Munich, Pasing. November 10th 1989.
For Kate Madison-Becker, the day was turning out to be something special. Not that it wasn't anyway, especially since today was her Eighteenth birthday.
Over in the corner of the living room, where the radiogram had once stood, the colourful television screen flickered images of crowds of excited young people tearing down the concrete symbol of German division.
“Mama, Oma!” she called out. “It's happening at last. The wall's coming down!”
The excitement was too much to bear. So many things were happening all at once that it was almost overwhelming. They had all heard about the lifting of travel restrictions and the subsequent flood of people crossing through last evening. Now, though, seeing it on the television made it all so real.
Kate was a trainee nurse on the Notaufnahme department, which her English grandfather always referred to as Casualty, of the Ludwig-Maximillian University Hospital in Munich. Her mother, Anna, was a senior Matron, and her father, Rolf, was a surgeon at the same hospital.
The house was quiet. Only she, her mother and grandmother were at home. Papa and Opa were driving to the Airport at Riem. They wouldn't tell her why and even her mother didn't know. It was to be a surprise, they had said.
Together, the three of them sat in front of the television, smiling broadly. The news report showed a giant piece of the concrete wall suddenly tilt and crash to the ground in a cloud of dust. Further along, people were attacking the remaining wall with sledgehammers or anything they could find. The cameras focused on the East German border guards. Unprecedented in forty-nine years, they stood back and did nothing.
“Your Aunt would have loved this moment, Anna,” her grandmother said to her daughter. “I wish she could have been here to see this.”
Anna smiled inwardly as her mother answered.
“I am sure she will know, Mama, wherever she is.”
Just then, they were disturbed by the doorbell. Kate began to push herself up from the floor where she was sitting, but her grandmother stopped her. “I'll go,” she said and jumped up with agility that belied her seventy-one years.
She returned moments later carrying a large envelope.
“What's that?” Kate asked.
Her grandmother shrugged.
“I don't know, but it's addressed to you. Special delivery!”
Kate hastily tore it open and took out the wad of papers it contained. She stared at the first page, and her face lit up.
“Mama! My exam results! I am a qualified nurse now, just like you and Oma!”
“Oh, Liebling! That is wonderful!”
The two hugged.
“This day couldn't be any better, sweetheart,” her mother continued.
Anna relaxed and returned to her armchair.
After a few minutes more of watching the television, she looked at her mother.
“Mama, do you believe in fate?”
Maria thought briefly.
“I think I have to, Anna. I have seen too much evidence of it to doubt.”
“Why do you say that?” her daughter asked.
“Well, you know about the things that happened to me when I was young. You know that finding my sister was a chance in a million. Being posted to the same hospital in France, from different ends of the country... I mean, that had to be fate, didn't it?”
“I suppose so, but it could also just have been a coincidence.”
“Yes, on its own, maybe, but what about when my sister was lost and sick in Berlin. Didn't fate bring us together in the ruins of her apartment building?”
“I thought you said that she had a vision? Didn't she say that an old man who had died in her hospital told her to go to you?”
“Yes, she did, but that was just her mind playing tricks. Nevertheless, it gave her the strength to drag herself back, and fate ensured that I was there when she needed me.”
Anna sat in silence as she considered the implication.
“So I suppose it was also fate that brought you and Papa together?”
“Oh no, that wasn't fate. I suppose you could say that fate brought us together in the first place, but I think that is stretching it a bit. When the war was over, Papa worked hard to find a way to get posted to Germany. He was lucky to be offered an exchange attachment to Ludwig-Maximillian. He came looking for me.”
Anna cocked an eyebrow.
“So fate didn't put the exchange his way, then?”
They both laughed at that, and Maria held up her hands.
“Perhaps,” she agreed. “So, you see, I have to believe in fate.”
Once more, they turned their attention to the screen. Berliners were dancing in the streets on both sides of the wall.
Eventually, Anna asked another question.
“Mama, what is it like being a twin?”
Maria didn't immediately respond. It wasn't an easy question. Eventually, she smiled.
“It is something special. It is like being a part of a single entity. I never knew I had a twin until we met. Even then, neither of us knew, but we were aware of a special connection between us.
Kate looked up from the papers she was studying.
“You are right, Oma. It is special being a twin. I wish Marie could have been here today.”
Maria smiled down at her.
“I am sure she is with you in spirit,” she said. “You know how things are with the Red Cross these days. She is gaining valuable experience by travelling abroad.”
Anna stood up again.
“I don't know how long they will be, but I need coffee. Do you two want some?”
Both Kate and her grandmother nodded.
“Yes, please,” they replied almost simultaneously.
Kate slid across to her grandmother and looked up at her.
How did you and Opa meet?” she asked. “I mean, I know about how you met on the warship, but how did you meet after the war?”
Maria smiled, the memories flooding back.
“Perhaps you should ask him that.”
“Yes, I will, but will you tell me anyway?”
“After the war was over, as you know, Germany lay in ruins. I continued to work at the hospital and all around the city. There was so much damage and so many homeless families. I led the teams which gave medical help wherever it was needed. With my sister gone, and my father too...”
“Oh yes, what happened to him?” Kate interrupted.
“He was killed in a bombing raid just a few days before I got home from Berlin. He was at work at the station which received several direct hits. My Mama was so sad for a long time after. She never really recovered and passed away. Just after your Grandfather and I were married.”
Kate clasped her grandmother's hand,
“Oh, that is so sad, Oma. I remember Mama telling me that.”
Maria smiled wistfully and continued.
“There isn't really very much to tell. It was in the summer of nineteen-forty-seven. I was working in the emergency department at the time. I remember there had been an accident on one of the building sites, and some workers had been brought in after a concrete wall had collapsed. I went to the canteen for a break, and while I was sitting with some colleagues, I heard a familiar voice behind me. I knew who it was immediately. You have to remember that Munich was filled with American soldiers for some time. The voice I heard spoke in German but with difficulty. When I turned around, he was there, your grandfather.”
Maria felt as though she was back there, as vivid in her mind as the day it happened.
“Lieutenant Madison!” she exclaimed. “Simon!”
She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Her heart was pounding so hard she could hardly breathe. “What? I mean, how? I mean... Oh, I don't know what I mean!”
Simon Madison blushed deeply.
“Fräulein Kaufmann! I am sorry, but my German is still not good. I cannot understand you. Would you please speak slowly?”
Maria looked around, embarrassed.
“Oh, I'm sorry,” she continued more slowly. “It is nice to see you again. Not as enemies. I have thought about you often.”
Blushing even more deeply, he replied.
“I have never stopped thinking of you, Maria. Meeting you was like a brilliant ray of sunlight shining through the darkness of the war clouds. I have never thought of us as enemies.”
At her request, Simon sat down with her. Seeing what was unfolding, Maria's friends got up, one after the other. Each of them making some feeble excuse to leave.
“I feel a little foolish, coming here like this. I had to know, though.”
“Know what?” she asked.
“Well, for the past six years, ever since we parted in Gibraltar, I have thought of you. I have met many people since then, more since the war ended. None of them has made me feel the way you did. Since I left the Navy, I have tried to find a way to come here. I even joined the United Nations in the hope that I could get here. It was only this week that I managed to get an exchange posting and was able to look for you.”
Maria stared at him, wide-eyed.
“How did you find me?”
“It turned out to be really easy. I knew your name, I knew that you were a matron with the Deutsches Rotes Kreuz and that you lived in Munich. There doesn't appear to be a single person in this city who doesn't know you... or, at least, of you.”
Now it was Maria's turn to blush.
“But maybe you are married now?” Simon continued. She couldn't help but notice the quiver in his voice. She shook her head.
“No, I'm not married,” she affirmed. “I haven't met anyone to interest me enough. At least...” she bowed her head and almost whispered, “...until now.”
Simon reached across and gently lifted her chin. He saw that her ice-blue eyes were moist.
“I promised that I would find you. I never break a promise.”
“And now you have, will you leave again?” she whispered.
Simon shook his head.
“I am here for as long as you want me.”
Maria looked down at her Granddaughter.
“And the rest is history, as they say. We were married the following year.”
Kate stared up at her, her eyes wide.
“Oma! What a wonderful story! Why haven't I heard it before?”
“Perhaps you never asked,” she said with a mischievous wink.
Just then, Anna returned with a tray laden with coffee cups.
“What are you two up to?” she asked.
“Oma just told me how she and Opa met. It's a real-life fairy tale, isn't it?”
Anna put the tray onto a small side table.
“It certainly is,” she said with a knowing smile. “Your grandmother could tell you many tales, I'm sure.”
Kate turned to Maria.
“I would really like to hear more, Oma. If you would like to tell me,” she added.
“Of course,” Maria agreed. “If you want me to. What would you like to know?”
“I want to know everything, but I wonder... well...”
“What is it, Liebchen? You can ask me anything, you know.”
Kate was blushing with uncertainty as she asked,
“Well... I was wondering what happened to your sister when you got home.”
Maria brushed her granddaughter's hair with the back of her hand.
“Oh, don't be afraid to ask such things. They were unhappy times, but it was a long time ago. I am happy to tell you. When we arrived here, at home, I dashed inside the house to get help. I couldn't find anyone. I shouted as loudly as I could for Papa and Mama, but...”
She was interrupted by the front door opening.
“We're back!” a voice called out.
“In here, Rolf!” Anna called back.
An unexpected face appeared in the doorway, and Kate immediately jumped to her feet.
“Marie!” she exclaimed and ran to hug her twin sister. “I thought you were in Tanzania!”
“I was,” she replied with a huge grin. “I managed to get home a week early to celebrate our birthday together.” separating from the hug. She added, “Hallo Mama, Hallo Oma.” A group hug ensued.
“Ahem...” the sound made them all turn to the door. This time it was Maria's turn to be excited.
“Trina! Oh, this is wonderful. Is Larry with you?”
Katarina frowned. “Didn't you get my letter?”
“No, I didn't. When did you send it?”
“About two months ago. The post is so bad these days.”
“So, where is Larry? Is he sick?”
“He passed away a few weeks ago,” her sister said. “I am in the process of selling everything over there. I am coming back to Germany.”
Anna helped her aunt remove her coat and waited whilst she got comfortable. Kate and Marie chatted excitedly. They seemed oblivious to the two elderly women.
Simon, Rolf and Anna set about preparing a birthday tea for the two teenagers in the kitchen.
Maria and Katarina sat together on the sofa.
“Will you stay here, in Munich?” Maria asked. She hoped for a positive answer, but Katarina had been away for so long. She worried that she might not want to.
“We had a chat in the car, Simon and I. He said that since Rolf, Anna, and the girls have their own house, there would be plenty of room for me here if you are agreeable.”
“Agreeable?” Maria exclaimed. “I would love it if we were together again!”
Suddenly, the smile vanished from her face.
“But what about you? Will you be happy here? After all, you have made a home in Iowa these past forty years.”
Katarina looked at her lap, and then at her sister.
“It never felt like home there,” she said. “They never really included me. They tolerated me because I had helped save Larry's life in Italy, but I am German. His family are Jewish. I am German and a Christian. As I said, they tolerated me, but that was all.”
Maria was stunned.
“And the neighbours, didn't they like you?”
Katarina shook her head.
“They were polite. They made some effort to hide their feelings, but it was obvious. They didn't appreciate Larry bringing a German woman into their community.”
“That's awful, Trina! Why didn't you tell me?”
“Oh, don't get the wrong idea. “I was quite happy there. There was no unpleasantness. As I said, I was there and they were grateful for the work I did in their community, but I wasn't one of them. I was an outsider. Now that Larry is gone, I have nothing to keep me there.”
Once more, Maria held her sister.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It was quite sudden,” Katarina said. “His heart. He never really recovered properly from the injuries he received during the war. He was only sixty-five.”
The room was strangely quiet. Marie and Kate were both staring at them, listening intently.
“Aunt Trina,” Kate ventured. “Oma told me about how she met Opa earlier. May I ask...?”
“How I met Uncle Larry? Of course. Did she tell you about the field hospital near Rome?”
Kate looked first at her grandmother and then at her aunt and shook her head.
“No, not yet.”
“Well, I am sure she will. That was where I met Uncle Larry. His bomber was shot down during a raid. That was not it, though. You see, after your Grandmother and I were caught in the raid in Innsbruck, I lost my memory.”
Kate and Marie turned to Maria.
“You were hurt in an air raid? What else don't we know about you?”
“Quite a lot, probably,” she grinned.
Kate turned back to her great-aunt.
“Please, go on Aunt Trina,” she said, trying not to sound too eager.
Well, it took a long time for me to recover from that, and from what the Gestapo did to me just before the war ended, and...”
This time, it was Marie who interrupted, her eyes wide.
“Gestapo? What did you do?”
Katarina laughed loudly.
“I didn't actually do anything. We often crossed swords with them and the SS, but together, we generally managed to keep away from them.”
Marie stared at them both.
“Ohhh... I can see that we have a lot to learn about you two,” she said, her eyes twinkling.
There was a pause while Katarina waited to see if there was anything else.
“So,” she continued. “Your grandmother brought me back from Berlin and nursed me back from the very brink of death.”
Again, she waited, but this time, there was no interruption.
“By the time I was well enough, the war had ended, and the Americans were running the city. I stayed another three years, but I needed to go home, to Berlin. Just for a while. To give my sister and her new husband a little space. Whilst I was there, the Berlin Airlift began. I was working with the Red Cross at Tempelhof Airport when, one morning, I noticed a man walking towards me. It was his missing arm and pronounced limp that drew my attention...”
“Good day to you, Ma'am,” he said, somewhat nervously. “It is good to see you again.”
Katarina was perplexed.
“I am sorry, have we met?”
“Yes, Ma'am, I believe we have. Five years ago, near Rome. You saved my life.”
She thought as she studied him. He seemed vaguely familiar, but still...
Seeing her discomfort, he apologised.
“I am sorry, Ma'am, I didn't mean to trouble you.”
He turned away but, just as quickly, turned back.
“Maybe you are Matron Maria Kaufmann? It was always difficult to tell you apart.”
“That would be my sister,” she replied. “I am Katarina Langsdorff.”
The man smiled.
“My name is Lawrence Bowman,” he said, offering his hand to her.
Slowly, Katarina reached out her own hand. Again, the name was familiar, but she just couldn't place it.
“Herr Bowman, I really am sorry, but I don't remember you. In nineteen-forty-three, I was injured in a bombing raid. For a time, I had no memory of anything. There are still many things that are missing. It would appear that you are one of them. I really am sorry.”
“I understand,” he replied. “Say! I have an idea! Let me take you to dinner and perhaps I can fill in some of those gaps for you?”
They sat together in a quiet corner of the airport restaurant. Outside, the scene was one of constant activity, with aeroplanes of all shapes and sizes coming and going every few seconds.
Lawrence talked while Katarina listened. All the time, images of what he was telling her flashed through her mind.
Suddenly she interrupted him.
“They told me that you were dead!”
“Who? The SS?” he smiled. “They thought that I was. Giuseppe and his friends had planned my escape to the last detail. They had ambushed a German patrol just a couple of days before. My rescuers crashed the ambulance and placed the bodies of the soldiers inside. They then blew it up, using just enough explosives to leave sufficient evidence that those bodies were ours, including my dog-tags.”
“And now you are here. Is it coincidence?”
“Kinda. All I knew of you was that you were German. When all this happened.” He gestured outside the window, “I volunteered my services.”
A voice from the doorway ended the tale.
“You see, Mama? Fate. There is no doubt really, is there?”
Maria turned to her daughter.
“I suppose not,” she laughed.
When everyone was settled comfortably, Anna disappeared into the kitchen. She reappeared moments later, carrying a large cake adorned with two candles. Everyone sang Happy Birthday, and Marie and Kate blew out one candle each.
After all the presents had been opened, Katarina winked at Maria. They brought out two small wrapped gifts and handed one each to the two young girls.
They opened them together. In hers, Kate found a long, thin box that looked very old. She opened the lid, taking great care not to damage it. She gasped when she saw what it contained.
Marie, too, gasped when she saw what her box contained when she opened it.
Kate took out the gold wristwatch and draped it over her wrist.
“Oh my goodness, Aunt Trina, it is beautiful!”
“That belonged to my Oma, whom I never knew. My Mama and Papa gave it to me on my twenty-first birthday. Now it is time to pass it on to you.”
Kate jumped up and hugged her aunt.
“I will treasure it always,” she said.
Marie held up her gift, a beautiful silver and marcasite fob watch.
“And that was given to me by my Mama and Papa on my fifteenth birthday,” Maria told her. Both those watches survived the war and everything that happened to us. Their value is not in money, but in memories.”
Maria hugged her mother.
“We never will part with them, Mama. Thank you.”
©Copyright Anna Morgan 2021. Copying, transmitting in any form whether by hard copy or digitally, of all or part thereof, is strictly prohibited without the express permission of the author.