Berlin, February 15th, 1945
Maria woke suddenly. The room she occupied was filled with the eerie wailing of an air-raid siren. She had been in a deep sleep, bourne from exhaustion, and the sound echoed and screeched in her ears.
The room was no larger than a cupboard, just big enough to accommodate the bed she was lying on and a coat stand. High above in the wall was a small, fixed window. Barely 30 centimetres square, she had to stand on the bed, stretching up just to see out.
After a moment of straining, she stepped down. The window was too high to see anything with clarity, but what she did see surprised her. Although the sirens were wailing loudly, the sky was grey with thick clouds. Why on earth would the Allies send bombers when the target must be invisible from up there?
No, it must be a false alarm.
She looked at her watch, twelve-twenty-five. Six hours since her head had finally hit the pillow.
Minutes later, the distinctive drone of hundreds of aeroplanes. Quiet and distant at first but rapidly growing in intensity until the air was filled with the dreadful noise.
Still clothed, she pushed her feet into her shoes, grabbed her kit bag and coat and ran from the room.
She had no idea where she was. This was a hospital that she had never before visited. The duty medical officer had allowed her to use the bed. It was in a room that was for the use of the night duty surgeons. All she knew was that it was on the first floor, and she had no intention of being trapped again. The memories of that horrific raid on Innsbruck were still vivid in her mind.
Even before she had located the main stairwell, the sound of far-off explosions reached her. Heart racing, she ran down the stairs, almost pushing aside a nurse who suddenly appeared ahead of her.
Maria mumbled her apologies but didn't stop. She kept running until she reached a door and was able to get outside.
Thick clouds filled the sky, the ground was wet and icy and the air was cold and damp. Once clear of the buildings, breathing heavily, Maria dropped her bag and slipped her arms into the sleeves of her greatcoat.
Seconds later, the nurse whom she had barged into appeared at her side.
“Are you all right, Matron?”
Maria stared at her for a moment, the panic slowly subsiding as she caught her breath. She nodded uncertainly at first and then again.
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes, thank you. I...I'm sorry, I almost knocked you over.”
Suddenly, a closer explosion startled Maria.
“Where is the shelter?” she asked the young woman, her eyes darting wildly, searching for an arrow, a sign, anything.
“This way, follow me.”
Just a few yards around the end of the building, the air raid shelter was clearly marked next to a closed steel door which appeared to be set into the side of a grassed mound.
The young nurse banged on the door, which was immediately opened for them. Once through, it clanged loudly closed behind them.
Although she felt a little safer, the shelter was at the bottom of a short stairway, Maria was still nervous. She sat quietly on a bench, feet on tip-toes and her knees bouncing up and down. She tried to stop them, but each time she relaxed, they began again.
The young nurse could see her angst.
“Matron, we are safe here. The shelter is strong.”
Maria looked up at the concrete roof.
“Yes,” she agreed. “I know...”
“Do you want to talk? It may help.”
She looked at the young nurse. About five years younger than herself, she thought.
“Last year, in Innsbruck, the hospital was bombed. I was trapped for many hours alongside an unexploded bomb. A beam gave way, and I fell, buried under tons of rubble. I... I almost...”
She paused as the young woman gripped her hand.
“And my sister was missing for days. When they found her, she had no memory of what happened, of anything at all. She didn't even know who she was for a while. So, you see...”
The young woman nodded, her eyes wide.
“Then it is no wonder that you ran outside. Your sister, she is all right now, though, and she recovered too, as you have?”
“Yes, she recovered, although her memory can be a little tricky still.”
“Where is she now? Did you get different postings?”
The smile faded from Maria's lips.
“We were going to Berlin to find her parents, but we were separated last night. The convoy was split when an English bomber crashed. I haven't seen her since.”
“Her parents?” the nurse looked confused. “Not your parents?”
“It's a very long story.”
In the gloom of the dim lighting, she felt the young nurse studying her.
“So, what is your next move? Are you still going to Berlin?”
“I don't know. I don't know Berlin at all. My home is in Munich, which was our ultimate destination. Katarina told me not to look for her there if we were separated, as I may never find her. No, I suppose I should go home and hope that she gets there too.”
The young woman stared into the gloom, remembering.
“I knew a Matron called Katarina. She was so sweet and taught me so much. I had just begun training at the Charité. Her surname was Langsdorff. Come to think of it, she looked a lot like you. She disappeared suddenly, back in nineteen-forty. I believe she was posted to somewhere in France. It was strange. That same day, one of the senior doctors was arrested by the Gestapo. We never saw him again.”
Maria looked at her.
“That was my sister.”
The nurse turned her head sharply.
“What? And she is going back to Berlin? But Matron Langsdorff, she can't, she mustn't! The Gestapo was looking for her too! We were all questioned about her!”
Maria grabbed her hand.
“Why? What did they want?”
Maria released her grip, holding her more gently,
“I'm sorry I didn't mean to hurt you.”
The young woman relaxed a little.
“That's all right, I understand. We were questioned several times about her and her connection with Doctor Kruger. Of course, no one knew anything, and so eventually, they stopped asking. It was five years ago, I know, but they never forget.”
Maria's knee began to twitch again.
“I have to find her before they do!”
“How, Matron?” the nurse asked, her eyes wide. “Berlin is a big city and has been bombed constantly. How will you find her when you don't know it at all?”
Maria bit her lip.
“I don't know. All I know is that if Katarina is in danger, then I will find her. One way or another, we will find each other.”
“But Matron Langsdorff, how can you be so sure?”
Maria flicked her head sharply round to face the young nurse.
“I don't know but I will, and I am not Matron Langsdorff, I am Matron Maria Kaufmann.”
The nurse was confused.
“I... I'm sorry, I thought you said that Matron Langsdorff was your sister?”
“Yes, she is. I told you, it is a very long story.”
“Well...” the nurse paused. “Perhaps...” She paused again.
“Perhaps what?” she asked.
The youngster screwed up her face as though she was about to say something she shouldn't.
“I... I just thought that...”
Maria was becoming impatient.
“I thought that maybe you could tell me your story if I came with you to Berlin. I grew up there. I know my way around. I am sure we could find Matron Langsdorff together.”
Maria glared at her.
“No! That is out of the question! If she is in trouble, it would not be fair to involve you. Besides, You have your duties here.”
The young woman smiled and shook her head.
“No, actually, I don't. I am returning to Berlin this afternoon. There is a train at fifteen-thirty. I report for duty at the Charité on Monday morning so, I have four days to help you find your sister.”
“You would do that for me?” Maria was shocked.
The young nurse gave a half-smile.
“Well, not exactly, more for Matron Langsdorff. She was good to me, well, to all of us. Although, if you are her sister, then I suppose for you too.”
Maria was about to protest but, just then, the all-clear began to sound.
“Charlotte,” the nurse said, “Charlotte Beckmann or Lotte if you prefer, Matron.”
“Well, Nurse Beckmann, it seems that I have no choice, do I?”
Lotte gave her a sweet smile, shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
Outside the shelter, they were surprised to find that no bombs had fallen near to the hospital. Unlike Innsbruck, the damage was not severe, leaving Maria with the impression that the bombers must have been attacking a target outside the city.
The walk to the station took little more than thirty minutes. Lotte led Maria along the road which led directly to the railway. They didn't talk much along the way as they were more concerned with ensuring they didn't miss the train.
They had barely arrived when the wailing sirens began again. Maria looked up at the big station clock. It showed seven minutes to two.
Without further delay, they both followed the direction in which most people seemed to be running. That had to be the way to the shelter.
An hour passed. Once again, it seemed, the bombers had passed them by with very few bombs damaging the city. Because of the thick cloud, Maria hadn't seen one single enemy aircraft.
Back at the station, she listened to the chatter of the other people. To her surprise, it appeared that most of the bombs had fallen on the open countryside surrounding the town, although some had hit the southern suburbs. That would explain why the raids had gone on for so long, and she had heard so few close explosions!
A whistle blew urgently. Lotte grabbed Maria's arm.
“Come on, quickly!”
In response to the shrill whistle of the guard, the powerful black locomotive let out a loud hiss of steam. The train began to move.
Maria and Lotte ran to the nearest carriage door and leapt up the steps. They almost fell into the vestibule due to their momentum.
The first thing that Maria noticed was that the carriage had no windows. They were all broken or missing, more than likely due to the aerial attacks to which her homeland was slowly succumbing.
As the train picked up speed, the icy wind howled through the carriage. Perhaps because of the windows or maybe the track, it did not travel as fast as was usual. Even so, Maria felt as though she would freeze to death before she reached Berlin. Like everyone else, she and Lotte huddled together to maintain as much body heat as they could.
It was not the first time she had travelled by train, but this was by far the worst journey. There were constant delays where they stopped for some unknown purpose or just moved at little more than walking speed. As a result, it was approaching midnight when their destination was finally reached.
Maria was happy that she could still walk. She was stiff after spending so long huddled together with Lotte on the cold hard floor of the vestibule.
To her, the place where they alighted from the train was just another railway station, like many others she had seen in recent years. Lotte, though, appeared a little concerned.
She shook her head, frowning and pursing her lips.
“This isn't the Hauptbahnhof, Matron!”
“Does it matter?” Maria asked.
“Well, yes. This is Charlottenburg. The Charité is only a ten-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof. From here, well, maybe ninety minutes!”
Maria was more than a little concerned.
“If Katarina was wanted by the Gestapo and she was well known there, then surely we should not go there.”
Nurse Beckmann thought for a minute.
“You have a valid point, Matron. Her name is known, that is true. After five years, though, there will not be many who know what she looked like. Your name will not be connected to her, will it?”
“Not so far as I am aware. The only ones in Berlin who could connect us are you and Oberstartzt Ritter.”
“An officer? An army officer? Surely he would inform the Gestapo if he knew you were here?”
“You don't know him, do you?”
Lotte shook her head, puzzled.
“He is a senior medical officer of the Wehrmacht. Bernhardt helped Katarina and I when we had trouble with the SS in Libya. He authorized our documents from Krakow. I would trust him with my life.”
Lotte shook her head.
“It seems that you and Matron Langsdorff have a lot to tell, Matron. I hope that someday you will tell me. However, we don't really have an option... unless, of course, you know of a place we can sleep?”
Maria laughed. “No,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
“Well then, we had better start walking.”
Upon their arrival, the two exhausted young women were shown to a dormitory room by the duty guard. He had given their papers a cursory check and hadn't asked them any questions about why they were there. The only thing he told them was that they should report to the Duty Medical Officer in the morning.
Of course, after a few hours of fitful sleep, the last thing on Maria's mind was to make her presence official. After they had eaten a meagre breakfast, since Lotte wasn't expected for another few days, they headed out to find Katarina.
Once outside, Maria began to despair. The city was in such a terrible state of destruction that she began to worry that she would never find her sister. She turned to her companion.
“I didn't think it would be so bad. Where do we even start to look?”
Lotte didn't speak at first, but then,
“I didn't know it was this bad either. I had heard some things, but...”
Maria knew she had to be strong, to take control. She took a deep breath.
“All right then, I suggest we start at her home on Potsdamer Strasse.”
“Matron! Matron Langsdorff!”
Maria looked around, startled by the young man who had suddenly appeared beside her as if from nowhere.
He looked even younger than Nurse Beckmann and his uniform was very ill-fitting. At least two sizes too big.
“I thought you said you couldn't stay here,” he continued.
Maria didn't know what to say. If she pretended to be Katarina, she could find herself in trouble. On the other hand, if this young man connected her to her sister, that, too, could be a problem.
“I'm sorry,” she replied at length. “I think you have mistaken me for someone else.”
The boy laughed and stepped closer, much to her consternation.
“Don't worry, I won't tell anyone if you don't want me to. You did say that it was dangerous for you here, and yet...”
Maria frowned and bit her lower lip.
“Young man, I am not Matron Langsdorff, but I do need to find her. Did she tell you where she was going?”
The colour drained from the boy's face. He slowly stepped back and shook his head. Unnoticed, Lotte stepped behind him and he jumped as he bumped into her.
“She is not in any trouble,” she said. “The matron is her... her friend.” She was going to say sister but caught the look that Maria shot her.
His eyes darted from Lotte to Maria and back. He didn't know whether to believe them. Finally, he asked,
“Are you testing me, Matron?”
A group of soldiers passed close by, their sergeant looked at them but didn't stop. Once they were out of ear-shot, Maria continued.
“Look, when I said that Matron Langsdorff is not in trouble, she isn't. Not from us, at least. She could be, though, if we don't find her. When did you last see her?”
“Y... yesterday morning,” the boy stammered. “I brought her from Dresden. She was upset because she had lost her... her... sister...” His voice trailed off as he stared at Maria. “It's you! You are her sister!”
Seeing the look on Maria's face, the lad held up his hand, his open palm facing her.
“Don't worry,” he said quickly. “Your sister saved me from the Gendarmes, so you can trust me. If I can help, I would be glad to.”
Both Maria and Lotte were doubtful. For Maria, though, there was no option. She had to trust Lotte because there was no one else that she knew here. This boy had been with Katarina for the whole journey and may be able to provide a clue as to where she might have headed.
Finally, she formed a plan.
“Fine. We will go to Potsdamer Platz. If Matron Langsdorff is not there, then we will have to work out where she may be.”
Unbeknown to Maria, they had followed the exact same path her sister had taken the day before. Unlike her sister, however, she had noticed the Brandenburg Gate and she had noticed the severely damaged Reichstag. In fact, she had been so engrossed in seeing how much damage there was that she had barely noticed the time passing. Before she knew it, they were in Potsdamer Platz.
Maria didn't comprehend Lotte's voice initially.
“The apartment. What number?”
“Oh, erm... I don't know.”
The young nurse stared at her.
“Look, Matron, I don't mean to be rude, but how did you expect to find her when you don't even know where she lives?”
At that moment, Maria understood that Katarina was probably right in telling her not to follow her. Here she stood, in a strange city with nothing to work on.
“All I remember is that the apartment building had a black entrance door.”
“Do you know how many apartment buildings have black doors?”
With a slight nod, Maria reluctantly agreed.
“She talked about the apartment being on the first floor. Oh, and that the entrance hall has a tiled floor.”
“All right, then let's start with this one,” Lotte indicated the black door, in front of which they were standing.”
The door was half-open, and one after another, they squeezed their way through.
“The floor is tiled,” Lotte said, more for something to say than as a great revelation.
“More than can be said for the roof.”
Maria and Lotte looked at the boy staring upwards at the sky, beyond where they would have expected the ceiling to be.
Maria began to climb the staircase, carefully avoiding the scattered debris. Lotte looked at the boy and shrugged her shoulders, then they followed her.
Just inside the hallway were two doors, one on either side.
Without stopping to think, Maria turned the handle of the one to her right and pushed the door. It swung open readily. Maria screamed as she fell towards the void that was behind it. Where the apartment had been before the bombs destroyed it!