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The Long Road Home. Chapter 27

"“Where are you going?” he asked abruptly. “Berlin,” Katarina replied."
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Author's Notes

"Katarina and Maria have arrived in Dresden, safe from the advancing Russians. Without orders, and in an unfamiliar city, they must make their choices."

Dresden, February 13th 1945


Katarina and Maria seemed to be waiting for a long time for a tram that they were beginning to think, wasn't coming. Furthermore, they seemed to be the only ones waiting.

The sky was devoid of clouds, and the stars twinkled and glimmered brightly in the dark, night sky.

It would have been a beautiful scene was it not for the cold that seemed to permeate through to their very bones, and the stench of burning that hung in the air.

“I can't stand here much longer, Maria,” Katarina told her sister. “I can't feel my feet any more. Perhaps we should go back inside the station?”

As she spoke, a young boy in the uniform of the Hitler Youth approached. He couldn't have been more than twelve years old.

“Are you waiting for a tram?” he asked.

Katarina was about to say something very sarcastic, but Maria stopped her,

“Yes,” she said instead, “Do you know when one is coming?”

The lad shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

“Nope. The services are disrupted, due to the raid today. The Number Five line is out of action, and all the other services have long delays. Who knows when the next one will come this way, if at all, tonight.”

The two women glanced at each other. Maria turned to the boy.

“A raid? Is that why we can smell burning?”

The boy shrugged again.

“Yes,” he replied with a matter-of-fact tone that belied his young years. “They were after the railway yards. Some bombs fell on the city, though, that's why the trams are messed up.”

“Then I suppose we are walking after all,” Katarina sighed.

“Where are you going?” the boy asked.

“Diakonissen Hospital, apparently.”

“Well, that's not far. Only about a kilometre and a half. Come on, I'll show you.”

He quickly grabbed the nearest bag and threw it over his shoulder with the words, “This yours?”

Wearily, the two young women picked up the remaining bags and set off behind him.

He was right, it wasn't far. They had walked for some twenty minutes when he stopped and pointed through a large gateway.

“Here it is, told you it wasn't far.” He was grinning widely. To the two nurses, it had seemed like a hundred kilometres, but they were grateful to him, nonetheless.

“I'm sorry I haven't any chocolate to give you,” Maria told him, “But thank you.”

The boy laughed.

“Chocolate? I'm not a kid you know!” and with a jaunty wave, he turned and trotted back the way they had come.


Maria and Katarina followed the short drive to the main entrance. The big wooden doors were firmly closed. Maria pressed down on the handle and, with a click, the door opened with ease. They stepped inside and were immediately relieved by the warmth which seemed to envelop them like a blanket.


Just beyond the door was a large window to the right. Behind it, inside a large office, was a Wehrmacht guard. As Maria closed the door, he looked up. Seeing that they were nurses in uniform, he returned to the book he was reading.

Katarina looked at her sister. Almost simultaneously, the two of them dropped their bags loudly onto the tiled floor.

The soldier looked up again and glared at them through the large window. The two young women stared back at him, almost challenging him to get off his backside. He didn't. Instead, with a look of disdain, he returned to the book he was reading.

Katarina tried the handle of the door to the side of the window aperture, it was locked. Maria rapped upon the glass.

Once more, the soldier looked up. With a frown of annoyance, he laid the book down on his desk and pushed himself out of his chair and wandered idly to the door and opened it just a little.

“What do you want?” he asked, irritated.

“A little respect would be nice, to begin with,” Katarina said sharply.

The soldier stared at her. He wasn't young by any stretch of the imagination. His unruly hair was peppered with grey and, Maria noticed, his grey moustache was stained yellow from years of smoking. His half framed glasses added to the impression.

“Respect, she says, at this time of night.” He raised his eyebrows. “What are you doing here anyway and what's with all the bags?”

Katarina introduced them.

“I am Matron Katarina Langsdorf and this Matron Maria Kaufmann,” she said. “We would like to speak to the Duty Medical Officer, please.”

The soldier folded his arms.

“Would you really?” he asked. For a moment, he looked back over his shoulder to the large clock hanging on the office wall. It showed that it was past midnight. And what makes you think that he will want to speak to you?”

Maria sighed.

“Look. We have had a very long and very uncomfortable journey. We haven't slept for two days and we are extremely tired so, please don't make us order you, we are really not in the mood.”

As she spoke, both she and her sister pulled their armbands from their pockets and slipped them on.

Seeing the Hauptmann rank insignia, the soldier immediately straightened up.

“Yes, Ma'am, my apologies. May I ask what you wish to see him about as he will be in bed and is likely to ask why he is being disturbed?”

After they gave him a brief explanation, the soldier stared at them in disbelief.

“The Russians have reached Krakow?” he exclaimed, “And we didn't defend it?”

“Not that we could tell,” Katarina agreed. “The city was completely evacuated. We left on the last train.”

“Then surely they are near our border. The war must be...” He stopped, realising that he may be about to say something which could get him arrested and shot. “May I make a suggestion?”

Maria bade him continue.

“I can arrange beds for you for tonight. Why not rest and speak to the DMO tomorrow.”

The sisters looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders.

“That would probably be better,” Maria agreed.

The soldier picked up the telephone handset and waited briefly.

“Officer's quarters, duty orderly,” he said.

Again he waited, and then,

“I have two Matrons here, in need of a room.”

A pause.

“Good, thank you. I will send them right over.”

He replaced the handset and immediately lifted it again.

“A porter to the front door, please.”


Katarina and Maria were pleasantly surprised by the room they were shown to. It was not a large room but more than sufficient for the two bed-frames against the opposing walls. Between them, either side of a central window were two narrow cabinets. On the wall, behind the door by which they had entered, was a small vanity unit. It was complete with an inset wash-basin with two taps marked H and K, Heiß und Kalt.

That was all the two exhausted young women noticed. They dropped their luggage beside their respective beds and allowed themselves to collapse onto the inviting mattresses.


Maria awoke with a start. The sun was streaming through the window. She sat up and realised that she was still fully clothed. Looking across at her sister, she marvelled that Katarina was still asleep.

Bang! Bang! Bang! A loud and persistent rapping on the door!

Katarina sat up as though scalded!

Maria opened the door to find a white-coated orderly waiting patiently.

“My apologies, Ma'am, but I was sent to rouse you.”

She rubbed her eyes.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Nine O'clock. I was told to allow you to sleep as you arrived so late.”

Maria looked at her sister and shrugged.

“I suppose we needed that,” she smiled and turned back to the orderly.

“When you are ready, Ma'am, I have been told to show you to the dining hall for breakfast.”

Katarina laughed suddenly.

“Do you know, I was so tired that I hadn't realised that we haven't eaten for some twenty-four hours!”

At that moment, a loud rumble emanated from her stomach. She looked up as though stunned, and then the two of them burst into peals of laughter.


After having a hot shower and a hearty breakfast, Maria and Katarina felt revived and ready to face whatever this awful war would throw at them. They began with a visit to the Duty Medical Officer.

He explained that the air raid had not produced so many casualties and that the hospital, whilst busy, was not stretched beyond capacity. He promised to call Berlin and try to find out what orders they might receive.

“I wouldn't hold your breath, though,” he told them. “It is almost impossible to get through to the capital these days.”

The two sisters agreed that the best thing to do would be to remain at Diakonissen until such time that they received orders to the contrary. In the meantime, they would assist in any way they could.

“Why not take a few days to see our beautiful city? If I get any word from your superiors, I will send an orderly to your room.”


From then on, whenever they saw the DMO, they asked whether he had heard anything, but the answer was always the same. No.


Over the following days, the two of them wandered around the hospital, looking in on the wards, seeing whether they could assist in any way. Here and there, a dressing may need changing, or a nurse would accept their help in changing bedding but, in general, they could see that everything was under control.

This was not the life they had been accustomed to. They felt useless and unwanted.

By the end of January, the two young women were fed-up with kicking their heels. Every day, snippets of news reached them that the Russians were being held in Latvia and the army was now holding them back. It wasn't true, of course. The Russians had reached the River Oder, just seventy kilometres from Berlin. There, they had stopped. Neither the Russians, nor the two Matrons were aware that the capital was virtually undefended!

Krakow itself had been overrun just two days after Maria and Katarina had left, the city having been abandoned to fend for itself..


After four weeks of hearing nothing, Maria and Katarina were becoming restless. It was Sunday and the two of them had decided to take a walk around the city.

It wasn't for the first time. Together the two had seen many of the beautiful buildings. They had seen the Semper Opera House, the Frauenkirche, the magnificent castle in the old town. Dresden was, indeed, a most beautiful city. With its quaint streets, not for nothing was it known as Florence on the Elbe.

As they walked, Katarina seemed unusually quiet, not her usual, talkative self. Maria had noticed for some days now that she seemed worried about something.

Passing the Frauenkirche, they stopped and both looked up towards the enormous dome simultaneously. Without a word, as though by some unspoken agreement, they then went inside. The cathedral was virtually empty, as the morning service was over and the congregation had left over an hour before. Apart from a handful of individuals seated at various points, they were alone. The scent of incense still lingered. It was a smell that always conjured images of home, for Maria. It reminded her of her own little church of Maria the Protector and of the happy times she had known.

Sitting in a pew towards the rear, they sat in silence. Maria was concerned to note that her sister was staring fixedly at the ornate altar and the crucifix behind it.

“Are you all right, Katarina?” she whispered, gently holding her sister's arm. “You haven't been yourself lately.”

As she watched, a small tear began to form in the corner of Katarina's eye. It grew until it could no longer be contained and dripped down her cheek.

Maria gripped her arm more firmly.

“Trina, what's wrong?”

Without breaking her gaze, Katarina answered.

“I need to go home, Maria. I can't bear it any longer.”

Maria frowned.

“I understand that. I want to go home too but we can't, not yet. Besides, you can't go to Berlin. Don't you remember the message your father sent you?”

Katarina suddenly turned to face her.

“No! No, I don't remember!” she snapped. “What message? And when? When did he write to me?”

Her voice echoed around the vast building, and one or two people turned around to find the source of the sudden commotion. Maria was stunned into silence and just stared at her sister. Katarina, suddenly realising what she had done, took her hand.

“Oh Maria, I am so sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you. I am just so scared. I still forget things so easily. There has been no word from Berlin since we arrived. Did you tell me about the message? Was something wrong? Is that why you didn't tell me?”

“It was before we left Vienna, do you remember the sanatorium?”

Katarina seemed to struggle.

“Yes, I do, but it is a little vague. I remember some things but not others but Maria, that was nine months ago! Was that the last letter he sent?”

Maria nodded.

“I haven't heard from home either, not since then.”

Katarina turned back to face the ornate gilt-work behind the altar.

“What did Papa say, in his note?” she asked.

“I don't remember it all. There was something about someone being sent to the front, but the main thing is that he said you must not go to Berlin.”

Katarina turned to her sister once more.

“I don't understand. Why would Papa say that? Berlin is my home, I grew up there.”

Maria gripped her hand.

“Didn't you have some problems with the SS before you left? The message also said that Berlin was under martial law. Your Mama and Papa may not even be there. He said that you would know where to find them if you didn't hear from them.”

Katarina wiped the moisture from her eyes.

“I have to go and find them,” she said.

Maria breathed in deeply and slowly exhaled.

“Then I shall come with you.”

Katarina smiled sadly and shook her head.

“No,” she whispered. “I have to do this alone. Although I don't remember many things, what I do remember is that we are sisters. Therefore, your mother and father are also my mother and father. You must go home too and then, if anything happens to me, they will still have you.”

Now Maria's eyes began to fill. She didn't know how to respond.

After a while, she wiped her eyes and sighed.

“No!” she said.

Katarina frowned.


“No, I will not let you go alone. We will go together. When we find out where your Mama and Papa are, we shall then all go to Munich. We don't live in the city so my parents should be safe from any bombing, and there is room for all of us there.”

This time, it was Katarina who remained silent, She stared deeply into Maria's eyes, and she saw that there would be no point in objecting. Instead, she placed her arms around her sister's neck and hugged her.

Later, they walked, slowly back to the hospital and agreed that the following day, they would speak to the DMO.


The following morning, straight after breakfast, Katarina and Maria went directly to the office of the Duty Medical Officer.

Every morning had been the same. The DMO, without acknowledging that they were there would say, “No, nothing yet.”

Today was different, though. As soon as the two young women entered, the officer looked up immediately and smiled.

“Good morning, Matrons!”

Maria and Katarina were surprised, “Have you heard something?” Maria asked.

The officer stood up. At the same time, he picked up a file from his desk.

“I have your orders. I finally managed to get through. A very difficult connection and very short but I spoke to someone called Ritter. I didn't catch his rank but at least you now know what to do.”

The two nurses glanced at each other, they didn't need to speak to understand what the other was thinking.

“What did he say?”

The DMO shrugged.

“Not much. As I said, the connection was terrible and very brief, there was an awful lot of background noise. All I managed to understand was that you are to return home.”

“That's it? Just, go home? Nothing else?”

“No, that was it. Why? Do you know him?”

“Yes, we know him,” Maria said. “Oberstarzt Bernhardt Ritter was our Chief Surgeon in Libya.”

The DMO's eyes lit up.

“Good! That means I can issue the orders and your travel permits. Come back this afternoon, and I will have all the necessary documents ready for you.”


The following morning, Maria and Katarina arose at the crack of dawn, packed up their kit and went to the dining hall for breakfast. They didn't linger. Now that they had some direction, there was no point in delaying the journey any further.

The DMO was expecting them and, the moment they entered his office, he smiled and stood up.

“There has been a slight change to your orders since I spoke to you yesterday,” he said with a serious demeanour. “Herr Ritter contacted me again. He said that you are to be given travel papers, which permit you to travel to wherever you need to be. Again, the conversation was brief and very difficult due to the noise, both on the line and the background. He did say one more thing, though, before the line went dead.”

The two young women waited patiently for a moment while the DMO seemed to ponder something.

Then, Katarina could wait no longer.

“What? What did he say?” she asked.

The DMO looked at her.

“Excuse me? Oh, yes, sorry. The Oberstarzt said that you should not go to Berlin.”

Katarina was puzzled and turned to her sister.

“And now him! Berlin is my home, I have to go there.”

She turned back to the medical officer.

“Have the Soviets reached Berlin? Is it under attack, do you know?”

The officer shrugged.

“Not that I am aware. They have suffered raids, just as all our cities have. The last I heard, the Soviets were being held at the Oder so, no, it isn't being attacked.”

Without waiting for any further questions, he thrust the documents towards them. Maria took one set and Katarina the other. They glanced at the names and then as happened more often than not, they exchanged the papers with each other.

“There is a convoy leaving this evening at Eight from the Alberstadt. The trucks will leave together but will then go their separate ways. The convoy leaders will tell you where they are heading.” He paused and studied each of them carefully. “Take care of yourselves, these are dangerous times, and I wish you the very best luck. I hope that you get home safely.”

Thanking him, they took their leave and returned to their room.


For most of the day, Maria and Katarina took one last look into the wards to say goodbye to all the staff they had worked with and to some patients. By the time the sun was setting, they were ready to leave.

The weather, during the day, had not been good. The clouds had been thick but, as the light faded, they began to clear.

Not knowing when they would next eat, the two young women took dinner in the dining hall. Then, they collected their bags and began the short walk to the Military barracks just outside the city centre.

By the time they arrived there, the sky had cleared, and between those few wisps of cloud that remained, the stars were twinkling bright in the dark, velvet sky.

At the barracks gates, Katarina stopped and tilted her head, staring up at the sky.

“Beautiful, isn't it?” she said aloud.

“Yes,” her sister replied, also gazing skywards. “So clear and bright.


Beyond the gates, the scene was of organised chaos. There were lorries and cars of all types. Milling around them were hundreds of soldiers, some seemingly wounded, sporting dressing in various places and a few with crutches.

One soldier, however, seemed to be shouting orders. He was the one that Maria and Katarina thought, was likely to be in command.

As they approached, he turned to them.

“Where are you going?” he asked abruptly.

“Berlin,” Katarina replied, denying her sister the opportunity to say otherwise.

The soldier looked at his clipboard and ran his finger down the columns.

He pursed his lips and then tapped the board.

“One of you will have to go with an Ambulance. I need a nurse to travel with the wounded. As for the other, I only have room in one of the trucks!” He pointed towards a group of vehicles at the far side of the compound and then hurried away.


By the time everything was organised, and the first vehicles were ready to depart, it was almost nine-thirty.

Katarina turned to her sister.

“Promise me, Maria,” she said in earnest. “If we are separated for whatever reason, you must go home. If you follow me to Berlin, you may never find me.”

“But Trina...” Maria began.

Katarina put her finger against her sister's lips.

“No buts, Maria. I will find you in Munich, I promise.”

Maria saw that it was pointless to protest and hugged her sister.

Without another word, they boarded their vehicles, and the convoy began to move. Out, through the gates and onto the city road.


They had been moving for barely fifteen minutes when a low wailing sound began. It grew in intensity until it was heard above every other sound.

In their respective vehicles, each of the young women felt a chill run through them as their blood ran cold.



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