Katarina didn't sleep at all. After being arrested the previous day, she had been thrown into a cell in the basement of the Gestapo headquarters on Prinz Albrecht Strasse. The only food she was given was a bowl of thin soup and a small chunk of stale, grey bread.
Throughout the night, she had endured the sounds of sporadic violence. Horrific screams of terror and pain echoed around the cellar.
The bolt was slammed back, and the cell door swung open. Katarina was exhausted and frightened. She had done nothing, and yet that didn't seem to matter. She was in the hands of the Gestapo, and she knew how ruthless they could be.
The blond-haired, blue-eyed guard was a giant of a man, almost two meters, she estimated. He was wearing a grey uniform, similar to that of the Wehrmacht. On his right-hand collar, the runes of the SS. At first, Katarina thought he was in his forties, but no. On closer inspection, she realised that he was no older than she was. This man had probably seen more death and destruction than anyone ever should.
He pushed her along the corridor and up a concrete staircase, and for once, she remained silent. Her thoughts were filled with the similar-looking soldier who had beaten poor Herr Metzler to within an inch of his life. Her blood ran cold with the fear of the same fate coming her way if these people didn't hear what they wanted to.
Moments later, she found herself in a room furnished with only a table and two chairs. Her kit bag was open on the table.
The guard pushed her unceremoniously towards the nearest chair and then forced her to sit down.
Her captor didn't speak, nor did Katarina. She was so frightened that she feared even to ask why she was there.
The room was cold, but that wasn't the reason why she was trembling. She was alone in a Gestapo interrogation room, and her father wasn't there to protect her this time.
The small whitewashed room had no window and was lit by a single electric lamp. There was no clock, and the Gestapo had taken her watch. Time meant nothing anymore. She could sense the presence of the guard, but she didn't dare look at him, and all the time, the terror inside grew steadily stronger.
After what, to Katarina, seemed an eternity, the door behind her creaked open. Her muscles were screaming at her to turn and see who had entered, but she remained still.
A smartly dressed man in civilian clothes slowly walked to the table and sat down on the opposite side. He didn't speak at first but looked at her as though making an assessment.
“So, you are Matron Katarina Langsdorff, Yes?”
“Yes,” Katarina whispered her reply.
The man slapped his hand down hard upon the table, causing her to visibly jump.
“I don't hear you!” he shouted.
“Ye... Yes, I am K... Katarina Langsdorff,” she said, her jaw trembling and her lips tense.
Why are you here, Frau Langsdorff?”
Katarina thought carefully.
“Because Frau Hofstadter pretended that I had hurt her.”
The Gestapo agent rubbed his chin.
“Ah yes, an unfortunate incident for both of you. Still, she won't behave like that again. That wasn't what I meant, however. I want to know what you are doing in Berlin, what you were doing in your old apartment.”
Katarina ignored the question.
“What have you done to Frau Hofstadter?”
The agent looked at the guard who suddenly grabbed Katarina by the hair and pulled her head back sharply. She cried out with both pain and shock.
“I asked you a question, Matron Langsdorff!”
“I... I live here. I came home to my parents... Please... you're hurting me...”
Her interrogator nodded, and the brutal guard released her, but not before giving her hair one more brutal tug.
He leaned towards her, elbows resting on the table and hands clasped under his chin.
“You don't remember me, do you?”
She shook her head, her mind wiped clean with fear.
“No,” she whispered.
Again, Katarina shook her head, her mind spinning. There were so many dark patches after her ordeal in Innsbruck. Now they seemed to be spreading under this terrifying questioning, joining together, erasing everything as it grew.
“No? Well, I suppose it was almost five years ago. You and your father made life very difficult for me, and now I can return the favour. He can't protect you now, Matron!”
At the mention of her father, Katarina seemed to find some inner strength. Suddenly, she knew who this man was.
“I know you!” she hissed. “You killed the Metzlers! Where is my Father? What have you done with him?”
His lips curled into a smile, but his eyes did not.
“Now you remember. Viktor, here,” he indicated the bully behind her, “Was sent to the Eastern front because of your father. Oh, and don't worry about him, he is being looked after in Sachsenhausen.”
Her heart missed a beat. She had heard that there was some sort of prison there. If it had anything to do with the SS or Gestapo, he would be anything but looked after!
“Herr and Frau Metzler were not Jews! Even if they had been, you can't treat human beings in that way!”
Katarina cried out as her head was again dragged back by her hair. She looked up at the scarred yet expressionless face that stared down at her. Then she felt the hand at her throat, long fingers encircling it, squeezing hard.
She struggled, grabbed at the muscular arm, but he was too strong, she couldn't breathe.
Within seconds, Katarina's lungs were crying out for precious, life-giving air. She dug her nails into Viktor's arm until blood began to flow, but he still held her. Without oxygen, she felt woozy and vague, her heart pounded and her lungs ached. The room began to fade.
Suddenly, he released her, and she gulped down as much air as she could. Gasping, crying.
“You see, Viktor? A Jew lover.”
The smile was gone now, and the policeman sat back in his chair.
“That was just a taste of what is to come,” he told her. “That is how it will feel when the noose tightens around your neck!”
Katarina's interrogator got slowly to his feet. He didn't take his eyes from her as he spoke to the guard.
“Put her back in the cell. Let her stew.”
Viktor took hold of the back of her dress and dragged her forcibly to her feet. That very act brought the memories flooding back.
“It was you!” she exclaimed. “You killed them!”
The big man smiled but didn't reply.
For the next few hours, Katarina languished alone in the stark, windowless cell. Her captors had taken everything from her. Her kitbag, her watch, everything. All she had left was the uniform she was wearing. Time passed, but how long would she remain incarcerated? Her interrogator had made it clear that she would hang, and he would ensure that she did.
Cell doors clanged open and closed, and men screamed out. Katarina couldn't hear any words, just the sounds of pain and anguish. She had never been so afraid.
Hours later, or was it days, it was impossible to tell, the bolt slid back, and the steel door swung open. It wasn't Viktor this time, but an older looking man. He wore the same uniform as Viktor.
She followed the guard once more. Along the corridor, up the stairs and into another interrogation room. It was the same as the previous one. One table, two chairs and a dim electric light hung from the ceiling.
This time, the guard left her alone.
She waited patiently. Should she try the door? No. What if the guard was waiting outside?
Her head was pounding. She could feel the veins at her temples pulsing strongly as her rapidly beating heart pumped the blood through them.
Eventually, the tension became too much for her. She stood up and crept towards the door, listening for the slightest sounds from outside.
Slowly, she reached for the handle. At the same time, she heard the sound of voices. Her heart stopped as she ran back to her chair, praying that she reached it before the door opened.
She didn't dare to look round but stared directly at the wall opposite her.
Footsteps echoed loudly around her head until a tall, black-uniformed SS officer appeared in front of her. He was immaculately turned out, but the empty right sleeve of his jacket was pinned across his chest. His face carried the scars of war. She recognised him immediately!
“Holz!” she exclaimed. In her mind, she wondered why, oh why, hadn't she left him to die?
Obersturmfuhrer Holz pulled out the other chair and sat down facing her. He didn't immediately speak but gazed at her intently.
“Well, well, well. Matron Langsdorff! I didn't expect to see you again.”
“Nor I, you, Obersturmfuhrer.” Katarina struggled with the words, her mouth was so dry.
For the first time, he smiled.
“Had it not been for you, Matron, I wouldn't be here. How times have changed over the last three years.”
Katarina didn't say anything. What could she say? Sitting opposite her was a man who had been caught in an explosion by partisans in Athens. She knew he had massacred many innocent souls in the village of Levant, but she had still nursed him at the roadside. It was a bitter irony that this man now had control over her own fate.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“Because someone tried to get me into trouble by accusing me of hurting her”
Holz raised his eyes.
“Yes, yes. I know about that. The Gestapo have dealt with her. No, I want to know why you are still here, now.”
Katarina's only option was, to tell the truth.
“Almost five years ago, my father and I stopped the Gestapo beating and arresting an old man and his wife. They said they were Jews, but they weren't.”
“And what happened to these so-called Jews?”
“They died. Frau Metzler was killed in her home, and her husband died later in hospital.”
Holz rubbed his chin.
“So, five years later, and you are here. Yet you did nothing wrong, unless...”
Katarina looked directly at him.
“Unless they were Jews and you were protecting them.”
She was angry now.
“They were not Jews, Obersturmfuhrer! I knew them all my life!” She wanted to say that it wouldn't have mattered if they had been but stopped herself. There was no point in making things worse.
For several moments, the two of them sat and looked at each other. The fear began to return. What was Holz thinking? Was this going to be the last place she saw?
Suddenly, she thumped her fist down hard against the table.
“It's not fair!” she yelled. “All my life, I have tried to do the right thing. I have saved many lives. Yes, Dammit, I even saved yours! I could have left you to die, but I didn't!”
The tears coursed down her face.
“I have never hurt anyone, and yet, because of the ego of one vile little man, I am to die? Where is the justice?”
Katarina sobbed. Her throat ached from the bruising that the crushing hand of the bully had caused.
Holz sat and watched her rant. His face remained impassive.
Katarina didn't answer. Her head hurt, and her throat hurt. She was exhausted and didn't know how much more she could take until Holz asked an unexpected question.
“Martin Kruger,” he said out of the blue. “You know him?”
Slowly, she raised her head to look at him through red, watery eyes.
“I knew a Martin Kruger. He was a doctor at the Charité where I trained.”
Holz studied her face. His eyes seemed to burn into her very soul.
“Where is he now?”
Katarina could hardly breathe. She had already experienced the viciousness of the SS. If she said the wrong thing now...
“I... don't... know. I haven't seen Doctor Kruger for almost four years.”
“Kruger was arrested for hiding Jews, but you knew that, didn't you?”
“How would I know that?” Katarina insisted. “I told you, the last time I saw him was nineteen-forty-one when I was posted to Athens. You know that, Obersturmfuhrer! You saw me in Albania! You do remember Levant?”
Holz's eyes narrowed.
“Yes,” he hissed. “What about it?”
Thinking quickly, she said,
“The soldier in the ambulance. He was very badly injured. You saw me save his life, didn't you?”
He nodded but still seemed to be testing her. His eyes didn't leave hers for a second.
Then Holz Stood up, pushing the chair backwards, and went to the door. He said something to the guard outside and returned. He didn't utter another word until the door opened again, and the Gestapo agent entered.
“You wanted me, Herr Obersturmfuhrer?”
Holz was standing with his back to the door and didn't turn around when he spoke.
“What is your interest in this nurse, Schmidt? I believe that she was falsely accused of attacking someone. Is that correct?”
Schmidt scowled at him.
“That is right, Herr Obersturmfuhrer.”
“And yet, she is still here. Is there something I should know?”
“She is a Jew lover!” Schmidt exclaimed. “We went to arrest a couple of them back in Forty, but she and her father prevented it.”
“Hmm... and you had good evidence that they were Jews? You see, she says that they were not.”
The Gestapo Agent shifted nervously.
Holz turned around and faced him.
“But, you have evidence that links her to Martin Kruger and his subversive activities?”
“No, Herr Obersturmfuhrer, but we will get a confession!”
Holz narrowed his eyes to little more than slits. He spoke with a menacing tone that made Katarina shudder.
“I have seen the reports. Even after extensive, erm, persuasion, Kruger never incriminated her, did he?”
Holz suddenly raised his voice.
“You have nothing!” he shouted. “You have wasted precious time chasing down an innocent woman! Do you think that if she was guilty, as you assert, that she would save the life of an SS officer?”
Schmidt seemed diminished and cowed.
“You know her?”
Holz's voice lowered to a more normal level.
“Yes, I know her. Enough to know that she is telling the truth! Return her possessions and get her out of here.”
Schmidt's eyes opened wide.
“What! But... but...”
Holz narrowed his eyes and hissed,
“If she is not out of here in the next ten minutes, I will personally see to it that you occupy the same cell that she did. Is that understood?”
Once more, Katarina was left alone with Obersturmfuhrer Holz.
“Thank you,” she said and meant it.
Holz shook his head.
“Don't thank me,” he sneered. “I am still the same man you met in Athens only now I have repaid my debt to you. I suggest that you get out of Berlin because if Schmidt gets to you again, I owe you nothing.”
With that, he turned and left the room, gently closing the door behind him.
For the final time, the door opened. Schmidt stood in the doorway with Viktor who was holding her coat and kitbag. Neither looked happy.
Katarina stepped nervously towards them, and Schmidt grabbed her arm. She could feel his anger as his fingertips dug into her sensitive flesh.
He dragged her along the corridor to a small door that opened onto the rear of the building. As he propelled her through it, she lost her footing and fell head-first down the short flight of concrete steps.
Viktor threw her coat and bag after her, and Schmidt stared at her from the top of the steps.
“If I find you again...” he said, and then they went back inside, slamming the door behind them.
Katarina lay for a minute, trying to untangle her thoughts. She hurt everywhere. Her head, her throat, her arms, legs. She was covered in bruises and abrasions, her tights were torn and her hair dishevelled.
The biting cold air brought her to her senses, and she pulled her coat around her and buttoned it with her grazed fingers.
She was free, but now she had no idea where to go. Mama and Papa were gone, and she knew of no-one who could help. Uppermost in her mind, however, was to get away from this terrible place. So she picked up her bag and began to gather her belongings which were scattered about.
It was a numb young woman, both in body and mind, who found herself on the rubble-strewn streets of a city she was once proud to call home. Now she had no home and, possibly, no parents either. She shuffled along aimlessly at first, dragging her feet as she went, she soon came to realise that she was heading to her apartment. Why was impossible to answer, but at least it was a start. She could at least find warmth there. Who knows, perhaps with some rest, she might even be able to decide what to do next.
The sun, hidden behind dark clouds, had already begun to fade. Normally, ten minutes would be enough to get home, but in the state she was in, it would probably take her longer.
Every step was agony. Katarina had lost her gloves, so she kept her hands pushed deep inside her pockets. There she discovered the scrap of paper she had found in her home. Papa must have written it before he was arrested, she thought.
To her horror, she realised that she couldn't picture him, or her mother! Her fingers curled stiffly around it, clasping the last link she had with them.
It took every ounce of strength she had left just to place one foot in front of the other. The ten minutes seemed an hour to her, and it might as well have been. At the rate she was dragging herself along, it took more than twenty minutes to reach Potsdamer Platz. She could see how damaged the buildings were from that side of the square. Maybe, yesterday, wishful thinking had made her apartment block look more intact than it actually was. Was it really only yesterday?
To her right, in Leipziger Platz, there seemed to be some commotion. A group of people had gathered around a horse that was lying unmoving in the street. As she got closer, she realised that those people were slicing strips of flesh from the unfortunate animal. More and more people arrived and scuffles broke out as they all tried to take pieces of it for themselves.
Katarina couldn't watch. She understood how hungry they must be, but couldn't they have killed the poor creature first?
She turned away, feeling sick and dizzy, abhorred and yet sympathetic to the plight of the starving citizens. Again, she looked across at her old home. It wasn't her home anymore, she thought. She was no longer welcome here.
And so, she turned her back on the place she had grown up, a place which once gave her such happy memories, and shuffled away towards the Tiergarten. Her only thought, now, was to go and ask for help at the Charité hospital.
Step after step, she struggled along Erbertsrasse until her strength failed her. Her knees buckled, and she collapsed to the ground, exhausted. She closed her eyes and let the darkness take her.