Ostrava, June 08th 1944
Maria and Katarina had to wait a few more days before they heard anything at all about being discharged. They waited patiently and took the time to continue with the therapy but, more so, helped the other nurses with some of the more severely disabled patients.
As April moved into June, they found themselves hearing little snippets of information from outside.
The one thing that pleased them was hearing that Rome had been abandoned and the allied forces had taken it with very little resistance. They both loved Rome and had feared that it would be destroyed.
“That is the first bit of good news we have had in so long, Marta,” Maria confided in Nurse Winter. “What with all the destruction and death, I am so glad they saw sense.”
“I have heard that Rome is beautiful,” she said.
“Oh, yes. It really is,” Katarina interjected. “You should see the Sistine Chapel. It is breathtaking!”
Nurse Winter sighed.
“I would love to see it, Katarina,” she said somewhat wistfully, “But who knows what will happen in the future. The world is being destroyed. Maybe there will be nothing left to see.”
Maria put her arm around her shoulder.
“Hey, come on now. There is still some humanity out there. Maybe it will shine through in the end?”
Marta smiled a sad smile and shrugged.
“Maybe,” she answered without conviction. “Do you know, I will miss you two when you go. You have brightened this place no end.”
Katarina gave her a friendly punch on the arm.
“Don't be sad. When this is all over, we will surely come back to visit you.”
Again, Nurse Winter seemed unconvinced but nodded anyway.
The following evening, the two sisters were startled by rapping on their door. Before they could respond, it suddenly burst open, causing Marta to almost fall into the room, such was her haste!
“I am so sorry,” she breathed, seeing the startled look on the faces of the two younger women. “I had to tell you. I just heard that the British and Americans have landed in Normandy. There has been heavy fighting, but they are succeeding and fighting their way onto French soil!”
“What?” The sisters cried in unison. “When?”
“Yesterday! They landed in the morning. I am hearing that the fighting is terrible, but they have fought their way off five beaches, so I am told!”
Katarina turned to her sister and gave her a wry smile.
“So much for Goebbels insisting that the British are finished, then. It looks as though they, along with the Americans, are not so weak as we have been led to believe.”
Maria laughed even though there was no humour.
“Huh, so it would seem. Well, I imagine that the war will be over soon, one way or another.” She lowered her voice. “Something tells me that for us Germans, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better!”
As they talked, there was another tap on the door. As Maria called out, 'Come in' it swung open to reveal an orderly holding a document file.
“Matron Langsdorff, Matron Kaufmann?” Before either could respond, he held out the document. “Your orders.”
He left the instant that Maria took them from him.
Taking a deep breath, she took the file to the desk and laid it carefully down. The three of them stared at the grey folder.
Steeling herself, Maria opened the cover and took out the top sheet of paper which was clearly stamped with the Nazi eagle.
Near the top, Katarina Langsdorff. The name was clearly written with blue ink. She handed it to her sister.
The next sheet appeared identical but marked with her own name.
Nurse Winter stood rigid, hardly daring to breathe as they scanned the details.
It was Maria who looked up first and turned immediately to her sister.
“Please tell me yours is the same,” she whispered, hardly daring to ask. “I am going to Krakow.”
“Yes, Krakow,” she said, “Poland. I have been there before the war. It was nice then.”
Maria winced. “But why there?” she asked no-one in particular.
“Perhaps because it is the centre of command for this side of the Reich? Maybe Oberstarzt Ritter thinks you will be safe there.”
“Hmm... possibly,” she replied. “Only, Bernhardt did not sign these orders, they have come from the DRG.”
Marta became more serious all of a sudden, and her voice lowered to little more than a whisper.
“I have heard many stories from the east. The Soviets are rapidly pushing the Germans back, they have the advantage. If it goes on, Krakow will be in their sights. If they get there, you must leave, go back home. The Soviets are vicious, they will rape and kill you if they catch you.”
The sisters were stunned.
“Oh, come on, Marta. Why would they do that? We are not soldiers, we are nurses.”
“That doesn't matter!” she hissed. “You are German. That is enough for them. They seek deadly revenge. Promise me you will get out if they break through.”
Katarina grasped Marta by the shoulders.
“Marta, don't worry. We will be fine. We have survived so far, haven't we?”
They were both startled when Nurse Winter suddenly laughed loudly.
“Only just!” she grinned.
After a few moments of laughter, she again became more serious.
“I mean it, though. Things are going to get beyond bad for Germany when the Nazis lose the war. All I will say is, stay far away from the Soviets. The British, the Americans yes, even the French may give you a chance but the Soviets? No. They will take everything, and they have no regard for the German people, whether soldier or civilian.”
Maria stared at her for a moment.
“You really are serious, aren't you...” she said, her face aghast.
“Promise me,” she said.
The two spoke as one.
“And when it is all over, we shall find you to prove it,” Katarina added with a wry smile.
The following morning, just before seven, Maria and Katarina bade farewell to Marta Winter. Although no-one said it, none were sure that they would see each other again.
Because of the continuing raids and the disruption they caused to the railway, the journey to Krakow was to be by road.
Maria and Katarina were not the only ones heading that way. Indeed, when they arrived at the Portico outside the main entrance, a bus was waiting. The two matrons had seen and, in fact, driven these vehicles many times before, but generally in Ambulance form. About three-quarters of the seats in this one were occupied by around twenty young women, all dressed in the blue and white uniforms of the Red Cross nurses.
According to their orders, the two experienced Matrons were to assist in the enlargement of the nursing staff at the main hospital in Krakow.
Once both were aboard, Maria introduced themselves.
“Good morning, Ladies,” she began. “I am Matron Kaufmann, and this is Matron Langsdorff. None of you will be aware but, for the last six months, Katarina and I have been here at the sanatorium. We were recovering from injuries we received during a bombing raid on Innsbruck.” She didn't go into further detail. “Do you all know where we are going and why?”
The general response was in the affirmative.
“According to our orders, we have a journey of some five hundred kilometres ahead of us. Assuming we are not delayed, it will take around fifteen hours. Is that correct?”
The last part was directed at the driver who nodded his agreement.
“Yes. First to Brno for food and fuel, then on to Ostrava for more fuel and food. Finally on to Krakow via Katowice.”
As Maria sat beside her sister, on the wooden seat at the front, she realised what a long and uncomfortable journey this was going to be. The first leg of the trip would be some five hours, providing that they did not have to stop. It occurred to her, though, that they would have to stop at some point. With the best will in the world, she couldn't imagine that no-one would need a toilet at some time.
Since Purkersdorf was a suburb of Vienna, it didn't take long until the bus was out in the open countryside. The road was not very wide, but it was quiet. There was no other vehicle to be seen.
They had been travelling for almost two hours when the quiet of the countryside was suddenly shattered. The roar of an aeroplane as it flew straight over them, flying fast and low. It startled everyone on board. As it climbed and turned back towards them, Katarina saw the red and blue circles stand out on the outer tips of its wings. At the same time, she felt Maria grab her arm, squeezing it tightly.
Ahead, the twin-engined plane had turned and began to dive towards them. There was nowhere for the driver to turn to, the roads were lined with ditches.
Maria threw herself across her sister in a futile attempt to protect her as the British plane grew larger. Katarina ducked instinctively as it again roared overhead and then... nothing!
The driver braked hard and stopped the bus as the sound of the aero-engines receded into the distance. His hands were tightly gripping the steering wheel, and he was visibly shaking.
For a few moments, there was complete silence. Maria slowly lifted herself from Katarina and looked through the windscreen. Everything was exactly the way it had been before.
“That was a British aeroplane,” she said, slowly. “It... it didn't shoot at us.”
“The red crosses.”
Maria turned in the direction from which the voice had come. It was the driver. He had now released the wheel and appeared calmer.
“What?” she said.
“The red crosses,” he repeated. “The bus is marked with them. On the sides, and a big one on the roof. The British generally respect them.”
Maria nodded as she began to understand, but Katarina looked worried.
“You are trembling,” she whispered. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I am now. For just a second I thought we were going to end up the same way as Agathe and Trudi. Do you remember them?”
“Yes, I remember you told me about that convoy in the desert.”
Maria remained silent and stared at the floor.
“Are you sure you are all right, Maria? Did we leave the hospital too soon, do you think?”
The young Matron turned to her sister and leaned closer.
“I wet myself, 'Trina,” she whispered.
Katarina gripped her sister's hand,
"Oh, meine Liebe,” she whispered and then looked across to the driver.
“Are you all right to continue?” she asked, remaining calm and collected.
The driver took a deep breath and nodded.
“Good,” she continued. “I think it might be a good idea if you find a place to pull off the road for a few minutes and we can all catch our breath.”
“Yes, Ma'am,” he agreed, and crunched into gear.
Transmission whining, the bus moved off with a jolt.
They didn't have to travel far before they found the entrance to an old farm. Bumping slowly along the uneven track, the driver pulled up in front of a large barn.
Katarina stood up.
“Fifteen minutes please, Ladies, we mustn't delay too long. There is still a long way to go.”
Katarina and Maria stepped off after waiting for the others to leave. Katarina wanted to save her sister from the embarrassment of the other nurses seeing her distress.
Katarina knocked on the door of the old house. It was opened almost immediately by a weather-worn woman. It was difficult to ascertain her age, but Katarina thought she must be around fifty judging by the wisps of grey hair poking out from under her headscarf.
“May we use your bathroom please?” she asked.
Immediately, the woman burst into peals of laughter.
“Bathroom?” she guffawed. “We got no bathroom here. There's a shed out the back, help yourself!”
Maria spoke for the first time.
“I need to wash,” she said quietly.
The woman looked at her, and the smile slowly left her face when she saw how distressed this young woman appeared.
“All right, you better come inside. I have hot water on the stove in the kitchen. You can wash there.”
The two young women looked at each other.
“You don't need to worry, the men are all out in the fields. Those who haven't been dragged off to the war,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
The Farmer's wife went about her business in the kitchen as Maria cleaned herself by the fire, using an old enamel bowl.
“So what happened to you two, then?” the older woman asked. “You look like you have been to war yourselves, judging by the scars.”
“Are they so obvious?” Katarina asked her. “I thought they would fade.”
“Not really,” she replied. “It's just that I noticed that you have such fair skin, the pair of you. I also noticed how alike the two of you are, are you sisters?”
“That is lovely,” she smiled warmly. “You take care of each other. This war is hell for families. My three boys have been sent to the East. I pray for them every day.”
Maria smoothed down her skirts.
“You have been very kind,” she said. “Thank you. I hope your boys return safely to you.”
Soon, the bus was back on the road, but the sight of the British Aeroplane had unnerved most of the Nurses, and they remained quite subdued as the kilometres passed.
There were no more scares, but as they approached Brno, the road became busier, mainly with military traffic. Several times they were forced to pull over to the side of the road, to allow a convoy to pass by.
By the time they reached the rendezvous near the centre of the city, it was almost twelve-thirty, half-an-hour after the allotted time. Many German army lorries were parked in the cobbled square and their occupants were milling around. Of the local population, there was no sign.
The driver parked on the only space he could see was available and turned off the engine. Almost immediately a very flustered -looking Wehrmacht Feldwebel ran over to the bus and pulled open the door.
“You can't leave it here, I need this space!” he shouted.
Before the driver had a chance to respond, Maria was beside him.
“Where do you propose that we go to, Feldwebel?” she asked him, her voice soft and calm. “We are here to eat and refuel and then we will be on our way.”
The sergeant looked up at her, his face bright red from the exertion.
“I don't care where you go,” he said. “I was talking to your driver.”
He leaned to the side so that he could see around her.
“You were supposed to be here half-an-hour ago! You are now holding me up, so move it!”
Maria, now joined by her sister, stepped down to face him, pulling on her armband as she did so.
“Now, Sergeant, you are talking to me. The sooner you show us where we can refuel both ourselves and the bus, the sooner you can have your space back. Understand?”
If it were possible, the sergeant became even more flustered and red-faced.
“I... I'm sorry, Ma'am. I didn't, erm, realise. O...over the other side of the square, you will see a large gateway. You can eat through there.”
“Thank you. That wasn't so difficult now, was it?”
The Feldwebel shook his head.
“Good. Now please see that this vehicle is refuelled and we will be on our way as soon as possible.”
The Sergeant clicked his heels sharply.
Katarina had already climbed back inside and, as the sergeant stomped away she organised the nurses.
“Follow us closely,” she told them. “We do not have much time here so stay close and don't wander off.”
Just thirty short minutes later, all the nurses were back on board the bus. It had been fuelled from drums while they ate.
Although the break had been short, the exercise and meagre meal had been enough to revitalise them ready for the next part of the journey. Another five hours was the expectation, arriving at Ostrava for dinner and more fuel.
The road was no better, uneven and broken. The hard wooden benches did not help either. Both Maria and Katarina found themselves constantly moving and fidgeting in an effort to stave of the numbness such solid seats produced.
They had been travelling for some two hours when they were forced to stop at a railway crossing by a soldier holding up a baton with a round top. It was red and edged with white.
The driver waited patiently, but the train seemed to take an age to appear. He turned the engine off to save the precious fuel.
After a while, the sound of a steam whistle broke the silence and around the curve appeared the big black locomotive, billowing black smoke as it dragged its heavy load behind it.
There was not one but two of the giant engines and the reason soon became apparent. They were pulling flat cars loaded with filthy, wrecked tanks, trucks, half-tracks and more.
The nurses all sat and stared as wagon after wagon passed over the crossing right in-front of them. It was a scene of total destruction, the complete opposite of what they had seen just a few years before. Then, they had been passed by trains carrying brand new tanks and armour travelling from Germany. This train, however, was heading back towards Germany from the east.
When the last wagon was clear of the crossing, the soldier waved them on and climbed onto his motorcycle. Katarina had noticed it parked at the side of the road when they stopped. By the timed their driver had restarted the bus, the soldier was gone.
Not a word was uttered when the bus lurched over the crossing to continue its journey. The sight of the train had brought home to them, just how badly the war in the East was progressing.
Maria and Katarina both thought of those who had brothers and sons fighting there. Marta Winter, the woman at the farm, not to mention the young nurses they had worked with whose brothers were also fighting the Soviets.
This was not to be the last reminder on the journey, either. More than once, the bus was held at a road junction to allow a convoy of army lorries to pass by. Those heading west were loaded with dishevelled and bloodied soldiers who didn't even look at them as they passed.
Those heading east were little different. Besides them looking fresher, the faces of the soldiers seemed just as miserable. It was as though they knew what they were heading into.
It was past six when they, at last, pulled into the rendezvous point on the outskirts of Ostrava. These two young women had travelled many thousands of miles in the service of the Deutsche Rotes Kreuz. This journey, however, seemed to be the longest and most uncomfortable they had ever undertaken.
As they stepped down onto the cobbles, Maria turned to her sister.
“I never thought I would say this, 'Trina, but I will be so happy when we eventually get to Krakow!”