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The Long Road Home. Chapter 25
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 25

Tags: nurses, ww2, krakow

"Save yourselves. Germany is finished. The Russians will kill...”

And so into the final months of the war. Is this the beginning of the end for our heroines? Are they approaching the final part of their long road home?

Krakow, January 15th 1945

 

From time to time, news came through about the uprising in Warsaw. The stories that reached Maria and Katarina horrified them. Young, Polish men and women had risen up against the Germans. The word was that they had been expecting the Soviets to attack across the Vistula River but, to their dismay, their saviours did not advance but stopped where they were.

The occupying army gave no ground and put down the uprising systematically and with great cruelty. By the second day of October, it was all over. From that moment, the entire population was expelled from the city, and the systematic destruction began.

None of this, however, was clear to the sisters. What they heard was story after story of reprisals and atrocities carried out against the civilian population.

 

In the hospital at Krakow, the atmosphere was one of peace and calm. There were no acts of sabotage or attacks on German soldiers or installations but, deep down, they knew that this wouldn't last. It could only be a matter of time before the Soviets moved against them. When they did, Katarina and Maria were convinced there would be no mercy for any German who got in their way.

 

October passed slowly in Krakow. The autumn temperature gradually fell towards freezing. Whilst comparing notes one morning, as Maria handed the shift over to her sister, Katarina seemed a little subdued.

“Are you all right, 'Trina?” she asked.

Katarina nodded.

“Yes, I'm fine,” she replied. “It's just that I saw our driver earlier. Do you remember? The one who drove us to Kielce a few weeks ago.”

“Yes, I remember him. What about him?”

“I think he was drunk.”

Maria frowned.

“At this time of the morning?”

“I have seen him from time to time. Do you remember how he was after that poor girl was shot? I have a feeling that it is still troubling him. Each time I see him, he seems a little worse.”

She thought for a moment and then said,

“Should I go and find him?” she asked. “I could try to find out if he is alright.”

Katarina thought for a moment.

“Would you mind?” she said. “I am a little worried.”

Maria smiled a broad smile.

“Of course not. I'll catch up with you later.”

 

After parting company, Maria headed for the mess hall. She had decided that she could better take care of an anxious man if she had a full stomach. However, that idea turned out to be a false hope. As soon as she entered the dining room, she could hear a commotion.

“Murderers, all of them!” an angry voice shouted. “Women, children, even our own men. Murdering bastards, all of them!” he repeated.

There was a loud crash followed by the clatter of metal plates and cutlery.

“Get off me!”

Maria ran inside and was horrified by what she saw. In the centre of the room was the medic. He was very drunk and swung a tightly held bottle of vodka at anyone who got too close.

“Klaus!”

Hearing his name, the pitiful man stopped and stared. Suddenly, he pointed the bottle at her.

She knows!” he sneered. “She saw what happened in Kielce!”

Without breaking his glassy gaze, he continued.

“She hasn't been to Warsaw though, oh no! She doesn't know what is going on over there. The world has gone mad. Germans killing Germans! We have death rained upon from above, snipers in every nook. As though that isn't enough, we have the SS killing us too!”

“Klaus! That's enough!” Maria was afraid that if any Nazi sympathiser was to hear him, he would become another victim of the very people he was accusing.

Klaus glared at her.

“Enough? Enough? It's more than enough...” His words were cut short as a soldier attempted to grab him from behind. With a swift movement that belied his inebriated state, he twisted himself free then smashed the bottle on the edge of a table. The soldier backed off, holding his palms out in front of him. He had no desire to be slashed by his comrade with a broken bottle.

Maria walked towards him, slowly, but he held the bottle out in front of himself.

“Leave me alone,” he whispered, his voice cracked and slurred.

“Klaus, you know me. You know I won't hurt you. Put the bottle down, I will help you.”

“You can't help me,” he whimpered. “No-one can.”

She continued to approach him, ignoring the shards of broken glass he waved at her. She stopped as the jagged edge of the bottle touched her apron and put out her hand, holding his gaze as she spoke gently to him.

“Give me the bottle,” she said, gently but firmly.

His outstretched arm began to waver, and the sides of his lips drooped and began to quiver. With a sudden move that completely surprised Maria, he pulled the bottle back and plunged it into the side of his neck. The razor-sharp glass cut deep into the soft flesh, cutting cleanly through his artery and veins. Immediately, blood gushed from the lacerations and Klaus released his grip, allowing the bottle to fall to the floor with a crash.

Maria leapt forward, grabbing him as he slowly sank to the floor. She tried desperately to stem the flow, but it was useless. He had damaged too many vessels.

As his life ebbed away, he looked at her.

“You can't save me,” he whispered. “Save yourself and your sister. Go home before it is too late...”

“Klaus, hold on. I've got you.”

“No, let me go.” His voice was barely audible. “I've had enough. Save yourselves. Ger... Germany is... is finished. The Russians... will... will kill...”

His voice slowly faded away. His eyes closed, and his head rolled to the side. Maria wept silently as the blood spread across the floor, soaking into her woollen stockings where she knelt.

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and looked up at the soldier standing beside her.

“Don't worry, Matron. We'll take care of him. We all feel that way at times. I just pray that we can handle it better than he did.”

Maria nodded and wiped away her tears.

 

The walk back to her office passed almost unnoticed. Although she had seen many distressing incidents in her life, especially since the war had begun, this one upset her the most. She had not until now, met someone who was so distressed with life that he wanted to take his own life. It had been no cry for help. Klaus had made sure that he could not be saved.

To her dismay, Katarina was not in the office, she had already begun her ward rounds.

Maria sat at her desk and took a deep breath. There would be no more tears, not now. She had to be tough. In her heart, she felt that this was likely to be the first of many such suicides. If she fell apart each time it happened, then it would probably happen to her too. She couldn't allow that.

She had worked a long night-shift and now, exhausted what had happened, she lay leaned forward and rested her head upon her arms, folded on the desk. Her eyes closed, and she drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

 

She was woken suddenly by her sister shouting her name.

“Maria!” Katarina yelled loudly.

Maria sat up suddenly!

“What? What has happened?” she exclaimed, her mind befuddled with sleep.

Katarina stood transfixed, staring at her with eyes wide.

“How can you ask that?” she said, a slight quiver in her voice. “What the devil has happened to you? I thought you were dead!”

Maria looked down at herself and, for the first time, saw the sticky, drying blood. Her once-white apron was thick with it and her tights and shoes too. Her hands were caked. What she couldn't see were the smears on her face. She wiped the hair from her forehead, spreading another faint red smudge as she did so. Seeing the look of horror that Katarina had on her face, she immediately jumped to her feet.

“Oh my Lord, 'Trina, no, it isn't mine. I'm sorry, I fell asleep while I waited for you.”

“Then whose is it? What the hell happened?”

Maria looked down at her bloodied clothes again and then back at her sister.

“I found Klaus. He killed himself with a broken bottle. He stabbed it into his neck. I tried, God knows I tried, but... but I... I just couldn't save him.”

Katarina took a step towards her, wanting to comfort her, but Maria put her hands out.

“No, It's all right, 'Trina. I'm fine now. It was a shock, that's all. No point in you getting covered in it too.”

Katarina was not entirely convinced.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “It must have been terrible for you.”

Maria nodded.

“Yes, I'm fine. I'll go now and get cleaned up. I'll tell you the details tonight, all right?”

Katarina shook her head with resignation.

“If you're sure. You know where to find me if you need me.”

 

The walk back to the nurse's quarters took just a few minutes. Her appearance drew some glances from the various people she encountered along the way. Although it was not particularly unusual to see such a sight in these challenging times, they knew better than to ask questions. Nevertheless, Maria was glad to get out of the sticky clothes and stand under the hot cascade of water in the shower room. For a while, she stood still, head down, letting the soothing flow wash away all the stress and mire. For a time, the water ran red as it disappeared down the drain, but soon, it ran clean and with the blood went the fears and weariness she had taken in with her.

 

Back in her room, refreshed, she climbed into her bed and closed her eyes. Sleep soon overtook her. It was to be short-lived, however. Four hours of restlessness, interspersed with dreams and visions of the many distressing events she had experienced throughout her young life.

Having come to the conclusion that sleep would not return, she looked at her watch. Twenty-past-two. For a few more minutes, she lay still, trying to think of the good things in her life. It was increasingly difficult, she found, to remember her childhood. It seemed as though there was nothing good left in the world. The Nazis had made sure of that. Her thoughts turned to her Mama and Papa. She had received no letters for so long now. A terrible fear began to overtake her, had something happened to them? It was a thought that she couldn't countenance. She had to assume that the war, and her own experiences, had made the postal service unreliable. Yes, that would be it, she thought. One day, soon she hoped, she and Katarina would receive a bundle of letters, and all would be well.

 

With that thought, she got out of bed.

On the floor was the pile of blood-soaked clothes she had taken off. She looked at them and sighed. They would probably have to be destroyed. Very carefully, so as not to get blood on her clean uniform, she moved them outside the door for the orderly to collect.

Later, she met Katarina in their office before going for dinner in the dining room. They walked the few metres in silence, and as they passed through the door, Maria stopped momentarily. The memory of the events that morning, flooded back to her. Although there was no sign that anything at all had happened.

Katarina appeared concerned.

Are you all right?” she whispered.

Maria swallowed and nodded.

“Yes, I am. It was just so sad. You know, it could happen to any of us at any time. I felt it when I was buried in the rubble.”

Her sister smiled.

“We have each other, Maria. That alone will keep us going. Even when we are miles away from each other, I feel you in my heart. That feeling will get me through anything, I am sure.”

Maria squeezed her hand.

 

As always, time moved on. The death of the Medic, Klaus, was pushed to the back of her mind as she and Katarina kept themselves busy taking care of their part of the hospital. It was strange, Krakow seemed peaceful, somehow. It was as though the war was happening elsewhere. They heard many stories from the west about how the Allies were advancing through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. As Christmas approached, the news reached them that the British and Americans had almost reached the border. Germany's last defence was the river Rhine!

The propaganda on the radio was optimistic in the extreme. Stories about how the panzer divisions and soldiers of Generalfeldmarschall Von Runstedt, were fighting in the Ardennes forest and smashing through the Allied lines. How the Vengeance wonder-weapons would destroy British cities. To the two, war-weary nurses, there was only one word that could describe it all, insanity!

The thing that struck them as odd was that so many people still believed in the final victory. That the leaders sounded credible, they couldn't deny. The evidence spoke for itself, Germany was on its knees. But what kind of insanity kept them going? The Nazis would not surrender until there was nothing left to defend.

To the East, there was still no activity. For weeks now, the Soviets had remained static. They had not attempted to cross the river.

 

Christmas came and went. There were no decorations, and the festive spirit was certainly absent. Maria found a short time to visit a local church. There was service in progress when she entered so, she sat quietly at the back and prayed silently to herself. Since the service was in Polish, she couldn't follow it. She was used to the Catholic mass. The Polish orthodox service was not the same. Nevertheless, she felt at peace whilst she was there.

When it became time for the Eucharist, she went to leave, quietly walking towards the door.

“Czekać!”

It was just another part of the service which she didn't understand and so continued to the door.

“Czekać! Proszę nie wychodzić.”

The voice was louder, more urgent. Maria stopped and turned around. The few Poles of the congregation were looking at her. The grey-haired priest at the altar held out his hand towards her.

“Pochodzą. Dołącz do nas. Proszę.”

Maria stared at him.

“I don't understand you,” she apologised. “I'm sorry.”

The priest beckoned her to come forward and gestured to the step where others were kneeling, waiting for their turn to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Hesitantly, she walked down the central aisle but stopped short of the step.

“I... I am not... I haven't...”

To her surprise, the priest spoke in English.

“All welcome,” he said. “Please...” Again, he indicated that she should kneel before him and this time, there was no hesitation. She stepped forward and knelt before him on the carpet covered step.

As she bowed her head, he reached out and placed his hand gently upon it. He spoke a few soft, unintelligible words. When he released her, she looked up at him. Between finger and thumb, he held up a small, white, round wafer.

Maria opened her mouth, and the priest placed the wafer upon her tongue.

“Ciało Chrystusa.”

This time, she understood and, bowing her head, responded, “Amen.”

Alongside the priest, a server held out a chalice, with the words, “Krwawy Chrystus.”

Again, she responded, “Amen.” The server tilted the chalice and Maria took a careful sip of the ruby-red wine it contained. Momentarily, she closed her eyes and made the sign of the cross with her right hand by touching her forehead, chest, and shoulders then got to her feet.

“Thank you,” she whispered in English, before turning away and returning to her seat at the back. The priest smiled and watched her walk away for a moment before continuing to the next worshipper.

Everything around her seemed to fade into oblivion as she knelt, hands clasped in front of her. She prayed in silence until the service was over and the congregation began to leave. Suddenly, she became aware that someone was standing beside her. She looked up and saw that it was the elderly priest. She sat back on the bench, and he sat down beside her.

He didn't speak but looked at her benignly as though he understood her fears. He seemed to be studying her. Maria felt something stir in her heart, and she opened her mouth to speak, but she had no words. The priest smiled then and stood once more. With his hand in front of him, he blessed her by making the sign of the cross. Then he reached out and, again, placed his hand upon her head. Without a word between them, Maria understood and, as the priest turned and walked away, she sat and watched him until he disappeared to the side of the altar.

 

Outside, snow was gently falling and the ground was covered by a thin, white layer. It all seemed so majestic somehow. The air was cold and the breath that Maria exhaled as she walked back to the hospital, created a momentary fog in front of her face. Even though she wore woollen gloves, she kept her hands pushed deep into the pockets of her great-coat and the raised collar buttoned around her neck.

 

December soon became January and a new year began. There were no celebrations then either. On New Year's day, The Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, made another of his rambling speeches. It went on for over twenty-five minutes but no-one listed. No-one cared anymore. As January wore, the cold and the snow continued. Not a day passed without Maria and Katarina wondering what was really happening.

 

One morning, towards the middle of the month, they were together in their office, going through some paperwork. They heard a commotion in the corridor outside. It began with the clatter of heavy boots which was soon followed by shouted commands. Katarina looked at her sister and both frowned before going to the door. The corridor was filled with soldiers. As they were about to grab one to ask what was occurring, an officer appeared from around the corner.

Maria grabbed his arm.

“What is going?” she shouted, so as to be heard above the cacophony.

He stared her with bewilderment.

“Don't you know?” he shouted back at her. “The Russians have crossed the Vistula! We are evacuating the city. All patients must return to their units immediately!”

The sisters stared at each other.

“What about us? “What about our staff?”

“Get everyone out!” he responded. “When the wards are clear, get all your nurses downstairs to the ambulances.”

As the officer turned to go on his way, Katarina gripped his arm and pulled him back.

“And then what?”

He stared at her for a moment before answering.

“Just go home. Get back to Germany, out of Poland and away from the Russians. They will spare no-one!”

With that, he jerked himself free and rushed away into the melee.

Stunned, the two women stood in the doorway. It was Maria who broke the strained silence.

“Well then,” she said. “I suppose this is it.”

Katarina nodded.

“Yes. Once again, we are running away only, this time, there is nowhere to run to. I am worried now, though.”

“What about?” her sister asked.

“That we are going to be separated again only, this time...”

 

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