Berlin, February 14th 1945
It was a tired and very nervous young woman who walked away from the supplies truck. Katarina felt that it was better not to be associated with the young man who had stolen it. She had enough trouble before she left, almost five years before. To her, though, it felt a lifetime. In that five years, the whole world had changed, and everything she knew and loved was being destroyed.
Although weary, Katarina thought that the walk would give her time to clear her head. Around thirty minutes would do it, and then she would be home.
As she walked through the Tiergarten, she began to get an uneasy feeling. The city lay in ruins, and a stench of burnt timber filled the air. The once-bustling capital was little more than rubble from the constant allied air-raids. Not even the Zoo had avoided damage. Although still early, just after dawn, there was considerable activity. She found it so difficult to come to terms with the fact that these places, once so familiar, were now almost unrecognisable. Worse still, there were so many guns. Mostly pointing skywards, but others, of the type she had seen in Libya, were moving, towed behind lorries and half-tracks.
Katarina was all too aware of the damage these giant weapons could do, these Eighty-Eights, or Acht-Achts. Accurate as anti-aircraft guns and deadly as anti-tank guns.
With a breaking heart, Katarina knew that they wouldn't be enough. The bombing had wreaked such devastation, but it wasn't over, it wasn't enough. The Russians were coming, and if Adolf Hitler didn't capitulate, as she knew he would not, then they wouldn't stop until her home no longer existed.
Walking through the now busy streets, she couldn't help but notice how many young boys were running around in ill-fitting military uniforms. Many of them carrying rifles. Some couldn't have been more than eleven or twelve, struggling to carry the heavy weapons. Was this how far her beloved homeland had fallen? Using children to fight the war?
So wrapped up in her thoughts, Katarina hadn't realised how far she had walked. Totally oblivious, she had passed within a hundred metres of the Reichstag without noticing that it now lay in ruins. Even closer to the Brandenburg gate and yet had not seen that either. Only when she left the Tiergarten and stepped out into the wide-open space of Potsdamer Platz did she realised that she was almost home.
What she saw shocked her. The once busy streets were strewn with rubble. Although people were still going about their daily business as best they could, Katarina struggled to believe that this was once the place where she had grown up and had been so happy.
While she stood and looked, a bus stopped at its stop on the other side of the square. Just as they had in her childhood. That very image brought her to realise that the apartment house behind it, her apartment house, appeared barely damaged. Excited, she ran towards it as the bus began to move away. With heart in mouth, she ran up the steps to what had once been a highly polished, black door.
Katarina stopped suddenly. She had no key! Now there was no option but to ring the bell and hope that the concierge would let her in. Taking a deep breath, she put her forefinger against the small white button and gently pushed. Through the solid timber, she could hear the bell faintly ringing. There was no more to do but patiently wait and hope that the concierge was in a good mood.
Seconds passed and became minutes. No one answered, so once more she pressed the button and waited. Still, no one came.
Frustrated now and a little nervous, Katarina pushed the door. To her surprise, it moved! She pushed harder, but something was preventing it from opening much further. With all the strength she had left, she pushed against it, and the door gave just a few centimetres, enough for her to squeeze herself and her kit inside.
The scene beyond broke Katarina's heart. What had once been a beautiful, tile-floored entrance hall was strewn with debris. Broken and burnt timbers littered the floor, the tiles of which were cracked and uneven. It was brighter than it used to be. High above the staircase, she could see the grey skies through the remnants of the scorched wooden framework where the roof used to be.
However, for all the damage, the staircase up to the first floor was still intact. Treading carefully, pushing aside the debris on the stairs, step by step, this fearful young woman slowly climbed up, dreading what horrors might be awaiting her.
The first-floor landing didn't seem to be too bad, and the few steps to the door of her apartment, whilst still littered with plaster, made her feel as though things may not be so bad after all.
The apartment door was wide open. When Katarina peered inside, it seemed deserted. It appeared to have been uninhabited for a long time. Just looking into the hallway, she could see that everything had been soaked in water. The walls were stained, and the paper was hanging in strips. The carpet had mould growing on it! For a moment, Katarina was reminded of the old couple who had lived opposite, the Metzlers. The memory of that terrible night, almost five years before, when the Gestapo and SS had killed the old lady, made her shudder.
As she stepped inside, a tear welled in her eye. This had always been such a happy place in her childhood, but now, everything was ruined. The kitchen table was there, where she had shared so many meals with her Mama and Papa. The four chairs, however, had been thrown over. The cupboards were open, those which still had doors, and the contents were strewn about the floor. Crockery smashed, pans dented or broken.
The sitting room had fared no better. Mould on the carpet, the chairs ripped and broken. The filthy wallpaper, torn and stained. Even the radio set, around which they had shared so many hours listening to wonderful music, lay face down, broken and silent.
Walking from room to room, Katarina struggled to hold back the tears until she reached her own room. Her bed was where it had always been, but the mattress was on the floor, stained and mouldy, like everywhere else. The doors to the wardrobe were open, and her clothes still hung there but ruined. Even the window was broken, curtains hanging in shreds, fluttering in the cold breeze.
Beside the bed was her night stand. With trembling hands, Katarina opened the small draw. It was empty save for a scrap of paper. The Red Cross medal she had left there was gone. That was the last straw. She sat down on the edge of the bed frame and sobbed.
The young nurse was exhausted and hungry. Now she was home, but it wasn't home any more. To make matters worse, she was alone and, with no one to turn to, how on earth was she going to find her parents? Unable to think any more, Katarina slumped sideways onto the metal springs of the bedstead, rested her head on her kitbag and drew her knees up to her chin. Her tears splashed gently onto the floor beneath, but there was no one to hear them.
How much time had passed, Katarina couldn't tell, but she was awoken by the sound of someone, or something, scratching. Occasionally, there was the sound of something being torn, like thick fabric, perhaps. She opened her eyes. The chilled air in the room made them water profusely, and she could see nothing clearly.
The scratching sound persisted, so she slowly took the somewhat grubby handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her eyes.
Lifting her head and looking around, she saw a quite sizeable brown rat staring back at her from the centre of the old mattress. It had gnawed through the thick cotton cover and pulled out a large amount of the horse-hair stuffing.
Katarina sighed and let her head fall back onto the makeshift pillow. The rat didn't frighten her. If she didn't disturb it, it wouldn't trouble her.
What did trouble her, though, was the cold. She could hardly feel her fingers. Without further ado, she got off the bedstead and took her kitbag into the lounge. There was a fireplace in there. At least the fire would provide some warmth. But what to burn? There was only one answer, she would have to break up some of the furniture that remained. There was the wooden night-stand by her bed, that would do, to begin with.
Back in the bedroom, Katarina looked around. The horse-hair stuffing from the mattress would make good kindling to start the fire.
Having been disturbed, the rat had scurried away, so she pulled out a large wad of hair and filled the small drawer. Then she took the unit into the lounge and began to break it into small pieces.
One of the things that Katarina had learned was that there are many times that she may need a match. For that reason, she always carried a box or two with her kit.
With great care, she built up a mixture of wood and hair in the grate. Then she struck a match, but the cold breeze from the broken window immediately extinguished it.
Wallpaper! That would do it!
But no, when she went to pull a ragged strip from the wall, she found that it was too damp. Matches were too precious a commodity to waste to even try to ignite it. Then she noticed the scrap of paper that had been in the drawer. If she rolled it into a tube, she could use it as a taper.
A few minutes later and the fire was lit. It smouldered at first, and was smokey until the flames caught properly and began to burn. For the first time, Katarina could feel some warmth.
Noticing that the half-burnt tube of paper had fallen onto the hearth, she picked it up, thinking it may come in useful if she needed to light another fire. It was then that she saw the writing.
If you are r
It is not sa
You are a
Her heart sank. What had she done? Was it a warning? If you are what? And what was sa? If only she had looked first before she set the match to it. The last lines, she imagined, were, You are always in our hearts, Mama and Papa. They always signed off their letters with that. The rest, though? Well, that could be anything. She thought hard. If you are r...what? Routed this way? Required to... what? If you are returning? All right, that is possible, but what then? No, nothing made sense.
And, It is not sa...? Said, perhaps? Maybe, but if what is not said? Sanitary? That was obvious, but the apartment may not have been ruined then. Satisfactory? No. Still, Katarina could make nothing from it.
The line after that was easier to decipher. It had to be Head South. That was all very well, but where? South from Berlin covered most of Germany! No, it was still too cold, and she was too hungry to think straight.
Putting the scrap in her pocket, the best option, she thought, would be to get warm and then try to find something to eat and drink.
The heat from the small fire didn't take long to have an effect. Before too long, the cold was driven out. With some more wood added, the fire burnt nicely, and she was able to leave it to go into the kitchen. What Katarina was looking for was a small pan in which she could heat some water. Once located, she held it under the tap and turned the handle. Fortunately, there was water. Just a trickle, admittedly, but it was there, and she was able to draw enough to make some coffee.
The coffee was disgusting, but it was also welcome, both warming and revitalising at the same time. The taste was secondary. For a moment, all the worry and fear were pushed to one side as the warming liquid filled her otherwise empty stomach.
Five years of war had taught her that it was wise to carry a few essentials in her kit. Wherever she went she took a box of matches, some coffee, and a few ration biscuits, along with the medical supplies that were in her Satchel. In all that time, she had never been more grateful for them than she was right now.
Endowed with rational thought, once more, Katarina began to consider her options. It was clear that her parents weren't here. Whether they were still alive was unclear, but they certainly weren't here. Neither could she stay in the apartment. It was barely fit for the rats, even. The Charité was far too dangerous, so that wasn't an option. If she was recognised there, the Gestapo would probably arrest her. Although she had done nothing wrong, she had upset them several times. There was also the possibility that they had linked her with Doctor Kruger.
Katarina tried to imagine a map of Germany. Salzburg was almost due south. Had they gone there perhaps? Was Austria safer for them than Berlin? What about further south, to Italy maybe?
The more she thought, the harder it became to find answers. If only she had looked at that piece of paper when she first found it!
The coffee was soon finished and the fire began to fade in the grate. The time had come for Katarina to make the decision. The answer was clear. Get out of Berlin and go south.
Kitbag repacked, she took one last, desperately unhappy look around the ruined apartment. Debris crunched beneath her feet as she descended the staircase for the last time.
“So, you came back!”
Katarina's heart leapt into her mouth as she recognised the cold-hearted voice. She took a deep breath before answering.
“Yes, Frau Hofstädter. Did you think I wouldn't?”
“Honestly? No, I didn't.” for a moment, the grey-haired concierge looked confused. “You didn't know, did you?”
“What? About my home being destroyed? Of course not. I haven't heard from my parents for about nine months.” She frowned. “How did you know I was here, anyway?”
The concierge laughed.
“I didn't. I saw the smoke from the chimney so came to investigate. No, I was referring to your parents disappearing suddenly one night.” She paused as though thinking. “Yes, now I think of it, about nine months ago. The Gestapo came for them.”
Katarina's heart all but stopped.
“You really don't know, do you? They turned the apartment over. Kicked the door down and ransacked it. They found nothing.”
Desperately trying not to show her mistrust, Katarina straightened her back, refusing to let this Nazi sympathiser upset her.
“If you will excuse me, I must be on my way,” she said firmly.
Frau Hofstädter, looking far older than Katarina remembered, put her arm out to stop her.
“Where will you go? The Charité?”
“That is my business,” she replied sternly.
The old woman seemed to diminish before her.
“You have every reason not to trust me,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper. “I know you think I am an informer, but I am not, not any more. I am truly sorry for the things I have done, but I had no choice. Come with me. I will take you somewhere to rest and get cleaned up. You look as though you haven't eaten in days.”
Katarina's eyes narrowed. Frau Hofstädter was right, she couldn't be trusted, but what other option did she have now?
Together, they walked away from the ruins of the apartment house. Katarina had never seen such devastation. Could Berlin ever be the same again? At that moment, she couldn't see how it could possibly survive.
Ten minutes later, without a word having passed between then, Katarina and her old concierge arrived at a soup kitchen. It had been set up by the army. Patiently waiting their turn in the queue, another ten passed minutes before Katarina had a mug full of thin potato soup and a small chunk of grey bread. The two of them sat on a pile of rubble to eat and drink.
Neither spoke until the soup and bread were gone. It was Katarina who broke the silence.
“When were you bombed out?” she asked.
Frau Hofstädter stared at the ground between her feet as she replied.
“The first bombs fell on us last summer. The building was damaged, but most of the apartments were still repairable. Then the Americans came. just the week before last. The rear of the building was destroyed, and the front was on fire for days. Even those apartments which weren't burned were ruined by the water from the hoses. Either that or by falling debris from the roof. Is there anyone you can stay with?”
Katarina shook her head.
“No. Everyone I knew is gone. I don't know where anyone is, including my parents.”
The old lady raised her head. What about the hospital? Surely you can go there. You are a Matron, aren't you?”
“Look, now I know my parents are not here, I must leave. I can't stay in Berlin.”
Frau Hofstädter shook her head.
“You can't leave Berlin!”
Katarina was stunned.
“Oh yes, I can!” she hissed. “I have nothing to stay here for.”
“Frau Langsdorff, they won't let you leave. No-one leaves without good reason. If you are caught trying to leave, you will be arrested... if you are lucky.”
What do you mean if I am lucky?”
The concierge looked about before answering in a low voice,
“People are being hanged or shot for the slightest of things.”
Katarina stood up.
“Then I had better make a start!”
Frau Hofstädter also stood up, and grabbed her arm.
“No, wait! At least get cleaned up and rest. See if you still feel the same way tomorrow.”
Although grateful for the food, Katarina was still not convinced enough to trust this woman. Although she had done nothing against her, it was well known that she had connections with the Gestapo.
Katarina shook her head.
“No, I must go!” She tried to walk away, but the old woman gripped her sleeve and wouldn't let go.
With a sharp tug, Katarina broke free. Frau Hofstädter was left unbalanced, and she fell backwards, striking her head on the unyielding rubble, and lay still.
Immediately, Katarina dropped to her knees and pressed her fingers to the unfortunate woman's neck. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found a strong pulse.
Within seconds, they were surrounded by onlookers.
“What did you do?” one asked.
“She hit her, I saw her!” another accused.
“Is she dead?” others wondered.
Suddenly, Katarina was afraid, the crowd was growing.
“I didn't hit her!” she insisted. “She fell and hit her head, and no, she isn't dead!”
Running her fingers around the back of the old woman's head, she could find no trace of injury or blood.
“Get the Police,” another voice shouted.
Before long, a soldier in a grey uniform pushed his way through the crowd.
“What's going on here? What is all this commotion?”
“She killed the old lady!” unseen voices called out.
The soldier pushed his way through and then turned to face the crowd. He drew his gun.
“Get back, all of you! Go on, go away. I'll shoot anyone who refuses!”
As the crowd began to disperse, he knelt beside the two women.
“Feldgendarmerie!” he said abruptly. “What is going here?”
“She fell and hit her head, but she is not hurt.”
With that, Katarina suddenly pinched the old woman's nose. Seconds later, with a gasp for breath, Frau Hofstädter twisted her head and opened her eyes. Katarina released her grip.
The policeman stood up and pointed his gun at them.
“I think that you had both better come with me,” he said with a menacing tone.