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Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 18

“I don't think so,” she replied curtly. “I save lives, I don't take them!”

Athens. December 08th 1941

 

After the traumatic journey from Trieste, Maria settled into a reasonably normal routine of taking care of running of the Polytechnic |Hospital.

This hospital was a satellite facility to care of the initial influx of casualties after the invasion of Greece.

 

By the middle of July, all the patients had been either transferred to the main hospital at Kokkinia or transported to Germany as prisoners of war.

During those three short weeks, Maria had made such an impression that the Hauptmann who was in command there requested that she continue for the duration of the time that Kokkinia remained operational.

Although she played no part in the day to day medical activities, she became a trusted liaison amongst the allied doctors and medics.

The main hospital, however, was also only a temporary solution and by the end of October all the staff and patients had been moved to Germany, and the building evacuated.

 

Once more, Katarina found herself a ward matron at the main hospital in Athens.

Although doing the job which she enjoyed the most, looking after patients and running the ward, three wards, in fact, she did miss working with the British Commonwealth prisoners.

She had learnt so much from them about their homelands on the other side of the world, and after they had left, she found herself pondering, even more, the stupidity of a group of men, the National Socialists, who had to destroy so much of what was good in the world.

She was under no illusion though. She couldn't change anything on her own and so she immersed herself heart and soul into looking after the sorry victims of this madness and do her utmost, along with her nurses to minimise the suffering of the patients who were placed in her care regardless of how serious or trivial the reason for their being on her wards.

 

The one thing that made her happy was that she had finally managed to exchange regular correspondence with her sister.

Maria had expressed concern in her letters that she had not heard anything from her, but with all the traveling and unexpected diversions, she had endured, it raised her spirits immensely when she did finally learn that Maria had eventually received all the letters she had sent.

When she read of the unfortunate loss of Agathe and Trudi she was most upset and couldn't help but to shed a tear at their sad passing. The memory of her young charge suffering from seasickness and then being shipwrecked made her wonder whether there really was a God and, if there was, why did he have to take her?

When she regained her senses and allowed her mind to return to more rational thought she realised that it had nothing at all to do with God. The troubles in the world were caused by men, without a doubt and one man and his comrades in particular. Then she began to wonder how much more suffering would have to be endured before this maniacal war came to an end.

 

As the weeks became months, Katarina heard many stories about what was happening throughout Greece. Especially hearing of atrocities carried out by her own countrymen and also, up in the north-west, by Bulgarians who had taken control of the area bordering their own land.

Many of the patients in her care had been wounded, not in fighting battles but in guerrilla attacks by Greek partisans trying their utmost to resist the violent occupation of their homeland.

 

Summer became Autumn and the days gradually became shorter. The temperature dropped to a far more comfortable level akin to the nice summers she remembered in Berlin.

It was on one of those days, at the beginning of December that she decided to take a walk.

As much as she liked the hospital grounds, that was about all she had seen of Athens.

Her time with the prisoners at Kokinnia had been so busy that she barely had time to even think about leaving the compound and the same had applied when she moved to the main hospital as she had spent much time getting organised and settling into the routine of her wards.

Now, though, she had a day to herself, and so she would make the most of this comfortable weather and walk into the city.

 

As she passed through the gate, she was greeted by the guard.

“Good morning, Matron,” the young soldier said as she passed the hut he was standing beside.. “You are not leaving on your own are you?”

Katarina frowned.

“Yes, why?” she asked.

“It is dangerous, Ma'am. There have been several attacks on soldiers between here and the city so it would be safer if you were accompanied.”

Before she had a chance to reply a small grey Kübelwagen pulled up at the barrier. Inside were two soldiers of the Wehrmacht.

The guard looked at it and then back at Katarina and rather than raising the barrier for it to pass he walked over to the passenger.

“Sergeant,” he said casually. “Are you going into town?”

The sergeant looked at his driver who shrugged.

“We can, I suppose, why?”

“The matron is heading that way, and I wondered if you could take her, perhaps?”

The NCO looked at Katarina for a moment and then turned back to the guard.

“All right,” he replied.

The guard smiled and straightened up

“Thanks, Sarge,” he said with a grin and then called across to Katarina. “They will take you, Ma'am. Better than being alone.”

“Oh, no. Thank you anyway but no.”

The young guard looked crestfallen, somewhat surprised that she had refused.

“But, Ma'am...” he began.

She walked over to the Kübel.

“I appreciate your offer, Sergeant,” she said pleasantly and then turned to the guard. “You did say that there have been several attacks did you not?”

The guard frowned.

“Yes, Ma'am, I did.”

“Who do they attack?” she asked.

“The soldiers, Ma'am. Convoys, troops...”

Katarina put her arm up and stopped him.

“Then it is more likely that I will be killed if I am in a clearly marked army vehicle rather than walking as a clearly marked nurse. I appreciate your concern but no, thank you, I will walk.”

She turned back to the Sergeant.

“Thank you, Sergeant. I am sorry you were delayed.”

“That's all right, Ma'am, glad to be of service.”

He threw a quick salute, and the driver pulled away and drove past the now raised barrier.

Katarina walked on, and behind her, the puzzled guard pushed back his helmet and scratched his head as he watched her go.

 

From what she saw, Athens was probably a beautiful city, but it was spoiled, just like everywhere else she had seen of late, by the huge military presence not just of her kinsmen but more so of the Italian army.

Everywhere she went the accursed swastika flags hung.

 

Katarina was careful to remain in the busiest parts of the city centre which were thronged with the occupying forces and she drew many an admiring glance, especially from the Italians who, she surmised, were probably attracted to her blonde hair and blue eyes, a combination that was not common in the Mediterranean countries where jet black hair and dark brown eyes were far more evident.

 

As the day wore on, Katarina found a little secluded corner and sat down on a step. She leaned back against the wall and began to peel a large orange she had managed to buy from an old Greek woman who was carrying a basket filled with them.

It was green but as she carefully removed the peel, inside it was juicy and ripe. The smell of citrus was wonderful as she pulled away the small scraps of waxy flesh and separated the segments to savour piece by succulent piece.

 

Suddenly, the peace was shattered as a Kübelwagen rattled past followed by a truck which was filled with soldiers seated in rows with rifles at their sides stocks on the truck floor and muzzles pointing skywards.

Her blood ran cold as she realised they were SS and they were only likely to be there for one reason. To round up some poor unfortunates who were either Jews or suspected partisans so, taking that as her cue to return to the hospital she took a mouthful of water from her almost empty canteen and began the long walk back.

 

As she strolled along the busy streets, Katarina reflected upon how relaxing it had been to just enjoy the warm sunshine, and she decided that the next day she had free, she would go to see the Acropolis.

She had seen it many times, on the hill overlooking the city but now she wanted to experience it close at hand.

 

For a moment, the peace was again shattered as she was passed by another column of trucks, maybe half a dozen, led by two motorcycles. Half the trucks carried yet more SS soldiers.

The final vehicle in the convoy was another Kübelwagen which, as it drew level with her, slowed to match her pace.

“What are you doing out here on your own?”

Katarina didn't face the familiar voice but continued to walk at an undiminished pace.

“Taking a walk, Obersturmfuhrer Holz. Does that concern you?”

She had recognised his voice as soon as he had spoken and the blood had frozen in her veins.

The small car stopped in front of her.

“I remember you. The ambulance.”

“Yes, and I remember you,” she replied.

The SS officer's face softened a little.

“I owe you an apology,” he said.

Katarina was stunned, an apology from an SS officer?

She didn't speak but allowed him to continue without giving away what she was really feeling inside.

“Yes, well. I was wrong about you. I checked out what you said about being from Berlin. I am sorry, I thought that you were someone else, a matron from Munich.”

“And why would I lie to you, Herr Obersturmfuhrer?” She spoke without showing any emotion of the anger she was feeling towards this murderous man. “I have nothing to hide.”

“No, well...”

He paused an awkward silence.

“Anyway, the soldier you were tending. He is back home and has recovered well, but he won't be returning to active duty.”

“I am pleased to hear that,” Katarina replied, allowing a small smile of satisfaction to form on her lips, both for him surviving and equally that he would not be able to kill anyone else.

“I will be back in a few days,” the officer continued. “Maybe I could see you?”

The smile vanished immediately, and she glared at him.

“I don't think so,” she replied curtly. “I save lives, I don't take them!”

Gerhardt Holz's face froze, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he batted his drivers arm forcibly and waved him to drive on after the convoy.

Katarina didn't move until they were out of sight and only them allowed herself a sigh of relief.

 

She was about to walk on when the peace was shattered by a tremendous explosion followed by the clatter of gunfire. It seemed to be from just around the corner, a thought which was confirmed by a cloud of dust and smoke which drifted lazily around the corner of the building ahead of her.

She ran towards it without stopping to consider the danger she could be facing.

By the time she reached the corner, the gunfire had ceased, and the eerie silence was broken only by the crackling of the flames which engulfed the mangled wreckage of what might once have been a small vehicle.

Stunned by the scene before her, Katarina could only stand and stare as she realised that it must have been the Kübelwagen of Obersturmfuhrer Holz.

No-one could have survived surely, she thought, but then she spotted a slight movement through the smoke beyond the twisted wreck.

She was wrong, someone had survived, and without hesitation, she ran around the debris.

At the side of the road, she found the driver or, at least, what remained of him. He must have taken the full force of the explosion, and she was sure that it wasn't him that she had seen move.

Above the crackling of the fire, she heard something and listened carefully. There it was again, a distinct groan.

Then she saw him, Obersturmfuhrer Holz, laying in the road partially covered by the canvas hood of his vehicle.

Immediately she ran over and dragged the tattered fabric from him.

He was in a bad way.

Quickly she assessed his injuries which, soon became apparent, were severe.

She could barely recognise him because of the blood and burns to his face. He was struggling to breathe because of the wounds to his chest and his right arm was almost torn off, the shredded remains attached by just a small strip of flesh.

“Damn you!” she whispered, “I should leave you to die!”

As she spoke, his eyes flickered open, bright blue against the darkness of his blackened and bloodied face and she remembered the last words she had spoken to him... “I save lives, I don't take them!

She took a deep breath and reached for the SS dagger that was still attached to his belt.

His eyes followed her but showed no emotion as she slid the sharp blade from its sheath and with one swift movement sliced through the strip of flesh just above where his elbow had once been.

It didn't bleed. The wound had been cauterised by the blast, and just a little oozed from the ragged mess.

Quickly Katarina took the field dressing from his belt and tore it open, pressing the pad against the raw, jagged flesh of the stump and carefully wrapped the bandage around to secure it.

Then, very carefully she pulled the torn, blood soaked fabric of what had once been his jacket and shirt away from his chest. As she did so, he coughed, and bright red blood speckled his lips, ran down his cheek and dripped onto the ground.

His chest was a mess of cuts and tears, and the jagged ends of at least two ribs were showing.

Those, however were less of a concern to her than the indentation on the opposite side and she guessed that this was the cause of the blood oozing from his mouth. The pressure wave from the blast had crushed his chest. The ribs she could see were not causing a problem but the corresponding ribs on the other side had probably been forced inwards and punctured his lung. She had to work quickly!

As he breathed, the air he drew in was escaping through the tear in his lung and would be filling his chest cavity with air. His only chance of survival would be if there was some way to release the air.

She looked at the dagger which she had returned to its scabbard to keep it clean.

It was all she had, so she withdrew it once more and, after searching with her fingers for the right spot, placed the tip of the blade between her fingers and pressed firmly against his side.

The razor-sharp steel penetrated easily, and her suspicion was confirmed by the hiss of escaping air.

Within seconds Obersturmfuhrer Holz was breathing more easily, so she removed the knife and returned it to its usual place.

 

Relieved, Katarina sat back on her heels and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. There was little more that she could do now save cleaning up the more superficial wounds.

She pondered for a moment about how she was going to get help. He was not safe yet, and his only chance of survival was the hospital, but she couldn't leave him alone.

It wasn't long, however before her questions were answered. With a squealing of brakes a truck pulled up beside them closely followed by another and a squad of some thirty SS soldiers jumped down from them.

The officer in charge, a young Leutnant, came immediately to Katarina's side.

“What happened here?” he demanded.

“I don't know,” she said. “This man needs the hospital. Get him into one of your trucks and get him there, quickly!”

The young man hesitated.

“Now!” she yelled.

Without further ado, he waved his men to assist.

She guided them in making a makeshift stretcher with the canvas hood of the destroyed car and six of the soldiers carried the wounded man as gently but as quickly as they could to the nearest truck.

 

Katarina climbed up into the back with them, and soon the truck was on its way to the hospital.

As it bumped along the rough road, she looked down at Obersturmfuhrer Holz who lay quietly looking up at her silently.

“I saw you kill that young man in Levant,” she said quietly.

Holz' eyes remained impassive, unblinking.

“You killed Sergeant Lange too, didn't you?”

Again he didn't respond.

“And the little girl he was protecting...”

Still, he stared at her, his eyes showing no emotion.

“How many other innocent people have you killed, I wonder.”

 

The journey to the hospital was only a matter of a few minutes, but to Katarina, it seemed like hours until the truck finally pulled up at the hospital barrier.

She stood up and shouted to the guard.

“Open the barrier; we have a dying man here!”

The guard recognised her immediately and pushed down on the weighted end of the pole which raised the barrier.

The truck jolted as it moved off once more and seconds later it was outside the main entrance to the hospital building.

Katarina jumped down and went inside, shouting for help.

As if from nowhere, a doctor and two nurses appeared and ran out to the truck and were soon followed by an orderly carrying a folded stretcher.

Along with the driver, the casualty was taken carefully from the truck, and once inside they placed him on a trolley and wheeled him quickly to the operating theatre.

As they crashed through the doors, the doctor put his arm out and prevented Katarina from entering.

“No, Matron,” he said. “We'll take it from here. You get cleaned up and I will let you know how we get on with him. Take a rest and a shower, you look as though you need it.”

She was about to protest but suddenly caught sight of her reflection in a glass door. She was a mess! Her hands and clothes were covered in crusty, dried blood and dirt.

“All right,” she conceded. “I will, but I'll come back as soon as I've cleaned up.”

The doctor smiled and nodded then disappeared through the door into the theatre.

 

An hour later, she was back outside the theatre. She hadn't hurried because she knew that from the extent of his injuries, Obersturmfuhrer Holz would not be out for quite some time, in fact, it was almost nine that evening, some five hours later when the doctor appeared again.

“My goodness, Matron. How long have you been here?” he asked her.

“Quite a while,” she replied. “How did it go?”

“Hard to say really. He is still hanging on, but I am not sure he will make it through the night. His injuries were so severe that it had taken hours to find them all.”

He looked at her carefully, having got to know her quite well over the past few months.

“There is nothing more any of us can do, and it is only thanks to you that he is alive even now so get some sleep and I will let you know in the morning how he is progressing.”

Katarina knew he was right, only time would tell whether she had done enough and so she bade the doctor a good night and walked slowly back to her room.

 

Before she slept, she reflected on the day that she had hoped would be a peaceful Sunday of rest on a rare day off.

It was strange, she thought, that she would end up trying to save the life of one of the most despicable and evil men she had ever met. He was even worse than the men who had killed her neighbours just eighteen months before because this man was so cold that life appeared to mean nothing to him and yet, she didn't want him to die. He may not have a conscience but she did and to her, any life was worth saving.

 

The following morning, after a night of untroubled sleep, Katarina arrived at the ward where her first round would take place.

No sooner had she walked through the door that a somewhat excited nursed greeted her and asked,

“Did you hear the news, Matron?”

Katarina shook her head.

“Not yet, why? Has something happened?”

“Has something happened?? I should say so, Matron! The Japanese navy attacked an American naval base on Hawaii last night.”

Katarina waited for a moment to allow this monumental revelation to make sense.

“Well, that's it then,” she said sadly. “Now the whole world is at war.”

 

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