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The Nurses. Chapter 3

Six yars on and how times are changing

Berlin. April 9th, 1939

 

 

Katarina yawned and stretched out her arms. Although today was Sunday, she had to work at the hospital. She checked the clock beside her bed. Five O' Clock.

 

Her shift began at seven so she threw back the covers and sat up, turned to the side and grabbed her robe from the end of the bed before standing and slipping her arms into the sleeves and fastening the cord around her waist.

 

Walking to the window, she drew back the heavy curtains. Dawn was beginning to show and the black sky was already beginning to turn a deep blue.

 

The streets were almost empty outside. A few people walked past, men, on their way to their own work no doubt and a tram rumbled by with a handful of passengers on board, most reading the Völkischer BBeobachter newspaper

 

Neither the people on the street nor those on the tram were aware of Katarina watching them from the window above and even less so were aware of the significance of this day.

 

To Katarina, however, this day was very significant for today was her twenty-first birthday.

 

She remembered back to that Sunday six years before. So much had happened since that joyful day. The world, especially Germany, had changed so much. Berlin had become a violent and almost unrecognisable place. The Jewish population had been all but removed from the city. Businesses had been either destroyed or taken over and all the Jewish medical staff at the Charité Hospital, whether Professor, Doctor, Nurse or even porter, had been expelled.

 

She had suffered seeing these injustices all through her professional career. She didn't understand how these people were any different to any other people. Her Mother and Father had always taught her that all people were equal and she had seen nothing to suggest they were wrong.

 

Even though all the other students had come together against the Jews, she had not. She felt ashamed that she had not been able to help those who were persecuted but she tried always to be caring and help in other ways. Never turning her back on anyone who needed her help, whomever they may be.

 

Katarina sighed, turned away from the window and left her room, walking down the hall to the kitchen. She placed some coffee in the pot, filled it with water, put it on the stove and lit the gas.

 

It was too early for her mother to be awake and her father was away, as he often was these days. She didn't know what he did any more but he seemed to be having a lot of time at the office and away on business. Katarina was glad she could stay at home with her mother but her hours were long now. The hospital was very understaffed and twelve to fourteen hour shifts were not unusual. Days off were also a luxury. The hospital was very busy but all over Berlin Jews were beaten and rounded up and taken to the station, for what reason she could not fathom but there were never any Jews brought to the hospital, they were not welcome there.

 

The boiling water percolating through the coffee snapped her back from her thoughts. Taking a cloth, she lifted the pot off the stove and poured herself a large cup of the steaming dark liquid.

 

The pot back on the stove, Katarina sat at the table and held the cup in front of her with both hands around it, her elbows on the table.

 

How different she felt from that day just six years ago when she awoke full of joy and hope. The day when she knew what her life was going to be... or so she thought.

 

As she sipped the hot, bitter coffee she remembered that first cup. Papa was right, there had been time to grow up but now that seemed so long ago.

 

"Is there any coffee left?" a voice behind her asked.

 

Katarina turned.

 

"Mama!" she exclaimed, "I'm sorry, did I disturb you?"

 

"No, Sweetheart." her mother replied, "I couldn't sleep."

 

Magda Langsdorf moved towards the stove as Katarina jumped to her feet.

 

"Sit down, Mama, I will get your coffee." she said and went to the cupboard and took out a fresh cup then filled it from the pot, placing it in front of her mother.

 

Magda smiled, the tiredness showing in her face.

 

"You have never changed, Katarina. Still a caring, loving daughter."

 

"I never will, Mama." she replied, "There is so much suffering and misery in the world, I will always do my very best to ease that wherever I can."

 

Magda sat at the table as Katarina placed her coffee in front of her.

 

“Happy Birthday, my darling.”

 

“Thank you, Mama.” Katarina kissed her mother and sat at the table opposite her.

 

“It seems so long ago since we sat here on my fifteenth birthday, when Papa gave me the broach.”

 

“Yes, it does,” Magda answered wistfully. “So much has happened since then.”

 

“It is awful at the Hospital, Mama. Everyone wears military uniforms now. It is so difficult.

 

I am glad I trained when I did because there is no money or even interest now. The professors are all gone, the conditions are so poor.”

 

“And your shifts are very long,” her mother agreed.

 

Katarina drained the last of her coffee and stood up.

 

“I must dress now, Mama,” she said.

 

Magda Langsdorf looked up at her daughter, remembering the first time she tried coffee. She smiled. Such a lovely woman now, so strong and kind hearted. She wondered what the future would hold for her.

 

She squeezed Katarina's hand as she passed.

 

Back in her room, clean and refreshed, Katarina Langsdorf dressed in her uniform and picked up the broach that had been her birthday gift six long years ago. The Red Cross broach she had been so proud of still was proud of.

 

She studied it for a moment and sighed, remembering the moment she opened its container, then she pinned it to her collar beneath her chin. She was a fully qualified nursing sister now, no longer an auxiliary but she vowed to wear that broach as long as she had life in her body.

 

She stood in front of the mirror and smiled at the image. Before her was the image of the perfect nurse. Pristine uniform with white starched collar splendidly adorned with Deutsche Rotes Kreutz Broach.

 

She should have begun her new career with the Jugendrotkreutz, an organisation founded by the National Socialists but her father, through his contacts, had been able to get her into nurses training at the Charité as soon as she finished her schooling.

 

Katarina turned away and left her room.

 

At the front door, she kissed her mother and hugged her.

 

“Goodbye, Mama.” she said. Magda hugged her daughter tightly.

 

“I hope you have a nice day, my love. I will get a special dinner ready for you when you get home.”

 

At the bottom of the stairs, the door to the concierge's apartment was open.

 

“Good morning, Sister.” The middle-aged woman in the doorway knew everyone who lived there.

 

“Good morning, Frau Muller,” Katarina smiled warmly

 

Outside, Katarina walked toward the tram stop. Berlin had changed. All the buildings were draped with banners showing Nazi insignia. Uniformed people were everywhere. No one trusted anyone else. Even at home, the apartment blocks were full of spies for the Gestapo. The concierge watched everyone come and go and although Katarina always greeted Frau Muller cheerily, she did not say more than a few words to her, no-one did. In fact, no-one spoke long to anyone anymore, afraid of what might be reported in case one inadvertently said something that could easily be misconstrued and reported to the authorities.

 

She didn't have to wait long for the tram to rumble along and she boarded and sat by the window just inside the door.

 

On the other side of the tram sat a man. He looked old but was probably only around fifty. He looked pale and sickly and wore a yellow six-pointed star sewn to his shabby grey jacket.

 

As Katarina looked, he turned his head towards her, his sunken brown eyes full of fear. She smiled at him, half with pity but mainly because that was her nature.

 

The pale man in the shabby suit smiled back at her, a look of gratitude on his wizened, unshaven face, for the fact that she had not ignored him as all others did.

 

For some minutes, the tram rumbled along the streets. Stopping and starting, people getting on and off, until it reached the point where Katarina stood to depart. As she did so, she looked again at the shabby man in the crumpled grey suit and care worn, unshaven face and smiled again as he watched her rise.

 

He smiled back and as she passed she heard him speak, quietly.

 

"God Bless you, Miss."

 

"God bless you too, " she replied before stepping off the tram.

 

Two men in the brown uniforms of the SturmAbteilung stood back to let her alight.

 

"Thank you," she smiled at them.

 

Suddenly, as Katarina stepped from the tram, she lost her footing and fell forwards, pitching herself straight into the two men and falling in an undignified heap on the ground. Immediately they stepped forward to help.

 

"Are you hurt?" asked one as the other offered her his hand.

 

"My ankle," she replied, sitting on the cobbles and rubbing it, "I think I twisted it."

 

The tram began to move away and she glanced up at it and saw the shabby man at the window mouth the words:

 

"Thank you."

 

She smiled and returned her attention to the two SA men.

 

"Would you help me up, please?"

 

Once on her feet she thanked them.

 

“I am so sorry,” she apologised profusely, “I have made you miss your tram.”

 

“Doesn't matter,” he replied, “We can catch another. Jews are everywhere.”

 

“Well, thank you anyway,” she said, smiling sweetly and began to hobble away.

 

"Wait!" The first one called after her.

 

She stopped and, holding her breath, tentatively turned back to face them.

 

"Are you sure you are all right?" the second one asked. "We can get you some transport if you wish."

 

Katarina smiled again and breathed a small sigh of relief.

 

She assured them she would be fine. Walking on it would help prevent it stiffening and swelling.

 

Before they had time to protest, another tram arrived and, bidding her farewell, they boarded and Katarina limped away toward the hospital.

 

Once more, she looked back and saw the tram disappear around the corner, wheels squealing in protest against the steel rails.

 

She smiled again, this time to herself and walked easily and painlessly towards the hospital, her limp miraculous gone!

 

Checking her watch, she saw it was still only six thirty. There was no hurry so she walked steadily and enjoyed the early morning freshness that cooled the air as the sun began to appear.

 

Katarina thought about the last six years as she walked the last few metres. She had left school with excellent marks and gone straight into the hospital training course.

 

The studies had been tortuous but she had worked very hard and progressed rapidly. At times, it had not been easy. There had been purges at the Charité and they were very short staffed. Professors had not been replaced, funds were not forthcoming and interest from the national socialists had been minimal but this was what she wanted to do and now she had worked her way up to be a fully qualified Red Cross nursing sister.

 

She knew things happened at the hospital, things that appalled her, but she managed to stay well away from 'research' and was able to remain a ward sister, dealing with general hospital duties and looking after the sick and injured.

 

The majority of cases seemed to be either disease and sickness caused by malnutrition and cold. Heating fuel was difficult to obtain, food was scarce, and the winter had been particularly harsh and cold this year, or just age related.

 

Katarina and her parents were fine because her father worked in the ministry. He was able to obtain all the fuel and food they needed via military channels but still they gave as much as they could to their neighbours.

 

At the hospital, Katarina worked tirelessly, doing her utmost to ease her patients pain with the limited resources she had available. A kind word here, a gentle touch there. She was both efficient and kind and was known throughout the hospital with affection.

 

The threat of war was growing and even in Berlin, Katarina saw a few casualties arriving from the occupation of Czechoslovakia, soldiers who had received battle wounds, but she treated them all with the same care and professionalism as her other patients.

 

The rest of the day passed uneventfully and that evening she returned home to find her mother and father sitting together at the kitchen table, deep in conversation.

 

“Papa, you are home!”

 

Siegfried Langsdorf stood and turned to her, arms outstretched.

 

“Happy birthday, darling,” He said and took her in his arms, giving her a kiss on the cheek and a strong hug.

 

He stood back and looked at her admiringly.

 

“Look at you! Such a beautiful woman. And so smart in your uniform.”

 

Katarina looked at her father, a concerned look on her face.

 

“Papa, is something wrong?”

 

“No, my dear.” came the reply, “Well, nothing specific. The leaders are planning further acquisitions. Great Britain will not stay asleep forever. I worry what will become of you.”

 

“Me, Papa?” Katarina was surprised, “Why me?”

 

“Well, not just you, All of us but you because you are my daughter and I love you very much.”

 

Siegfried paused.

 

“I fear war is coming. A war that will not be over soon. The world will not be the same after.”

 

“Oh, Papa! Herr Hitler would not make war with Britain, surely?” she exclaimed, “The British are our friends... aren't they?”

 

“Yes, my darling, they are but they have other friends too, countries that Herr Hitler has invaded and annexed. They will not sit idly and allow this to continue. If Hitler tries to take Poland, then Great Britain and France will have no choice.”

 

The room fell silent for a while as this news sank in. Katarina looked at her mother but she remained silent, sitting at the table.

 

“Papa, I am sure it will not come to this. The English are our friends. We will not fight with them I am sure.”

 

Siegfried Langsdorf sighed and squeezed his daughter's hand.

 

“I hope you are right,” he said, “I truly hope you are right.” Deep in his heart he knew that Germany was only days away from war with Britain and the rest of Europe.

 

Magda Langsdorf took a deep breath.

 

“Now then,” she said, as cheerily as she could, “I have baked a cake for you, Katarina.”

 

“Mama! How wonderful!” Katarina stopped suddenly.

 

“You didn't use up all your allowances just for this cake did you?” she asked with a frown.

 

“Don't worry, Sweetheart,” her mother replied with a smile, “I have been saving the ingredients. It is just like you to be concerned for others,” and she turned to the pantry with a little chuckle.

 

Katarina could not see into the pantry as her mother was standing in front of it when she reached in, so she pulled out a chair and sat down at the table with her father.

 

Magda turned and in her hands she held a large plate with a sponge cake on it. Katarina could see that it had some kind of decoration on it but it was too high for her to see what it was.

 

Her mother walked to the table and placed the plate in the centre. A small cloth was over it, which is what Katarina had thought was a decoration,

 

Magda took the edge of the cloth and, painfully slowly, revealed what was beneath.

 

She had decorated the cake with sugar icing around the top. It was white. Katarina put her hand to her mouth as, in the centre, was revealed... a red cross. 'Katarina' was written in red above and below, the number 21.

 

She looked up at her mother and her eyes began to fill with tears of joy.

 

“Oh, Mama,” she choked, “It is beautiful. Thank you so much.”

 

Magda Langsdorf smiled down at her daughter. She was so proud and her eyes too began to fill.

 

“Happy birthday, Katarina,” was all she could manage to say.

 

Siegfried Langsdorf placed a box on the table in front of his daughter.

 

“Happy Birthday, young lady.” he said, “Now you are officially an adult.”

 

Katarina opened the box and saw inside an ornate gold wristwatch. It looked old. Taking it from the box, she looked closely at it. On the face was the name 'Junghans'. She looked, then, at her father.

 

“It was your Grandmother's watch. Before she passed away, she gave it to your mother to keep for you until your twenty-first birthday. You were not yet born when she died but she always hoped we would have a daughter and so, that day has arrived and, maybe, she is looking down on you and is as pleased as we are at how well you have turned out,”

 

“I will treasure it always, Papa.” Katarina leaned across and kissed her father, “Thank you.”

 

“I know you will, my darling,” her father replied.

 

In the light of the dim electric lamps Katarina and her parents sat and enjoyed a slice of her birthday cake and chatted about her day and her plans for the future. She didn't tell them about the man in the shabby suit, she didn't want them to worry.

 

Finally, Katarina got to her feet and cleared away the remaining plates.

 

“Do you mind if I go to bed now?” she politely asked her mother and father.

 

They smiled and nodded their assent then she went and kissed each of them in turn.

 

“Goodnight Mama, Goodnight Papa,” she said and headed for the door where she turned and looked back at them.

 

“Thank you for a lovely evening,” she smiled, “For my cake and present. They were wonderful.”

 

Siegfried and Magda Langsdorf smiled back at her but said nothing as she turned again and headed for bed.

 

In her room, Katarina took the red cross brooch from her collar and placed it carefully in its box, as she did every night, but this time she placed the open box containing her Grandmothers watch beside it on the dresser, leaving both boxes open. These were now her two most prized possessions that marked the most important stages of her young life so far.

 

 

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