The sirens started wailing at 9:40 in the evening. It was Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945. I was 11 1/2.
My mother and I had arrived at my grandmother's in Dresden eight days earlier, after an exhausting 10-day trip from our hometown, Konigsberg (East Prussia). We had to leave Konigsberg as the Red Army was rapidly advancing into German territory.
We were refugees and Dresden seemed a safe place to seek refuge.
The city had been bombed a few times in 1944 and early '45, but never as a primary target. Even at this late stage of the war, people assumed that Dresden, an architectural and cultural jewel of southeastern Germany and by no means a center of war industry, would be spared by the Allies.
From Grandma's apartment on the fifth floor of the sturdy turn-of-the-century building we walked (no elevators!) to the cellar, which had been converted into an air-raid shelter.
Fifteen or so minutes later, we heard the explosions in the distance. My mother and I knew: these were bombs, not the sounds of anti-aircraft guns as we had expected.
As we learned later, most of Dresden's flak batteries had been quietly moved from the perimeter of the city to the eastern front. The remaining ones apparently were unable to reach the British bombers before they arrived over the city.
After the bombing started, we also realized this was not just another air raid, but an all-out attack. It lasted half an hour and was concentrated on the center of the city.
Numerous fires broke out, lighting up the night sky and developing into a huge firestorm.
We were lucky: our city district, some two miles west of the center, escaped unscathed. The "all clear" sounded at 11:30, and we went to bed, assuming the bombers had done their night's business.
Shortly after 1 a.m., the sirens again!
When the second attack began, we knew it was meant for us. We could hear the engines of the approaching planes, the hissing sound of masses of bombs falling through the air, and then a rolling wave of explosions.
The noise intensified until it seemed to end with an ear-shattering crash, directly overhead.
It caused momentary deafness and we couldn't hear anything for awhile.
People in the shelter screamed, whimpered, some cried quietly. Some sat frozen with fear, their eyes closed, clenched fists pressed to their temples.
The shaking of the building filled the room with dense dust. We soaked handkerchiefs in a bucket of water and covered our mouths and noses (a safety rule which every civilian had memorized since the bombings began).
Some bombs hit close enough to lift us about a foot off our benches. (In the morning we discovered an old pear tree in the backyard had vanished, replaced by a bomb crater).
After the all-clear, we carefully picked our way through the debris on the stairs, past the sandbox and water bucket positioned on each landing to put out incendiary bombs. Apartment doors had been blown open, some ripped off their hinges.
Our apartment was a mess: plaster, broken dishes, glass all over the floor.
Among the debris, we found a delicate Meissen plate, completely undamaged. The pressure from an exploding bomb must have carried it gently from the top shelf of the china cabinet to the kitchen floor.
The window glass was all gone. Next to the living room window we found Grandma's parakeet huddled in its cage, the bottom covered with glass. Its feathers were darkened by soot but miraculously, it was alive.
A small ferry took us, a dozen people at a time, across the river.
After a long, seemingly endless march, dodging flaming debris from burning and collapsing apartment buildings, we reached a city square where open trucks picked us up and rushed us to the suburbs.
Here it was another world. Not a single bomb had dropped. The sky was almost clear, smoke from the burning city drifting in another direction.
As much as we went through, we were among the lucky ones. Our skins and our sanity were intact. During that time, tens of thousands in the inner city perished.
For my mother and me it was on to Hamburg, to seek refuge with my other grandmother. There we experienced the end of the war.