Berlin, February 16th 1945
As Maria turned the handle of the apartment door, she pushed and stepped forward, only to find that there was nothing but empty air in front of her! She screamed as she fell forwards but kept a tight grip on the handle. Almost instantly, she felt a strong hand grab the back of her coat and drag her backwards. The door slammed shut as she released her grip.
Lotte looked horrified.
“Matron! Please be careful!”
Maria took a moment to catch her breath. Her heart was pounding with the sudden shock. Then she turned to her saviour, the young soldier.
“Thank you, that was close,” she breathed.
There was another door opposite. This one was wide open, and the apartment beyond was obviously intact.
As Maria stepped inside, she immediately felt uneasy.
“Something is wrong,” she said to no one in particular.
“Really?” Lotte replied with heavy sarcasm. “The place is a mess. If this is the home of Matron Langsdorff, then she isn't here now. From the condition of it, I would say it has been empty for some time.
Maria wasn't in the mood to respond in kind.
“No. I think Katarina is in trouble. I can feel it inside.”
She went into the living room. “Someone has been here. Look at the sticks of broken furniture by the fireplace, and there is still a faint smell of smoke.”
Near to the fireplace was a small cooking pan. Maria picked it up and held it to her nose.
“Coffee!” she said. “And look, crumbs on the floor.”
She bent down and collected a couple, crumbling them between her thumb and forefinger.
Outside, the sounds of the city were disturbed by some kind of commotion. Lotte went over to the broken window, but the remaining glass was too dirty to see what was going on.
“Do you want to look around some more or shall we get on?” she asked as she turned away from the broken window. Maria was uncertain.
“Where do we go from here? I can't imagine she would have gone to the Charité, not if the Gestapo had an interest in her when she left.”
Lotte considered the options for a while.
“What about friends? Could she have gone to stay with anyone?”
“I am sure she had many friends, but she didn't mention any of them. Her closest friend, at least, the only one she talked of, was her mentor, Doctor Martin Kruger.”
Lotte opened her mouth but closed it immediately as Maria continued.
“He was arrested on the day she left. I have no idea what happened to him.”
“Well. Let's take one last look around. Maybe we'll find a clue somewhere.”
They search every ruined room. The young soldier even lifted the mattress that was in Katarina's room. The torn hole in the top was tiny compared to what was underneath it. Although no living rodents were apparent, their remains and droppings clearly were. He quickly released it.
“I've seen enough. Come on, let's get out of here. I don't think I can bear it any more!”
They didn't need to be told twice, and both Lotte and the young man followed her from the crumbling apartment.
Out on the street once again, the trio looked around. The direction chosen was that from which the earlier commotion was thought to have originated. Maria turned to Lotte.
“Let's go and see what all that noise was about. There may be someone there who knows Katarina.”
A few minutes later, they walked around a bend in the street and what they saw made them stop and stare! Hanging from a street lamp was the inert figure of a woman.
Without further delay, they ran towards her. Around her neck was a crude sign made of cardboard and tied with string. On it was written a single word, “Reichsverräter!” Traitor to the Reich!
Immediately, Maria and Lotte grabbed her legs and lifted, an effort intended to relieve the pressure of the rope around her neck.
“Wasting your time. she's long dead!”
The voice came from the woman who was sitting on a pile of rubble, chewing on a piece of grey bread.
“We can't just leave her here. It's obscene,” Maria retorted.
The woman shrugged her shoulders.
“Take her down then. Of course, if they find out who did it, they will hang you there instead.”
Maria released her grip on the corpse, quickly followed by Lotte.
“Who is she?” Maria asked. “What did she do to deserve this?”
The woman snorted and bit a chunk out of the bread.
“As though you don't know!” she sneered, being careful not to lose any part of the mouthful.
Maria was taken aback.
“What? How would I know anything about this?”
The woman stopped chewing for a moment and stared hard at her, eyes narrowed to slits and upper lip curled in disgust.
“I saw what she did to you yesterday. I don't know what you told the Gestapo to get yourself out of it, but she didn't deserve that!”
“What?” I wasn't even here yesterday! What on earth are you saying?”
Shaking her head, the woman resumed her chewing.
“Don't play the innocent with me. I was here, I saw what happened. Have you got some kind of agreement with them? Are you an informer, like she was?”
Maria felt someone tug at her sleeve. It was the young soldier.
“Matron, she thinks that you are Matron Langsdorff. She must have been here yesterday.”
She turned back to face the woman.
“Look, I can assure you that I only arrived in Berlin late last night. I have no idea what happened here. My sister is here, though, and I need to find her. Especially if she is in trouble. Please, tell me. What happened here.”
Maria felt uneasy standing there whilst this stranger studied her intently. Slowly, the woman got to her feet and approached her, never blinking, just staring intently at her.
Finally, the woman shook her head.
“Unbelievable,” she said slowly. “I wouldn't have believed it, but you are not her, are you? You are from the south. Your accent is different.” She shook her head in disbelief. “She is your double.”
Maria smiled. Not wanting to give too much away, she replied with a smile.
“Yes, people do say we are alike.”
“There was trouble here, yesterday. That woman,” she pointed up at the swaying corpse. “That woman tried to make out that your sister had hit her and pretended to be unconscious. Unfortunately, the incident drew the attention of the SS, and they were both arrested and taken to Prinz Albrecht Strasse. I don't know what happened to your sister, but she...” again, the woman pointed to the corpse, “They strung her up a few minutes ago. No loss, she was a Nazi informer, but she must have really upset someone in there.”
“I'm sorry, I don't understand.” Maria was baffled. “What did she do?”
The woman raised her eyebrows in astonishment.
“My goodness, where have you been?” she asked. “She was the concierge of the apartment building on Potsdamer Platz. The Nazis put her in there. She was supposed to pass back information about the residents. Word has it that one day, early last year, the Gestapo raided an apartment and found it empty. They ransacked the place but found no clues as to the whereabouts of the occupants. I heard that she was allowed to remain on the strict understanding that if any of the family was to return, she would report it...” Her voice trailed off but she continued to study Maria. “Just a minute...” She began to speak her thoughts. “If the young woman they arrested with her yesterday was one of that family, maybe she hadn't reported it, and they found out. Moreover, if she was your sister...”
Lotte grabbed Maria's sleeve.
“Come on,” she said, “We must go!”
As Lotte and Maria turned to go, the woman put out her hand.
“No, wait, don't be afraid! I am not like her, I can help you. I know someone who knew the family. Maybe they will know something.”
Maria turned to the young nurse.
“Do I have a choice?” she said, knowing full well that there was no other option. Not if she was to have any chance of finding Katarina.
Lotte shrugged her shoulders.
“I suppose not, but you can't go on your own.”
Lotte was right, Maria thought. She knew nothing of Berlin, so she would be safer if Lotte went with her. She turned to the young soldier who had been waiting silently behind them.
“I think it would be better if you return to the Charité. Can you find your way back there?”
The boy looked shocked.
“Yes, but I...”
Maria stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“You have done more than enough, and I am grateful for what you did earlier, but you cannot come any further. Go back and wait for Lotte to return later. She will tell you about anything that happens. Perhaps we shall meet again if God is willing.”
The boy nodded.
All right, I understand. I hope you find her safe. I owe her my life.”
They watched, briefly, as he turned and walked, slowly away with shoulders hunched.
Turning to face the woman, Maria asked,
“Who is this person, then, and where will I find him?”
“The address is, Kottbusser Damm 103. His name is Alfred Kurschner. Tell him Rosa sent you.”
Maria thanked her and wished her well before she and Lotte walked away.
After they had been walking for several minutes, Maria asked where they were headed.
“Kottbusser Damm is on the south side of the city,” Lotte told her. “Not far from Tempelhof Aerodrome, on the other side of the Landwehrkanal. It will probably take an hour or so to get there.”
“Are there no trams or buses that go that way?”
“There are, but it is safer for us to walk, I think. Besides, we are taking a slightly longer route because we really don't want to go by way of Prinz Albrecht Straße, do we?”
Maria found the long walk distressing. She had heard so much about Berlin during the many times she had spent with her sister. There was always the hope that, once the war was over, they would come here, and together they would visit all the places that Katarina had talked about. Now she was walking through a derelict and ruined city, not with her sister but a virtual stranger. Maria didn't even know whether Katarina was still alive. The minutes passed, and the rubble-strewn streets faded into the background as she thought of what could happen. The Gestapo didn't need any actual evidence. An accusation was enough. If they believed that she was guilty of some, in their eyes, wrongdoing, especially when it involved the Jewish community, who knows what could happen to her.
As her thoughts took hold of her, Maria struggled to put one foot in front of the other. Every step took an effort. It was as though an immense weight was holding her back and crushing the very life out of her.
Suddenly, she was dragged from her thoughts by Lotte nudging her arm.
“We are almost there,” she said, pointing to the other side of the bridge in front of them.
Maria's mood didn't lighten. If anything, her fears grew. For some inexplicable reason, she felt as though she were walking into a trap.
“I'm not sure about this, Lotte. It doesn't feel right.”
They walked onto the bridge and stopped by the Parapet, and looked down into the water. It was still and dark.
“I can't trust anyone any more.”
“Oh, thank you,” Lotte responded, without looking up.
“No, I didn't mean you. I just meant...”
“I know, I was just teasing. You are right, though, who can be trusted nowadays. We should tread carefully but, other than that, we don't really have a choice... you don't have a choice.”
Having taken a look around the building entrance and seeing nothing untoward, the two young women went inside and soon found the apartment. Tentatively, Maria tapped on the door.
They heard movement from inside, and soon, the door opened just enough for the occupant to speak.
“What do you want?” he growled.
She took a breath before answering.
“Roma sent us.”
Following the sound of a chain being slid back, the door opened to reveal a middle-aged man with sunken eyes and several days of beard growth. He squinted as he looked first at Lotte, and then his eyes opened wide when he saw Maria.
“Come in, quickly!”
He all but pulled them inside and closed the door behind them.
“Fräulein Langsdorff! What are you doing here? Don't you know how dangerous it is for you?”
Are you Alfred? Alfred Kurschner?” Maria asked.
“Yes, yes,” the man admitted with some urgency. “You know me, Fräulein Langsdorff. I am Willi.”
“Willi? The SS driver?”
“Yes. You remember. And you, you look so different to when I last saw you. I heard that you have been through so much, but listen, you can't stay in Berlin. It is too dangerous. Get out now! I can help you...”
Maria had heard enough and stopped him by interrupting his flow.
“I am not Katarina, Willi. I don't know you, and you don't know me.”
Willi stared at her.
“But... But I... But you look so much like her... Ohhh,”
His eyes opened wide.
“You are her twin sister!”
Maria was taken aback.
“Yes, Siegfried told me all about it. He was heartbroken when Katarina found out but everything seemed to turn out well. For you too?”
Maria nodded her agreement.
“Look,” she said with some urgency. “I have come here to find Katarina, but it appears that she is in trouble. We were told that she was arrested yesterday. We have been to her home, but it is a ruin. Can you help us, as Roma said?”
Willi looked troubled.
“Arrested, you say? By who, the SS?”
He sat down heavily on a dining chair next to the table and lowered his head into his hands.
Maria and Lotte sat beside him and waited patiently until, eventually, he raised his head.
“Then it is over for her,” he whispered. “There is nothing that can be done. She will be at Prinz Albrecht Strasse. If she gets through that alive, they will send her to Sachsenhausen or somewhere equally horrific.”
“What is Sachsenhausen, Willi. I have never heard of it.”
“A prison camp, Fräulein... erm...”
“Fräulein Kaufmann. It is where they send enemies of the state.”
Maria stared at Willi.
“Katarina is not an enemy of the state! She wouldn't hurt anyone!”
“You know that, and I know that, but her father was a diplomat. He refused to toe the Party line, and so, now, he and his wife are wanted by the Gestapo.”
“They are not in Berlin then?”
“Good heavens, no!” Willi laughed. “They left about a year ago before it was discovered that we had been helping people get out of Germany. He sent a note to Katarina, via a secret network. I suppose she didn't get it then?”
Now the situation was becoming clear to Maria.
“Yes, she did, but that was the last she heard from them.”
Willi raised his eyes.
“So why did she come back?” He shook his head in despair. “Seigfried and Magda have gone to ground in Munich. Your parents are helping them. Katarina was supposed to find them there. They couldn't say so directly, in case the message was intercepted.”
“The message also said that you had been arrested and sent to the Eastern Front. How is it that you are here now?”
Willi's face hardened for a moment,
“Oh, I went, believe me. I was in Minsk last July when the Soviets attacked. I managed to get out, but thousands didn't. Some of us deserted, but I was the only one who got back. My contacts in the underground gave me a new identity.”
“Alfred Kurschner?” Maria interjected. He nodded.
“Yes, but enough of that. There is nothing we can do now. I will arrange a meeting to see when we can get you two out of here.”
At this, Lotte jumped up.
“Oh no, I am not leaving. This is my home!”
Maria stared at her in shock. Had she made a mistake in trusting her? Would she now go and report to the authorities? Willi also stared at her.
Suddenly, Lotte seemed to understand what they were thinking.
“Why are you staring like that?” she asked. “I won't betray you. I just don't want to leave my home.”
Willi appeared angry, but then his face softened a little.
“I understand that, but it won't be your home for much longer. Very soon, just a matter of weeks, days maybe, the Russians will be here. They won't care that this is your home. I have seen what they do. They are devils out for revenge for what the SS did to them. They rape every woman they can find. If you are lucky, they will kill you, if not, well, it doesn't bear thinking of. They have no souls, no compassion. German women are there for whatever they want, whatever carnal or bestial desires they may have. You mustn't be here when they come!”
Lotte was stunned.
“But I am a nurse!” she exclaimed. “Why would they want to harm me? I haven't hurt anyone.”
“Ha!” The sudden sound made both of them jump. “They don't care about that! They don't care how old you are. They don't care who you are or whether you are a good or bad person. Their hatred of us Germans knows no bounds. If they find you, you had better hope that you die quickly because that, Fräulein, is the only respite you will get!”
Lotte sank back into her chair as Willi lowered his voice to a more calming tone.
“Your family is here?”
Lotte slowly shook her head, tears forming in her eyes.
“They are all gone. Killed in the raids.”
Seeing her distress, Maria reached out, placed her arm across her shoulders and pulled her closer.
“Then you have nothing to stay for,” Willi continued. “Go back to the Charité and collect your possessions, then come straight back here. I will arrange transport to get you out as soon as I can.”
Neither Maria nor Lotte moved.
“What about Katarina?” Maria asked.
“I will make enquiries. It doesn't do anyone any good to poke around in the affairs of Prinz Albrecht Strasse, but I still have contacts. Don't get your hopes up, though. Now go. It is a long walk to the Charité and back, and you must return before nightfall!”
Once again, Maria had no option. There was nothing more she could do and, the two of them left Willi and began the long walk back the way they had come.