The Symphony of War
1998 by John Gomperz
The shrill sound of air raid sirens interrupted life in the city. We were quite used to it by now. Most of the time the inconvenience was an exercise in futility. Never before was Budapest attacked from the air, but this was the spring of 1944. The noose was tightening around the Nazi troops. We had to be careful. The block captains were patrolling the streets looking for those not obeying the warning. You had to take cover. Not from the bombs, but from the patrols.
Traffic came to a halt. The streetcars and buses emptied their load; people scurried to any available shelter. All businesses, stores closed up and locked their doors. The normal city noises slowly gave way to an eerie silence. Even the birds stopped chirping. This time it was different. There was expectation in the air of . . . something. The hope for a change, hope for the end of the war. The hope of survival. The sun was shining brightly from a nearly cloudless sky, dispensing a little warmth, breaking the cold of long winter. Until now, ten in the morning, it was a beautiful day.
Than a low murmur filled the air. This was new. I was about a quarter-mile away from an industrial area and thought somebody had started up a generator or some other kind of motor. Gradually the sound grew louder and louder. In the distance the black puffs of flak appeared on the horizon. Now it was obvious. This was no drill but the real thing. The sounds of war gained strength with every second. More and more artillery joined in the cacophony of noises, like an orchestra tuning up before a concert.
Then I spotted a never-before-seen sight. Straining my eyes at the black smoke in the sky, I saw an armada of silvery cigars in formation approaching the city. The planes were so high in the sky that the antiaircraft guns could not reach them. The low murmur now became the unmistakable thunder of hundreds of airplane engines, like a slow roll of timpany accentuating the quiet violins. Almost like Ravel's Bolero. It started with a stately snare drum roll growing into its full expression. The sounds and picture started to come together. The vapor trails betrayed the plane's formation. I could see the four white lines behind each engine of every Flying Fortress. As the volume of the symphony matured, a new instrument joined in. Starting on the lower registers, a mighty organ glissando slid higher and higher, building its intensity higher and higher. The whole orchestra was furiously keeping pace, coming to a crescendo just as the organ gave way to the percussion. Cymbals crashed, drums rolled as the falling bombs exploded on impact. Wave after wave, tremble after tremble, the ground came alive as in the peak of an earthquake.
The flak wafting in the sky like strewn black cotton balls was overtaken by smoke rising from the ground. The earth shook as the carpet bombing erased whatever stood in its way. Buildings crumbled. Tall factory chimneys rained bricks to the ground. Previously immovable objects became projectiles in the series of explosions.
The last explosion escorted in a deafening silence for a few seconds as the planes departed the concert hall. The first movement of the symphony was over. Than the conductor raised his baton and the second movement elicited new sounds from these surreal instruments. Ambulance and fire engine sirens, police whistles, human cries of anguish, the creeking of still crumbling buildings on fire were all at last joined by the steady siren sound, signaling the end of the attack. All clear.
Life was returning to normal. Normal? The many returning daily bombings created a new standard of life, so you could call it normal.
I spent only one air raid in a shelter. I had to. It was in a factory near the Danube where the shelters were dug only a few feet below the surface. Any deeper and the ground water would have flooded the place. These concrete chambers were covered by mounds of soil and designated as air raid shelters. About fifty people to a chamber were shepherded in, sitting on long benches facing each other. As soon as the bombing began the electricity went out. The shelter swayed to the rhythm of nearby explosions. A new sound amplified in the air. The moaning, wailing, and crying of frightened people groping at each other in the dark cave for reassurance and help. That experience kept me out of shelters from then on.
The noise of the terrified was yet
another sound to join the disharmonic convergance of this weird Symphony
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