two-metre-thick walls. Others say the concrete didn’t actually set to its hardest state until the 1970s – four decades after its construction – a claim I can neither verify nor refute, and neither can they, I bet.
Today it’s stuffed full of music stores stuffed with all kinds of musical instruments, but I liked just walking around inside, poking into corners and opening doors we probably shouldn’t have, wondering what it must have been like to scurry like rats into bunkers like these from a hail of bombs that over two nights in the middle of summer 1943 killed 50-thousand people in this city alone.
I wanted to climb up to the top of the staircase to see if we could go out onto the roof, but my daughter was having none of it. I could tell what was bugging her. It was kind of creepy walking through creaky old metal doorways, down dimly lit corridors and up spiral staircases of cold, bare concrete, and I wasn’t helping matters much with my off-track mutterings of the folly of man, the use of fear and demonisation of the enemy in preparation for war, how some people rightly or wrongly compare what’s happening in the United States of America today with what happened in Germany before things got really crazy, how some people today speak of Muslims - yes, the boys and girls sitting beside her in school – the way Hitler used to talk about the Jews, the concept of forced labour and its use in building the structure we were standing in, another enduring reminder of the extreme lengths human beings are willing to go in the pursuit of killing each other.
All she wanted to do that day was to hang out in the sunshine near the lake, and here I was dragging her through a bunker giving a rambling political science and history lesson. I can’t wait to take her down south near Munich to Dachau, and try to explain the unexplainable.
© 2008 lettershometoyou
PS: For a fabulous collection of b&w photographs of old industrial sites and urban decay, visit telefunker, a photoblogger from Belgium.