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The Long Road Home. Chapter 7.
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 7.

“Look at you,” she said. “I am not used to seeing you so grubby."

The war in Italy moves on apace. Once more, Maria and Katarina are touched by the inevitable horrors of war.

Rome. September 4th 1943

 

Maria stared in horror at the scene of devastation ahead but wasted no time in getting the ambulance to a safe place. Quickly, she jumped from the cab and ran around to the rear to check on her charges. To her distress, Anneliese was still not conscious.

“Keep an eye on her,” she told the two airmen brusquely. “Make sure she keeps breathing and don't leave the vehicle until I return!”

The two flyers nodded. They weren't in any fit state to be running around anyway.

Italian soldiers and Medics who weren't actually fighting fires were helping to move patients to the relatively undamaged huts, none of which had survived unscathed. Mostly, though, the damage was confined to windows and a few small holes from flying shrapnel and debris.

As she walked between the huts, picking her way through the rubble and trying to avoid the men running back and forth with buckets, she saw Ilsa coming out of one at the far end of the compound.

“Ilsa!” she called out, but her voice was lost amid the cacophony of noise around her. She waved vigorously to draw her attention.

Almost immediately, Ilsa saw her and ran to her.

“Matron Kaufmann!” she shouted. “Thank goodness. Is Anneliese with you?”

Maria nodded.

“Yes, she's in the ambulance, but she's hurt quite badly. Where is Matron Langsdorff?”

“I don't know, Matron. It's been like Hell here.”

Maria felt concerned, but she somehow didn't think that her sister was hurt. It was a strange feeling, but strong enough for her to not worry too much.

“Ilsa, I need a doctor for Anneliese. She is unconscious and has a head wound.”

“Matron, there isn't a doctor here.”

“Dammit! Of course, there isn't. We are just a transfer post. I can't risk taking her into Rome; she may not survive the journey so you and I will have to look after her. Come on!”

Ilsa followed her back to the ambulance where she found the two airmen standing beside the stretcher.

“I'm sorry. We tried our best but...”

Maria's heart sank as she looked up at the motionless figure of the young woman. She climbed up the twisted steps and held her fingers to Anneliese's throat. Nothing.

“Is she...”

She didn't reply immediately but repositioned her fingers, desperately searching for a pulse or any sign of life but to no avail. Quickly, she lifted the young woman's eyelids and looked carefully at her pupils... there was no reaction.

Finally, she straightened up and stroked the young woman's hair.

“Another useless waste of life,” she hissed. “How many much more of this do we have to put up with!”

Summoning all her strength, she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, telling herself that she had to think of the others now and put her anger to one side. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies would get their just deserts, she was sure of it. In the meantime, though, she had to keep going for the sake of her own sanity and that of all those she was destined to guide and support.

She stepped down once more from the damaged vehicle but, as her weight shifted onto the second step, there was a loud crack and it gave way beneath her. The sudden movement pitched her forwards onto the rough ground and she fell to her hands and knees in the dirt.

Through clenched teeth, she growled and then hit the floor with the side of her fist, not once, not twice but three times.

Ilsa quickly helped her to her feet but said nothing, allowing her a moment to regain her composure.

Maria pursed her lips and gritted her teeth, shook her head and, finally, sighed.

“Come on...” she said with tangible resignation.

“There are some free beds in the end hut where you saw me,” Ilsa replied. “I was just preparing them.”

Maria smiled grimly.

“We'll put these two in there for now then,” she agreed and between them, they helped the two airmen down what remained of the steps.

“Matrona!”

Maria stopped, recognising immediately the voice of Gino Moretti.

“Gino! It's good to see you!” she exclaimed. “This is such a mess.”

“Si, Si,” he replied sadly.” Gino never think 'e see the day... So, I can 'elp you?”

“Oh, yes, Gino. I would be so grateful if you would stay with Anneliese until I get these two settled.”

The Italian peered into the ruined ambulance.

“Oh no... she is...?”

Maria nodded sadly.

“Yes, I'm afraid so.”

“Mussolini will suffer for this, you see. 'e's days are numbered,” Gino growled, his anger obvious.

“You don't blame the Allies?” Maria was surprised.

“No, is all Mussolini. 'e join with Adolf 'itler. Is all because of 'im! 'is time will come... and soon.”

As she and Ilsa began to lead the two men away, she stopped and asked,

“Gino, Have you seen Matron Langsdorff?”

The Italian shook his head and, with a characteristic shrug, replied,

“No, I only arrive now.”

Now she wished she hadn't asked, because a slight fear was beginning to trouble her. For now, though, she had her charges to consider.

 

The camp was in chaos and she and Ilsa were unable to carry out the normal assessments that they would normally do. That would have to wait until later.

Certain that they had done all they could, Maria left Ilsa to look after the ward whilst she went back outside to assist with the casualties from the raid.

To her surprise, there were relatively few. Two of the huts had been totally destroyed by a single bomb and, by some miracle, they had been almost empty at the time. One was a ward which had been cleared the day before and the other, beside it, was a store.

The third hut, which was ablaze, had been only partially occupied and all the patients had been evacuated with light injuries. Some minor burns which required only dressings and a few small cuts caused by broken glass.

There were, however, some missing. Two bodies had been recovered from the store hut but, along with Katarina, there were two Italian orderlies unaccounted for.

 

Several hours passed and Maria was kept busy but, the whole time, she searched for her sister. There was no sign of her anywhere. The wreckage of the destroyed huts was thoroughly searched but to no avail. It was as though Katarina and the orderlies had vanished.

Maria had the two Italian victims put into the damaged ambulance alongside Anneliese and they were then taken to the main hospital mortuary in Rome. She knew that writing to Anneliese's family would be a heartbreaking task, just as it had been almost two years before when she wrote to the families of Agathe and Trudy, It was something she would never get used to.

 

As she stood and watched the ruined vehicle disappear, another ambulance approached from the opposite direction and squealed to a halt in front of the nearest, undamaged hut.

Maria ran over to it and, as she approached, the driver jumped down and went around to the back to open the doors.

“Katarina!” Maria exclaimed as her sister jumped down to make room for the orderlies. “Thank God you are safe. I have been worried sick!”

For a moment, they embraced and Maria took a deep breath as the intense feeling of relief flowed over her and as they held each other, Maria's emotions suddenly got the better of her and she began to cry.

“Maria, what is it? What's wrong?” a now worried Katarina asked.

Her sister took a deep breath and wiped away her tears, smearing the wet dust across her face.

“I... I'm all right, 'trina,” she answered a little shakily. “I just got a little overwhelmed, I'm sorry. I...”

Katarina put a finger to Maria's lips.

“It's all right, Maria,” she said gently. “We have been through so much, you and I. It is only right that we should let our emotions go at times. If we didn't, if we just kept it all inside... who knows what that would do to us.”

Maria nodded.

“I know, I'm all right now. I think the relief of finding you tipped me over the edge. I'm afraid that Anneliese was killed during the raid.”

Katarina stared, wide-eyed.

“Anneliese?”

Maria nodded.

“Yes. Some bombs fell on the station. I think she was hit by flying debris or something as we sheltered behind the Ambulance... I couldn't save her, Katarina.” As she spoke, her eyes began to fill once more.

Immediately, Katarina took her sister's hands.

“No wonder you are so upset. You did all you could and I am sure that Anneliese would have known that.”

Again, Maria wiped her eyes, spreading more of the dust across her cheeks.

Katarina smiled.

“Look at you,” she said. “I am not used to seeing you so grubby. Come on, let's get you cleaned up. It won't change anything, but it will help you feel a little better.”

 

Katarina was right. After she had bathed and put on a fresh uniform, Maria did feel a little better. Nothing had changed but washing away the outer grime had a cathartic effect on her and she re-emerged at least in better control and almost back to her old self.

 

That evening, Katarina and Maria went through Anneliese' few personal belongings. She didn't have much, none of them did, but in a small drawer beside her bed, they found a collection of letters from home. They didn't read them, they both felt that it would be wrong to delve into her personal life and so they just looked at enough to find an address to which they could write to inform her family of her untimely demise.

The actual words came more easily to Maria as she had already written two such letters almost exactly two years before when Agathe and Trudi had been killed in Benghazi. The emotions, however, were just as difficult now, as they had been then. The only thing that made it more bearable was that this time she had her sister beside her. Nevertheless, neither she nor Katarina could finish without shedding a few more tears. They had been through so much together with Anneliese that, along with Hanna and Ilsa, they were more than subordinates, they were friends.

 

Just five days later, Anneliese was laid to rest in the hospital cemetery. It was a quiet affair and the only other attendees besides the priest and altar boys were Ilsa, Gino and Giuseppe de Lorenzo. Maria read the prayers as her body was interred.

 

The drive back to the camp was slow and quiet. Giuseppe was in no hurry for once and all five of them sat in silence, lost in their own thoughts.

When they arrived back at the compound, an Italian orderly suddenly appeared from the first hut and ran over to the car. Giuseppe stamped on the brake pedal and skidded to a halt.

“Hey! Giovanni!” he shouted, followed by what the three German women could only assume were some choice words in his own language accompanied by his trademark wild gesticulations with his hands.

For the next few moments, the two men chattered excitedly and Maria indicated to Ilsa and Katarina that they should leave them to it.

She reached for the door handle and began to climb out when Giuseppe caught sight of her movement. Immediately, he jumped down and offered her his hand.

“'scusi, 'scusi,” he repeated, most apologetically. “Giovanni, 'e tell me it is over. No more fighting, no more waste of life.”

Maria frowned and was joined by her sister and Ilsa.

“What is over? The war?” Katarina asked, somewhat puzzled at this sudden turn of events.

As Giuseppe opened his mouth to reply, Giovanni interrupted.

“Si, Si, the war, is fini! Mussolini, 'e 'as been arrested!”

Ilsa was dumbfounded.

“Is it true?” she asked quietly, not daring to believe what she had just heard.

After a brief chatter between themselves, it was Giuseppe who confirmed.

“Si, is true. 'e say was on radio! Il Duce was arrested this morning. No more fighting... no more war.”

It was Katarina who spoke first.

“Hmm... I don't know. Maybe Italy will stop fighting but I don't think that Herr Hitler will stop his ambitions. Still, if Italy withdraws and becomes neutral them maybe we will be sent home?”

As she spoke, she shrugged her shoulders in a gesture of hope.

Maria thought for a moment.

“I don't know about that,” she said at length. “Italy is the only place that the Nazis have left alone because they were allies. The British and Americans have already landed in Sicily. The next target will be the mainland.”

Giuseppe laughed.

“And they will be welcome 'ere. There will be no fighting! Good riddance to Germans, I say!”

Suddenly he froze and turned to face the three young women. He looked aghast as he realised what he had just said.

He held out his hands in front of him.

“Oh... scusi... I sorry. I not mean you. Stupido! I not think of you as Germans, just as friends...”

Giovanni too looked sad and began to speak but his German was almost non-existent. Although none of the young women could understand a word he was saying, it was obvious from his expression that he too was sorry for what Giuseppe had said.

Katarina smiled.

“We understand, Giuseppe, you have no need to apologise. It's just that...”

Maria interjected.

“We don't think that the war will be over... not even for Italy.”

Giuseppe's face fell.

“You don't think? Why? We not fight any more.”

“The whole world is at war. If not with Germany then with Japan. I don't think it will so easy to just stop, you know?”

Giuseppe Di Lorenzo shrugged his shoulders resignedly.

“We will see,” he replied sadly.

 

As the days passed, it seemed that Giuseppe and Giovanni were going to be disappointed. More casualties began to arrive from Sicily and the reports that came with them were that the Allied forces were pushing steadily across the island.

The summer wore on and thousands of casualties were returned to Germany until, by the beginning of August, Germany began evacuating the troops, leaving the Italians to fight on. Without them, though, it was realised that Italy could not defend for long and so, they withdrew to the mainland.

By the middle of August, the Allies had taken Sicily.

 

Both Maria and Katarina had noticed that there had been a significant increase in German transport planes passing through Ciampino in recent days, offloading supplies and soldiers. All of which seemed to be heading south.

 

On the morning of the fourth day of September, both Maria and Katarina were in their office after carrying out their normal duties when the telephone rang.

Katarina picked up the receiver.

“Langsdorff,” she said in her usual business-like tone.

After a moment, something in her sister's demeanour made Maria stop what she was doing and look up.

Katarina was looking concerned.

“Yes... yes, I see,” she said and then, “Well, no, Sir, not really. We were bombed, as you know and the damaged huts have not been replaced...” She listened again. “... No. We don't have the capacity without them and, quite frankly, the Italians have been somewhat slow to assist us since Mussolini was arrested. They seem to think that the war is over for them.” Another pause, somewhat longer this time. “Yes, all right then. I am sure that would get things moving. We will take care of things this end. How is your leg?” As she listened to the reply she smiled. “That is good to hear, I will tell her... She sends hers too. Good day, Sir.”

Katarina slowly let the handset return to its cradle.

“That was Bernhardt Ritter. He sends his regards and said to let you know that his leg has healed most satisfactorily. He said to thank you and he sends his best wishes.

Maria tilted her head to one side slightly as she answered.

“That is good to hear. I don't think that was the reason for the call though?” she queried, raising an eyebrow.

Katarina pursed her lips.

“No,” she answered. “Something is up. He is sending soldiers to rebuild the damaged huts tomorrow. He is also increasing the security but he didn't say why.”

“I think it will be the uncertainties with the Italians. We can't get them to do anything these days. Have you noticed how little we see of them now?

Katarina nodded her agreement.

“Yes, I've noticed. They wouldn't give us trouble though... would they?”

Maria shrugged.

“I would hope not,” she said, raising her shoulders, “but who knows.”

 

They didn't have to wait long until they discovered what the underlying urgency was as that afternoon, whilst the sun was still high in the sky, the peace was shattered by the sound of lorries approaching. Two grey Opel trucks turned into the compound and squealed to a halt. Instantly, the tail boards crashed down and ten, heavily armed Wehrmacht soldiers jumped down from each of them.

Just behind them a third and much larger truck ground to a halt but no soldiers appeared from it. There were just a driver and an officer in the cab.

The officer, a young Leutnant, climbed down and spoke briefly with a Feldwebel who had appeared from the cab of the leading truck. In turn, the Feldwebel then barked a few sharp orders and the soldiers quickly dispersed towards the huts.

Maria and Katarina had heard the sudden commotion from the respective huts in which they were working and both approached the Leutnant at the same time.

Maria was the first to speak.

“What is going on here, Herr Leutnant?”

The young officer seemed younger than they were, probably only just in his twenties, they thought. He was the very image of the Arian race that was portrayed on so many posters around Nazi Germany, but he was not as abrupt as so many officers they had met.

He snapped his heels together and bowed his head.

“Excuse me, Sister,” he answered politely. “I am looking for Hauptmann Kaufmann and Hauptmann Langsdorff. Do you know where I might find them, please?”

Maria stifled a giggle.

“I am Hauptmann Kaufmann,” she smiled, “but please, call me Matron. This,” she indicated her sister, “is Matron Langsdorff.”

The young man was taken aback.

“Please, excuse me,” he apologised, “I was expecting... well, ahem, I am Leutnant Kenryk Weißmann of the Twenty-sixth Panzer division. I have been tasked with securing this compound, rebuilding the damaged huts and re-equipping them.”

As he spoke, some of the soldiers began to re-emerge with Italian orderlies held at gunpoint. Katarina turned and stared at the officer before her.

“What on earth is all that about, Leutnant? This is a hospital, not a war zone!”

“Again, my apologies, Matron but the Italians have signed an armistice with the enemy and I am under strict orders to disarm any Italian soldiers and remove them from the compound.”

“For heaven's sake, Leutnant! We have just a handful of medical orderlies here who are not armed and certainly not soldiers! Tell your men to lower their weapons immediately. You will at least treat them with some respect!”

With a nod to the Feldwebel, the soldiers lowered their weapons and allowed the half-a-dozen orderlies to lower their hands.

“Please tell them that they are to be taken to the main hospital and must not return here. They will be shot if they do.”

Katarina beckoned to Gino who immediately ran to her.

“Matrona, What is 'appening 'ere?”

She placed her hand on his shoulder.

“Gino, we have known each other for a long time and you know that I would trust you with my life...”

“Si, of course. It is right to trust me. I too, trust you but...”

“I am sure you will hear more soon but it seems that Italy has turned against us... Germany. You all have to leave here and not return. The Leutnant says that they will take you to the hospital.”

As she spoke, Katarina's heart became heavy. She felt as though she was betraying her friends.

Maria joined her.

“Gino, you did so much for me in Tripoli and I will never forget that. I will see that you and the others are treated correctly. I'm sorry... I...”

“Matrona Maria. Is all right. I know is not fault of you or of you, Matrona Katarina. Maybe we meet again... when war is over...”

With that, he turned and walked sadly back to his comrades who then followed him to one of the lorries.

“So, Leutnant Weißmann,” Katarina asked. “What do you propose we do now? I have one nurse and no orderlies.”

The Leutnant was not fazed at all.

“I am to give you some of my men until replacements arrive, Matron. They are trained in basic medicine and have experience in the field.”

She raised her eyes.

“Then I suppose, Herr Leutnant, that will have to be enough.”

 

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