This 1997 interview is with Maria Ivanovich, survivor of the murderous Allied bombing of Dresden.

You said you were in Dresden during the bombing of February 14, 1945. Can you tell me what you saw and how you came to Dresden?

Maria: Yes, I was born in Russia in 1923, when the Germans invaded, we at first were scared but soon learned they had no evil intentions against us. In 1943, there was a large recruiting drive in Smolensk to go to Germany for work. The pay was very good, as in the Soviet system we made hardly anything. The Germans would take care of all the moving and travel expenses, so I applied and was hired to work in an ice factory in Pieschen, a suburb of Dresden.

My time in Germany was wonderful, that area of the country was untouched by war, and the people were so very friendly. I learned German through a program that was taught by Russians. I remember it was a little lonely due to the men being off fighting and I had no boyfriend so I was certainly looking. The Germans loved to dance and have parties, so I was invited to many all around the area. I liked talking to soldiers who fought on the east front, as it dealt with my homeland.

I still remember the night the bombers came it was cold and lively. Since the end of 1944, many thousands of people from the east were coming to Germany to get away from the red army. I met so many Russians who had fled, that it seemed like the whole country moved west. I was hearing stories from Poles, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians regarding the rapes and murders being perpetrated by the Soviets, especially the partisans that some had get through.

For the first time I was fearful of what would happen to me, as I knew I could never go home. Germany was clearly loosing and it could not be hidden. I was awoken by a low drone overhead and wandered what it could be. I was staring out of my window when in the distance, I saw flares being dropped, and I guessed they were flares for bombers. I got dressed, and woke my roommate, we both looked out of the window when we saw great flashes of light, and then seconds later heard the thunderous booms.

It seemed to last forever and eventually we went outside and could feel the heat from the city center, as we went to a shelter it dawned on me the sirens were going off. Our shelter was packed tight with many foreign workers, women and children. The men were leaving to go fight the fires. The smell of burning houses crept into the shelter, and some started to cry. I was very scared that they would start bombing our side of the city.

Did you actually see any of the city on fire?

Maria: Oh yes, I saw great flames rising several hundred feet. It looked sinister as it was moving and swirling around. I could hear all the sirens that made it maddening, the bombing only lasted I think for a few minutes, but there were explosions going on for hours it seemed. I strangely did not see many people out, most had been indoors since it was cold, but I remember seeing many refugees that were staying in the city center. There was nowhere for them to go, all rooms and homes were full and already overcrowded.

What happened after the bombing?

Maria: We were told we had to evacuate, as there was a fear the Allies would return and hit our side, which they missed. We were escorted to a train-loading platform, which was moved out of the city. While going there I could see in the distance dead laying by the river, it was like a bad dream, there were countless bodies. My friend Alina was sobbing, as we knew many people in the city, as we shopped often in the center. The train was stopped outside the city, and we boarded, and had to sit for what seemed like eternity.

It was close to noon I believe then we were ordered out of the cars, and moved away from the city to seek shelter, the sirens went off again and another round of bombers came. We made it to the other side of the river again and got in shelter, I shuddered to think about how many people were trapped outside during the attack. After an hour, the all clear was announced and went out. What I saw was like a Wagner Gotterdammerung.

The whole of the city was shrouded in flame and smoke. Survivors trekked back shrieking in terror, I saw a woman carry her lifeless child. I recognized her as a Polish worker and tried to help her but she was in shock and just kept moving. We were stopped by an NSDAP official and asked if we could help fight fires, I spoke for my small group and said we could, we received training as part of our jobs. We jumped on a truck and moved into the city.

What did you see?

Maria: Words cannot describe the scenes. We were given gas masks and told the air was poisonous, someone thought they dropped gas too. We started to see dead laying in the streets, many tried to make it to the river for salvation from the flames. I cannot get them out of my mind, there had to be thousands out in the open.

We had no way to fight any fires, as the water hydrants were destroyed, or the hoses burned up. I saw a fire engine burnt out, and the fire crew lying beside it. It was so bad, we were pulled out, as there was nothing we could do, there were many wounded who needed help so we were directed to go to an aid station.

I was surprised to see prisoners of war and even a few concentration camp inmates without guards helping the wounded. There were screams, cries, and whimpers everywhere. Parents looking for children, children looking for parents, it was heart wrenching. Every so often, we could hear a delayed explosion, and it terrified everyone. A NSDAP officer was going around letting everyone know help is coming, and Germany was mobilizing to aid the people, there were so many foreigners that several translators were with him to relay the message and instructions. I helped bandage some of the young who were bleeding and burned. I thought I heard fighters coming in, which some cheered as they thought it was the Luftwaffe, but it was not. Fighters came down and appeared to be shooting at rescue people.

It is said today that the death toll in Dresden was very overblown, some saying only a few thousand died, and the city was a legitimate target, what do you believe?

Maria: I have read this too, I was there and saw everything first hand. I can tell you, there were hundreds of thousands of eastern European refugees going through Dresden, I saw this personally. The city center was packed, whole families camping out in covered wagons for the night, as there was no room in the homes, and the situation was quite confusing. This is on top of all the German refugees from other bombed out cities; they were housed with people they did not even know sometimes.

I have heard the figure of 400 thousand used, I think that might be slightly exaggerated, however the German claim of 200 thousand I think is possible and sounds realistic. I saw the bodies being burned on the huge railroad pyres. The smell I can never forget. We had to help, along with prisoners, and everyone else, to move bodies out of cellars, many times whole generations were dead together.

Dresden in 1945 was a packed city; every structure was occupied with human beings from every nation in Europe. I liked Dresden as it seemed like a multi-national metropolis, and I met many other girls from all over.

As to if Dresden was a legitimate target, I would say yes, and no. It is true there were many factories in Dresden, mostly nonmilitary, used for domestic food, and utensil production. The railways were large and had already been bombed before, they could easily be repaired. We had no weapons to defend the city; in fact, the civil defense was used in other areas, not Dresden.

If the Allies had attacked the factories then absolutely Dresden was a valid target just like London and Coventry. The problem is that the Allies did not hit the factories; they hit the very center of the city housing civilians. I believe that very few factories were damaged, some unscathed the whole war as they were owned by foreign governments. Since the Allies did not attack any of these factories, I would call the raid a pure terror raid, aimed at civilians.

I say this as it seems to be the stated aim of the Allies, kill as many women, children, and elders as they could as a way to break German morale. It did not work at all, I saw a chart that showed German production hit its peak in October of 1944, so it shows the bombing campaign was a failure in that regard. I personally believe it should be looked at as a war crime since so many civilians died.

What happened to you after Dresden?

Mara: The Germans took very good care of us, I stayed close to the city for most of February, but the endless columns of refugees kept coming, and so were the Soviets. I was moved west with large groups of refugees, and witness strafing of civilians by both Soviet and allied pilots. I eventually made my way Weimar where by April it was in American hands. I was labeled a slave laborer, and was told I could be sent back to Russia; I refused as most all did, and begged to stay in Germany or go to America.

This was tricky, as the Allies knew we volunteered to work in Germany, and if we were sent back we would be executed. They made us sign forms that we were held in Germany as forced labor, and no one dared correct this, as we knew what it meant. Luckily, I met a GI and he was able to bring me back with him in 1946, he became my husband and we settled in Cleveland, Ohio.

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