A mulberry tree towered near Erna Gray’s home in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Once a year, she and her friends ate the tree’s fruit. The mulberry had thrived, beautiful and lush, throughout Erna’s 13-year life. She believed it always would thrive.
At the dawn of World War II, Allied bombers attacked Karlsruhe. The first bombing killed 27 residents, and one mulberry tree. Erna walked two blocks from her home to examine the charred ruins of her cherished tree. Her childhood had ended.
Erna sits in an easy chair in the immaculate TV room of her Falcon home, but her mind dwells on the most horrific years of the 20th century.
Night after night, bomb sirens sent her sprinting with her mother and father to an underground bunker for a few fitful hours of sleep.
She, along with most residents of the city, hated the bombers. She wanted to shoot the planes out of the sky. Two neighbor boys, ages 6 and 12, were killed in an overnight bombing attack. “I knew those boys,” she says, her voice breaking.
One afternoon, she saw an Allied pilot being led through the city. He had been shot down. He was scared and alone.
Looking at the captured bomber, Erna immediately thought of her three older brothers, who were serving in the German army. They were good men, she knew. Her hatred evaporated. “I felt sorry for him,” she says of the pilot.
In 1944, her brother Erwin returned from the Russian Front. The epic struggle between the invading Germans and the Russians, battling to survive, was savage to an astounding extreme, even by World War II standards. More than 25 million Russian soldiers and residents perished over the course of the war.
As Erwin departed the home where he enjoyed so many peaceful days, he threw his duffel bag to the ground.
“Mother, if there’s a God in heaven, why does he allow this to happen?” he asked.
No one could answer his question. He left a few minutes later. Erna never again saw him. He was killed at the front, one of 8 million Germans who died in the war.
Erna, 91, is a positive, joyful woman, but she scowls when she considers Adolf Hitler, the evil-beyond-evil, clueless and heartless dictator who led Germany to death and madness.
“Oh, my,” Erna says, taking a deep breath. “You don’t want to hear this, because I am a Christian.”
Yes, she is. Erna, a devout Catholic, drives her red Corolla most afternoons to pray at Our Lady of the Pines in Black Forest.
“I know he is in hell,” she says of Hitler. “I know it.”
Actually, Erna, I did want to hear that.
In December 1944, Erna witnessed hell, or a close resemblance. A raid by hundreds of bombers left 375 dead. She recalls, with vivid intensity, sprinting from the bunker the next morning to offer aid to survivors.
She was stunned, even after all the years of sorrow. Her home city was filled with collapsed, smoldering buildings. She knew she was surrounded by the dead. She never will fully shake the scene.
But Erna’s story did not remain so hopeless. As the war ended, American forces arrived in Karlsruhe and the bombing ended and the terror faded.
One day, Erna suffered a severe cut to her left hand, and her father couldn’t find a German doctor in the devastated city. Desperate, he led her to American troops and showed them his daughter’s crimson hand.
Erna spoke no English, and could not understand the American medic’s words as he stitched her cut. She could sense his kindness.
This American kindness became a theme in her life. After the war, the German economy was decimated and hunger loomed. Through the Marshall Plan, Erna and her family were fed. At times, the food was intensely simple: dried milk, dried eggs, dried carrots.
She’s not complaining.
“It kept us alive,” she says. “I have the highest respect for the Americans. They could have let us starve to death, but they didn’t.”
In 1960, she was working in a German office when she met an American serviceman named James Gray. He was quiet and kind and, fortunately, spoke German.
After marriage, they eventually settled in open spaces east of Colorado Springs. Those spaces are not quite so open today.
On this sunny afternoon, Erna sits surrounded by family photos and memories. She talks of her late husband and of her many friends.
A small sign hangs over her television.
“Imagine peace,” it proclaims.