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The Long Road Home. Chapter 12

“Il Treno,” she said, using up most of her knowledge of Italian. “Where is it?”

Katarina and Maria finally leave Italy. It is mid-December 1943 and not only is it their homeland they left behind so long ago that is strong in their minds but also their impending separation...

Brenner. December 15th 1943

 

For the first time in many months, Katarina and Maria found that they had a little time to relax. The Army began to dismantle the compound, beginning with the damaged huts at the far end.

The first two huts remained in use. One for accommodation and storage, the other for minor injuries and ailments.

As the time to depart approached, the two young women began to feel uneasy.

A week after the last air-raid, Maria and Katarina were preparing to retire when Maria suddenly sat down on her bed. Katarina, who was scrubbing her teeth at the little basin in the corner of the room, looked up because of the unexpected movement.

“Are you all right?” she asked, taking the toothbrush from her mouth.

“Hmm... Yes. Sorry, I was just thinking.”

Katarina rinsed her mouth and wiped her face on the towel.

“What is it, Maria, can you tell me?”

Maria smiled.

“Oh, it's nothing really. I was just thinking. Tomorrow is the feast of Sankt Nikolaus.”

“Oh, yes. So it is,” Katarina replied. “I hadn't thought about it.”

“No, I am not surprised,” Maria chuckled. “Anyway, we are not busy here. Would you come to the Vatican with me tomorrow? I would quite like to celebrate the day while we can.”

Katarina smiled and sat beside her.

“Of course I will,” she said. “I know how much it means to you.”

“That's not the only thing, though.” Maria turned to her sister. “I'm afraid. In a few days, we are going home. I know we'll be together again, after Christmas, but I am worried that something will go wrong. I don't want to lose you.”

“Oh, Maria. You are not going to lose me. Considering all that has happened over the past years, nothing will keep us apart. We are as one. If we were not meant to be together then the Fates wouldn't have brought us together in the first place. Don't you believe that?”

“ I do try to tell myself that, 'trina but the doubt is there all the time, eating away at me. After you were stabbed and so nearly died, the worry has remained. I know it's silly and that what will be, will be but I can't help it. So, will you come, tomorrow?”

“Yes, Maria,” she smiled. “Of course I will. For no other reason than you want me to.”

 

It wasn't the first time that they had been to the Vatican together but, somehow, Maria felt that it could be the last. In one week, they would be leaving Italy, maybe for good. This beautiful country had been torn apart and it's people bitterly divided. She wondered what would become of it as the war continued to ravage the land. The Allies, by the beginning of December, had reached the town of Cassino, around one-hundred and twenty-five Kilometres to the south. The recent bombing raids had shown that Ciampino was no longer safe for the holding of casualties. Although Rome had been declared an open city, the air-raids continued relatively unchecked.

 

This visit to the Basilica was a little different for them, however, because, as a holy day, a service was held. She was a little concerned because the service was in Latin and she knew that Katarina wouldn't understand a word of it but, to her relief, her sister seemed to be quite engrossed, following every movement and even being attentive to the readings.

 

That evening, they were alone in their room, once again. Maria had deliberately not mentioned the service, preferring to wait and see whether the subject would arise. To her absolute pleasure, it did.

As they sat quietly reading, Katarina looked up from her book.

“I enjoyed the service this afternoon, Maria.”

“I am so pleased that you did,” she replied. “I was a little worried if I am honest. I know you are not a believer and I didn't want to force my beliefs upon you.”

Katarina smiled.

“It isn't a matter of whether I believe or not. I just haven't considered it. I just get on with life as it is.”

“I know,” Maria assured her. “Even so, I am not trying to force my beliefs upon you, I just wanted to be with you today, to share my feelings with you.”

“Oh, Maria. I wanted to be with you too and, if I am honest, I enjoyed it. I cannot deny that I did feel at ease and peaceful, even if only for an hour. Whatever the reason, it was not a bad thing.”

Maria held out her hand towards her sister who took it without hesitation.

“I am still afraid, though.”

Katarina nodded gently.

“I know,” she replied. “The war brought us together and it could so easily separate us again.”

Maria squeezed her hand.

“Well, whatever happens, if I survive this war I will find you again, even if it takes my whole life.”

Katarina leaned nearer and whispered.

“Maria, I don't think that Germany can win this war. We have seen the defeat in North Africa at first hand. Mussolini has been deposed and Italy has turned on us. Our men are being decimated by the Russians in the East and Britain hasn't been defeated. In fact, along with the Americans, they are growing stronger. I don't know how much longer the Nazis are going to resist but I have a bad feeling that they won't give up until Germany lies in ruins!”

Maria sighed.

“I fear you are right, 'trina. You and I will survive, though. We will still help the people who need us, whoever they may be.”

Katarina shrugged.

“Of course, that goes without saying but I have a feeling that there are going to be many of those people. Far more than either you or I will be able to help.”

They sat quietly for a minute, each lost in their own thoughts until Maria broke the silence.

“Do know what troubled me today, 'trina? Not being able to give anything to the children. I tried to find some sweets for them but I couldn't.”

“I don't think anyone could hold that against you. Do you?”

Maria shrugged resignedly.

“No, I know but I just wish... well, you know.”

Katarina nodded. She knew exactly how her sister felt.

 

The next few days seemed to pass so quickly and the two young Matrons said their final goodbyes to what remained of the camp. There was no medical staff left, all having been transferred to the front lines.

All night, the rain had beaten upon the wooden roof of their hut but it had not been that which had kept them awake, they were used to that. It was the uncertainty of the days and weeks ahead which was to prevent their repose.

Just after daybreak, the rain had stopped and now, as they sat at the railhead, waiting for their train to arrive, the sun had risen and melted away the dark clouds from above.

 

The time seemed to pass slowly and, by midday, there was still no sign of their train or, indeed, of any train.

There was much activity around the station but it all seemed to be to do with repairing the destruction from the air-raids. Final, their patience exhausted, Katarina noticed an Italian railway worker walking along the tracks outside. She jumped up and ran to the door.

“Hey! Scusi!” she shouted.

The man stopped and looked across to her.

“Si?” he called back.

“Where is the train?”

The worker walked across to her, shrugging his shoulders to show his non-comprehension.

“Il Treno,” she said, using up most of her knowledge of Italian. “Where is it?”

She looked, somewhat exaggerated, up and down the line as though searching and then held out her hands and shrugged to confirm her question.

Again, the Italian shrugged.

“Nessun Treno Oggi,” he replied without emotion.

“What?” Katarina understood clearly that there was no train.

“O Domani,” he continued in his annoyingly disinterested way. “Forse Martedi.”

Of that, the only word she understood was 'Tuesday'.

“Martedi?” she repeated with grave concern. The man shrugged apologetically but whether he was apologizing for his lack of knowledge or because of the lack of a train, she had no way of knowing.

“Grazie,” she said and the Italian shrugged again and went on his way with an almost unintelligible, “Prego.”

Katarina turned to Maria.

“Did you hear that?” she asked. Maria nodded.

“I heard, 'Tuesday',” she replied. “I think he was saying that there are no trains until then. We should go and find a telephone and make a call.”

 

After a short time of asking and much gesticulating, they found an office with a working telephone and managed to get a call through to the transport officer at the airport. He confirmed that there would, indeed, be no train for at least two days. Maria didn't ask and he offered no explanation as to why but he advised them that they should return to the camp for the night. In the morning, he suggested, they should make their way to the main station in Rome. He would ensure that the updated documents would be sent to them before nightfall.

 

It took a while but, after much asking amongst the workers, they finally managed to get a ride back to the camp only to find that it was already becoming re-occupied. Whilst they had been at the railhead, an SS Panzer division had begun to arrive. In the space that had been previously occupied by the bomb-damaged huts, there were now several monstrous, grey tanks!

The guard who was on duty at the gate told her that they had been arriving since mid-morning.

“If you would take my advice, Ma'am,” he told Maria after she had told him of their predicament, “I would go into Rome and stay at the hospital. They must have nurses quarters there.”

Before either of them had a chance to protest, he continued in very hushed tones, barely more than a whisper.

“They're Mahler's lot. I know that you and he don't see eye to eye so better to stay away from them... if you don't mind me saying so, Ma'am.”

Maria gave an uncertain smile.

“No, I don't mind at all but there we have a problem. Our new travel papers are being sent here. Before nightfall, he said. We have to be here to receive them or we won't be going anywhere.”

The soldier screwed up his nose as he thought. Then, without any explanation, he went back inside his sentry-box and picked up the field telephone, cranking the handle momentarily.

With his back to them and because he was speaking so quietly, neither Maria nor Katarina could hear what he was saying. They didn't have to wait long, though, until he replaced the handset on his cradle and stepped back outside.

“I just spoke to the Feldwebel. He can arrange to take you up there and for your papers to get to you tonight. In fact, Ma'am, I will bring them to you myself when I get off duty.”

The two young women looked at each other showing a little surprise that this man, whom they had seen only briefly over the months they had been there, was being so helpful.

It was Katarina who spoke first.

“That is very kind of you, Soldat, but why are you so...?”

The soldier interrupted before she could finish the question.

“Ma'am. I have been here as long as you both have. I have seen the work that you have done here. You have both worked tirelessly and selflessly. I heard about the American and how you looked after him just as much as you would any of us.” He paused. “I was sorry to hear that he... well, you know.”

They didn't say anything. There was, after all, nothing they could say that would change anything.

“Anyway, the guard went on, “We respect you, all of us. To be able to help you for once would be an honour.”

Maria was overwhelmed and felt her face getting warm.

“Well, thank you. I...” She looked at Katarina, “We are very...” The words were proving a little difficult.

“Grateful,” Katarina added. Her face, too, was glowing.

 

The following morning, Maria and Katarina waited patiently at Rome Termini station. The soldier had been true to his word and had brought their documents up to the hospital. Since they had only stayed the one, short night, they had slept in an unoccupied side-ward but their sleep had been sporadic. They were too tense to relax enough.

The train on which they were to travel was a freight train which seemed to be made up of a mixture of wagons. Behind the two carriages which were immediately behind the Locomotive, to accommodate some exhausted and lightly wounded soldiers returning to Germany for rest and recuperation, was a wooden box-type wagon. After that, so far as they could tell, were some flat cars which had tarpaulins covering their loads, and then some dirty tank cars. It didn't stay long in the station, just a few minutes, and no sooner had they found the compartment which had been allocated to them, the train began to move.

They sat quietly, looking out through the dirty window at the city moving slowly by. It had begun to rain and the temperature had dropped to a cool ten degrees but, inside their carriage, it was, although not warm, at least dry.

Soon, they left the city behind them and began to pick up a little speed. The water droplets on the outside of the glass began to form almost horizontal rivulets.

 

For almost five hours, the train rattled slowly but steadily through the countryside until Maria noticed that they seemed to be slowing.

She was right, the scenery outside was changing. Isolated houses became dense and a little industrial until, finally, the train squealed to a halt. They appeared to be in a reasonably large station but not at a platform. Although platforms were visible across the tracks, their train had stopped on what appeared to be an isolated line.

With the palm of her hand, Katarina wiped the condensation from the window and peered carefully out. Combined with the now heavy rain outside, everything she could see was distorted.

“I can't make out the sign,” she said, her breath misting the glass again. “F... I... R... E, I think... N... Z... A. It says Firenza.”

“Firenza?” Maria repeated. “Where is that?”

Katarina slumped back in her seat. “I have no idea,” she said with a shrug.

 

They didn't stop for long, maybe twenty minutes. They heard the locomotive whistle and then a jolt and the train began to move once more. It weaved slowly across the maze of lines until it was clear of the station and then picked up speed. Before too long, they were back in the open countryside.

Another three hours and the train slowed again. This time it didn't stop but passed slowly through the station. Again, Katarina stared through the misted, rain-soaked glass, struggling to see where they were. Since the train passed through a platform, she was able to read the name more easily, 'Bologna'.

 

Gradually, the rain eased and finally stopped but the daylight was failing. It hadn't been bright because of the weather and the dark rain-clouds but Maria could sense that the sun beginning to set and soon it would be dark.

Another two hours and the train slowed again. It was dark now and the blackout blinds had to be closed if they wanted a light on. The brakes squealed and the wheels rang as the flanges rubbed the rails as they snaked across the junctions until finally shuddering to a halt. Silence.

This time it was Maria who, pulling the blind a few centimetres and peered out with a single eye.

She dropped the blind and turned excitedly.

“I know where we are!” she exclaimed. “Verona!”

Katarina smiled.

“The city of Romeo and Juliet.”

“That's right. It is close to the Alps, right up in the north!” Maria was excited. “I always wanted to come here. It is such a romantic place.”

“Then it is a shame that we can't see it,” Katarina chuckled.

Maria sat back and sighed.

“Yes, it is. Perhaps, when when the war is over, we can come back and see it properly. You and me.”

Katarina nodded her agreement.

“I am going to stretch my legs,” she said, getting to her feet. I'll see what I can see from the door.”

 

She wasn't gone long.

“My goodness,” she exclaimed, tightly closing the compartment door behind her. “The temperature has fallen quite considerably, it is so cold out there. I had almost forgotten what it was like to be so cold!”

She sat down beside Maria and the two of them huddled together to keep warm.

“What did you see out there?”

“There is a lot of activity but hard to see in the dark. Just a lot of hand-lamps. I think there must be another engine behind us but I honestly couldn't say. It's too dark.”

As they chatted, the carriage suddenly jolted but didn't move. They waited patiently, expecting to feel the train pulling away but nothing happened. They looked at each other and shrugged.

 

It was to be another hour before the train continued its journey northwards. What they didn't know was that another locomotive had been attached to the rear of the train to add extra power as they climbed up the steep gradients into the mountains.

As the hours passed, Maria and Katarina made themselves as comfortable as they could, huddled together to retain the semblance of warmth they had managed to retain, and slept.

They didn't see Bolzano as they passed slowly through. Even had they been awake it would have been too dark.

After some sixteen hours of travelling, the train stopped one again.

Immediately, the two of them were roused by the noise and motion of the train clanking to a halt.

Maria looked at her watch.

“It is past midnight!” she exclaimed. “Where are we?”

Katarina looked out.

“I can't see anything but wagons and darkness,” she replied, staring intently through the condensation drenched window. I think it must be some kind of railway yard, though. We can't be through the mountains yet, surely?”

At that moment, the compartment door slid open to reveal a middle-aged man dressed in the dark, Blue-Grey uniform of the Deutsche Reichsbahn.

He saluted the two matrons smartly.

“I am sorry to disturb you but I have been asked to inform all of the passengers that there is to be a delay here for some hours. The replacement locomotive has been delayed.”

Katarina frowned.

“Why do we need another locomotive?” she asked him.

“And where are we?” Maria added.

“We are at Brenner, Ma'am. The locomotives that brought you thus far belong to the Italians. We are waiting for our own to replace them.”

The two women looked at each other.

“The Brenner Pass!” they said simultaneously. Katarina continued. “How long will we be here?”

The Railwayman shrugged.

“I have no idea,” he said. “At least until daybreak, I imagine.”

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