Rome. November 03rd, 1943
The revelation that Staff Sergeant Lawrence T. Bowman was Jewish was a shock to Katarina. To her, it mattered not a bit but, for some reason, she had never really thought about the religion of anyone outside of her own world. Americans, English, all those whom Germany was fighting were just people but, suddenly, this young man was in mortal danger. She knew exactly what the Nazis thought of Jews and she didn't see any reason why this young man should be treated any differently if the truth was out.
That evening, she and Maria sat down and began to compose a short letter to his family to explain that their son was alive.
After an hour of deliberation, tearing up and beginning again, they gave up.
“I don't think we can do this, Katarina,” Maria sighed.
Katarina shook her head.
“No, I don't think so either. I think we should just write out his details and send them to the Red Cross and hope that they will inform them. I believe at the very least, they will inform the American Air Force. I am sure his Mama will be informed as soon as they know.”
With this agreed, they filled in a form which was designed for that very purpose.
When they had finished, Katarina sat back in her chair.
“There is something else,” she said as she stared up at the roof.
Maria stared at her.
“What?” she asked.
“He is a Jew.”
“How do you know that?” she asked, surprised.
“He told me. On his identification tags is the letter 'H' after his mother's address. I asked him what it was for and he told me. 'H' is for Hebrew.”
Maria, too, was shocked.
“Does anyone else know?” she asked.
Katarina shook her head.
“No. No-one has asked.”
“Good. He mustn't tell anyone. We will have to think of a different explanation for it.”
The following morning, when Maria had left to inspect the other huts, Katarina went directly to the American.
As soon as he saw her approaching, he smiled. It seemed to him that she was the only person he could trust to keep him safe, her sister too, perhaps. Even so, he felt that he still had to be very careful about what he told them.
“Good morning,” she greeted him.
“Hello, Sister,” he replied with some discomfort.
“Did you sleep a little?” she asked. He shook his head but she wasn't surprised. With both legs broken and an arm totally immobilised along with all the other cuts and bruises he had sustained in the crash, she would have been surprised if he had even slept at all.
The ward-orderly approached her at that moment with his file. Katarina took it and thanked him, studying it for a moment.
“You are very lucky man,” she said at length. “Lucky for to have life.”
She closed the folder and handed it back, thanking the orderly again.
Just then, the door opened and they both looked to see who had arrived unannounced. It was the SS Leutnant whom she had seen at the crash site the day before.
She walked towards him.
“Can I help you, Herr Leutnant?” she asked, blocking his access to her patient.
“I have come to interrogate the prisoner, Matron. I trust that you will not hinder me.”
Katarina drew herself up but she was not as tall as he was. Nevertheless, that made little difference to her.
“What is your name, Leutnant?” she asked, with what she hoped was an authoritative manner.
“I, Matron, am Leutnant Rudolph Mahler of 1. SS Panzer Korps – Liebstandarte. You, I believe are Hauptmann Matron Katarina Langsdorff of the Deutsche Rotes Kreuz.”
Although these words had come from the mouth of a man who appeared to be no older than the American Flyer she was tending, they sent a cold chill up her spine. That, though, only made her stronger.
“You believe correctly, Herr Leutnant. I remember you from the crash yesterday. I am afraid that I cannot allow you to disturb the prisoner at this time, he is too sick.”
The SS officer's eyes narrowed.
“Do you really think that I care about his condition, Matron?” he hissed quietly but ominously. “He is an American and, therefore, an enemy soldier. I will interrogate him!”
Katarina stared at him defiantly.
“And I, Leutnant, am a Hauptmann of the Heer and a matron of the Red Cross. I will tell you when, or even if, this man is fit to be interrogated!”
For a moment there was an impasse as the two of them faced each other. Leutnant Mahler was the first to break the deadlock.
“And what exactly are his injuries, Matron?” He placed a heavy emphasis on the word 'matron' as though to dismiss her army rank. At the same time, he moved closer to the patient as though to see for himself, grabbing the file from the orderly who had remained close by.
The young American stared fearfully at Katarina whilst the Black uniformed officer perused the folder. Shaking her head slightly, trying not to attract the Nazi's attention, she squeezed her eyes tightly closed for an instant and nodded to the flyer. He understood immediately and closed his eyes, feigning sleep.
Mahler closed the file and handed it back to the orderly whilst looking at the apparently comatose airman. He then stepped forward and lifted the identification tags, bending closer to study them.
After a moment he released them and straightened up, turning back to Katarina.
“I am familiar with American identifications,” he began. “I have dealt with several prisoners. I have seen the letters 'C' and 'P' after the address and I am aware that these indicate the holder's religion but I have not seen 'H'. Do you know what it denotes?”
Katarina thought quickly.
“Yes, I think so,” she replied. “I believe it denotes Hohe Kirch.”
The Nazi stared at her and she could see the doubt in his eyes.
“I speak English fluently,” he responded finally. “Hohe Kirch is 'High Church' which I believe is a Christian church of some kind.”
Katarina, inwardly, gave a sigh of relief but outside she just smiled.
“I have no idea,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders. “My English is very poor.”
He seemed convinced and she was very relieved when he appeared to accept her explanation. A few minutes later, he was gone.
Allowing time for the coast to clear, Katarina touched the young airman's undamaged arm.
“Is good. He not here now.”
Larry Bowman opened his eyes a little nervously at first and then relaxed.
“I don't understand,” he said as Katarina sat on the chair beside him. “Why did you lie to him? I heard him say 'High Church'.”
She looked at him intently, a sad look in her eyes.
“You really not know?” she asked.
“No, I really don't. I am not ashamed of being a J...”
Katarina quickly covered his mouth.
“Shhh...” she hissed. “When you here, are Hohe Kirch! Then you stay alive, yes?”
At that moment, Maria appeared.
“What's going on?” she whispered. “I saw that SS Leutnant from the crash, leaving.”
Katarina removed her hand from the American's mouth.
“He came to interrogate Larry. I stopped him. He looked at the tags and asked what the 'H' was for.”
“Did you tell him what we agreed?” Maria asked, somewhat concerned that their ruse might not be convincing.
“Yes and I think he believed me but Larry here wants to know why we lied to him?”
“Did you explain?”
Katarina shook her head.
“No, you came along at that point. I was just about to.”
Maria bid her continue. “Your English is better,” she said.
Her sister nodded resignedly and turned back to the American.
“We,” she began, “Maria and me, we see bad thing happen to...” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “...to Jew. SS hate Jew. Nazi hate Jew. You not be Jew and you live. You be Jew and you perhaps not live. Verstehen?”
The young man looked puzzled.
“But I... I...”
Katarina interrupted him
“You understand? You want die? Mahler see you Jew... you not run away, you, erm, Kaput. Yes?”
The American nodded but said nothing.
Maria spoke up then.
“We want you live, not die. We see too much dead.”
“Okay, Okay. High Church it is then,” he agreed and turned his head away from them.
Katarina squeezed his arm gently.”
“Lowrens...” she said quietly, “Larry, you must to understand. They kill you. You know what is 'High Church'?”
Again he nodded.
“I know enough.”
She looked up at her sister as she continued.
“I not go church. Maria, she is Catholic and she know more.”
Maria smiled at her.
“When the war is over we can go together,” she said with a smile. “If you want to.”
Katarina nodded and took her hand.
“After what we have gone through? Yes, I wouldn't miss it.”
The American looked worried.
“What did she say?”
She smiled again at her sister and then turned back to him.
“Oh, not for you to trouble.”
In the weeks that followed, SS Leutnant Mahler was, at first, a regular visitor. He would appear without warning and, as Lawrence Bowman began to recover his strength, he would be more attentive to what he referred to as 'the prisoner'. However, it wasn't long until he realised that there was nothing the young flier could reveal that he didn't already know and the time between his appearances became longer. Both Maria and Katarina suspected that he was biding his time until the patient was walking again and he could take charge of him.
Every day, Katarina personally dressed the young man's wounds but, as the days passed she became increasingly concerned that his arm was not healing as it should. The surgeon who had repaired the damage as much as he possibly could, spoke daily to her and she would report his progress in as much detail as she could.
After two weeks had passed, the surgeon arrived in the hut to personally check on the airman's condition. He watched as Katarina carefully unwound the stained bandage to reveal the extent of the damage. The surgeon frowned and pursed his lips. The bone had not knitted together and the torn flesh of his upper arm was beginning to turn black.
Katarina had been careful to hide the damage by holding the soiled dressings in such a way that her patient could not see past them.
The surgeon indicated to her to re-cover the arm and she laid the dressings across the wound.
Taking a few steps away from the bedside, the surgeon asked quietly,
“How is he generally?”
“Katarina shook her head.
“He is not good, Sir. His temperature won't come down and he is continuously restless, crying out in his sleep.”
The surgeon took a breath.
“Then there is no choice, Matron. I will have to amputate it before the gangrene spreads.”
Even though she suspected as much, the news still felt like a stab through the heart.
“Isn't there anything at all that we can do? He is just a boy.”
Deep inside, however, she knew what the answer would be. She had seen many such wounds over the past years.
“We need to operate quickly, Matron. There is no time to lose.”
“I know,” she replied, sadly. “How soon will you been ready?”
The surgeon left immediate and Katarina returned to the American's bedside. The young man looked at her steadily.
“It's not good, is it?” he asked.
Katarina felt a lump form in her throat and shook her head sadly.
“No,” she answered quietly.
“Am I going to lose it?”
Feeling the tears welling in her eyes, she shook her head slightly.
“No, no, I...” her words trailed into silence as she realised that it served no purpose in lying to him.
“Yes,” she said with difficulty. She couldn't breathe and her heart was pounding. She felt so sick.
“What's wrong with me?” she thought. “This is nothing new. Why is it so hard now? Come on, pull yourself together!”
After he had been taken to the operating theatre, Katarina went to find her sister. She knew which hut she would be in and hurried straight to her.
“Katarina! What is it? What's wrong?” Maria asked as she burst through the door.
Before Katarina had a chance to answer, Maria turned and called to the other end of the hut.
“Ilsa, will you take care of this patient, please. I'll be back as soon as I can.” She then ushered her sister outside.
“Right, take a deep breath, Katarina. Good, now, what is it?”
Katarina did as she was told and breathed deeply for a moment.
“Maria,” she said eventually. “I don't get it. Larry is on the table right now. He is going to lose his arm.”
“But we suspected that would happen, 'trina. We even discussed the possibility. We have dealt with worse...”
“Yes, I know and that is what I don't understand, why I feel this way. I know we never get used to it but even so...”
Maria studied her sister carefully as she paced back and forth until Katarina stopped suddenly and turned sharply towards her.
“What about him?”
“Maria, don't you see? To Mahler, Larry is an enemy prisoner. He can't do anything whilst he is in our care but as soon as he is fit to be moved...”
“Yes, he will be sent to a prisoner of war camp.”
Katarina clamped her sister's arms.
“And if he finds out what the 'H' means?”
Maria stared at her sister. She had never seen her like this.
“What exactly are you saying, Katarina?”
Katarina relaxed her grip.
“Oh, I don't know, Maria. I am scared for him.”
Maria thought for a moment.
“Look, he won't be fit to travel for some time, yet. When he is, we will make sure he is transported safely before Mahler realises he has gone, yes?”
Katarina sighed and nodded, letting her hands fall back to her sides.
“I'm sorry, Maria. I don't know what came over me.”
“I think I do, 'trina,” she said gently. “You have been with him almost twenty-four hours a day. I think you have become a little, erm, attached, shall we say?”
As she walked slowly back, she was so deep in thought that Katarina didn't notice the distant rumble of thunder, nor the drop of moisture splash onto her cap. She remained completely oblivious of the next or even a third and, within moments, the heavens opened and a deluge of raindrops cascaded down upon the camp. So wrapped up was she in her thoughts that she actually didn't care and, by the time she reached the hut, she was drenched.
As the days passed, both Katarina and Maria were kept busy with the increase of wounded soldiers being brought to the camp from the south. They heard reports that the Allies were pushing northwards and Ciampino airfield was a hive of activity. Transport planes were arriving constantly, bringing troops and equipment and taking casualties back to Germany.
All of this meant that they had little time for themselves as they and Ilsa worked tirelessly to ensure that their charges were transferred with as little discomfort as they possibly could.
Through it all, however, Katarina found the time to ensure that the American was cared for but with also that he remain somewhat invisible. On his return from his traumatic operation, she had placed him in a bed in the far corner of the hut and had pulled screens around him. The screens remained.
The incessant autumn rain brought its challenges and maintaining a clean and sterile atmosphere was a full-time job in itself. Nevertheless, Katarina and Maria took turns to ensure the young flier's safety and recovery alongside their numerous other commitments.
The weeks passed an, by the end of October, his condition had improved to such an extent that it was decided that the time had come for him to walk again and so, Katarina enlisted the help of two of the strongest medics she had available.
On the morning of the third day of November, the surgeon who had repaired the damage examined what remained of Laurence's right arm. The flesh covering the end of his stump was criss-crossed with angry, red scars but was healing well. Satisfied, he turned his attention to the young man's legs. He bade Katarina remove the splints and dressings and carefully checked along the length of both Fibulae and Tibiae, feeling around the damaged areas with utmost gentleness.
Finally, he straightened up.
“They have knitted very well, Matron,” he told her. “Now we must encourage him to walk again and then, when he is strong enough he will be transferred to a prison camp, Stammlager Luft Eins at Barth, in the North, I think. I believe that is where they are holding the American fliers. He should be able to complete his recovery there.”
Katarina's jaw dropped momentarily before she quickly regained her composure.
“I see, Sir,” she replied as calmly as she could. “How long do we have?”
The Surgeon rubbed his chin.
“I don't think I can hold him for more than two weeks,” he said slowly. “Things are not going well in the south. I am told that the Americans have reached the Garigliano River and the British, Isernia. Both are less than two hundred kilometres from here. I am also told that we can prevent them from advancing any further but...” He shrugged.
“What if we can't?” Katarina asked. “What then?”
How different this man was to Major Ritter, she thought. He barely spoke to the nurses and, when he did, he was terse and to the point.
“When I know, I shall let you know,” he replied before turning on his heel and leaving the hut.
“So, Larry,” Katarina turned to her patient. “Now is time to walk, yes?”
“I guess so,” the young man replied. “Will you hold me?”
She shook her head and smiled.
“No. If you fall... No. Hans and Klaus will do it.”
At her indication, Hans and Klaus, the two heavily built orderlies she had chosen earlier, positioned themselves at the side of the bed and reached over, helping the American and supporting his upper body whilst Katarina helped to position his legs over the side.
When she was satisfied, she told the orderlies to stand back for a moment and left him to sit on the edge of the bed unaided.
“Good. How you feel?” she asked.
The American paused for a moment.
“A little light-headed,” he replied eventually and, when Katarina frowned, “You know, a little woozy?”
“I sorry, what is 'woozy'?” she asked him.
“Oh, you know, vague? Dizzy?”
Katarina suddenly understood.
“Ah, yes, dizzy. Is good. You have not left bed in seven weeks. Morphine too so...” She shrugged to emphasise that she was not concerned. “So, now. Please to... erm, how to say...”
Unsure of the English, Katarina leaned forward, bending at the waist.
“I gotcha,” the young airman smiled and immediately leaned forwards and began to stand.
Katarina was horrified and quickly placed a hand upon his shoulder, holding him down.
“Nein! Nein!” she gasped, forgetting her English for a moment. “No, not to stand!”
Larry was puzzled but before he could ask, she continued
“Just to, erm, just...” She was getting frustrated at not being able to explain in a way that he could understand.
Katarina turned suddenly to see where the unexpected assistance had originated.
“Leutnant Mahler!” she exclaimed. “I didn't see you arrive.”
“Obviously,” Mahler replied with a strong hint of sarcasm. “I see our prisoner is recovering well.”
“I am happy that you think so, Herr Leutnant, considering that he cannot yet walk. I hadn't realised that you were medically trained.”
Mahler smiled a cold, menacing smile.
“I have talked with your commanding officer, Matron.” Again, the emphasis on 'Matron'. “He assures me that, in two weeks, he will be and then I will personally ensure that I have the pleasure of his company before he is transported.”