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The Long Road Home. Chapter 21.

"He took a small hammer and a chisel and began to gently tap..."
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Author's Notes

"Together, Katarina and Maria begin their recovery and a new year, 1944, dawns. How could they possibly know what this new beginning would bring for them."

Vienna, April 30th 1944


Maria and Katarina settled into their daily routine, finally accepting that their recovery was not going to happen overnight. The long days soon became weeks which, in turn, became months. Oberstartz Ritter had been right about them looking after each other. Nurse Winter soon found herself to be virtually unneeded as the two experienced patients became stronger and looked after each other more and more. Although they tried to make her feel that they needed her help, she could see that their strength, both physical and mental, was improving as each day passed.

Before long, their old mischief began to reappear also.

One morning, towards the end of January, Nurse Winter knocked on the door and entered as she had done every day. As the door opened, she froze and stared at her two charges.

They were already up and dressed and were sitting with their back to her, looking out of the window. They both had their hair plated and wrapped around their heads.

They looked exactly the same! For a moment, she was at a loss as to which was which.

“Good morning,” she said cheerfully. “Did you sleep well?”

They both turned to her and answered simultaneously.

“Yes, thank you.”

That really did not help. There was nothing to set the two women apart, having taken the care to cover their legs with a blanket.

She took a chance.

“How is your leg, Matron? I imagine that the cast will be removed soon.”

One of them reached for the crutches and pulled herself to her feet.

“It is marvellous, Sister, look!” she said as she allowed the crutches to fall towards her sister and stood unaided.

The nurse narrowed her eyes.

“Very funny, Matron Langsdorff!” she said at length. And then smiled as she looked down at her sister who remained seated. The blanket had slipped to reveal the cast on her foot. “When that does come off, I will have to be on my guard with you two!”

Maria pulled herself up and, with the crutches, stood beside her sister.

“Although we have been here for several weeks, we still don't know your first name.”

Caught off guard, the older woman hesitated.

“Oh, erm, Mar...Margarete. Most people call me Marta, though.”

“That's nice. Unusual but nice.”

Nurse Winter smiled and shrugged.

“Apparently, when I was a baby, my sister, who was about two when I was born, couldn't say Margarete. It always came out as Marta and I suppose it stuck.”

“How sweet!” Katarina laughed. “Is your sister a nurse too?”

The smile faded from Marta's face and she briefly looked down at the floor.

“No,” she said as she looked up again. “She was killed in the last war.”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” Katarina apologised, her face reddening. “I didn't realise that Vienna...” her voice trailed off, not wanting to compound her embarrassment by asking more questions.

Immediately, the older nurse held up her hand.

“Oh no, please don't apologise. It was a long time ago. Although Vienna was not directly involved in the fighting, it was a terrible place at the time. There was not enough food, no coal or other fuel to make fires to keep warm or to cook with. The whole city was overrun with criminals. Elspeth went out to find food one day. On her way home, she was attacked and the little she had was taken from her. I found her lying in an alley, bleeding from her head where it had hit the wall as she fell. Although I managed to get her home, there was nothing I could do.”

“Oh, Marta. I am so sorry. Did they catch the person who did that to her?” Maria asked.

Marta shook her head.

“No, they didn't even try. There was so much crime that there would have been not even a slim chance. The thing was that her injuries alone didn't kill her, it was January. She had lain in the snow for some time. She contracted pneumonia which was what killed her. That was why I became a nurse. I didn't know how to look after her and I felt so helpless that I never wanted to feel like that again.”

Suddenly, she seemed to notice that both Katarina and Maria were still standing.

“Oh my word, look at you! I'm so sorry, you shouldn't be standing like that! Come on, sit down, please.”

Obediently, the two matrons sat side by side on Katarina's bed.

As she was carrying out the usual checks, Marta asked quite casually,

“If I may ask, you are sisters and yet have different names? Are you married? Do you have children?”

“Married?” exclaimed Katarina. “Good Heavens, no!”

“And no children either,” Maria added with a mischievous smile. “Yes, we are sisters, twins, as I am sure you guessed by now but it's a long story.”

“A very long story, Marta!” Katarina agreed. “Maybe we will tell you some time... if you have a day or two.”

Without looking up from her file, Nurse Winter replied with a smile.

“I would like to hear it, Matron.”

“Alright,” Maria promised. “Then you shall and, while we are in here, in this room, please call us Maria and Katarina. We are your patients, after all.”


Another two weeks passed. Maria was being driven to distraction by the irritation that her plaster cast was creating.

“I can't wait to get this thing off!” she said as they waited for the doctor. “It will be so nice just to relax comfortably in the bath without having to dangle my leg over the side.”


It was late afternoon when he finally arrived together with an orderly pushing a trolley loaded with what appeared to be surgical instruments.

“Good afternoon, Ladies,” he greeted them cheerfully.

“Doctor,” they responded simultaneously.

“So, now is the moment of truth, Matron Kaufmann. Your other injuries have healed very well. How are your shoulders?

“Very well thank you, Doctor,” and to emphasise the point, Maria raised her arms above her head and then out to the sides. “They do seem to scrunch a little, though.”

“That doesn't surprise me,” he casually replied. “Tendons do take quite a while to fully heal. You may find that you will always get twinges under certain conditions. And you, Matron Langsdorff,” he turned to Katarina, “You also have recovered very well I see.”

Katarina only half-smiled.

“I think I am alright, although I still have many gaps in my memory. I also seem to forget things rather quickly.”

“That is understandable. The Brain is an exceptionally complex organ. You had some quite severe injuries when you came here. My opinion is that you had considerable swelling inside your head. The pressure on the areas which control memory and, maybe localised bruising, is what caused the problem. We really don't know enough about how the brain works but, I am fairly confident in saying that you are going to make a full recovery. At least, the signs are good. At this stage, though, there are no guarantees. You may always lapse from time to time.”

The was a short silence during which Katarina wondered if she would ever be fit to return to nursing.

“So,” the doctor said suddenly, making everyone look at him. “Before I look at your leg, Matron Kaufmann, I have some news that might please you.”

He looked directly at Katarina.

“Do you remember the engineer that your sister asked about a few weeks ago?”

She shook her head.

“Only from what Maria has told me.”

“No? Oh well, maybe you never will. Anyway,” he turned back to address Maria. “I have heard that he is fit and walking again!”

Maria's eyes opened wide.

“Really? I know you said he survived the air raid but, well, that is truly amazing!”

The Doctor agreed.

“Yes, from what you told me. Nothing short of a miracle, I would say. I have a letter from him for you but shall we deal with your situation before you read it? I really do have to get on.”

Maria agreed and lay back on her bed. She felt strange inside. All her adult life she had looked after and nursed her patients without any thought for herself. Even in North Africa, when she had been bitten by the Scorpion. She had thought of it as a mild inconvenience. However, this was different. For two months now, she and Katarina had been totally helpless and reliant on others to heal them, now it was difficult for her to consolidate the facts. Even so, she also appreciated that if they tried to hurry their recovery they would only become more of a burden.

As Katarina watched, the doctor took a small hand saw from the trolley. Very carefully, he began to cut a small slot along the length of the cast, first along one side, and then back up the other.

Next, he took a small hammer and a chisel which he placed the tip of in the saw cut he had just made and began to gently tap, moving along the line with each strike. This had the effect of cracking the remaining plaster along the saw line.

Finally, he lifted the top of the cast and moved it away from her leg.

With a heartfelt groan, she leaned forwards and rubbed the exposed flesh with the palms of her hands. It was such a relief to be free.

The doctor granted her a moment of pleasure before brushing her hands aside and examining her shin.

He ran his fingers expertly along the length of her Tibia before nodding and smiling.

“I am pleased to say that the fracture has knitted perfectly. There is a very slight ridge where the bone has regrown. It won't be visible, though. All in all, I am very pleased with your progress.”

Katarina leaned over and hugged her sister.

Well, a few more weeks and, the way you are going, you should be fit again. Please do not push yourselves too hard, though. Continue with the therapy and all will be well, both of you. In the meantime, though, I would like you to use a stick. Just so that your leg is not overburdened too soon. You need to regain your strength slowly.”

Katarina looked aghast.

“Herr Arzt! Are you saying that we are getting fat?”

The doctor blushed.

“Good heavens, no!” he replied, suddenly defensive. “I just meant...”

Maria interrupted him, laughing to save further embarrassment.

“Don't worry. Katarina was teasing you.”

“Hmm... All right.” His eyed narrowed. “Well, that is all for now, then. Here are your letters. I will see you tomorrow.


There were two letters. One from Innsbruck addressed to them both and one other which was to Katarina. There were none for Maria.

Maria opened the one from Innsbruck which was, as the doctor had said, from the engineer.


Dear Matrons Kaufmann and Langsdorff.

I hope that this letter finds you well. I have been told that you saved my life back in December and, in so doing, almost lost your own. I am writing to you because I have heard that you have enquired after my health. I have been informed that you were both seriously injured and I am humbled that, even during your own distress, you still thought of me.

My recovery has been slow, I can walk again, although not yet unaided. What is certain is that without your help, I could have been permanently paralysed or, even worse, dead!

I am indebted to you and wanted to let you know that my wife and I are eternally grateful.

I pray that you are recovering from your own injuries and perhaps, one day, we will meet in better circumstances.

Gratefully yours,

Jens Weintraub.


Maria stared at the sheet of paper and commented, half to herself,

“So, that is his name, Jens Weintraub.”

Katarina didn't respond, other than to indicate her agreement. She proceeded to open the first of her letters.



Monday, January 31st 1944


My Dearest Katarina.

As you can imagine, your father and I were devastated to hear about what happened to you and Maria. We are so relieved that you were able to write and tell us yourself. Your father tells me that he knows of Purkersdorf and assures me that you are in the best place.

We are doing well here. Just a few days ago, we suffered two nights of intense bombing by the British Air Force. Such devastation! We were lucky that they did not seem to target the centre of the city and we escaped the worst of it but thousands have been killed, I am sure. Papa tells me that the areas to the South and West of us suffered terribly. When will it end?

At least you two are safe. That gives us strength and makes us happy.

Papa doesn't tell me much now, but I know things are worse than he leads me to believe.

I look forward to hearing more of your progress.


Take care, Liebling.

We hope to hear from you soon.

All our love,

Mama und Papa.


After a moment, she folded the letter.

“Things sound bad, Maria. Mama says that Berlin has been hit again and again. Where is our Luftwaffe? Why can't they stop the bombers?”

Maria sighed and shrugged her shoulders.

“I don't know. Between you and me, I don't think the Luftwaffe can manage. I think that we are in real trouble.”

Placing the letter back in its envelope she stared at the floor.

“That was written over two weeks ago. I hope they are still safe.”

“Hmm, well,” Maria spent a moment's thought before replying. “I am sure that we would know if they were not. After all, you have a letter, so our whereabouts is not unknown.”

With that thought, Katarina instantly cheered up.

“Yes, quite right! We have enough to worry about without making extra problems for ourselves.”


From that moment, they tried to push all the bad thoughts from their minds, so much as they could.

Day after day, week after week, they grew stronger and fitter. The visible injuries faded and, by April, they were more or less, as well as they had ever been.

The weather, too, was becoming warm and they took to walking through the gardens together, alongside other patients who were well enough to be allowed outside. They helped the orderlies by pushing wheelchairs or aiding those who were able to walk only with assistance.

Everywhere was so bright and fresh. The daffodils bloomed in the flowerbeds and the leaves began to appear on the trees.

It seemed as though the world was awakening from a long sleep and that was exactly how they felt too, happy once more. New uniforms had been provided, and they even had their possessions back. During the clean-up at the hospital in Innsbruck, their luggage had been discovered just as they had left it. It had been forwarded to them.

Katarina had come to terms with the fact that her memory may never be one hundred percent. It was mostly recovered but the events on the night of the raid and the preceding days were still somewhat patchy.

For Maria, the memories of that terrible day were still vivid, but she had slowly learned to push them out of her mind. She had survived without permanent injury and that was all that mattered.


April seemed to be passing so quickly. One afternoon, as they sat down to lunch in the dining hall, an orderly approached Maria.

“Please excuse me, Matron Langsdorff, but I have an urgent communication for you.” He handed her a buff-coloured envelope.

Maria half-smiled and half-frowned.

“I am not Matron Langsdorff,” she said, indicating her sister. “She is.”

The orderly apologised, embarrassed.

“Oh, I'm sorry. Please, forgive me.” he turned to Katarina and offered her the envelope. She took it and thanked him.

As quickly as he could without appearing rude, the orderly backed away and disappeared.

Katarina opened the sealed envelope and read the enclosed message.

Her face seemed to drain of all colour.

“Katarina? What is it?” her sister asked.

Katarina folded the paper and slipped it back into its envelope.

“I can't tell you here,” she said, her voice whispered and secretive. “I'll tell you upstairs, it's from Papa.”

They finished their meal in silence and somewhat more quickly than was usual. As soon as was polite, the two hurried back to their room.

Maria broke the silence.

“So? What is wrong?” she asked. The look on the face of her sister when she opened the note had worried her.

Katarina handed her the message.



I am sorry to message you this way, but things are difficult here in Berlin, you must not return. Willi has been arrested for impersonating an SS soldier. He was sent to the Eastern Front. I am going to try to get your mother out, but I am not sure how.

Goebbels is now in charge of the city, and all laws have been abolished. The destruction caused by the bombing is terrible.

Don't be afraid because if you are reading this, I am safe and it hasn't been intercepted. If you are not... then I suppose it makes no difference.

Please, get well and continue as you would, just stay away from Berlin, it is not safe here.

If we get out, then you know where to find us.

Whatever happens, Meine Liebling, remember that we love you more than anything.

You are in our hearts forever,



Maria was dumbfounded and stared at her sister.

“I think you have mentioned Willi. Didn't he drive your father?”

Katarina nodded.

“And he was his best friend.”

Maria shook her head.

“Germany is falling apart, 'Trina. Soldiers are dying needlessly in the East, we have been beaten in North Africa, Italy is also a killing ground. Even now, when Goebbels tells us that the British are finished, they still come and destroy our cities. What will we be left with when it is all over?”

Katarina took a deep breath and shrugged.

“We have been here long enough, Maria. I can't stay here while there is so much suffering going on outside. We can't avoid it forever.”

Maria sighed.

“You are right. Tomorrow, we will ask for a full medical check-up, and then we must leave.”


Within a week, their wish had been granted and, with great reluctance, the doctor signed them off as fit for duty.

“I would have recommended another two weeks,” he told them. “I know you would not have accepted that, though. You are fit now, but you really must not push yourselves too hard. Take your time to readjust.”

“We will,” Katarina promised. “What happens now? I suppose we have to await our orders?”

“Yes. I will send the report to Berlin.”

The two young women suddenly looked at each other.

“Berlin?” they exclaimed in unison.

The doctor frowned.

“Yes, of course. Is that a problem?”

Maria grabbed her arm before her sister could say anything.

“Erm, no. No, of course not. We will be patient.”


“Well, now we wait,” Maria said, once the doctor had left.

Katarina nodded.

"Yes, we wait. I wonder where we will go next...”


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