Krakow, June 10th 1944
The cobbled square was teeming with soldiers. It took Maria and Katarina a little while to locate someone who had even the slightest clue as to where they could eat. So far as refuelling the bus was concerned, that was not their problem.
Eventually, they found the kitchen and waited patiently in-line with the others until they were able to obtain the usual, thin potato soup and piece of grey bread.
“I sincerely hope that we can get something other than soup when we get to Krakow!” Katarina told her sister. “I know there is a war on but really, is this all we can manage?”
The sky was clear, and the evening sun was still warm as they sat on a step in a convenient doorway.
“This journey is so tiring,” Katarina continued.
Maria smiled at her.
“Yes, and we still have another five hours or more ahead of us.”
Katarina laughed gently.
“Don't remind me,” she replied. “It will be dark by the time we get there!”
She took another sip of the watery soup.
“Do you know what I would really like, right now?” she asked.
Maria shook her head.
“A cup of strong, real coffee. I know we had it at Purkersdorf but that seems so long ago already.”
She stood up.
“Come on, then. We had better get on.”
The two young women walked arm-in-arm, back to where they had left the bus and joined the other nurses who were standing next to the open door.
Maria was puzzled.
“Is something wrong?” she asked no-one in particular. She received no response.
At that moment, the driver appeared from around the other side of the vehicle.
“There is no Benzine,” he shrugged resignedly. “We don't have enough to get to Krakow and probably not even Katowice.”
Katarina glowered at him.
“So what are they going to do? We must have fuel.”
The driver shrugged again.
“We are too low a priority. The engineer said that the next load to arrive is for the army.”
Katarina frowned deeply.
“Did he now? Well, we'll see about that!” She turned towards the other nurses. “Ladies, climb aboard. Maria and I will be back shortly.”
Together, they stomped purposefully towards the area where they had recently been eating. Katarina spotted an unattended army truck, parked in the corner of the courtyard. It was open at the back and was loaded with what appeared to be two-hundred-litre fuel drums. She nudged Maria with her elbow.
“Look, over there.”
Maria's eyes followed the direction that her finger was indicating.
“We can't steal one, 'Trina!” she whispered. “For a start, how will we move it?”
“No idea. Let's take a look anyway.”
At the truck, Maria looked around. There was no-one about. During that time, Katarina had climbed up the tailgate and was reading the top of the drums.
The first one she checked was marked 'SCHMIERSTOFF'.
“Damn it!” she exclaimed. “It's Oil!”
Checking each one, she found that they were all the same.
With Maria's help, she jumped back down onto the cobbles.
They were about to look for something else when a soldier appeared from a nearby doorway.
“Hey!” he shouted. “What are you doing?”
Both of them remained still as he approached, arms folded with their armbands clearly visible.
As soon as he noticed their rank, the soldier stopped and sharply saluted, right arm outstretched.
“I am sorry,” he explained, “I didn't realise. Are you looking for something?”
Immediately, Katarina stepped forwards, not allowing the young man time to think.
“Yes, soldier. We are. We need Benzine.”
The soldier looked surprised and scratched his head.
“Benzine, Ma'am?” What on earth for?”
Katarina raised her eyes towards the sky.
“For our bus. What do you think we want it for, cleaning wounds?”
The soldier looked relieved.
“Oh, of course, I see.” He laughed nervously. “Erm, that's oil in there, we have no fuel that I know of.”
Maria sighed with exasperation.
“Yes, so we saw. Where is the Quartermaster? We really do need to get moving.”
With his sleeves rolled up, the young soldier led them to another door and into an office. Inside, sitting behind a desk, was an older looking, somewhat overweight sergeant dressed in the same way as the young soldier who had now disappeared. He was leafing through a stack of papers which littered his desk.
Maria coughed politely.
The sergeant froze then slowly raised his head to look at them through narrowed eyes.
“I'm busy. What do you want?” he hissed.
There was silence, and then, suddenly, the sergeant burst into peals of laughter.
“Don't we all!” he laughed.
As suddenly as it had started, the laughter stopped, and the sergeant narrowed his eyes again.
“Go away, I'm busy!”
His head lowered and he returned to shuffling his bits of paper.
“Sergeant!” Maria insisted.
“I said I'm busy!”
She took a deep breath.
“Matron Langsdorff, do you remember seeing a group of SS over in the parking area. Wasn't there an officer with them?”
Katarina made a show of pretending to remember. She gripped her chin between thumb and forefinger.
“Yes, I believe there was. Since this man doesn't seem to respect the authority of Wehrmacht officers, perhaps he might take more notice of an SS one, do you think?”
The sergeant froze again upon hearing 'SS' and looked up.
“Officers?” he exclaimed. “I thought that you were nurses.”
“We are, Sergeant,” Maria agreed. “However, we are also Matrons and...” She thrust her upper arm forward, ensuring he had an unobstructed view of her Insignia, “...we also hold the Wehrmacht rank of Hauptmann. So, does my colleague have to go to the trouble of finding...”
“No, no, indeed not!” he interrupted her as he jumped to his feet. “I apologise for the confusion.”
In his haste, he sent several bundles of paper flying off the desk. Maria and Katarina found themselves somewhat amused as he hurriedly tried to pick them up.
They waited patiently until, a few seconds later, he scratched his head.
“I just don't have any to give you,” he said at length. “A supply should have arrived today but...”
Maria raised an eyebrow, waiting for his excuses.
“It didn't come, Ma'am. Apparently, the train was diverted elsewhere.”
“Then you have another problem, Sergeant.”
The man looked miserable as she continued.
“If we cannot continue our journey to Krakow, then you will have to find somewhere to billet us along with twenty other nurses.”
He stared at the desk and blindly shuffled more papers as though seeking an answer that was just not going to materialise. After a moment, he looked up.
“Give me half an hour. and I will try to work something out.”
Maria held his gaze and agreed.
“We will be at the bus in the square, We are counting on you.”
Twenty minutes later, two men on a motorcycle combination growled to a halt beside the bus. The sidecar was occupied by three, twenty-litre fuel cans. The sergeant leapt from the back and walked quickly towards them. Maria and Katarina met him at the door.
“I could only find sixty litres, Ma'am. I drained it from a broken down half-track,” he apologised. “Will it be enough?”
Maria stared at him.
“It will have to be if there is no more.”
It was a slow process filling the tank from a canister. Even using a funnel, a considerable amount was spilled down the side of the bus.
Time was passing as he and the soldier lifted the final can and fuel began to gurgle and splash into the tank.
Slowly, the bottom of the can was lifted ever higher until, suddenly, fuel poured out. The tank was full at last.
Using a dirty rag, the sergeant lowered the filler cover and latched it into place, wiping away the excess fuel as he did so. The air was heavy with Benzine vapour, and Katarina found her eyes beginning to sting. She coughed hard.
Before closing the door, Maria looked back at the sergeant who looked somewhat dishevelled and hot. He had a dirty smear across his cheek.
“Just so you know, we appreciate what you did. Thank you.” She gave him her sweetest smile.
He smiled back, suddenly feeling a little weak at the knees.
The bus finally left the small square and began the final part of the journey to Krakow. The driver had estimated that they still had some four more hours on the road. Maria looked down at her watch, it was almost Eight. By the time they reached Krakow it would be past midnight!
There was relative silence amongst the passengers now. The day had been long, and the nurses were becoming weary with nothing to do but sit. Already they had been travelling for thirteen hours.
Maria and her sister sat alongside each other on the front bench and, as they watched the countryside pass by, Katarina noticed the driver yawn. She nudged her sister and tilted her head in his direction. Maria nodded. Leaning forwards, she gently touched his shoulder. He tilted his head back so that he could hear her without taking his eyes off the road.
“Would you pull over as soon as you can please,” she asked him gently.
“Certainly, Ma'am. Is there a problem?”
“Not if you stop,” she replied.
As requested, he gently braked and pulled off the road into a wide farm entrance. He pulled back on the hand-brake lever and swivelled round in his seat.
Katarina stepped down beside him.
“We think that it's time you took a rest. This journey is too long for one driver.”
The driver stared at her, aghast.
“Yes, Ma'am but we still have to get to Krakow. If we stop again, we'll never get there.”
Maria laughed, and she strained his neck further to look at her.
“Who said anything about stopping?”
He shook his head.
“I'm sorry, Ma'am. Maybe I am getting tired, but there is no-one else who can drive. I will have to keep going.”
Now Katarina laughed.
“There certainly is. Come on, now, out you get. Find yourself a seat. I'll take the next two hours and Matron Kaufmann the last two.”
The driver hesitated, unable to believe that these two pretty, young nurses would be able to drive a car, let alone a bus.
“You?” he said with more than a hint of disbelief. “But... but you are just...”
“Soldier,” Katarina interrupted, still laughing. “You have absolutely no idea what we can do. Come on, up you get. Time for a rest.”
Obediently, he climbed out of the driving seat.
“Should I show you?”
Katarina waved him away, and he made his way back, shaking his head as he went.
She waited until he was seated and then drove smoothly back onto the road.
For a short while, the driver watched her like a hawk. Before too long, however, he was satisfied that she wasn't going to kill everyone and allowed himself to relax. He sat back and pulled his cap down over his eyes.
For the next almost two hours, Katarina drove along the rough road as carefully as she could. By the time the sun was setting, they had reached the outskirts of Katowice in Silesia. Maria and the other nurses looked in disbelief at the ruins that lined the streets. They were not aware of any battles that had taken place here and, even though they all knew that Katowice was in Poland, all the street names were German.
It was also eerily quiet. No-one was on the streets, and no lights were visible in the windows.
Katarina drove slowly. In the failing light, it would be all to easy to accidentally run over someone hidden in the shadows. Besides, she too was in awe at the devastation and emptiness of this once-thriving city.
Ahead of her was a large ruined building which appeared to have once stood in its own grounds. It had been destroyed by fire.
She stopped the bus and turned around to catch the attention of her sister. No words were exchanged, but they understood each other. Maria came to her side.
“My turn now?” she asked. It was a question that required no answer. Katarina nodded and lifted herself wearily from the driver's seat.
As Maria took her place and made herself comfortable, Katarina commented on the ruin ahead.
“I wonder what that place was and what happened to it,” she said.
In unison, they looked around. It had been the driver who answered.
“It was destroyed in thirty-nine,” he continued. “It was a beautiful building. The city is all but deserted these days. There are no Jews here now, the Wehrmacht has seen to that.”
Katarina pressed him.
“What happened here?” she asked.
Suddenly, he looked around, nervous.
“Nothing,” he snapped. “I've said too much already.”
“You have nothing to fear from us,” she insisted.
Again, the driver looked around at all the nurses, eagerly awaiting his reply.
“No,” he said eventually. “I can't say any more, and it is better that you do not know.”
Katarina was puzzled.
“But you haven't told us anything.”
It made no difference, she couldn't get him to say another word. Once more, with his cap pulled down over his eyes, he feigned sleep.
The two young Matrons exchanged glances and raised their eyebrows in confused resignation. Maria depressed the clutch and selected first gear.
“Well,” she said. “I suppose we had better get on.”
The bus began to move. It had not travelled more than a few hundred metres when Maria shouted and stamped hard on the brake pedal. The bus squealed loudly to a halt. Immediately, she swung open the driver-side door and jumped out, quickly disappearing into the darkness.
Katarina was almost as fast. She opened the passenger door, and, closely followed by the driver, ran round to the front of the vehicle.
Sitting on the road, staring up at them, was terrified young girl. She couldn't have been more than eleven or twelve.
“Are you all right?” Maria asked. She kept her voice soft and soothing. “You gave me a terrible fright, suddenly appearing like that.”
The girl didn't speak but stared up at her, trembling with fear.
Katarina reached out to brush the jet-black hair from her face, but she threw herself backwards, out of reach.
“Are you hurt?” she asked, but still no answer.
Katarina looked at her sister.
“Perhaps she doesn't speak German.”
Maria looked down.
“Polski?” she asked.
The girl nodded vigorously.
“Nie jestem Żydem! Nie Żydem!” she shouted.
Maria took her firmly by the shoulders and held until she stopped struggling.
“We don't speak Polish,” she said as gently as she could.
The girl stared at her, still petrified.
Katarina suddenly turned to her.
“English?” she said.
“The girl seemed to calm down then and raised her hand, thumb, and forefinger about one centimetre apart.
“Little,” she replied. “Not Jew!”
The sound of running soldiers began to echo from another street, and the girl struggled and tried to get up.
Maria held her firmly.
“They look for you?” she asked in the limited English that she had learned.
Maria dragged her to her feet, and the four of them climbed quickly onto the bus.
“We'll explain later but she is not here, all right?” Katarina hissed to the other nurses. She pushed the girl to her knees, and under one of the seats. “No sound!” she urged in English.
The soldiers they had heard soon appeared and ran towards them. There were about ten men, all dressed in the black of the SS!
The first person to reach the bus was a sergeant. He appeared to be the leader. As they approached, he directed the others to look around for something before opening the passenger door.
In the driving seat, Maria looked up from the map she was studying.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
He saw her armband immediately but didn't refer to it.
“We are looking for a girl.”
Maria raised her eyebrows.
“Really!” she exclaimed. “Well, I hope you realise that we are all members of the DRK. I don't think you will find what you are looking for here!”
The SS sergeant looked confused and then realised what she meant.
“Funny!” he replied churlishly. “We are looking for a Jew who was discovered hiding near here. Have you seen her?”
Maria pursed her lips.
“Sergeant, We are passing through and just stopped to check the map. How are we expected to recognise anyone we have never met?”
He took a deep breath and stared at her.
“Do not try my patience! Have you seen anyone!”
Maria shook her head.
“I have not seen your little Jew. Are you telling me that you have lost one? Ten experienced soldiers?”
He continued to stare at her through slitted eyes. Katarina stood up.
“It is getting late, and we still have to get to Krakow. We have not seen anyone, and we would like to get on.”
The SS man seemed to be deciding, in his mind, whether they were telling the truth. Finally, he stepped back off the bus and waved them on. As he slammed the door closed, Katarina grabbed the map, and Maria wasted no time in selecting the gear. She let the clutch out and drove away as quickly as she dared.
Once out of the sight of the soldiers, Katarina coaxed the girl out from under the seat.
“Nie jestem Żydem,” she repeated.
“Ja, Ich kenne... Yes, I know,” Katarina checked herself and changed from German to English. “You have place to go?” she asked.
The girl nodded,
Katarina looked at the driver, but he shrugged his shoulders. They opened the map again and spread it out on the floor.
The girl pointed to the name.
“It is along the route,” the driver conceded, but he looked troubled.
Katarina leaned closer.
“Is something wrong?” she whispered.
“I don't know,” he whispered back. “That is very close to Chrzanow and Trzebinia. There is always a lot of SS activity in that area.”
“What kind of activity?” she asked him.
“I don't know,” he shrugged, “Whenever I pass this way, there are always military trucks on the road.”
“Are you saying we shouldn't take her there?”
Again, the driver shrugged his shoulders. “Do we have a choice? Can you take her to Krakow?”
A little more than an hour after they left Katowice, the girl pointed excitedly through the windscreen.
It was dark now and Maria could just make out what appeared to be little more than a track leading off the road. Aware that there was a ditch beside them, Maria pulled over to the side and stopped. She turned off the marker lights as she did so but kept the engine running.
The girl shook her head and suddenly threw her arms around Katarina's waist. As soon as the door opened, she was gone. Running down the track and melting away into the darkness.
The driver slammed the door closed.
“Go, quickly!” he urged her, “We mustn't stay here!”
No sooner had they returned to the road than Maria saw a small Kubelwagen appear in her mirror. For the next few kilometres, it remained behind them. She watched it carefully and then, without warning, it pulled out and drew alongside. She could clearly see the SS markings on the front. The nurses watched it closely as the occupants looked up at the windows.
After a moment or two, the little car sped up and pulled in front of her. Her heart in her mouth, Maria prepared herself for what was coming. The Kubel, however, continued on its way and disappeared into the darkness.
By the time they arrived at their destination, it was past midnight and they were all totally exhausted. Maria handed the bus back to its driver.
She looked up at all the luggage packed into the rack up on the roof.
“Where will you go now?” she asked him.
“I'm staying here for tonight,” he replied and then returning with some patients tomorrow morning.”
“Can we leave those until the morning, then?”
He smiled and nodded.
By this time, Katarina had joined them. She put her arm out and gently touched the driver on his arm.
“Thank you for all you did. We shall always be indebted to you.”
He looked around to see if anyone was listening.
“I am Austrian, not German,” he whispered. “I do what I can. I can see that you are good people. Perhaps, when the war is over, we will meet again.”
Arm-in-arm, the two young women walked towards the hospital entrance. Katarina pulled her sister to her.
“I think we are going to be all right, Maria, I can feel it.”
Maria smiled and nodded.
“Yes, I think we are.”