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The Long Road Home. Chapter 36

"Lotte sighed and looked thoroughly miserable. "No, I didn't grow up in Berlin.""
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Author's Notes

"Willi helps the three young women find a way out of Berlin. With Katarina in a poor state of health, could it be too dangerous?"
Zwickau, February 19th 1945

When Maria opened her eyes again, the room was in total darkness. The only light emanated from a thin gap under the door. From the other side, she became aware of the sounds of someone moving about. Beside her, Katarina still lay, unmoving.

She listened carefully and was relieved to hear slow, rhythmic breathing. Katarina was sound asleep.

Very carefully, so as not to disturb her, Maria got up from the bed and drew back the heavy blackout curtains. Immediately, the room was illuminated with a dull, grey light.

Outside, the sky was grey, but no rain or snow fell. The people she could see were all dressed in thick coats and scarves and her breath condensed on the cold glass of the window.

As quietly as she could, she opened the door and closed it behind her. To her surprise, she found Willi and Lotte sitting at the table drinking what passed for coffee.

“Good morning. Did you sleep well?” Willi asked as he stood up. “Sit down, I'll get you some coffee.”

Maria sat, and Willi placed a steaming cup before her. The taste was awful, but it was, nevertheless, welcome.

They sat in silence for a minute or two, but then, Lotte spoke.

“How is Matron Langsdorff?”

“She is still sleeping,” Maria replied without looking up. “Her breathing seems better now, so far as I can tell.”

“Ah, that's good then.” Lotte took another sip from her cup.

Willi seemed to be studying the two of them but said nothing.

Maria put her cup down on the table.

“Who are you, Lotte?” she asked.

Lotte frowned.

“What do you mean? You know who I am.”

“Do I?” Maria replied. “I only met you two days ago. I don't know anything about you. Tell me about yourself. Did you grow up in Berlin? What do your parents do?”

Willi remained quiet but attentive.

Lotte sighed and looked thoroughly miserable.

“No, I didn't grow up in Berlin. I was born in Chemnitz. My father was an army officer. Please don't make me talk of him. I am so ashamed of what he has done.”

Willi looked alarmed on hearing this.

“So who is he?” he asked sharply.

Lotte stared down at the table.

“General Klaus Beckmann,” she whispered.

“Beckmann!” Willi growled. “So you are a spy!”

Lotte shook her head. She didn't appear alarmed.

“No,” she replied sadly. “I didn't want you to know because I knew you would think that. My father is an animal. What he has done over the past few years disgusts me. I didn't know what he was until I began working at the hospital. I hope he dies and goes to hell.”

“It was Beckmann who sent me to the front!” Willi hissed. “It is Beckmann who wants to find Katarina's father. You wanted Frau Kaufmann to lead you to him!”

Now Lotte was afraid.

“No! No, it's not true!” She stared at Maria. “I promise you. I know nothing about Matron Langsdorff's family. I only want to keep her safe. I know from the past that Berlin is not a good place for her to be. She knew who I was, but she still treated me like any of her nurses. I would never betray her. I am not like my father!”

“I think she is telling the truth.”

At the sound of an unexpected voice, they all turned to see Katarina standing in the doorway.

“I admit that I didn't trust her, but Lotte never gave me any reason to doubt her integrity.”

Maria jumped up.

“Trina! You should be resting! Come on, sit here.”

Katarina sat down and took a sip from Maria's cup.

“How do you feel?”

Katarina smiled.

“Much better, thank you. I needed to rest and I thought I would never be warm again.”

There was no sign of the wheezing and her voice was much stronger than the day before. Willi smiled.

“It is not so warm in here, but better than outside, I think.”

Katarina turned to Lotte.

“You are a good nurse. We cannot help who our fathers are, but if you betray us...”

“I won't, Matron, I promise.”

At this point, Willi, who had been at the stove, placed a bowl of soup in front of Katarina.

“You need to keep your strength up, Frau Langsdorff.” He turned to Lotte. “They may trust you, Frau Beckmann, but I do not. So please forgive me if I leave you out of various things. You have to earn my trust.”

Lotte gave a wry smile.

“I understand, Willi. No one who knows who my father is has ever trusted me.”

Katarina sat down at the table and gratefully accepted the steaming mug from Willi. She took a sip and enjoyed, for a moment, the warming heat that welled inside her.

“How do you feel?” Maria asked her. “I was afraid I was going to lose you.”

Katarina smiled.

“It will take more than a Nazi thug to kill me!” she replied. “I'm alright, I think. A bit battered and bruised but so much better for the warm bed and a good rest.” Another sip and then, “So, Willi. Do we have a plan?”

Willi shrugged.

“We do. There is a Ju52 scheduled to leave Templehof tonight. We are going to try to get the three of you on it. It isn't going to Munich, but it will get you away from Berlin. Do you still have your travel papers, Frau Langsdorff?”

Katarina laughed. It was the first time that Maria had heard that from her sister for such a long time.

“Yes, Willi, I do. You can call me Katarina, you know. I am sure that Papa really wouldn't mind.”

He did not react to the latter but only replied,

“Good. Then all of you should rest today, and tonight you will be away from here. Oh, and stay away from the windows. Keep the blackouts drawn. We do not want any unnecessary attention.”

The day passed slowly. Willi had left the apartment soon after breakfast. Shortly before dusk, the three women were alarmed to hear a lorry pull up outside. The squeal of the breaks was distinctive. Lotte ran to the nearest window and went to draw back the heavy curtain. Just as she reached out, Maria grabbed her and dragged her away.

“What are you doing?” she hissed. “Do you want to give us away?”

Lotte shook her head.

“No. No, of course not. I... I didn't think.”

Maria glared at her but said nothing. She was still unsure about where this young woman's loyalties lay.

Footsteps clattered up the stairs, and suddenly, the door opened. They were relieved that it was Willi.

“Quickly now, we must hurry!”

Without a word, the women grabbed their kit bags and followed him downstairs. Then out to the waiting truck. Markus was waiting to help them climb into the rear.

As he lifted the tailgate and dropped the catches, Willi bade them farewell.

“Give my regards to Siggi,” he said to Katarina. “Tell him I'll see him after the war is lost!”

The lorry jolted forwards and began to drive away. Willi remained standing there, watching until they turned a corner and disappeared from his view.

Markus drove the truck as fast as he dared. Fortunately, the airfield was not far away, and they arrived at a side gate just ten minutes later. Surprisingly, the guard did not stop them but raised the barrier immediately. He drove straight through and onto the grass, a short distance from the runway, then turned the engine off.

After a short wait, they heard a distant but familiar drone. It began quietly at first but grew in intensity. As the sound grew louder, the tiny lights alongside the runway became lit. They were dim, but in the darkness, they would be enough to mark the strip of tarmac for the pilot.

Peering through a small gap in the canvas, Katarina stared into the darkness, trying desperately to locate the aeroplane that was approaching. Then she saw it, or rather the orange flicker, which glowed around one of the engines. To her horror, she realised that it was on fire!

Immediately, she jumped up.

“It's on fire!” she exclaimed. “Come on you two, they may need us.”

Nothing more needed to be said. Maria and Katarina reached over the tailgate, released the latches and let it fall with a crash. They jumped down onto the grass. Katarina gasped as the impact of hitting the ground jarred her injuries.

The Junkers steadily descended until it was wholly visible. As soon as it touched down, the burning wing collapsed and broke away. Due to the sudden imbalance, the opposite wing struck the ground, and the whole aircraft slewed around sideways. The undercarriage collapsed, and with a shriek of tearing metal, the remains flipped over, tearing apart as they slid along the hard concrete. The front part of the remaining fuselage came to a halt less than a hundred metres from where the young women were standing.

Katarina ran towards it, closely followed by her sister and Markus. Lotte remained still, horrified and unable to move.

It soon became apparent, however, that there was nothing that any of them could do. The cockpit glazing was gone, and the wreckage was entirely ablaze. No one could have survived.

Beyond the roar of the fire, Maria could hear the klaxons of approaching emergency vehicles. She grabbed Katarina and Markus and pulled them away.

“Come on!” she shouted. “There's nothing we can do here.”

Lotte was still standing where they had left her, wide-eyed and trembling. Maria took her hand.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

Lotte nodded slowly and a tear formed in her eye.

“I have only worked in hospitals,” she said, so quietly that Maria could barely hear her. “My patients have always been tended to and cleaned up before I saw them. I never saw the like of this before.”

“Oh, my sweet girl,” Katarina exclaimed. “I'm afraid that this is war, but you never really get used to it. You have to learn to live with it.”

“Come on,” Maria said, her voice soothing. “We must go.”

With gentle persuasion, the two matrons guided their young charge back to the lorry.

Katarina looked at her sister.

“What now?” she asked. “Back to Willi?”

Markus, who had followed them back, offered a suggestion.

“After dropping you off, I am supposed to go on to Chemnitz. Perhaps you should come with me. At least it is out of Berlin.”

The twins looked at each and shrugged.

“I suppose it's a start,” Maria said.

Just then, the wailing of air-raid sirens began. That was their cue to get up into the lorry and go.

This time, the barrier at the gate was down, but there was no sign of the guard. Markus didn't stop, and the horizontal bar splintered into matchwood as the truck hit it.

Within minutes the dark night sky was illuminated by the inquisitive beams of the searchlights. The guns on top of the gargantuan flak-towers began to bark, sending their lethal charges high into the air.

Markus drove as though he were possessed. He couldn't see very well in the dark, but the flashes from the exploding anti-aircraft shells and the glow from the searchlights meant that he could at least see something. The lorry crashed and jolted through holes and over debris. The nurses were thrown from side to side as he swerved to avoid larger pieces and damaged road surface. They held on tightly, afraid to relax for even a moment.

No one tried to stop them. During an air raid, a truck marked with red crosses moving at speed would not be surprising. Not until they were clear of the city centre did Markus ease off the throttle. Only then did he turn into a quiet lane and stop.

As soon as she heard the engine go quiet, Maria went to the back and pulled the canvas to one side. Peering through the small gap, all she saw was darkness. In the distance, the thin silver tentacles of the searchlights reached skywards. The only sounds were the crump, crump of exploding ordnance, both on the ground and in the sky.

Markus appeared.

“Sorry,” he said, looking sheepish. “I thought it best if we got as far away from the centre as we could. Are you alright?”

Maria smiled.

“Yes, we're fine. What now?”

“I will carry on, I suppose. A bit slower, though. It is darker out here.”

Maria looked back inside the canvas and then appeared again.

“It's getting late. Lotte will sit with you. If she thinks that you are too tired, stop, and Katarina or I will take over for a while.”

She didn't wait for a reply but disappeared inside. Almost immediately, Lotte appeared and climbed over the tailgate, dropping down beside him.

“Come on, then,” she said, “Let's go.”

They drove steadily through the night, taking turns with the driving. By the time they arrived, darkness was giving way to a pale grey light. For the last two hours, a fine drizzle had been falling.

Markus stopped the lorry on the outskirts of Chemnitz. Maria was sitting beside him, dozing. He turned the engine off and gently shook her shoulder.

“We're here,” he told her as she stirred.

Maria yawned. Her eyes stung through lack of sleep.

“Oh, right. What will you do with the truck?”

“I have to take it to the hospital to pick up medical supplies to take to Dresden. The city was devastated the night we left.”

“Oh, I see.” She paused, remembering the night they had left. It seemed so much longer than just a couple of days ago. “I thought it would be bad. Can you wait until we work out our next step?”

Markus agreed that he could.

In the back, the four of them sat huddled together. Even wearing heavy woollen greatcoats and gloves, they were still cold.

It didn't take long to decide that, for the three women, the best option would be to try and get a train through to Munich. But then, Lotte changed her mind.

“I think I will remain here,” she said. “I have a feeling that my mother is going to end up alone. My father is a fanatic. He will not give in to the allies. The Führer has said that we must fight to the last man and the last bullet, and my father will, of that I am sure.”

Maria and Katarina looked at each other momentarily.

“Alright,” Katarina agreed. “If that's what you want. I am sure we will meet again, when all this is over.”

Lotte kissed each of them on the cheek and stood up. Then she smiled.

“Why don't you give me your address in Munich? I could write to you.”

Again, the sisters looked at each other. Maria shook her head.

“We will find out where you are,” she said.

Lotte's face fell.

“You don't trust me, do you? No one ever does.”

Katarina felt her heart sink.

“It's not that we don't trust you, Lotte. It is better for all of us that you don't know.”

Lotte was not convinced, and turned sadly away to jump down from the truck.

Katarina followed her.

“We will find you, Lotte. I promise.”

Lotte didn't look back, but called out,

“I hope you get home safely, Matron. I honestly do.”

Katarina sighed.

“I do feel sorry for her. Untrusted, because of who her father is.”

Maria agreed.

“Yes, these are bad times.”

Nevertheless, there was nothing that they could change, and so, they climbed back into the lorry, and Markus drove them to the station.

The next passenger train, they were informed, would arrive later that afternoon. However, there was no direct train to Munich. Instead, they would have to travel first to Zwickau, and then hope to find a train from there. If they were lucky, maybe they could get to Nuremberg and then to Munich.

The man in the ticket-office shrugged as he said,

“It's the war. Who can guarantee anything anymore.”

The station was already busy, so they thought it best to stay, returning only to say farewell to their young friend.

“Farewell, Markus,” Katarina said. “Give our regards to your father when you next see him.”

She kissed his cheek.

“And try to stay away from Berlin!” Maria added.

She, too, kissed his cheek.

Markus blushed and gave a shy smile.

“Good luck,” he replied. “I hope we meet again.”

Back in the station, the sisters found somewhere to sit and huddled together. They were so tired that they closed their eyes and slept fitfully. It was too noisy to sleep well, and they were too afraid of missing the train. They waited patiently.

Some freight trains passed through, and an occasional passenger train stopped, but not theirs. That finally arrived in the late afternoon. The train was crowded, with barely room to move. Again, the carriage they squeezed into had no windows. All the glass had been smashed, probably during one of the many raids that German cities were now suffering.

They had to stand in the vestibule all the way, but at least they felt that they were on their way home at last.

The journey to Zwickau took just two hours but, to their dismay, when they left the train, they discovered that the next passenger train to Nuremberg would not be until the following day!

Once again, they had to search for somewhere to wait where they could rest. With nothing to do but sit and think, Maria began to wonder what they would find when they got home.

“Do you think they will be alright?” Katarina suddenly asked.

“Who? Lotte and Markus? I hope so, but who can say?”

Katarina looked at her sister.

“No, Mama and Papa.”

Maria put her arm out and pulled her closer.

“I don't know, Trina,” she said. “I am scared about what we might find. You know Papa works at the main station. And they are always targetted by the enemy.”

“I am scared too, Maria. I don't even know if my Mama and Papa even got there.”

Maria laid her head on Katarina's shoulder. For once, she was at a loss for what to say.

Afraid to leave the station for fear of missing the possibility of an earlier opportunity to travel, they eked out the meagre food that Markus had given them and sipped a little of the water from their water bottles. They were growing accustomed to being hungry, but then, so had the rest of the nation.

As the night wore on, the station remained crowded, and real sleep was impossible. There were moments when they did manage to doze, but Maria was awoken suddenly by a railway porter shaking her arm.

“Can you help?” he asked urgently. There has been an accident!”

Maria nudged her sister as she responded.

“What kind of accident?”

The porter was in a hurry.

“A bridge had collapsed onto a tram, just outside the station. We need all the help we can get!”

Neither Maria nor Katarina considered the possibility of missing a train and got to their feet immediately.

They grabbed their kitbags.

“Of course,” Katarina told him. “Lead the way!”

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