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The Long Road Home. Chapter 30

"“Shut your mouth!” he snarled. “Open it again and it'll be the last thing you do!”"
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Author's Notes

"Maria struggles against a man much stronger than her. This cannot be the end of her long road home... can it?"

Chemnitz, February 14th, 1945


Maria lay on her back, the weight of her assailant pushing her against the stack of rolled canvases. From the vicious slap he had delivered, her cheek stung. A small drop of blood dripped from his lip and splashed onto her face. Why was he doing this? She had done nothing to him, not encouraged him nor upset him.

One by one, he released the buttons of her greatcoat, then pulled apart the heavy woollen fabric.

She had an idea. The driver was too heavy for her to push away, so she tried a different tactic.

“Are you married? Do you have children?”

He leaned over her.

“They're all dead!” he snarled.

His response didn't surprise her. Many thousands of women and children had died throughout this God-forsaken war.

“How would they feel if they saw you doing this?”

He hit her again.

“Shut your mouth!” he snarled. “Open it again and it'll be the last thing you do!”

She stared at his lust-filled face. In the dim light, she could just make out the darkness behind his eyes. She had no idea of what horrors this man had witnessed, but she wasn't going to let him use her this way. She would die first.

His fingers tightened once more around her throat as his other hand moved to her breast. She began to feel dizzy, and faint.

With one last effort, using all the strength she had left, she kicked out and pushed back against the canvas sheets!

But it was no use, he was too strong and she felt him pushing her legs apart with his knees.


Suddenly, the lorry flooded with an eerie flickering, orange glow. The driver quickly released her!

“Scheisser!” he shouted as he jumped up, the greedy flames licking at his legs.

Somehow, during her struggle, Maria had kicked the paraffin lamp over. The glass had smashed and the paraffin had leaked out and ignited.

The driver became engulfed in flame. As quickly as she could, Maria pushed him over, took off her coat and used it to beat out the fire. By good fortune, the lantern had not been full of fuel, and in no time, she had extinguished the remainder of the conflagration.

But now, it was dark. Without the lamp, the truck had no light, and she could see nothing. Fear began to gnaw at her insides, and she listened carefully for any sound. Very slowly, with her hands held out behind her, the frightened young woman felt her way to the side of the tank. For a moment, she stopped and listened carefully. Were her ears playing tricks? Her blood was pumping loudly through her ears, but, there was something else, a very faint sound, like someone crying.

“Are you hurt?”

For a moment, there was no reply other than a sniffing sound. Then an almost unheard whisper.

“I'm sorry.”


There was a brief flash as the driver struck his cigarette lighter and relit the lamp. Without the glass, it was little more than a smokey candle. But it shed enough light for Maria to see again.

The driver was sitting where she had left him.

He looked up at her, his face blackened with soot and etched with remorse.

“I'm sorry that I hurt you,” he whispered. “After all that I did to you, you still took care of me. I don't deserve it.”

Maria stepped towards him but kept her distance.

“No!” she snapped, “You don't deserve it, but what kind of a person would I be if I let you burn? I would be no better than you!”

He put his face in his hands.

“You were right.”

“About what?”

“My wife and Daughter. If they knew what I have become...”

He began to sob again.

“They were my whole life, and I have betrayed them and myself.”

Although this man had hurt her and tried to inflict even more harm upon her, she found herself feeling sorry for him. Her voice softened, and she took another step towards him.

“What happened to them?” she asked.

“The Gestapo took them.” He didn't look at her.

Maria was stunned.

“The Gestapo?” she exclaimed. “Why? What did they do?”

Slowly, he raised his head and stared at her.

“They didn't do anything!” He could barely conceal his anger. “My wife was a Jew. They took her and my daughter away. Three years old! That's all she was, just a baby!”

“Are you sure that they are dead? Surely they have been sent somewhere. A camp, maybe.”

The driver stared at her as though he were unable to believe his ears.

“Are you so naïve?” he asked, so quietly she could barely hear him. “They are dead, and because I hid them, they sent me to a prison camp.”

“I'm sorry, I don't understand. If you were put in a prison camp, how come you are here, now, with this lorry?”

“The men got sent to the Eastern Front. I thought it had to be better than the camp, but...”

He lowered his head into his hands and fell silent.

“At least you are alive,” Maria began but he interrupted her.

“And that's a good thing? I'm not alive. I am dead inside. I don't deserve to live, I don't want to live, but I am too much of a coward to die.”

“But not too much of a coward to attack me?”

Once again, he fell silent.

Maria stepped back.

“I need to sleep,” she said.

“Yes,” he replied and stood up.

“Oh no, I'm not sleeping here. I will find somewhere safe.”

“Look, I told you, I'm sorry. I won't touch you again. I promise.”

Maria shook her head.

“No, it's not enough. I will find somewhere else and then, in the morning, I will find someone to take me to where I need to be.”

Maria squeezed along the side of the tank. She was pleased that the driver did not attempt to follow her. At the rear, she pulled the sheet to one side and climbed over the tailgate. From there, she jumped down to the street.


It was all very well her saying that she would find somewhere to sleep, but she had no idea where she was or where to go. She collected her kit from the cab and was about to walk away when she heard a loud crack from inside the canvas. She froze. Quickly, she turned and looked up. There was a small hole high up in the canvas of the cover. Now he finds the courage! She turned and hurried back to the rear of the truck.

She left her bag on the road and tried to climb up the tailboard again. It wasn't easy, and as she struggled, soldiers from the other vehicles joined her. One pushed her up until she was inside, and then he released the board, allowing it to fall with a crash.

As fast as she was able, Maria shuffled sideways through the narrow space until she reached the front, still dimly illuminated by the broken hurricane lamp.

What she saw was astounding! The driver was just where she had left him but sitting, with his back against the canvas sheets. In his hand was a Mauser machine pistol. As soon as she stepped into the light, he looked up, shaking his head.

“I couldn't do it,” he whispered.

Behind her, the soldiers, at least those who could fit, pushed forwards.

“What the hell is going on, Gunther?” the first one demanded. “I thought someone was shooting at us!”

The driver didn't answer.

“I think it went off accidentally,” Maria offered, trying to divert the other's attention.

“I must have left the safety off,” he responded with a very nervous look on his face.

The soldier sighed loudly.

“Well, be more bloody careful, will you!” he growled as he raised his eyes and shook his head. “Come on,” he said to the others who were trying to see what was going on. “The fool bloody near shot himself!”

Maria waited in silence as they filed away and disappeared into the darkness.

Once he was satisfied that the last one had jumped down, she held out her hand.

“Make the gun safe and give it to me!” she hissed sharply.

With extreme care, Gunther used his thumb to allow the hammer to close gently. He flicked the safety catch to 'safe', then turned it and handed it to her, grip first.

The gun was heavier than she expected.

“Where did you get this? It's not the usual weapon carried by soldiers.”

“I took it from the frozen corpse of an SS officer near Leningrad.”

“I heard things were bad in the winter.”

Gunther stared at her.

“Bad? You think it was bad? It wasn't bad! It was inhumane! Everything got bogged down in the mud. There was no food. Most of us got frostbite to some degree. If you didn't freeze to death, you starved. The Ruskies may not have had the best equipment, but they outnumbered us. For each one we killed, another ten came behind him. They were relentless, and they were better equipped than us against the winter. We fought the Russians, we fought the elements, and we fought each other. For those who couldn't go on, there were the SS and the Ukrainians. It was madness! No, it was worse than madness, it was Hell on earth!”

Maria decided she had heard enough and didn't question him further. Instead, she told him to leave.

“I think I will sleep here after all,” she told him. “You can sleep in the cab. Come near me again, and I will use this, right?”

Gunther nodded and got to his feet. She pressed herself against the steel of the tank to give him as much space to pass as she could.


Once he had gone, Maria didn't lay down again until she heard the crash of the tail-board closing and the latch-pins dropping into place. She pulled her collar up around her neck and tried to get some sleep. The Mauser remained close to her.

But it was no use, she couldn't relax, and sleep would not come. It was too cold and she was still nervous about being alone. Even keeping the loaded weapon beside her, what Gunther had tried to do played on her mind. The last straw was the lamp burning itself out. What little fuel it had, especially after being spilt, did not last. When the flame finally flickered and died, she gave up any notion of sleep. Instead, Maria decided to find the way home on her own.

In the pitch blackness, she stifled cries of pain as she bumped her way past the tank. Even when she jumped out of the truck, she could barely see anything because of thick clouds blocking the moonlight.

Making as little noise as she could, Maria climbed up the step to the cab and peered inside. Gunther was sound asleep, an empty schnapps bottle clutched tightly in his hand. With great stealth, she opened the door, turning down the handle slowly. The faint click as it released almost stopped her heart and sounded much louder to her than it actually was. Gunther grunted a little but didn't wake.

Almost holding her breath, Maria pulled the door open just a few centimetres, enough to squeeze the Mauser inside and lay it on the seat beside Gunther's feet. Then, holding the handle down, she pushed the door closed and carefully let go of the handle.


Now that she had made her mind up, Maria suddenly realised that she had no idea where she was. Chemnitz was as alien to her as Libya had been before the war. She had heard of it but never been there. The question was, where should she go in the middle of the night?

In the distance, she could hear the clatter of railway wagons getting shunted. Perhaps, she thought, if she found the railway, someone could help her.

She pulled her kit bag up over her shoulder and set off in the direction of the sounds.


In her cold, sleep-deprived state, every step was an effort. It wasn't long before she began to regret leaving the relative comfort of the lorry. A cold wind blew gently around her and seemed to get through to her very bones. She hoped that the railway yard was not too far, but the noises didn't seem to be getting any louder. The gently sighing wind made it difficult for her to tell exactly from which direction they were coming.


After a while, to her utter dismay, it began to rain! Just a fine drizzle at first but then turning into an icy, winter rain which stung her face as the tiny ice droplets struck her already chilled cheeks and ears. The effect was like trying to walk through a hail of tiny needles. At every street corner, the wind changed direction. Whatever she did, nothing would stop this insane torture. Even the woollen gloves she wore could not keep her fingers from freezing. She began to feel that if she ever tried to straighten them, they would snap like icicles!


Every step became harder to take. Maria was so cold that her joints felt as though they were stiffening. There could be no stopping now, though. She needed to find shelter, needed some respite from the biting wind and stinging rain. Perhaps, if she crossed to the other side of the street, it would be more sheltered.

With her head held low and her collar up high, she crossed the cobbles.

There was a sudden squeal of brakes, and she found herself flying through the cold night air. Then she landed in a heap on the unyielding cobbles!

For a moment, Maria didn't move. In her befuddled mind, she couldn't understand what had just happened. When she opened her eyes, millions of tiny needles, or so it seemed, stung them so much that she quickly closed them.

“Are you hurt? You stepped in front of me. I couldn't stop!”

Shielding her eyes with her hand, Maria opened them again and looked up at the figure kneeling beside her.

She didn't feel hurt.

“No, I don't think so. What happened?”

“I couldn't see because of this icy rain. You just appeared in the road. Come on, you can't stay on these cold, wet stones.”

Maria slowly became aware that the man who was speaking wore a white coat over his uniform. She took the hand that he proffered and got awkwardly to her feet, allowing him to guide her to the nearby car. She paused whilst he opened the door and then climbed inside.

After some indeterminate clattering and banging, he got into the driving seat beside her.

Very slowly, the warmth began to be noticeable, but tiredness and the extreme weather all began to take their toll on her body. She began to shiver uncontrollably, her teeth chattering loudly.

The man turned and looked at her, he seemed concerned.

“Are you sure you are all right?” he asked. “You don't look too good.”

Maria nodded.

“Y...yes, I am f... f... fine. Just very c... cold and ti... tired.”

“Where are you going?” he asked. “I don't have a lot of time, but I could take you if it is nearby.”

Maria didn't answer. She couldn't think straight and, in all honesty, she didn't really know.

He waited patiently, but when Maria didn't answer, he offered a solution.

“I am going to the station to collect medical supplies from a train.” He looked at his watch. “It should have arrived by now. You could come with me and decide what you want to do. At least you will be warm in here.”

Maria smiled and nodded gratefully.

“Yes, thank you. That is a good idea.”


As the car set off on the remainder of its journey, she realised that it wasn't a car at all but a small van. The clatter that she heard must have been the driver putting her bag into the back and slamming the door closed.

They drove slowly. With hooded lights and the wipers barely clearing the rain from the windscreen, it was easy for her to understand how she had got run down. She could barely see the end of the bonnet. Had this man been driving less carefully than he was, the outcome of her stepping into the road would have been considerably worse.

“Thank you for driving carefully,” she said. “I'm sorry I stepped out in front of you.”

“Don't worry,” the man said. “At least you weren't injured.” He reached over and squeezed her forearm.

Immediately, Maria recoiled and quickly pulled her arm away.

“I... I'm sorry, he said, putting his hand back on the steering wheel. “I didn't mean to... Are you sure you are all right? Has something else happened to you?”

Maria shook her head.

“No, it's not your fault. I am just tired and jumpy. I'm sorry if I upset you.”

There was nothing more said. Maria huddled herself in the seat, trying unsuccessfully to get warm. She had stopped shivering, but the coldness inside persisted.


When they arrived at the station, a sentry at the gate held up his hand. Without a word, the driver wound his window down and offered his identification card. The guard looked at it and handed it back.

“And yours, please,” he called through the window.”

Maria didn't respond. She had fallen asleep.

The guard was about to insist but the driver put his finger to his lips.

“She is exhausted,” he said, “Let her rest.”

With great care, he slipped his hand into her pocket and found her card. As he lifted it out it caught on the rank armband which came out with it.


Suddenly, Maria woke and grabbed his hand.

“What are you doing?” she shouted, her voice shrill and alarmed.

“I was trying not to disturb you, erm, Ma'am.” Having caught sight of the Hauptmann insignia on her armband, the driver became nervous. “I'm sorry. He wants to see your papers.”

Maria took a deep breath and exhaled.

“No, it is me who should apologise.” She released him and allowed him to hand the pass to the guard.

“Matron Kaufmann?” the guard said as he compared the photo with its owner. She nodded wearily.

“If I may enquire, Ma'am, what brings you here at this hour?”

“I am trying to get home, and that seems an impossible task at the moment,” she sighed.

“Do you have travel orders?” the guard insisted. He looked at the crumpled papers that she handed him.

“They appear in order, but there are no onward trains. The tracks were damaged and are still not repaired.”

The young woman slumped back in her seat. She was beginning to despair, and her weary mind made everything seem so much more difficult.

“The driver started the van and drove through the gateway as the guard stepped back.

“Ma'am, if I may be so bold. Come back to the hospital with me. I am sure they will find you somewhere to sleep. When you are warm and rested, you will be able to think more clearly.”

Maria gave half a smile.

“You are a good man, erm...”

“Frank, Ma'am. Albert Frank. I am an orderly.”

“Well then, Albert, if I may call you that. Perhaps our bumping into each other was not such a bad thing after all.”


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