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The Long Road Home. Chapter 20.
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 20.

Tags: history, ww2,

"If the same happened to you then you have to believe me, it's better that you do not know.”

Together once more, Katarina and Maria concentrate or their recovery and their future but maybe it will not be quite so straightforward as they would hope.

Vienna, January 1st 1944

 

The scene before him was enough to bring a lump to the throat of even the most highly experienced Medical Officer and Oberstarzt Ritter was not ashamed to let Nurse Winter see the tear fall from his cheek. He quickly wiped it away with his handkerchief as he turned to her.

“These two are very special. Make sure that they get the best care possible just as they have given such care in the most dangerous of circumstances.”

Nurse Winter frowned.

“Yes, of course, Colonel. I wouldn't consider anything less but...”

She looked at him, a little afraid to ask.

Ritter smiled.

“Yes, I know what you are thinking but believe me, although you may never know why, they deserve the best.”

He looked down at them, still tightly holding each other.

“I think that if you put them together in the same room, their recovery might surprise you.”

Still smiling, he turned to leave but, at that moment, Katarina raised her head.

“Colonel Ritter.”

He turned back.

“I'm so sorry that I didn't recognise you or remember you.”

“You don't have to apologise to me, Matron. I know how badly you and your sister were hurt. You concentrate on your recovery. That is all I ask.”

Katarina smiled.

“We will. Now that I have Maria, some things have returned.”

“I am very pleased that you have begun your recovery.” He leaned forward and, just out of Nurse Winter's hearing whispered. “Small steps, Katarina, small steps.”

She smiled warmly and nodded.

“Small steps... Bernhardt.”

Suddenly, the lump returned to his throat and his eyes welled but he didn't speak. Instead, he placed his arm gently on her shoulder and smiled broadly.

Straightening up he looked once more at the two of them.

“I must return to Berlin but I will be watching your progress very carefully,” he said with a twinkle in his eye and a sideways glance to Nurse Winter, who's heart missed a beat as she realised that she too would be under the close scrutiny of those in very high places.

Maria, too, smiled weakly and, with not inconsiderable effort, raised her hand to acknowledge that she understood.

“Take care, Bernhardt,” she said quietly. “Thank you for taking such good care of us.”

 

The following morning, Christmas day, under the guidance of Nurse Winter, two orderlies moved Maria into the same room as her sister. Sharing a room was a very rare occurrence at the sanatorium but since the suggestion had come from such a high ranking officer of the German Army, it was felt that it would be unwise to ignore it.

Of course, both Maria and Katarina, even in the condition they were, knew that Oberstarzt Ritter was genuinely thinking of their welfare and his concern was with their recovery only. He knew that together they would support each other and that was the best possible medicine they could have.

 

Christmas passed and was barely noticed by the two young women. They were too weak to celebrate and, besides, the fact that they were together was celebration enough for them. There could have been no greater gift for them than that.

Maria's injuries were physically more significant than those of her sister, which were not inconsiderable. At first, Nurse Winter and her colleagues concentrated more on Katarina's exercises, both mental and physical, whilst Maria rested.

Although nothing major, she had at least two broken ribs, a broken tibia, a torn tendon in each of her shoulders and myriad cuts and bruises. It would be several weeks until she would be able to take any physical exercise.

 

Late one night, a few days later, they were laying in bed in the darkness. It was Katarina who broke the silence as she stared up at the ceiling.

“Do you know what happened to me, Maria?” she asked.

Her sister didn't immediately respond. For Katarina, the darkness and the silence seemed to press down upon her but she waited patiently.

Eventually, Maria took a deep breath.

“Don't you remember?” she asked.

“No,” came the sad reply. “My memory is returning and I am gradually fitting all the pieces of the jigsaw together but that piece is still missing.”

Maria sighed.

“I'm afraid that I don't know either. I never saw what happened. How much do you remember?”

Katarina thought carefully.

“Well, I remember an explosion that blew the windows in. I remember there was someone who was hurt. I think you were helping her but it is so vague. After that, well, nothing, nothing at all... until I awoke in the hospital.”

“Oh yes. One of the nurses was cut by flying glass and I was trying to stem the blood flowing from her neck. You went to get clamps and dressings but a second bomb detonated before you got back. I'm afraid that the next thing I remember was waking up buried under the rubble.”

Katarina gasped.

“You were buried? For how long?”

“I don't know. Several hours I suppose but it felt like days.”

She pushed herself upright to a sitting position using her pillows as cushions and stared at her sister lying motionless in the bed beside hers.

“No wonder you are in such a state! I had no idea!”

Maria closed her eyes, unseen in the darkness.

“It wasn't only that,” she said quietly. “At that point, I only had a few small cuts and bruises. I was trapped in a void. When they found me and tried to rescue me, something gave way and the whole lot collapsed, taking me with it. This time, there was no void and I was crushed under... well... I don't know, whatever fell on top of me, I suppose.”

Katarina felt heartbroken. She had never imagined that her sister had been through so much.

“But they rescued you quickly, though. They knew you were there.”

The silence was deafening.

“Maria?”

An unseen tear rolled down Maria's cheek as she relived the hellish ordeal as though it were yesterday.

“No,” she whispered.

Katarina swung her legs over the side of the bed and went and knelt beside her sister. Very gently, she took her sister's hand as she continued, her voice cracked with emotion.

“There was an unexploded bomb. They couldn't...” she swallowed, “...they couldn't look for me until it was made safe. For all that time, I was trapped. I couldn't move anything. I could barely breathe and the pain... the pain was horrific. I have never felt pain like it. I thought I was going to die, Katarina. At one point, I almost wanted to die!”

She began to cry, gently sobbing as her sister gripped her hand.

Tears began to fill Katarina's eyes too as she lay down beside her, very carefully holding her.

“I wanted to pass out, to faint, anything to stop the pain but I didn't. I just lay there, waiting to die. I didn't know whether I would be found again or how long I could endure it. I couldn't even scream because of the weight on me.”

Katarina was too choked to speak now but her sister continued.

“I envy you, in a way, Katarina,” she said. “I can remember every second of what happened to me. I can still feel every piece of that building that was crushing me, digging into my flesh and tearing at me as I fell. If the same happened to you then you have to believe me, it's better that you do not know.”

 

Katarina pressed her forehead gently against her sister's shoulder but quickly withdrew as she heard a muffled gasp of pain.

“I don't think I suffered anything as horrifying as you did, Maria,” she whispered. “I remember little bits but I think I must have fallen through to the cellar. I remember pipes, broken pipes and... and steam escaping. It hissed so loudly. I could see daylight through the shattered wall and ceiling as I crawled over the rubble. I remember a door too but that is all. I don't know how I got out, if indeed I did. Nor who found me. I just remember waking up in a bed on a ward.”

For a moment, Katarina remained silent as the recollections flooded through her mind.

“There was a nurse who was looking after me, Nurse Kissling. She asked me about someone but I had no memory then. She said she was the aunt of a nurse called Winkler, Traudl Winkler. The name didn't mean anything to me then but now I wonder...”

Maria gripped Katarina's hand.

“I remember,” she said quietly. “She can't have survived. I remember that a shard of glass had cut cleanly through her Carotid Artery. She couldn't have lived long in that hell.” Once again, silence fell. It was only broken when Maria, half to herself, said, “She was so young.”

Another pause and then,

“I wonder what happened to the Engineer?”

Katarina was puzzled. “Engineer?”

“Yes, don't you remember? The locomotive engineer we took to the hospital before the raid.”

Katarina thought hard.

“No, not at all. Why did we have anything to do with a locomotive engineer? Where was he?”

“You don't remember the train we were on?”

“There is still so much that I don't remember. I don't think my memory will ever be the same again,” she sighed.

“It has barely been a week, 'Trina. Give yourself time, it'll come back, you'll see.”

 

A sudden knock on their door woke them immediately. Katarina was shocked to find that she was still lying beside her sister and as quickly as she could, she scurried back to her own bed just as the door opened.

“Good morning, Matrons!”

It was Nurse Winter along with an orderly who was pushing a trolley with trays containing their breakfast.

“How are we today?”

She didn't expect an answer as she began the daily routine of medications and checks.

When she finished, she was about to leave them to eat when Maria stopped her.

“I was wondering if you would do something for us, Sister. I know it's could be difficult but would it be possible to find out about a patient at Innsbruck?”

The nurse looked surprised.

“Innsbruck? Well, I'm not sure. I could try...”

“We would be grateful if you would, Sister,” Katarina added. “I am sure it would help me as I don't remember anything about him.”

The nurse scratched her chin.

“All right,” she agreed. “What's his name?”

Katarina looked to her sister who, in turn, looked blank.

“I don't know,” she said apologetically.

“Then what can I do? I can hardly find information on someone without a name.”

“All I know is that he was admitted on the night of the Fifteenth of December with a suspected broken neck. He is a locomotive engineer.”

“That's it? Nothing more to go on?”

Maria gave her a sympathetic stare.

“Sorry. That's all I remember... oh, except that he was on the same ward that we were when the bombs fell.”

The nurse frowned.

“At least will narrow the search a little. Which ward was it?”

Maria half-smiled,

“Sorry...”

Nurse Winter raised her eyes and smiled.

“I'll see what I can do,” she said.

 

As the time passed, Katarina found that her joints were becoming slightly less stiff and painful and the bruising was slowing fading, changing from an ugly purple to an almost equally ugly green!

It struck her that, for the time being at least, there was no war. They had neither asked for nor been told any news about it. Within the white walls of the sanatorium, they felt safe.

 

The following morning, they were awoken as usual by Nurse Winter and the orderly. This time, however, instead of 'Good Morning', her normal greeting, she cheerily cried, “Happy New Year!”

Maria and Katarina looked at each other.

“New year?” Maria exclaimed. “Goodness me, I hadn't realised.”

Nurse Winter laughed.

“Well, it is and, what's more, I have some letters for you both. The Army Postal Service seems to have finally caught up with you.”

Although wanting to read their letters, the two young women patiently allowed Nurse Winter to carry out the checks she needed to do. As soon as she and the orderly were gone, however, they began to read.

 

München-Pasing

November 5th 1943

 

My Dearest Maria.

It is so long since we last received a letter from you but we do understand that things are difficult at the moment. How is Rome? I have heard that it is a very beautiful City.

Every day we think of you and pray for you and Katarina to return safely.

We have no real news for you. We read the newspapers, as I am sure that you do but, mercifully, Munich has been spared from the horrific air-raids that other parts of Germany are suffering.

Please write soon and let us know that you are safe, my darling.

With all our love,

Mama und Papa.

 

Maria wiped her eyes free of moisture that had risen and threatened run down her cheeks and looked across to her sister.

Katarina was staring at the paper which was trembling in her hand.

 

Berlin.

Thursday, November 25th, 1943.

 

Our Dearest, Katarina.

I hope this letter finds you safe and well as we are.

By the time this reaches you, I am sure that you will have heard about the terrible air-raids that Berlin is suffering. For so long, our Luftwaffe attacked England and now it would appear that they are now able to return the favour. Two nights ago, the city was hit by thousands of bombs, the damage is tremendous Thousands of homes have been destroyed and even the zoo was hit. I can't say too much but don't worry about us. Our home is untouched and we shall remain safe in the shelters.

We understand that it may be difficult for you to write but just a few lines to let us know that you and Maria are safe if at all possible?

We think of you every day and look forward to the day when we can see you again.

 

All our love,

Mama und Papa.

 

“Trina? What is it? Has something happened?”

Her sister didn't answer but tore open the second envelope with shaking hands and quickly unfolded it.

 

Berlin.

Sunday, December 19th 1943

 

Our Dearest Katarina.

We have still not received any correspondence from you but we trust that you are keeping safe.

I know that you will be sad to learn that Frau Hofstadter was killed during Friday night's raid. Apparently, she was on her way home from a relative's house somewhere outside of Berlin when her train suffered a direct hit. Her replacement seems worse if you understand what I mean.

I am afraid that there is also more bad news. Poor Frau Fischer from the floor above, you remember her? She received notification that both her husband and son have been killed. She is alone now. I have tried to comfort her but she won't answer the door to anyone.

Anyway, I hope that you and Maria have a good Christmas together, It won't be the same here without you.

Please try to write soon, Liebling. We are so worried.

 

All our love,

Mama und Papa.

 

Katarina handed the heavily censored, handwritten letters to Maria who quickly read through them. It was Katarina who broke the uncomfortable silence.

“Do you know, I never even thought of them until now. I don't even remember Frau Hofstadter and what do they mean by 'worse'? Worse than what?”

“That name is familiar, Katarina. Didn't you say that she was the concierge of your building?”

Katarina shrugged.

“Did I? What about Frau Fischer and her husband and son? I don't remember them either. What is happening, Maria? Berlin bombed? Is this it then? Are we losing the war? And if we do, what then?”

Maria tried to reach out but her sister's bed was too far away from her.

“Sshh... Katarina! I know it is hard but you mustn't think about such things. We have to concentrate on getting better, stronger so that we can be the nurses that we once were. We will be needed more than ever, of that I am certain but we have to get well first.”

Katarina looked at her sister.

“I want to go home, Maria...” she whispered. “I'm scared.”

Maria raised herself stiffly and began to slide her leg to the edge of the bed but Katarina stopped her.

“No, stop!” he said sharply. “I'm sorry. I'm being selfish, I know. You always said that we have to be strong and we do. We have to look out for each other. I'll be all right.”

 

Maria let herself relax a little. Letting her gaze stray up to the plain white ceiling, Maria spoke as though reminiscing,

“I wonder how little Rania is. I do hope that she is doing well. I wonder if she is helping the British in the way she helped us.”

“I am sure she is, Maria. She was such a little chatterbox and yet she didn't understand much of our lang...” She stopped suddenly. “Maria! I remember her. I pulled her out from under the lorry wreck in Tripoli!”

Maria smiled happily.

“You did this, Maria. You made me remember!”

Still smiling, Maria turned to face her sister.

“No, you did. I just took your mind away from your worries for a moment. The more you worry about the future, then the more difficult it will be to remember the past, do you see?”

Now it was Katarina's turn to smile.

“What would I do without you?” she laughed.

“I imagine, exactly the same as you did before, as I would. It's strange, though. We have known each other for only three short years and yet, so much has happened in that time. I couldn't bear to lose you now. You are a part of me.”

“As are you of me, Maria. You and I are of the same origin. I always felt that something was missing but never imagined what it could be.”

Maria pushed herself upright again.

“I have an idea,” she said. “Let's consider today, not just the first day of a new year but the first day of the rest of our lives. No more searching for the past, that will return of its own accord, I am sure. Let's just look forward. This war can't last forever. You and I are not just sisters, we are one! One mind and one heart. Together we will survive!”

Katarina went to her sister's side and took her hand.

“Absolutely right, Maria,” she said gently. “Forward together!”

 

 

 

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