Krakow, September 5thth 1944
Although Warsaw was the capital of Poland, Krakow was where the general government of Poland was located. Maria and Katarina had both noticed that the military presence was strong there. Soldiers were everywhere. In cars, trucks even on bicycles. There were often groups of soldiers marching through the streets.
From their first day at the hospital, they worked tirelessly. Often on different shifts, only seeing each other when those overlapped.
However, they had no time to dwell on such matters. Patients were coming in every day and organising the nurses and ensuring that their part of the hospital ran smoothly meant that such minor inconveniences were rarely considered.
Almost daily, news reached them of the defeats that the Soviets were inflicting on the German army. It seemed that within a few weeks, they would be knocking at the gates of Krakow itself!
By the end of July, the news came that the Red Army had reached the banks of the Vistula River. After making enquires, Maria discovered that was a mere two hundred and fifty kilometres away..
“Oh, you have no need to worry about that, Matron!” a visiting Wehrmacht officer had told her. “The Ruskies will not get any further, |I can assure you. We are strengthening our troops at this very minute.” He seemed convinced, but Maria was less so. “Don't you worry your pretty head over such matters. You are perfectly safe.”
He had walked away, laughing. Presumably at the ridiculous thought of his precious army being defeated by a bunch of Russian peasants.
Maria shook her head, bemused. Did he not know about the casualties, the German casualties who were arriving daily at this hospital alone? She did not need to be at the front line to see the pitiful state of these men.
But then, a strange thing appeared to happen. As patients were deemed stable enough to be returned home, or fit enough for active duty, the influx began to slow. Gradually, wards were becoming empty.
One evening, as Maria was about to go off duty, Katarina appeared in their office.
“Have you heard any news, lately?” she asked.
Maria looked up from the paperwork on her desk and shook her head.
“Not today,” she said. “Why, has something happened?”
“I'm not sure. You know about the uprising in Warsaw a couple of days ago?” Maria said that she did. “Well, I have heard that the Gestapo has been arresting as many young men as they can find. Do you think they are afraid that the same might happen here?”
Maria was puzzled.
“Where did you hear that?” she asked. “I haven't heard anything.”
“One of the patients told one of my girls. Not sure of the full details but there has been a lot of activity, lately.”
Katarina sat down at her own desk.
“I don't like it,” she said. “From what I am hearing, the Soviets have made no attempt to advance across the Vistula. Do you think that Officer was right, last week? Have we stopped them?”
With a shake of her head, Maria sighed.
“I wish I knew. We hear so many tales. I heard yesterday, for instance, that the British and Americans have control of Normandy. If that is so, then surely we must not be winning, Trina. How can we be?”
Katarina agreed. “Either way, the war cannot carry on. So many people killed, so many more injured. It is just not right.” She stopped, briefly but then continued. “I am scared, Maria. I haven't had any letters since Papa said not to return. Have you?”
Maria shook her head again.
“No, nothing at all. Hopefully it is because the Mail supply is disrupted. You shouldn't worry, though, I am sure our parents are all fine.”
Her voice belied her own fears but she could not let Katarina see that. Together they had to have the strength to go on.
As August wore on, the wards became quite empty. There was so little to do that the sisters began to take walks together, at first in the hospital grounds but then further afield. The was no trouble that they could speak of, although there were still a great many soldiers visible. Perhaps that was why.
They also didn't know whether there was any truth in the rumours about the Gestapo activities. However, it was clear that there were no young men to be seen, only those dressed in the grey uniform of the Wehrmacht.
It was after one such lunchtime stroll that, on the return to their office, they were surprised to find that an envelope had been placed on the desk that Maria used.
In it was a request for two nurses to accompany an ambulance to collect casualties from Kielce. At least one was required to have the ability to drive since no Wehrmacht driver was available. Included in the paperwork was a map with the directions clearly marked.
Together, Maria and Katarina studied the chart.
“Hmm... I know just the two who could do that,” Katarina mused.
Maria looked at her and smiled.
Her sister smiled back and nodded.
“I do. Us!”
“I had a strange feeling you would say that,” she said, amused. “I was thinking the same thing. It says here that the two chosen nurses are to report to the main entrance at eight, tomorrow morning.”
As the Order demanded, they appeared at the main entrance on the dot of eight. They were met by a sergeant from the motor pool. He was immediately familiar to them as they had seen him many times when meeting casualties brought in by the ambulances.
“Good morning, Matrons.” He saluted them casually. “Have you found someone for me?”
“Oh, yes! We certainly have, Sergeant.”
He frowned and made a show of looking about. Eventually, he turned back to face them and raised his hands in a gesture of confusion.
“So... where are they?” he asked.
“Right here,” Katarina replied.
“You? Aren't you supposed to be in charge or something?”
“Yes. That is why we should go. In that way we are not taking any of our nurses away from their duties.”
The Sergeant shrugged.
“I see the logic... I think. Anyway, if all goes well, you should be back in time for dinner.”
The two women smiled as he continued.
“You have a full tank of Benzine and two full twenty-litre cans, so that should be more than enough.” He paused as he remembered. “A Truck has gone ahead of you, taking medical supplies but I doubt that you will see it. Oh, there is also a box on the front seat, your lunch.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. You seem to have thought of everything. The keys are inside, yes?”
“Keys?” He looked confused. “What keys?”
Katarina raised an eyebrow. “Difficult to start without the ignition key,” she responded.
“I'm sorry, I don't understand. He will be driving.” Thumb raised, he flicked his hand back over his shoulder, indicating the soldier in the driving seat.
“Oh, all right, that's fine.” Maria was taken aback. “Only, our orders specifically asked for nurses who could drive.”
“Ah, I see. No, I had a medic available so he will drive you.”
The journey to Kielce turned out to be quite pleasant. The early September sun had risen high in the sky and was unhindered by nothing but a few wisps of fluffy, white clouds. The two young women sat back and relaxed whilst the bus whined slowly along the bumpy road. There were very few delays, and the little traffic they encountered was generally a horse and cart from a local farm or someone pushing a barrow with goodness knows what inside.
When they arrived at their destination, some three hours later, they took the time to enjoy the sunshine. While they waited for the four patients to be brought to them, Katarina and Maria took the box of food and sat under a tree in the cobbled square, to enjoy their lunch.
They had only just finished eating when another ambulance drove into the square and stopped beside their own. Just ten minutes later, and they were ready to depart on the journey back to Krakow. The two, more seriously wounded were on stretchers and they were placed in the racks inside, at the rear. Two others were able to walk, one with his leg fully bandaged and the other with a bloodied dressing around his head. They sat on the front two seats.
The return trip, however, would not turn out to be so peaceful. After the driver turned a corner, just ahead of them, next to the ruins of what appeared to be a large house, was a grey truck. The cab doors were open but no-one was inside.
On Maria's instruction, the driver drove past the truck and stopped in front of it. Katarina opened the door and, as she did so, a volley of shots rang out! Instinctively, she jumped back inside and pulled Maria to the floor alongside her. For a while, nobody stirred but, after no more shots were fired, Katarina and Maria got slowly to their feet, looking carefully through the windows to check that it was safe.
Once again, Katarina opened the door, but this time, slowly. When nothing happened, she stepped down into the street, followed by her sister. What they saw was nothing they hadn't seen before. Lying beside the Wehrmacht truck was a soldier, bleeding profusely from a head wound.
Immediately, the two of them rushed to his side. Although dazed, he appeared to have only been grazed by a bullet. He had a deep, but not life-threatening gash on the side of his head which Maria carefully dressed, using his own field dressing.
By this time, two other soldiers had appeared. From where they had come, neither of them saw.
“Is he bad?” one asked.
Katarina shook her head.
“He'll live. What on earth is going on here?”
The other shrugged his shoulders.
“We only got here just before you. We saw the stack of wine crates by the steps there and stopped to investigate.”
“Were you the ones who brought medical supplies from Krakow?”
“Yes. How did you...?”
“The transport sergeant told us that you were ahead of us. He said that we probably wouldn't see you. How wrong he was!”
The soldier who spoke was wearing a steel helmet. The other, who went to close the cab door, wore a field cap. Maria guessed that he must be the driver.
She turned again to the wounded man.
“Do you know who shot you?” she asked.
He indicated the partly open door at the top of the steps.
As he pointed, more shots rang out from inside the ruins, immediately followed by a piercing scream. At the same time, their driver appeared at the top of the steps. He kicked out hard at a crate of wine bottles which had been left there. The loud noise shattered the silence, along with the sound of glass smashing and the distinctive clatter of bottles falling down the steps and onto the road. Above it all, his shouts of “Bastards! Bastards!” over and over.
Maria and Katarina looked up as he sat down heavily at the top of the steps, cursing and weeping. At the bottom the upturned wine crate was surrounded by bottles, some smashed, some not.
The two nurses were about to go to him when, from behind the crumbling end of the wall, a young woman appeared, dressed in the same grey field uniform. She took a few unsteady steps across the pavement and then sank to her knees. Slowly, hands clasped to her stomach, she fell backwards onto the stones. Her cap rolled from her head, leaving her long, straw-coloured hair to spill over the pavement. She lay motionless.
Without a thought for their own safety, Katarina and Maria jumped to their feet. Running to where she lay, they called back for the soldier to help his injured comrade to the ambulance.
With no time to lose, blood was oozing freely from a gaping stomach wound, Maria tore open a field dressing and pressed the pad tightly against the young woman's stomach. The sudden pressure caused her to cry out and then cough. A thin trickle of blood ran down her cheek from the corner of her mouth, the bright red contrasting with the pale yellow of her hair.
Katarina opened her bag and took out another dressing, handing it to her sister.
“We have to find the rupture, Trina. I can't stem the bleeding!”
Katrina leaned over the now quiet figure and pressed two fingers against her neck. After a moment, she shook her head and passed her hand softly over the lifeless face, closing her eyes.
Maria sat back and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. She called up to the medic on the steps.
“What's going on?”
“In there!” he shouted, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the door behind him. “Two of them! Drunken bastards! They're shooting at anything that moves. They don't care what it is!” He pointed to the corpse. “They shot her in the back as she tried to get away from them!”
Katarina was so angry that she stood up and walked around the wall into the ruins. Sitting at a table in what remained of the far end, she saw two soldiers. They were surrounded by empty wine bottles, a half-full crate was on the table. One of them was leaning his chair back against the wall behind him, a bottle raised to his lips and, on the floor beside him, a full crate. The other one just sat and stared, his eyes glazed and blank. He also held a bottle. Suddenly, the latter saw her and, with great effort, raised his gun and pointed it at her. A sharp crack made her duck as the bullet struck the wall a metre or so above her head, she was showered with brick dust. Without a second thought, she ran back outside.
“They're completely insane,” she half whispered, trying to catch her breath. “They are so drunk that they can't possibly see anything clearly.”
Maria opened her mouth to reply, but her voice was drowned out by the approach of two motorcycles. They were followed by a half-tracked vehicle towing a huge eighty-eight-millimetre anti-tank gun.
The motorcycles drew up alongside the ambulance and stopped. The half-track pulled up behind them as the riders dismounted and removed their helmets. Maria immediately noticed the SS runes on their collars.
The nearest of the two looked down at the prone, lifeless figure lying on the pavement.
“What's going on here?” he asked without looking up. “What happened to her?”
“She has been shot,” Maria stated, barely hiding the hint of sarcasm.
“I can see that,” he responded testily. “Who shot her? Were you ambushed by partisans?”
By this time they had been joined by their driver.
“No,” he told them with a barely concealed sneer. “We weren't ambushed. That poor girl was shot by her own bloody colleagues, in there!” He pointed through the shattered window beside him.
The other rider stepped around the end of the wall but immediately withdrew as more shots were fired. The wall beside hide him erupted in a shower of debris.
Within the blink of an eye, the twelve soldiers sitting in the half-track, jumped down to the road and took cover behind their vehicle.
The rider held his hand above his head, first two fingers extended and pointed towards the doors at the top of the steps. Next, he made a circling motion with his hand, and the twelve began to disperse, moving around the shattered ruins of the house with their rifles at the ready.
As his men disappeared from sight, the rider, an SS Leutnant, asked about the victim.
“Will she live?” he asked.
Katarina shook her head.
“She died almost immediately. Even if she hadn't, she couldn't have lasted long with that wound.”
“They will pay,” he growled.
“What do you mean? In what way?”
The SS Leutnant glared at her.
“How we deal with deserters is not your concern!”
“Deserters!” she exclaimed. “How do you know...?”
The Leutnant stared at her in such an intimidating way that she decided it was probably better that she didn't ask any more questions.
Her thoughts were suddenly curtailed by a commotion from within the house. Moments later, the doors crashed open, one of them tearing from its hinges. A grey uniformed figure was propelled through the opening. Unable to stop, he fell headlong down the steps and landed with a crash among the broken bottles. The empty crate collapsed under the sudden impact, and a steel helmet clattered across the cobbles, coming to rest against the front wheel of the half-track.
Instinctively, Maria started to run across to help the unfortunate man to his feet. The Leutnant grabbed her arm and dragged her back.
“There are casualties in your ambulance who deserve your compassion far more, Sister. I suggest that you take care of them. Return to your vehicle and continue on your way. We will take care of this.”
Katarina looked down at the corpse, still lying where she had fallen.
He looked down.
“I will personally ensure a proper burial,” he assured her.
From experience, she knew that there was no point in arguing. The SS did things their way, and there was nothing she could do that would change that. Of course, that didn't stop her from asking.
“If you like, we could take her back to Krakow, and I will personally write to her family. Do you know her?”
For a moment, the SS officer looked at his fallen comrade and then, to her surprise, he seemed to soften and nodded.
“Yes, she was one of ours.” He paused again, and then. “All right, take her. Give me your name and where I can reach you and I will send her details to you.”
As they climbed the steps into the ambulance after placing the body on a stretcher in the rack, they looked back just in time to see the second culprit being dragged by the neck, through the doorway. Katarina paused, but the driver quickly pulled away. She slammed the door closed, and she and her sister immersed themselves in caring for their patients.
Two hours passed before anyone spoke. Everyone had been lost in thought.
Maria sat down beside her sister and took her hand. There was nothing to say, it was just a gesture.
After a while, Katarina turned to her.
“If the Russians don't advance, or the English and Americans don't defeat us, it won't matter,” she said quietly.
Maria didn't understand so Katarina explained.
“We will destroy ourselves. We will end up killing each other.”
Maria said nothing but rested her head on her sister's shoulder. She knew that she was probably right.