Geiselwind, February 21st 1945
When Maria and Katarina arrived at the scene of the disaster, they found chaos. A railway bridge that had been damaged in a previous raid had collapsed onto the road below. Unfortunately, just at that moment, a tram had been passing beneath. The only good fortune to come from it was that the tram was not crowded. Maybe ten to fifteen passengers had been aboard.
By some good fortune, some had said by a miracle, the bridge structure had landed on the rear half of the tram, crushing it beyond recognition. However, most of the passengers had been at the front.
Immediately, the two nurses assessed the situation and began organising the would-be rescuers into small groups.
They worked feverishly to release those trapped whilst Katarina and Maria dressed wounds and calmed those who were shocked by what had happened.
By the time the night began to turn into day, the trapped were freed and the casualties removed to hospital by whatever means available. The only remaining casualties were the passengers who had suffered the misfortune of being in the rear section. There was nothing that could be done for those poor souls. The two exhausted women began to make their way back to the station.
An unknown voice called out to them, and they stopped and looked back. An older man in the overalls of an engineer was calling them to him.
“Thank you for what you have done here,” he said, his dirt-blackened face grim. “I think more would have died had you not acted so quickly.”
Katarina smiled, brushing a strand of loose hair away from her face.
“It's what we do,” she wearily replied. As she spoke, she wavered a little. Maria grabbed her arm.
“Are you alright?”
“My ribs hurt and I am tired, but, yes, I think so.”
The engineered looked concerned.
“You don't look alright,” he said. “You should rest. Where are you heading for?”
“Munich,” Maria told him.
He frowned, lifted his grubby cap, and wiped his hand over his greying hair.
“That could be a problem,” he said. “That bridge carries the line to the south. It could be a few days before it is repaired.” He paused. “That is if the enemy allows it.”
The two sisters stared at each other. They had gone through too much to give up now.
“Then we will have to walk,” Katarina said resignedly.
“You can't walk that far, Trina!” Maria exclaimed. “Munich is still hundreds of kilometres from here! Look at you! You can barely stand as it is!” She turned to the engineer. “Is there no other way?”
He thought for a moment.
“Can either of you drive?” he asked.
“Yes, we can both drive. Why?”
He looked around and then took a step closer to her.
“I know where there is a car,” he whispered.
Maria's jaw dropped.
“We can't just take a car!”
He looked around again and put a finger to his lips.
“Shhh... Not so loud!” he hissed. “The man who owned it is dead, killed in a raid a few weeks ago. The car is damaged, but it runs. It has a full tank of benzine, maybe not enough to get you to Munich, but certainly enough to get you nearer than here.”
For the next thirty minutes or so, Maria and Katarina followed the engineer. They walked quickly at first, but the young women were so tired that their pace began to falter. Maria noticed that her sister was struggling to keep up.
“Are you all right, Trina? Do you want to rest for a minute?”
Katarina shook her head.
“No, I'm fine. I am just so tired, and my ribs ache.”
Maria called out to the engineer who had got a little ahead of them.
“How much further?” she asked.
“Just the next block,” he called back.
She turned to her sister.
“Can you manage that?”
Katarina nodded and continued with slow, painful steps.
Moments later, they turned a corner to see the engineer standing in front of a house, or half a one to be strictly correct. What had been the front was nothing more than a pile of debris and rubble. Maria was reminded of a dolls house she had seen in a shop when she was a child. The front had been open, and the inside rooms were on display with all the furniture on view.
But this wasn't a doll's house, it had been someone's home. The rubble was piled up to the first floor, but the bathroom was visible, complete with a toilet. Beside that was a landing complete with a Balustrade where the stairs had been. Then there was the bedroom. A bed, still with its covers, was perched on the jagged edge of the floor. Against the far wall was a wardrobe, its doors wide open to display the clothes still hanging inside. Maria imagined that the pressure created by the bomb blast had forced them open. Above was the skeletal framework of the roof, the slates all but gone.
She wondered who had lived there and what had happened to them.
Suddenly, her thoughts were disturbed by the engineer.
“They were my friends,” he said. “I had worked with Sebastian all my working life. He and his wife were in the basement when the bomb exploded. The house collapsed directly onto them. They didn't stand a chance.”
Maria didn't know what to say as a single tear rolled down his face. He wiped it away.
“Anyway,” he sniffed, “His car is still around the back. It was damaged by the bomb, but it is still usable. I made it look worse than it is so that looters wouldn't take it. It is only a small Opel, but if it gets you home, then some good will have come from all of this.”
He turned and beckoned them to follow.
At the rear of the house was a small brick-built outbuilding. It appeared severely damaged. The roof was gone, and there was rubble all around it but, at the front, blocking the doors, were wooden beams. Maria thought they were probably from a neighbouring property as this house had such little damage at the rear.
The engineer pulled the beams away and pushed aside some larger pieces. Maria realised that there was actually nothing significant blocking the doors.
Inside, she and Katarina were amazed to see the little black car, just as he had told them. It was damaged, as he had said. The roof was dented, leaving a shallow bowl-like indentation. The bonnet and mudguards were somewhat battered, but they noticed that the windows were all intact. At least it would keep the worst of the weather out.
“I have a can of Benzine,” he said. “I will put it in the back. That should get you near to home.”
Maria turned to him.
“We can't take this,” she said. “You might need it.”
He shook his head sadly.
“And go where?” he asked. “Germany is on her knees. There is nowhere to go. No, take it, go home. At least you will be with your family.”
Katarina held onto her sister's arm, supporting herself.
“We have no choice, Maria,” she whispered. “We can't walk, at least, I can't.”
For the first time, Maria saw how unwell her sister looked. Katarina's face was pale, and she was struggling to stay on her feet.
She nodded and turned back to the engineer.
“Thank you. I don't know how we...”
“Don't thank me, just get on your way. Don't drive at night. If you are caught after the curfew, you could be shot. Stay away from the autobahns and avoid towns whenever possible. I hope God stays with you and gets you home safely.”
After settling Maria into the passenger seat, Maria got into the driving side and switched on the magneto. She set the throttle then nodded to the engineer, who bent down in front of the car and swung the starting handle. To her relief, the engine started at the second attempt.
He kicked a few pieces of the debris away, and Maria drove out into the street.
She didn't stop or look back. If she had, she might have seen the engineer watching them until they turned the corner and were lost from his sight.
He had given them a direction to take from Zwickau, and she had followed it as best she could, but Maria had no real idea of how to get to Munich. She knew nothing of the towns and villages to use as waypoints or, indeed, any sense of direction.
After about an hour of slow but steady progress, Maria began to pass through a village. There were no signs, and she didn't know where it was. She looked at her sister. Katarina was sleeping peacefully so she didn't wake her. Moments later, a large, eight-wheeled armoured car appeared in the road ahead. It stopped in front of them, blocking the road.
Maria stopped a few metres away and watched as a young Wehrmacht officer jumped down from it and walked purposely toward her.
She slid the side window open and waited.
“Ausweiß!” he demanded.
Maria handed him her papers. He took them and opened her identity card.
“Maria Kaufmann?” he asked. Maria nodded but didn't speak. “And your friend?”
“Please don't disturb her. She is so tired and not well. She needs to sleep. Her name is Katarina Langsdorff. We are Red Cross nurses.”
The officer crouched beside the car and looked across.
“She is very pale. Does she need help?”
“No, I just need to get her to Munich so that she can rest.”
The officer looked again at Maria's papers and frowned.
“Ah yes, Munich. You are a little off course, Matron. If you keep going this way, you will meet the soviets.”
Maria slumped back in her seat and sighed.
“I don't know how to get there,” she admitted. “We don't have a map.”
He looked at her, studying her. She wondered whether he believed her.
Suddenly, he stood up.
“Wait!” he instructed her before turning on his heel and returning to the armoured car.
He returned almost immediately. In his hand, he carried a map and what appeared to be a small brass box.
He opened out the map, folding it carefully so that he could hold it for her to see.
“I can't give you the map,” he said, almost apologetically, “But I can show you the route.” He pointed to a place.
“This is where we are,” he said. “Munich is roughly south-south-west of here.”
He opened the brass box. Inside was a compass. He then took out a small notebook and pencil from his top pocket.
“Your route will take you this way.” He traced a line with his finger down the map. “You must first go south-west towards Kulmbach, here, to avoid the front.” he wrote the name in his pocketbook. “That will keep you away from the front. Then drive due south. That will get you started in the right direction.” He tore the page from his notebook and handed it to her along with the compass. “You can take this. We have another. Keep a close watch on it, and you should be all right.”
Maria thanked him, and he stepped back and saluted her, his fingers touching the brim of his cap rather than the official outstretched arm. “God speed!”
The armoured car moved away, and Maria and Katarina continued on their way.
It was slow going. Maria had placed the compass on her lap so she could glance at it from time to time. Every time the needle veered towards the east, she took the next road towards the west. That way, she thought, they would keep somewhat in the right direction.
Hour after hour, she drove the car, passing through small villages and struggling past columns of displaced refugees. She didn't dare stop for fear of being overwhelmed.
As daylight began to fade, she found it harder and harder to keep her eyes open. Katarina had woken several times, but Maria was growing ever more concerned about her health. Her breath seemed laboured again, and the wheezing had returned. Now and again she would cough, clutching her chest as she did so. Maria reached across and put her hand on her sister's forehead. It felt a little too warm.
It had been more than seven hours since they had left Zwickau and more than thirty hours since she had slept.
Before darkness fell, they drove into a small village. A likely place to find somewhere to rest, Maria thought.
She drove slowly along the main street and was pleased to find that there was a Gästhof. She parked the car and, leaving Katarina, went inside.
Inside, an older, grey-haired man was standing behind the bar, cleaning a glass. At a table in the corner sat two elderly men. They watched as she walked to the bar.
“Do you have a room available?”
“Why?” the innkeeper asked with barely concealed malice. “Do you want to requisition one?”
Maria was too tired to rise to the jibe. She shook her head.
“No, I just need a room for the night, for my sister and me. We will pay.”
The man looked over her shoulder with ill-concealed contempt.
“I don't see anyone but you... Sister.”
Maria allowed her head to drop forwards. Then she stared him in the eye.
“My sister was badly beaten by the Gestapo a couple of days ago. She is sick and needs to rest. I will ask you once more. Do you have a room available?”
The smile vanished.
“The Gestapo? Well, yes. Yes, of course, I do. Do you need help with her?”
“Would you? I am exhausted.”
The innkeeper turned to a doorway behind the bar.
“Stefan!” he shouted. “Stefan, here, quickly!”
A young man appeared, barely out of his teens. He wore a thick glove on his right hand.
“The SS thought we were hiding deserters here. They tortured him, shattered every bone in his right hand. We never saw any deserters, let alone hid any. They only let him go when the men they were looking for were found in another village, hiding in a barn.”
The boy followed Maria to the car. Although severely hampered, he was very gentle in helping Katarina from her seat. She groaned with pain as he lifted her out.
Once they were comfortably settled, Stefan returned to the car and moved it into the yard at the rear.
“It will only attract attention,” his father had said.
Katarina lay down on the soft, large bed. As she lay back, she seemed to have more difficulty breathing. Her breath became shallow and painful. Maria took a glass from the washstand and placed it against her sister's chest. She then put her ear to it and listened carefully.
After a moment or two, she stood up.
“I don't like it, Trina,” she said. “I think you might have a broken rib which has damaged your lung. I can hear crackling as you breathe.”
“Pulmonary Oedema,” Katarina replied. “That makes sense.”
“You need a hospital, Trina, and soon.”
Katarina shook her head.
“We must get to Munich. Then you can take me to your hospital.”
Maria reached into her Red Cross Satchel and took out a small vial and a syringe.
“I still have some morphine,” she said. “It will help.”
She helped Katarina to sit up and propped her up with some pillows.
“That should help.”
It didn't take long for the morphine to take effect. Once Katarina was asleep, Maria went down to the bar.
The two customers had left and the bar was quiet.
“How is she?” the innkeeper asked.
Maria took a deep breath.
“Resting now,” she answered. “She needs a hospital. I think she has a broken rib.”
The innkeeper continued wiping the glass he was holding.
“The nearest would be in Nürnberg,”
“Nürnberg!” Maria exclaimed. “Are we near there?”
The man shrugged.
“About seventy kilometres. Two hours at least, but possibly more. Where are you heading?”
“Munich. Where is this? Are we so far from there?”
“Oh yes,” he replied. “This is Geiselwind, northwest of Nürnberg. You are still a good days drive from Munich.”
Maria imagined the map in her mind. She remembered seeing Nürnberg on it. They had driven off course and were too far to the west. She sighed and sat down on a bar-stool. She leaned against the bar and rested her head in her hands.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. “I have some soup on the stove. It is just potato, but I can add sausage. There isn't much, though. Would you like to bathe before or after? ”
She was grateful for anything. They had barely eaten, and she was sure that something warm for Katarina could only be of benefit to her.
The following morning, the two women awoke just before full daylight. Looking out of the window, Maria could see that it was likely to be another dull, grey day.
“How do you feel, Trina?” she asked.
“Oh, much better, thank you,” her sister replied. “The soup, the bath, and the rest have worked wonders.” It was a lie. and Maria knew it. She could see how much Katarina was struggling to breathe. She could only manage two or three words before having to take a breath. “I will drive first, this morning if you like.”
Maria smiled and gently shook her head.
“No, I will drive. You need to rest. We will have some breakfast and then get on our way. The sooner I get you home, the better.”
The innkeeper provided them with some well-matured cheese and fresh bread. He apologised that he could not offer more, but to them, it was a feast. Even the Ersatz coffee tasted good!
“Stefan has put the Benzine into your car,” he told them. “There is not enough to get you to Munich, though, the tank was almost empty.”
“Do you know where we can get some?” Maria asked.
The innkeeper shook his head.
“There is none here. Hasn't been for months. The only chance you might have is from the army. To be honest, though, even that is unlikely. They are scavenging for every drop these days.
When they were ready to leave, Stefan helped Katarina into the car. He then cranked the engine for them until it started.
“Wait!” he shouted suddenly.
He disappeared but returned a moment later, carrying a length of rubber hose.
“Here, you may need this!” he said, passing it through the open window.
“What on earth for?”
“There are many abandoned vehicles about, you must have seen them?”
“Yes, but... Oh, of course! Some may have fuel in them!”
“Exactly! Take as much as you can get. It's still a long road home.”
As she pulled out onto the road in front of the guest house, Maria wondered if she would ever see Stefan and his father again.