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The Long Road Home. Chapter 5.
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 5.

“You taught me a lesson I will not forget, Matron. I am not a soldier, I am a doctor..."

The continuing tale of two young German nurses told against the horrors of World War Two.

Rome. May 19th 1943

 

Maria had been right. The camp, a compound comprising of ten, makeshift wooden huts arranged in two rows, was situated adjacent to Ciampino aerodrome for the very purpose of repatriating the more seriously wounded. It transpired that their presence there was no accident. They had been sent there because of their experience in Libya and their training in the operation of forward medical camps.

The train on which they had arrived was not the first ambulance train and it certainly wasn't the last. As time passed, they learned that the Afrika Korps was being defeated quite rapidly, now and the casualties were being transported home via Italy.

For a time, Katarina and Maria, along with their nurses, were kept busy not only with German casualties but also Italians who returned on the same transport.

By the end of March, the Afrika Korps had been defeated in the western desert and with the Americans taking Algeria and Morocco in the closing months of the previous year, it was only a matter of weeks before Italy and Germany finally withdrew from North Africa.

After almost three years of desert conflict, their forces had each lost some Twenty-two thousand men. Many, many more were wounded and hundreds of thousands of their soldiers were captured by the Allies.

The last three months had seen a continuous stream of patients coming through the camp but now it was over. The last train had disgorged its passengers just two days ago and, for the first time, the Red Cross sisters could look forward to a brief respite and maybe get a short rest.

 

One afternoon, in the middle of May, one of the last trains delivered a surprise for the two matrons.

Maria was on duty at the time and she went to the railhead with one of the ambulances to assist with the transfer when she saw a familiar face on the platform.

“Leutnant Bernauer!” she exclaimed.

The young man had already seen her.

“Matron... Kaufmann?” he acknowledged with a brief nod and sharp click of his heels and not a little uncertainty. “I trust all is well here?”

Immediately, Maria became defensive.

“It is, Herr Leutnant. What brings you here. Don't you have enough to do in Naples?”

“More than enough, Matron. There were so many casualties coming through that it became too difficult to process. I have been ordered back home to train as a surgeon.”

“To Flensburg?”

“No, to Hamburg but it is not so far from home.”

For a moment, the two of them just stood, silently, until;

“Your face has healed well, Matron. That is, if you are...”

Maria smiled.

“Yes, it has,” she agreed. “There are some tiny scars but they are almost invisible.”

Leutnant Bernauer also smiled.

“You taught me a lesson I will not forget, Matron. I am not a soldier, I am a doctor and thanks to you and your colleague, I will be a good one.”

“I will vouch for that.”

The unexpected voice came from behind her and when she turned to see who had spoken, Maria grinned widely.

“Oberstabstarzt Ritter!” she exclaimed. “How good to see you! How is your leg?”

“It is healing well, thank you, Matron. And you? How are you and Matron Langsdorff?”

“Oh, we are fine, too.”

Maria looked at the walking stick that the Major seemed to be leaning rather heavily on.

“Come with me,” she said. “I will find you a seat in one of the ambulances. Are you staying at the Lazarett?”

“For tonight and tomorrow, yes but I shall be leaving on Thursday with the Leutnant.”

They walked together to the waiting vehicle and Maria and the young officer helped him to climb the two steps into the back.

“As you can see,” he said as he made himself comfortable, “I still have a long way to go before I am fully able to walk unaided. The thing is, though, I also have a rather unpleasant task here before I leave and I rather hoped that you and Ka... erm...” he glanced sideways at Leutnant Bernauer, “ Matron Langsdorff, will help me with it.”

Maria frowned.

“As if you need to ask, Herr Oberstabsarzt. We are always happy to help, whatever it is.”

Major Ritter turned to the young leutnant.

“Bernauer. You will ride in the cab. I wish to speak with Matron Kaufmann.”

“Jawohl, Herr Oberstabsarzt,” the young man replied sharply and turned on his heel.

Moments later the vehicle began to move.

“Maria, I have a difficult message for one of your colleagues, a Nurse Hanna Bauer.” He paused for a moment. “If my memory serves me, isn't she one of the nurses who went with you to Benghazi?”

“That's right, Sir. She looked after me when the scorpion stung me. What has happened that you need to tell her.”

Bernard Ritter shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“According to the papers I received at the time, her family home was destroyed during a bombing raid on Köln, about a year ago?”

Maria nodded her agreement.

“That's right, she told me. She said that her parents had moved to... erm... Günne I think...”

The major looked at her and she perceived a sadness in his eyes.

“Yes, in the Möhne Valley.”

Maria stared steadily at him but she couldn't imagine that anything could have happened to them in a small rural community in the heart of Germany.

“Are they sick?” she asked at last.

The Major shook his head.

“I wish it were that simple. I heard that on Sunday night, the Royal Air Force attacked the dam there. I don't know how but they had some type of special bomb. I am told that it bounced along the water of the lake before it hit the dam. Anyway, eventually, the dam was breached and the lake-water was released to flow down the valley. The deluge swept everything before it. The report I have says that there are thousands of people missing but already over a thousand corpses have been recovered. Unfortunately, or possibly fortunately, Fräulein Bauer's parents and relatives have not yet been identified but are listed as missing.”

Maria was horrified.

“That poor girl,” she whispered. “She will be devastated.”

As she spoke, the ambulance squealed to a halt inside the hospital camp. As the door was opened by the driver, the major looked at Maria.

“When you have completed your duties, if you and Katarina would come and see me in the officer's quarters, I will go through everything with you both but please, not a word to Sister Bauer until we can speak with her privately.”

 

An hour later, Maria found Hanna in one of the huts which was allocated to the more severely wounded of the German soldiers. There were just three patients there who were waiting to be passed as fit to fly back home.

She was replacing a soiled dressing of a tank soldier who had been badly burned about his upper torso.

“Hello, Matron,” she said. Maria noticed that she didn't seem her usual, cheerful self.

“Hello, Hanna,” Maria replied. “Is everything all right? You seem a little subdued.”

The young nurse took a deep breath.

“I received a letter from my parents this morning. It has taken a week to get to me.”

Maria's heart missed a beat but she let the young woman continue.

“It's my brother, Peter. He died near Stalingrad in February but they had only just been informed.” A tear formed in her eye which she quickly wiped away. “He was my best friend, Matron. He was just one year older than me and, as children, we always played together and shared everything.”

Maria felt a lump forming in her throat as she thought about the news she would now have to tell her colleague. Her heart felt as though it would surely break.

Taking Hanna's hand and squeezing it gently, Maria led her friend from the hut, saying;

“Come with me, Hanna. I am sure that Nurse Schmidt will be fine here for a while.”

“Oh... no, Matron, I am all right, honestly.”

Maria smiled.

“I know but let's go to my office for a chat. It is quiet there.”

Hanna didn't argue further but followed, still holding her matron's hand as they walked across to the hut where the administration offices were located.

Maria opened the door to enter and immediately, Hanna stopped and stared.

“Oberstabsarzt Ritter! I.. I'm sorry. I didn't know you were here.”

The Major stood up, leaning heavily on his walking stick.

“That's all right, Hanna. Please, come in.”

As she stepped through the doorway, she asked,

“How is your leg, Sir? Matron Kaufmann told me what happened to you both...”

Her words trailed off as she saw Katarina sitting to one side of the room.

“Is something wrong?” she asked. “Am I in trouble?”

Maria squeezed her hand again.

“No, Hanna. You are not in any trouble. Please, sit down with Katarina and me.”

Maria guided her to the old, battered leather sofa which Katarina was occupying and they sat down with Hanna between her two supervisors.

Katarina took her other hand whilst Major Ritter explained as gently as he could that her parents were likely to be gone.

Hanna sat in silence as she listened but the colour drained from her face and the tears began to roll down her cheeks.

Both Maria and Katarina tried to comfort her as best they could but it seemed that Hanna could no longer hear them. She just stared straight ahead, a vacant look in her tear filled eyes.

Major Ritter was about to ask about other family but Maria spoke before he could.

“Her brother was killed on the Eastern front. She only found out this morning.”

Katarina's jaw opened and then closed as she looked at the younger colleague. She was at a complete loss as to what to say. For once, words completely failed her.

Putting her arm around Hanna's shoulder she pulled her close to her and hugged her tightly, the tears now running down her own face.

Hanna didn't react. She sat unmoving and staring straight ahead, her eyes glazed.

“I am so sorry, Hanna,” the surgeon said gently. “I will try to get you...”

He was about to say 'home' but, as he spoke, he realised that she now had no home to go to. Instead, after a brief pause to collect his thoughts, he said to Maria and Katarina,

“In two days I have to fly to Berlin. It is pretty quiet here now so I would like at least one of you to stay with her at all times. Keep an eye on her and make sure that she is all right.”

Katarina wiped away a stray tear.

“You don't have to tell us, Sir. You know we will look after her.”

The Major nodded.

“Yes, you are right. She is good hands.”

 

The walk back to Hanna's quarters was slow. She didn't speak a single word in the few minutes it took to get there. Both Katarina and Maria were very concerned and tried to get her to talk but it was all to no avail. Hanna had completely withdrawn into herself. They weren't even sure that she could even hear them any more.

In the nurses quarters, Hanna sat down on her bed and just stared straight ahead, her eyes like the windows to an empty soul.

“Hanna, please. Say something, anything,” Maria implored her but still, she said nothing.

Katarina noticed that her eyes were beginning to fill until the first drop fell from her lower lid and splashed onto her hands clasped in her lap.

Slowly, she began to topple sideways until she was lying half on her bed, her head on her pillow and the tears flowing across the bridge of her nose to soak into the not-so-soft bedding. Maria lifted her legs onto the mattress and gently pulled a blanket over her. Katarina held her hand.

“We're here, Hanna,” she whispered. “We won't leave you.”

 

From time to time, the other nurses came and went as their shifts allowed but Hanna didn't respond to any of them. She just lay still, the salty water dripping occasionally onto her now wet pillow.

Katarina and Maria took turns to rest and it wasn't until the early hours of the morning that Hanna finally closed her eyes.

However, she didn't stay asleep for long. As the first light of dawn began to illuminate the hut, Hanna opened her eyes and swung her legs over the side of the mattress and sat up.

Immediately, Katarina was alert.

“Hanna,” she said softly. “What are you doing?”

For the first time, Hanna looked at her.

“I... I don't...” she put her head in her hands. “I need to... you know...”

Katarina nodded.

“I'll come with you,” she replied.

Hanna gave a totally unconvincing half-smile and nodded her grudging agreement.

 

When they returned, Maria was waiting.

“Hanna! I am so pleased to see you. How are you feeling now?”

Hanna smiled weakly.

“I honestly don't know how to feel, Matron. Numb, I suppose... Everyone is gone.”

She sat on the bed and Maria sat beside her and took her hands.

“I could say that I understand but I can't begin to imagine, no-one can who hasn't experienced such a thing. You must understand, though, that Katarina and I will do everything we can to support you. And I don't say that as your matron but as your friend. We have been through so much together, Hanna and I know that you can get through this.”

“I don't know what to do, Matron...” Hanna replied, her voice cracked with emotion and her bottom lip quivering uncontrollably. “I just don't know what...” The sentence was cut short as her body suddenly heaved and shuddered as she began to cry, sobbing heartily.

Katarina sat on the other side of her as Maria put her arms around her and held her tightly.

“I have a slight idea how she feels, Maria,” she whispered. “When I left Tripoli and you were left behind. When the bombers came I thought that... well, you know.”

Maria nodded. “I know,” she agreed, “but I can't imagine losing you and my parents all at once. I can't imagine being so totally alone. I don't want even to think about it.”

 

They stayed with her for another couple of hours. Maria got up.

“Right, I am going to get us something to eat. I'll bring it back here... unless you want to eat in the mess hut, Hanna?”

The pale young woman shook her head silently and Maria left them alone.

To Katarina, she seemed to be gone for some considerable time and when she returned, asked,

“Was it busy? You seem to have been gone forever.”

Maria smiled as she placed the tray of food on the bed.

“Not really but I had something to do first. We are taking a little trip.”

Katarina frowned.

“What about Hanna?” she said.

“Hanna too. We will have some breakfast and freshen up first. The car will be here about ten.”

Now Katarina was really puzzled.

“Car? Why do we need a car? How far are we going?”

Maria winked.

“I am hoping that the place we visit will help all of us to get through these horrific times.”

 

At exactly ten o'clock, the car arrived outside the compound. Both Maria and Katarina had seen many of these cars in Libya but all they knew was that it was a Fiat and was mainly used by both German and Italian Officers alike. This one, however, seemed in a not much better condition than those they were used to seeing. At least, it was cleaner.

When he saw them approaching, the Italian driver immediately jumped out and ran around to open the door for them but when he caught sight of Katarina, he stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth wide open.

“Is you!” he gasped. “Signorina Matrona Kaufmann!” With an exaggeratedly sweeping gesture, he pulled the cap from his head and swung it across his waist and with his foot extended before him, bowed low.

Katarina was stunned. She had never encountered such behaviour. She was about to say that she was not Matron Kaufmann when Maria spoke up.

“Giuseppe!” she exclaimed with a broad smile.

The Italian looked up and his jaw dropped again, his mouth even wider than before. He stared at Maria and then back to Katarina.

“Due Bella Donne?” he whispered, his confusion etched on his face.

Maria laughed.

“She is my sister, Giuseppe,” she said.

“Katarina Langsdorff,” Katarina stated with a curtsey as flamboyant as Giuseppe's bow.

“Mama Mia, due Bella Donne... two beautiful women,” he said slowly, scratching his head. “Matrone Kaufmann, when I see you so long ago I think there can be no more beautiful woman but I see Matrone Langsdorff look just same as you. Giuseppe Di Lorenzo is fortunate indeed to see such beauty, not one time but two times...”

As he spoke he noticed for the first time that Hanna was with them and whispered to Maria.

“Your friend, she is so sad...”

“Yes, Giuseppe, she is very sad. We should go now.”

“Si, yes. I drop you same place.”

 

For the thirty minute journey, Maria sat beside Giuseppe and explained to him what the purpose of this short journey was. Katarina sat in the back with Hanna, trying to distract her from her thoughts.

“For what it worth. I think you are doing it right. You are good friend, Maria. I think she need you and your sister very much.”

“So, Giuseppe. Is it just coincidence that you are my driver? Again?” Maria asked.

The Italian smiled.

“No. I am only one who speak German that German can understand. Most soldier not like German, never learn any language except Italiano. Giuseppe not like Nazi but not all German is Nazi. I know this and you know this.”

Maria agreed.

“Yes, I know this. I don't think that many people believe it though. Everyone in Germany is so afraid, these days. The Nazis see and hear everything.”

 

They fell silent as the car circumnavigated the roads around the Coliseum but, this time, Giuseppe did not stop. His destination was far more important.

A few minutes later, the Fiat squealed to a halt in front of the same ornate gate that Maria remembered so clearly. There was no waiting this time and almost as soon as the car stopped, the big gate swung open and they passed through unhindered.

Once again, Giuseppe stopped the car in the same place that he had stopped his truck more than two years before. This time, however, he stopped the engine then quickly jumped out and almost ran around to open the door for Maria. As she thanked him and stepped out, he said;

“No hurry now, Matrone. I have nothing to do. I ready when you ready.”

Remembering the hour that she was supposed to take that year, she smiled and nodded.

“Thank you, Giuseppe,” she said. “I have no idea how long we will be.”

“S'aright,” he shrugged. “I be here.”

He turned and opened the door for Katarina whilst Maria did the same for Hanna on the other side.

 

Hanna followed obediently, holding Maria's hand as they passed through the Colonnade and out into the sun-drenched Piazza. As the vista opened before them, Hanna stopped and stared, wide-eyed across the wide open space towards the enormous, white stone Basilica of Saint Peter.

Maria saw that her eyes were beginning to moisten again as she turned to her.

“You did this for me?” she whispered

Maria nodded and smiled softly.

“I am hoping it will bring you a little peace.

 

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