It began as a spontaneous response to the scenes of annihilation when citizens emerged from cellars and bunkers in cities across Germany in May 1945. In the face of national defeat, by picking up one brick, then another, these women (for it was largely only women left in the cities) took the first steps towards starting over. Amidst the chaos of destruction, which had turned much of Germany’s hitherto neatly mortared brickwork into 400 million cubic metres of debris, they began the work of reconstruction.
It was later, as their efforts became coordinated under an official Allied order compelling all able-bodied women aged between 15–50 to assist, that these women became known as Trümmerfrauen: “rubble ladies”. Working in gangs with hardly any tools, they would clear wreckage brick by brick, passing each one along a line, to be cleaned and stacked neatly, ready for reuse. Thanks to this recycling process, roads re-emerged, dwelling spaces were reclaimed and eventually the cities themselves began to take shape once again. Something else also materialised from this hard manual labour: the humble attitude with which these women got on with their toils contributed towards another process of repair – that of the country’s psyche. I (fs)