Neither Maria nor Katarina had any time to react before the office phone began to ring. Immediately, Katarina lifted the receiver.
“Ah, Matron Langsdorff. This is Herr Frank's secretary. Please evacuate the hospital immediately. All the physically able patients must return to their units. Those who are not must be taken to the ambulances. All patient documentation must be transferred with them. Destroy all other paperwork. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir, of course. And my staff?”
“Your nurses must accompany the worst of the patients to the ambulances. When your wards are clear, then you may leave and return to Germany.”
“Understood, sir but...”
“Those are your orders, Matron! Carry then out immediately! Tomorrow, a train will leave for Dresden, you must be on it or be left behind.”
Katarina was about to ask about where they were to go from there, but the line had gone dead.
She remained, dumbstruck, still holding the phone just a few centimetres from her ear.
“Trina? What is it?”
Before answering, Katarina returned the phone to its cradle and slowly turned to face her sister.
“That was the office of the General Government. We are to evacuate immediately.”
“Yes, we knew that. So what is wrong?”
“Well, he hung up without telling me where we are to go, just Germany, he said. There is a train to Dresden tomorrow, but after that?”
Maria gripped her sister's shoulder.
“Then let's not worry about it, eh? For now, we have work to do. What comes next? We'll worry about that when it happens.”
The wards were a seething mass of soldiers. The Matrons and their few nurses felt that they would be trampled underfoot if they didn't take care. Men with bandages hobbled about under the direction of their comrades. Maria and Katarina checked that each one was fit to return. In effect, that meant every man who could walk virtually unaided!
Maria wondered why they were bothering to sign discharge papers and closing files when they were going to destroy everything when the wards were clear. That was their way, though. Efficient in everything.
Once the walking wounded were clear, more soldiers arrived with stretchers to take the invalided patients to the ambulances. The paperwork for these was more important as it would accompany them back to Germany. It was to guarantee that they were not malingerers.
It was dark by the time the wards were empty, and Maria and her sister were alone. They had said farewell to their nurses and wished them Bon Voyage. There were a few tears, but there was no time for long goodbyes. The women had to accompany their charges.
The whole place had an eerie atmosphere now. They had never known it so quiet. There were odd noises from people moving about on other floors, but that was it. In the distance, they could hear the faint rumble of artillery weapons being fired and the crump of the shells exploding as they found their targets.
Maria turned to Katarina.
“They are not so far away, Trina. I think we should hurry.”
Katarina agreed, and they began pulling files from the drawers in the cabinets.
Suddenly, they realised they didn't know what to do with them. It was Katarina who raised the issue.
“Erm, Maria. What are we supposed to do with them?”
Maria thought for a moment.
“That's a good question,” she answered. “We can't burn them, not in here.”
She went over to the window and saw that, in the grounds, several fires had been lit in empty oil cans and soldiers could be seen throwing papers into the flames.
“We should take them down there,” she said, pointing.
“Maria! We can't be running up and down the stairs with boxes of paperwork! They're too heavy.”
Her sister listened again to the rumbling artillery.
“No, you're right,” she agreed. “There's only one thing for it!”
She lifted the sash window as far as it would go and put her head out, yelling as loud as she could.
“Hey! Hey, you! Down below!”
Several men looked up.
“Move away from the wall!” she shouted to them. As soon as they were clear, she pushed a box of papers out of the open window. When it hit the ground, it burst open, scattering its contents.
“Would you start burning those, please? We'll be down shortly, and stay clear of this area.”
For the next few minutes, they threw box after box out of the window. Maria was glad that it wasn't windy.
For a moment, they looked around the room that had been their office for the past few months. Katarina walked over to her desk and pushed an empty drawer closed.
“Do you know what I wish, Maria?” she asked, almost half to herself.
Her sister shook her head. “No, what?”
“I wish that we could just settle down and work in one place without having to run away all the time. We ran from Libya, we more or less ran from Rome, and now we are running from here. I just wish it would all end, and soon.”
“Yes, I am with you on that but, since we don't know what time the train is leaving, I suggest we grab our things and run away yet again.”
And so, the two young women did just that. Once out in the cold, snow-laden air, they set their kit down and began to help the soldiers to burn the documents.
After a minute or two, a sergeant approached them.
“How are you leaving?” he shouted so to make himself heard above the roar of the crackling flames.
“On the train to Dresden,” Maria shouted back.
“Then you had better get on. It is being loaded right now and will leave when it is ready!”
Maria stared at him.
“We were told it was leaving in the morning!”
“No, It will go as soon as it can. Go now, quickly.”
“How long have we got?” Katarina asked him. “It will take us at least half an hour to walk to the station, maybe more in this snow.”
The sergeant turned away and shouted at the top of his voice.
“Grüber! Take these two to the station in the Kubel!”
He turned back to them.
“He will take you. Now hurry and good luck!”
He didn't wait for a response before rushing away to urge his men on.
Without further delay, Maria and Katarina grabbed their bags. They ran after the soldier who had just disappeared around the corner of the building. They were pleased to see that the small car had a canvas hood. Despite the bonfires of paper, they were still getting cold.
They threw their bags onto the front seat and climbed into the back so they could huddle together for warmth. Seconds later, they were driving at breakneck speed along the snow-covered streets of Krakow. In no time, the cold was forgotten, now they huddled together for fear of being killed!
The driver drove the little car as though he were possessed!
As they approached the last corner before the station, the driver stamped hard on the brakes as an army motorcycle and sidecar suddenly appeared. Both Maria and Katarina screamed in unison as the wheels locked and the car skidded on the frozen road. The driver wrestled with the steering wheel while the motorcycle slewed sideways and bounced onto the pavement, the rider managing to avoid a lamp-post. It stopped just short of hitting the wall beyond.
The Kubel slid sideways as the driver spun the wheel first one way and then the other, and then straightened up after a slight opposite twitch. Moments later it skidded to a halt in front of the administration building of the rail yard.
The two matrons sat motionless, gripping the rail in front of them with one hand and holding each other tightly with the other.
The driver didn't seem in the slightest perturbed by any of this. He simply jumped out and opened the door for them. Maria was the first to move as it was her side that he opened. Shakily, she swung her legs out of the opening and held the top of the door while she regained her composure. She wanted to yell at him, ask him what the hell he was playing at, but nothing came out. Instead, she just took a deep breath and shook her head.
Suddenly, she remembered why they were there, and, with a sharp glance at the driver, she hurried around to the other side to help Katarina with their bags.
They didn't look back as they hurried towards the entrance.
The yard was a hive of activity. Soldiers were running around as orders were shouted and whistles blew. Without a single thought, the two women hurried across the forecourt and straight out to the tracks. There, they stopped and stared. To their dismay, the train which was three tracks over was made up of freight cars. Mostly flat trucks loaded with vehicles and equipment. Towards the rear were some wooden freight wagons into which sacks and crates were being loaded.
“Come on, Ladies, get out of the way!” an anonymous voice yelled as they were jostled and bumped in the melee.
Without a word, they forced their way along the track towards the rear of the train, fearful that they may not be able to board.
The locomotive whistled loudly, once, twice, and then a third time. The men seemed to become more animated.
Standing beside the open door of one of the wagons, Katarina spotted an SS officer. Without warning her sister, she ran across the tracks towards him.
“Herr Leutnant!” she shouted and then again when he didn't appear to hear her. She tapped his shoulder, and he spun around.
“What!” he yelled and then, more calmly, “What do you want? What are you doing here?”
“My colleague and I have orders to be on this train,” she told him.
The Leutnant glared at her.
“Good for you!” he replied abruptly and turned back to what he was doing.
Katarina stood her ground.
“I am not telling you just to make conversation!” she yelled.
Slowly, he turned to face her, hardly able to believe that this slip of a woman was speaking to him in such a way.
“Then why are you telling me?” he asked, staring at her through narrowed eyes.
“This is a freight train!” Katarina told him.
The Leutnant looked up and made a point of looking down the length of the wagons.
“Well, damn it!” he said, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “So it is!”
Katarina clenched her teeth to hold her anger at this arrogant man in check.
“How are we supposed to travel on a freight train? Do we have to ride in a wagon?”
Suddenly, the SS Leutnant grabbed her arm and dragged her away from the side of the train. He raised his arm and pointed to the rear.
“Do you see those two long, green wagons with windows in them? Believe it or not, they have seats!”
Katarina dragged herself free of his grip.
“Thank you! That was all I needed to know.”
She hurried back to her sister, barely able to hide her embarrassment.
“What did he say?” Maria asked her, puzzled by her sudden change of demeanour.
Katarina ignored the question, merely indicating the carriages at the end of the train. She pulled her in that direction.
The train was long but, as they approached the two green carriages, the crowd of people thinned.
Katarina entered first, climbing the steps up to the door. Maria passed their bags to her and then climbed up to join her sister.
All the compartments of the first carriage were full, so they continued into the next and final carriage. That too, was fully occupied. And so they dropped their kit at the end of the corridor and sat on their bags. They had no idea how long this journey would take, but at least they were aboard.
The two Matrons were not the last to enter the carriage. Before the train finally pulled out, even the corridor was full of soldiers. There was barely room to breathe, let alone move!
Despite the cold, snowy weather, some of the windows were opened to allow fresh air to circulate.
In the distance, the Locomotive whistle was faintly heard to blow. Just once this time. The carriage jolted and began to move, slowly at first as the train negotiated the myriad of junctions. Maria remembered the last time they had travelled on a train... when they left Rome.
Outside, the sky was turning from black into a deep blue as the daylight pushed away the night. Soon, the two exhausted young women rested their heads together and fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the movement of the train.
They didn't sleep long, an hour, perhaps a little less. The position the two were in was far from comfortable, and they were often kicked, unintentionally, by the soldiers as they tried to make themselves some space.
Maria dragged herself to her feet and looked out of the window. It gave her no clues as to where they might be, but she could see that the train was moving quite slowly. The track was winding through open countryside. At times they were flanked by fields and at others by trees. A short time later, buildings began to appear as they entered another town. Very soon, the train began to slow as more tracks appeared from other directions. The train squealed to a halt, they had arrived at a station. Maria turned to her sister, who was now standing beside her.
“Katowice,” she said, reading the station name-plate on the signal box. “It doesn't seem so long ago that we were looking for fuel here, does it?”
Katarina smiled her agreement and gently shook her head.
“Do you remember the girl we saved?”
“Yes, the little Polish girl who was running from the SS.”
Katarina looked sad.
“Yes, now you mention it. I seem to forget things very easily, these days. Since, well, you know.”
Maria put her arm around her.
“It will improve with time, I am sure,” she tried to reassure her. “It could take a long time though.”
Katarina gave her a weak smile.
“It could be worse. I thought, once, that I wouldn't get any memory back. That was so frightening. I still don't know what happened to me. Do you remember anything of what happened to you?”
Maria nodded her head slightly as she stared through the window.
“Yes, I remember it all. I remember the windows blowing in and that poor young nurse. I remember falling into space and waking up buried in the rubble. I remember every minute of it, the bomb, the fear, the despair. The only thing I don't remember is what happened after the beam broke, and I was buried even deeper. I'm glad you don't remember, Katarina, you shouldn't even try. I just wish I could forget.”
She wiped away a tear that had rolled down her cheek.
Katarina hugged her sister.
“I'm sorry, Maria. I didn't mean to upset you. I...”
“No, I'm all right, Trina. It isn't good to keep things like that inside. It has been a year now, but it still feels as though it was yesterday.”
“Time is a great healer.” Katarina tried to sound positive but, she found it hard to believe it herself. “Maybe we will never forget, at least, you won't,” she shrugged. “It will get easier to live with, though, I'm sure.”
For a second, they lost their balance as the train jolted forwards. It moved slowly at first, only picking up a little speed once it had cleared the tangle of tracks in the station area.
Shortly after, the train turned from the line they were on and the line curved to the right. The two young women saw that they were passing what appeared to be large railway workshops. There were two semi-circular buildings aligned side by side. In front of each, an array of tracks branched out from around a turntable. Like the rays of the sun, each one went towards a doorway. The buildings were in ruins and littered with the wreckage of locomotives and equipment.
Sadly, they turned away from the window and returned to sitting on their bags.
“What do you think we should do when we get to Dresden?” Maria asked.
Katarina thought for a moment.
“Well,” she said slowly, “I suppose that we should make our way to the main hospital and try to find someone in authority. Someone who can arrange our next posting.”
Maria looked unsure.
“Maybe we can get in touch with Bernhardt, in Berlin. He should be able to direct us.”
Katarina nodded her agreement.
“Yes, good idea. Let's do that then.”
The train clattered and squealed slowly along the winding track, a single line that wound its way through ruined industrial areas and congested towns. Neither of the two weary nurses looked out again, it was too depressing. Besides, they were so tired they didn't care what was outside.
Eventually, though, the train began to pick up a little speed where the track was straighter. Had they looked out, they would have noticed that they were entering open countryside. As far as could be seen, a blanket of white snow covered the ground.
After several hours of cramped and uncomfortable travel, the train finally approached the beautiful, baroque city of Dresden. It was dark once again by the time they reached the outskirts. The shadowy, darkened buildings of the suburbs became denser with each passing kilometre. With squealing brakes, the train slowed. The two sisters saw that they were entering a large station with a vast, curved, glass roof.
Once the train stopped, they waited. They were in no mood to be jostled by the soldiers in their hurry to get off.
Dragging themselves to their feet, Maria and Katarina picked up their bags and stepped down to the platform. Although late, the station was busy, far busier than they expected. Barely having time to be clear of the steps, the train began to move and soon disappeared out of view into the darkness beyond the canopy.
Neither Katarina nor Maria had ever visited Dresden. They had no idea where to start looking. Eventually, they spotted an elderly man dressed in the uniform of the Deutsche Reichsbahn and called to him.
Katarina waved to draw his attention.
“Excuse me!” she called. “Hello, excuse me!”
The man looked tired, almost as tired as they felt, as he walked towards them.
“Can you help us please?” she asked. “We have orders to come to Dresden but, beyond that, we have nothing. Can you tell us where the nearest hospital is, please?”
“Do you know which hospital?” he asked.
“No. We are going to report to the nearest and see what we can find out.”
The old man rubbed his chin as he thought, and Maria couldn't help but notice his thick, white moustache. “Very Teutonic, she thought.
After a moment's consideration, he spoke.
“Well, there is the Deaconesses Hospital. That's not so far.”
“Deaconesses? I thought all the church-run hospitals had been confiscated years ago.”
“And so they were,” he shrugged. “We still call it that, though. The Nuns are long gone, but the hospital is run by the Wehrmacht now.”
“Is it far?” Maria asked.
Again, the official rubbed his chin.
“Not really. You could walk there in about twenty minutes. A Kilometre-and-a-half, maybe?”
Maria let her shoulders droop in despair. She was so tired she didn't think that she could walk so far, especially with her baggage.
“Is there no other way to get there? There must be some kind of transport, surely?”
“There is a tram, it goes straight past the hospital. It will take... hmm, ten minutes, perhaps.”
Katarina, too, was relieved.
“That is wonderful,” she said. “ Where do we find this tram?”
Reaching down, the old man took a bag in each hand. His strength belied his apparent years.
“Come on,” he said, turning away. I will take you to the tram stop.
Maria was about to protest that they could manage their luggage, but he was away before she had the chance.
They followed him as well as they could along the platform, pushing their way through the crowd. He took them down some stairs which they expected to lead to a subway, but no, he took them through a door and onto the concourse outside. They hadn't realised that the tracks were higher than ground level!
The railwayman placed their bags on the ground.
“There should be a tram soon,” he said, “They are quite frequent.”
The young women thanked him profusely as he turned away with the words, “Good luck.”
“I hope we don't have to wait long,” Katarina said, her teeth beginning to chatter. “I'm frozen!”