On Feb. 12, 1945, most of the 2,000 Jews who still lived in the eastern German city of Dresden received a brief letter from Gestapo headquarters.
They were ordered to report at exactly 6:45 a.m. on the following Friday, Feb. 16, to Zeughausstrasse 1, with light luggage sufficient for “a march of two to three days.”
“You must take into account that you will be taken on work duty outside Dresden,” the letter read.
The letter, in fact, was an invitation to Theresienstadt, the Czech ghetto that served as a major transfer point to the extermination camps.
The next evening, the sirens howled, signaling the start of a saturation bombing raid that has had few historic parallels.
In a twist of fate for the Jews of Dresden, the massive air strike that nearly destroyed their city 50 years ago this week also saved their lives.
On Feb. 13, 1945, at 9:45 p.m., an armada of the Royal Air Force covered the skies of Dresden, showering the city with bombs. Another bombing raid took place a few hours later. American bombers completed the devastating attack the next morning.
Between 25,000 and 35,000 Germans were killed in the raids, either from direct hits or from the ensuing incineration of the city. Phosphorus bombs dropped by the British created fires so strong that they generated a whirlwind which sucked oxygen from all directions, suffocating those who were not immediately burned to ashes.
Some 12,000 buildings were destroyed, among them the magnificent Zwinger Museum and the Church of Our Lady, which was considered at the time the most beautiful Protestant church in all of Europe.
But the bombs also brought deliverance for the city’s Jews.
“I wasn’t glad about the bombs,” said Heinz Joachim-Aris, the head of the small Jewish community still living in Dresden.
The community numbers about 90 people, half of them recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“How can you be glad at death and destruction?” he said. “But it is a fact that thanks to those bombs, our deportation to Theresienstadt was foiled.”
Another Jewish resident of Dresden remembered how she and her mother went the next morning to the local Gestapo headquarters. They wanted to make sure it was no longer there.
Yet another resident, Sara Sabastinsky, returned to Dresden later that year – – from the Auschwitz concentration camp.
She, too, had no desire to rejoice over the tragedy of Dresden.
“But as I looked at the ruins, I was glad at one thing only — that I survived,” she recalled.
The bombing of Dresden is one of the more controversial chapters in the history of World War II.
Many Germans believe that the bombing, which came late in the war, was unnecessary for a number of reasons.
Germans maintain that Dresden had at the time no strategic importance. Far from having military installations worth targeting, the city was crowded with civilians — mostly elderly people, women and children — as well as with refugees who were fleeing from the advancing forces of the Red Army.
The Allied command maintained in turn that it had decided to bomb Dresden as part of a concentrated effort to put a quick end of the war. British and American military leaders also sought to reach Berlin before the advancing Red Army, whose forces were only about 140 miles from Dresden when the bombing took place.
Against this backdrop, Germany commemorated the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden this week in a series of state ceremonies that were attended by some 2,000 guests from around the world.
Among the visiting guests was Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, who joined with his British and German counterparts – – and with the Duke of Kent, who represented Queen Elizabeth, II — to lay wreaths at a vast local cemetery where many of the those killed in the Dresden raid were buried.
Among the speakers at the various events was German President Roman Herzog. Speaking Monday at the Hall of Culture, a large Communist-era auditorium in Dresden, Herzog urged the nations of the world to pledge an end to all wars.
But the main point Herzog wanted to drive through was the fact that Germans, too, had suffered during the war.
He thoroughly rejected the notion that the Dresden bombing was the price Germany had to pay for its wartime atrocities.
“One cannot calculate life against life, pain against pain, horror against horror,” he said.
“If one looks at history merely in terms of states and nations, the settlement of accounts seems simple: The Germans started the war, and just punishment was meted out to them for doing so.
“But this is too simplistic a view,” he said. “Only if one imagines all those different people who must have died in that night of destruction does the human tragedy of modern warfare become apparent.”
Among those who died in the Dresden raid, Herzog pointed out, were “Gestapo officers who drew up the lists for the deportation of Jews” as well as “the Jews on those lists.”
Herzog, as other speakers at the series of commemorative events, did not attempt to diminish the responsibility of Germany for the horrors it committed during the war.
Instead, he and other German leaders attempted to strike a balance between Germany as perpetrator of war crimes and Germany as victim, particularly during the Dresden bombing.
This line of reasoning was the subject of much debate among Germans in the days leading up to the commemorations and is likely to continue as country attempts to confront the full reality of its ugly wartime past.
As Herzog spoke Monday, small groups of demonstrators gathered both inside the Hall of Culture and outside on the street to protest against what they termed the “cult of sacrifice” — the glorification, as they saw it, of the victims of the Dresden bombings.
Other demonstrations were held during the series of commemorations, with some protesters saying the focus on the Dresden bombing belittled Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis.
The German media devoted their full attention to the series of commemorations. Newspapers ran article after article about the Dresden bombing. Television devoted prime-time hours to an elaborate account of the historic background to the raid.
Perhaps one of the more memorable statements about the bombing was made by a veteran British pilot who offered his own viewpoint to a German television reporter in London.
“At the time,” the pilot said, “we were not aware of the dimensions of Nazi crimes. Had we known in 1945 what we had learned later, I would have justified a dozen justified a dozen Dresdens.”