Berlin. May 05th 1941
The trauma of the past few days had been unbearable for Katarina. They had stayed in Munich for another two days with the whole of Friday spent with Maria's parents.
Although the truth was now out she still could not think of them as anyone but Maria's parents. The only thing that she felt any differently about was the fact of Maria being her sister and having missed her by so little had been too much for her. Now she was resolved to return to active duties.
The journey back on Saturday had been sombre. They had barely spoken in all the hours they had been on the train and Maria had merely looked out of the window for most of it but not really seen anything.
She had liked Anna and Herman. They were very much like her own Mama and Papa and she was happy to see that they had been as close friends as ever they had been with so much to catch up on from the many years they had lost. Seeing them together made it easier for her to understand how they had trusted each other enough to look after her.
Her strongest feelings towards them were understanding the courage in carrying out such a selfless act. It was to her, admirable even though they had admitted that trying to remain so distant and isolated had been a mistake.
The parting on Friday evening had been an exceptionally emotional affair. So many tears. They had promised each other that they would not lose contact again and that Anna and Herman would come to visit them in Berlin as soon as they possibly could but that didn't solve anything for Katarina. Her sister, her dearest friend was on her way back to North Africa. For all she knew Maria was probably there already since she was flying rather than taking forever by train and sea.
On their return to the apartment, Katarina's father had checked the mailbox in the lobby as he always did and, having briefly looked at the envelopes looked at one, in particular, a little longer than the others then handed it slowly to Katarina. She took it and could see without any doubt that it was from Maria.
She hadn't opened it until she retired to bed that night and now she sat at the kitchen table with the letter in front of her and a fresh cup of strong black coffee.
She had lost count of the number of times she had read Maria's words and each time she could hear her sisters voice as though Maria was reading it to her. If only the letter had arrived before they left. Instead of delaying visiting her for the sake of dinner and a change of clothes, she would have gone directly to see her. Even if she had missed her at home she would have had time to get to the airport before she left.
Of course, she could consider any number of 'if only' situations but the fates had decreed that they were not to meet that day and she had to accept that. No, instead she would concentrate her efforts to return to her duties and, to that end, she would visit Doctor Kruger and persuade him to sign her as fit for duty once more.
Six weeks had passed since that fateful day and as she sipped her coffee, both hands around the cup she remembered opening her eyes and seeing an angel sitting beside her looking so tired and afraid. She knew that it was Maria's constant devotion that had kept her going through the night and she hadn't needed to be told that her friend had not left her side through her fever. She had felt her presence.
Katarina smiled inwardly at the thought of her 'friend' for that is all they were then, just friends. Friends with a bond that neither of them had understood... until now.
“Good Morning, Sweetheart.”
The voice pulled Katarina from her thoughts.
“Good Morning, Mama,” she replied, looking up. “Would you like coffee?”
“You stay there, I'll get it,” Magda said, her hand upon her daughter's shoulder.
Taking her place opposite Katarina at the table, she looked careworn and tired.
“Are you all right, Mama?' her daughter asked. “You look tired.”
Magda sighed and nodded.
“I think so,” she said. “It has been very emotional these last few days.”
Katarina knew instinctively what was troubling her and left her seat to go to her mother's side.
“You have nothing to fear, Mama. Nothing has changed between us and never will.”
Magda said nothing but put her had around her daughter's waist and held her tightly for a moment.
After a moment, she looked up.
“You are dressed early. Are you going somewhere today?”
“I am going to see Doctor Kruger at the hospital,” Katarina answered truthfully. “I can't stay at home day in and day out when nurses are in such short supply.”
Magda gave her a look of resignation.
“No, I suppose you can't,” she agreed. “Ever since you were old enough think for yourself you have been a caring soul.” She squeezed her daughter's hand. “I know there is no point in trying to change your mind since it will make no difference.”
Katarina looked down upon her mother's face and shook her head slowly as she replied.
“No, Mama, it wouldn't.”
The journey to the Charité had been long but uneventful. Being a Monday morning, the trams were very busy, packed with workers and soldiers. No-one seemed to smile anymore. Berlin had been so full of hope when she was young but now, the harsh winters and lack of even the basics such as food and fuel was taking its toll on the civilian population. There was an aura of fear whenever there were soldiers present. Nobody trusted anyone any more, always suspicious of the next person and so no-one spoke even so much as a greeting.
There were still 'Brown Shirts' on the streets, the bullies of the SA strutting about in their brown uniforms but not so many as there used to be. Even so, they were still responsible for some terrible beatings and dragging people away on the slightest of pretexts.
Then there was the SD, the security service which included the dreaded Gestapo. Always watching, always suspicious, lurking in dark corners or appearing in the dead of night. No-one was safe anymore and it showed, etched on the faces of her fellow travellers.
The hospital was no different. As she walked along the corridors to Martin Kruger's office no-one greeted her but passed by without even looking at her. She wasn't wearing a uniform, of course but she still wore the Red Cross brooch that her parents had given her on her fifteenth birthday.
She didn't recognise anyone at all. None of the nurses she had worked with were there now, all moved on to various parts of the world, as she had been. The only one left was Romy who had kept her up to date with all the news.
Romy had told her how difficult things were at the hospital now. There were few doctors left and not many more nurses either.
Katarina had noticed that the hospital even smelled differently now, of death and decay.
To get to Doctor Kruger's office, she had to pass the ward where she had worked so many years and couldn't resist looking in through the doors.
Almost a year had passed since she had left for France and what she saw now shocked her.
All the beds were occupied, but there were just two nurses to look after all of the patients. She could see that they were exhausted and tried desperately to cope.
In a bed in the far corner was a man who seemed to be trying desperately to draw someone's attention.
His face was half covered with bloody bandages, and he was trying, with little success to raise his bandaged left arm whilst calling feebly.
Both the ward's nurses were so busy with other patients that they didn't seem to notice him.
Suddenly, he coughed and then vomited, but still, they didn't attend to him.
Katarina, without even a thought, went over to him.
"All right,” she said, “I am here. What do you need?”
The man stared at her, his one uncovered eye filled with fear.
Katarina was puzzled.
“I am not going to hurt you,” she told him, her voice soft and gentle but he just lay still staring at her, trembling.
She remembered then that she did not have her uniform on and he had no way of knowing who she was.
“Oh, it's all right, don't worry. I am a nurse. I was just passing and saw you needed help. I'll get you cleaned up.”
She straightened up and removed her coat, not taking her eyes off him for even a second but then she heard a shout.
“Hey, what are you doing there? Who are you?”
One of the two ward sisters had noticed her and was marching purposefully towards her.
“I'm sorry, but this man needed help.”
“They all need help, Lady! You can't just wander in here and interfere with the patients. Who do you think you are?”
“I'm sorry, I am Katarina Langsdorff. This was my ward until last year.”
“Well, you can't just walk in here and start interfering with our patients. It is difficult enough without just anyone coming in and poking their nose in!”
“You need help, Sister. Look at him.”
Katarina pointed to the middle aged man in the bed beside them.
“I know we need help, Lady but anyone could just walk in and say they are a nurse. I've never heard of you. You could be anyone!”
“Yes, I could but while you are standing there shouting, these patients are suffering.”
At that moment the ward door opened.
“What is going on in here? Oh, Good morning Matron Langsdorff. I wasn't expecting you so soon.”
Katarina smiled and greeted her old mentor.
“Good morning, Herr Doctor.”
The young nurse seemed to shrink in stature.
“M... M... Matron?”
Martin Kruger glared at her and Katarina could see a twinkle in his eye as he replied.
“Yes, Sister, Matron Langsdorff. One of the most dedicated nurses you will ever have the pleasure of meeting.”
Katarina couldn't help but chuckle at seeing the young woman's discomfort.
“Don't be mean, Martin,” she said. “This poor girl has enough problems without you scaring her.”
“All right,” he smiled and turned to the young nurse who still looked a little nervous. “Follow her instructions, and you will be fine, yes?”
“Y... yes, Herr Doctor,” she replied.
He took Katarina to one side and whispered so that the other nurses wouldn't overhear.
“Are you sure you're ready for this?”
“I am fine, Martin,” she told him, equally quietly. “I will get the nurses to do any lifting. Let me help them get some order in here, and I will come and see you.”
“Will nothing make you think of yourself for once?”
Katarina raised an eyebrow, and the grey haired doctor smiled.
“I know,” he sighed. “Stupid question. All right, I will find you an apron, so you don't soil your clothes.”
As soon as Doctor Kruger left, Katarina returned to the distressed patient and checked his pulse. It was difficult to locate and very weak when she finally found it in his neck.
She called one of the nurses over.
“How long has he been like this?” she asked.
“They brought him in about two hours ago, Matron. They said he was all right.”
“You didn't check?”
“We haven't stopped since we came on shift, Matron. We just can't be everywhere!”
Katarina could see that this poor young girl was at the end of her tether and it wouldn't take much to tip her over the edge.
“Don't worry,” Katarina spoke gently, her voice calm and reassuring. “I will help you. How long have you been a nurse?”
“Nine months, Matron.”
“Nine months!” Katarina exclaimed. “And you have a whole ward to take care of?”
The young woman nodded meekly and hung her head.
By this time they had been joined by the other young nurse. Neither of them seemed any older than about eighteen.
“What about you?” she asked. “How long have you been a nurse?”
“Almost a year, Matron.”
Katarina took a deep breath.
“All right, don't worry,” she sighed. “I will help you get organised, but I don't know how long I will have since I am not here officially.”
They seemed relieved and looked at each other for a moment.
Katarina told them to carry on as they had been for the time being whilst she looked after the troubled patient.
It was only a few minutes later when an elderly man appeared on the ward.
“Matron Langsdorff?” he called to no-one in particular.
“Your apron ma'am,” he said, shuffling over to her and handing her the starched white garment. “I am glad to see you back.”
Her eyes opened wide as she recognised the porter.
“Oscar? My goodness, I didn't recognise you!”
She had known Oscar for as long as she had been at the Charité, but now he appeared so thin and frail.
“Times are hard, Miss Langsdorff,” he replied simply. “I am very pleased to see you back though.”
As he spoke, he looked sad as a thought crossed his mind.
“Are you here to stay though? I hope not. This no place for a lovely young woman such as you. It is not safe.”
His words were whispered, and his eyes darted around the ward as though checking that no-one could hear.
Katarina gently placed her hand on his upper arm.
“I don't know, Oscar,” she said truthfully. “So much is happening now.”
“Well, whatever comes of us you have my best wishes, Miss.”
With a sad smile the porter who seemed so much older now than Katarina knew he actually was, turned and shuffled slowly from the ward.
Very quickly, Katarina donned the starched, almost white apron and returned to her patient's bedside.
“Can you hear me?” she asked him gently.
He moved his head slightly, indicating that he could.
“I am going to change your dressings and make you a little more comfortable.”
Satisfied that he understood and was somewhat calmer, she looked at his notes and saw that he had not been checked since he arrived on the ward.
She frowned and looked at the two young nurses struggling to attend to so many patients who needed their care.
The lack of attention this man had received wasn't their fault. They were barely trained and were so overwhelmed that they really couldn't cope with everything they had to do.
Katarina was impressed, however, that in the face of ever increasing demands, they had not given up and were doing whatever they could to take care of their patients to the best of their ability and with the limited facilities available.
It took some time to change the patient's dressings and clean him up, making him as comfortable as possible and when she was done, she checked his pulse once again. Although still weak it was better, and she felt that making him more comfortable had gone a long way to helping him recover.
Whilst she worked, she realised that supplies were very low. The dressings cupboard was half empty, only a few bed sheets were available, and the organisation of the ward was appalling.
It wasn't in her nature just to leave, and Katarina knew that she had to do something about it.
She called the two nurses to her.
“As you now know,” she began, “I am Matron Katarina Langsdorff and this was the ward I worked on for some five years before being sent to France.”
She paused for a moment and studied the tired faces of the two young women who stared at her with eager anticipation.
“I am not supposed to be here since I am recovering from a wound which...” she added with a smile upon seeing that they were about to ask, “... I will tell you about when we have time.”
Katarina asked their names which, they told her, were Elsbeth and Heidi.
Elsbeth, the slightly older of the two was also taller, about one hundred and seventy centimetres whilst Heidi was quite petite, some fifteen centimetres shorter. They could not have been more different since Heidi was blonde with striking blue eyes, like a little china doll whereas Elsbeth was dark. Her hair black and eyes a very dark brown, almost black themselves.
There was no time for further introductions, and once Katarina had explained what she wanted to do about getting some semblance of normality in the ward, she allowed them to return to caring for their charges whilst she went directly to the first bed and picked up the patients notes.
By the time she had assessed all twenty and tidied up the paperwork along with their physical needs, it was well into the afternoon. When she took a moment to sit down, she realised that she had neither eaten nor drunk anything but water since she left home early that morning and suddenly she felt very hungry.
The tall nurse approached her slowly with an air of apprehension and doubt.
Katarina watched her.
“I won't bite, Elsbeth,” she said. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh no, Matron,” the young woman answered, a little more confident now. “I, that is, we wanted to tell you how much we appreciate having you here. It has been so hard on our own trying to cope with everything.”
Katarina was touched by their gratitude and had a few observations of her own.
“You reminded me of when I was young here,” she said with a nostalgic smile. “I didn't have the problems you have had though, and I am very pleased that you have worked so hard for your patients.”
It seemed so long ago and yet barely a year had passed since she had boarded that fateful flight to Amiens.
“I will speak with Doctor Kruger and see if I can stay here, for a while at least but for now, finish your shift and then go home and rest because tomorrow is another day.”
“Thank you, Matron,” they replied in unison and turned away, but Heidi stopped, turned back and said,
“I hope I turn out like you, Matron.”
Only a few minutes had passed when Martin Kruger put his grey, tousled hair around the door.
“So, Matron,” he said jovially, “Did you want to see me today?”
Katarina looked at the faded watch on her left wrist and gasped. The tiny gold coloured hands showed that it was a quarter to six!
“My goodness!” she exclaimed, “Where has the time gone?”
She jumped to her feet, bid Heidi and Elsbeth farewell, confident that they would be relieved very soon and followed the surgeon from the ward.
“I'm so sorry,” she said once they were seated in his office across the corridor. “I just didn't realise...”
Doctor Kruger raised his hand with a look of amusement.
“My dear young Lady,” he laughed, holding up his hand to prevent the apology from escalating. “You know me well enough by now to know that if I had any doubt about what you were doing, I would not have allowed you to continue for so long.”
Katarina didn't listen but instead began to beseech him to allow her to work.
“Martin, you have to sign me off. These two young women are going to make wonderful nurses but they can't manage on their own. They have no-one to guide them or manage them. They can't do everything by themselves! Please, Martin, they need me...”
Katarina stopped in mid sentence. The aging man was grinning from ear to ear and then began to chuckle.
“It's not funny. What are you laughing at?”
“Oh my dear sweet girl,” he said trying hard to stop his mirth. “After all the horrors and sadness that you have experienced, you haven't changed a bit. Always wanting to help those who need it.”
She stared hard at him across the large desk and then sighed.
“The truth is, Martin, I need them as much as they need me. I can't stay at home thinking about everything, about Maria who is goodness knows where. I have to keep busy.”
“I understand, my dear. I have known you for so long that you are like a daughter to me. I haven't been idle whilst you have been working. I can't sign you fit for active service yet, it is too soon but in the meantime I can use you here, if you wish to stay.”
Katarina nodded eagerly.
“Yes, I do want to stay. Those girls need help and guidance but when I am fully recovered...” she paused. “Well, we shall see.”
The doctor nodded his agreement.
“I can't promise you any help with what happens then but for now...”
He stood and picked up a large paper parcel which Katarina had not noticed on the floor beside his chair.
“Your new uniform. I had Oscar collect it whilst you were busy.”
Katarina took it gratefully. Now she felt ready for whatever the world could throw at her.
For the first time in all the years she had known him, Katarina hugged her former mentor.
“Tomorrow?” she asked.
He nodded and smiled.