Berlin. September 3rd, 1939
Katarina went to work at the Charité as normal. It was a beautiful morning. The sky was clear and the sun was beginning to climb in the sky. Germany had become more like an occupied country itself, these days. There were uniforms everywhere. Many were the brown of the SA but becoming more and more prevalent was the oppressive black of the SS. They strutted the streets and behaved as if they owned Germany, which, in a way, they did. Their staff cars were also gleaming black.
Everywhere she looked, she could see people going about their daily business. No-one seemed happy anymore, only those in uniform. There was an air of fear.
As she entered her ward, a voice suddenly brought her back to the world.
"Good morning, Sister."
"Oh! Good Morning, Herr Doktor. I'm sorry, I was lost in thought," Katarina smiled at the grey haired man in the white coat.
"Yes, I could see," he laughed, "Nice thoughts, I hope."
"Just general things really, Life, you know."
Dr Martin Kruger had been at the hospital for many years and had protested strongly as more and more of his staff were removed for 'political' reasons but he could not stop it and had resigned himself to working as hard as he could to help as many of those whom he was able.
Katarina liked him. He was an old school surgeon and had much the same principles as herself. He never spoke unkindly about anyone and always had a cheery manner, even when things were becoming impossible. He helped all the nurses were he could and she often wondered what had happened to his family, as he never mentioned them.
He looked at her through the small round spectacles that made him look a bit like a wise wizard sometimes, especially when it was busy and his hair was messed up.
"Well, young Lady," Dr Kruger put his hand on her shoulder, "Keep thinking good things and don't let anything get to you. You are the happiest person I know and I would hate for you to lose that."
She smiled at him. He had been like a second father to her and she didn't want to disappoint him any more than she did her own father.
"Now then, I have something for you, Sister Langsdorf," the Doctor continued.
"For me?" Katarina asked. She couldn't think of anything the doctor could possibly want to give her.
Doctor Kruger put his hand in his pocket and pulled out an official looking document.
"I know that this may not be quite the same as it once was but I needed an assistant ward matron," he paused as Katrina's eyes opened wide. "I spoke to the chief medical officer and he granted permission for you to take up that position in a limited capacity. That is, it only applies to this ward. Outside this hospital, you will still be a nursing sister."
"But. Herr Doktor, I have only just qualified as a full nursing sister," Katarina couldn't believe what he was telling her, "How... I mean... can I?"
Doctor Kruger smiled.
"Well, normally no. First of all, we are very short of qualified nurses anyway but, secondly, you have constantly shown that your maturity, skill, compassion and, above all, your willingness and desire to do whatever is needed to help save lives makes me believe that you can do this and do it well."
He handed her the official confirmation and took her hand.
"Thank you, Doctor Kruger." she said finally, "I won't let you down."
“Now that,” he smiled, “is something I am sure about.”
As they spoke, the doors to the ward crashed open as an orderly and a nurse pushed a trolley into the room. On it was a young man who had lost his legs. He didn't look any older than Katarina.
She looked at him and immediately helped clear the space needed for him.
The nurse, from the theatre, handed Katarina some documents.
"These are his papers," she said, "and his personal effects. He has had both legs amputated above the knee and has a number of splinter wounds. He was patched up in the field hospital but we have tidied him up and made him somewhat more comfortable. His prognosis is unknown as he has not yet regained consciousness since receiving the wounds two days ago."
"Thank you, Sister," Katarina replied, then, looking sadly at the young soldier, "We will make sure he is well cared for."
She looked at his notes. Gefreiter Helmut Kassell. 24 years old. What a waste of a life, she thought as she read.
The identity card she was holding clearly showed he was a member of the Leibstandarte SS 'Adolf Hitler', the most feared and brutal of all the Nazi's armed forces but that made no difference to her. This was a young man who needed her help and she would give it, whoever he was.
As the day wore on, Katarina kept busy, with the other nurses, changing dressings, tending to patients needs, bedpans, exercise and so on, but all the time she watched the young corporal as he lay, unmoving, in his bed.
“Sister, Sister!” a voice from the bed next to the young man call out.
“Yes, Herr Schiller?” she said to the middle-aged man who was waving to her, “Do you need to go again?”
“No, Sister. It is him,” the man pointed to the young soldier, “I think he is coming round. He was groaning.”
Sure enough, when she checked, Gefreiter Helmut Kassell was indeed stirring.
Suddenly, his eyes opened wide with fear and he screamed out, trying to push himself away from her but without legs, he was unable to do so.
Katarina smiled at him.
“Hey, hey,” she said in her softest voice, “You are safe now... Helmut?”
“Who are you?” he said, His eyes darting to and fro, “How do you know my name?”
“I am Sister Langsdorf, Helmut. I am a n... ” she paused as she remembered the conversation with Doctor Kruger that morning, “I am Assistant Ward Matron here at the Charité hospital.”
The frightened young man slowly relaxed but the fear still remained.
“The Charité?” he slowly repeated, “In... ”
“Yes, Helmut, you are in Berlin.”
Very slowly, the realisation dawned on him that he was now safe and that he could trust the young woman with the soft voice whom he had thought, for a second, was an angel.
“What happened to me?” he asked her, “Why am I here?”
“Well,” she spoke carefully, having had enough experience to know that sudden realisation of severe injury could cause shock to set in and even kill a patient. “You were wounded and brought here to recover. Do you remember anything of it?
“I... I'm not sure,” he tried to recall. “We were fighting the Poles... ” His face creased as he tried to bring back the memories that were eluding him.
“I remember we were advancing with a tank squadron. I was manning a machine gun but... I...”
He shook his head. “I can't remember... just blank.”
“Don't worry,” Katarina soothed his forehead, “It is not unusual to blank out memories so soon after a trauma. It the body's way of protecting itself while it heals. You will remember sometime, I am sure.”
Rearranging the sheet around him and making him comfortable, Katarina spoke softly.
“I will go and find Doctor Kruger to check you over then I will see about finding you something to eat. Now, is there anything else you need before I go?”
“Just one thing, Matron, If you would, please?” Katrina waited, “My foot is itching, would you scratch it for me, please. I can't reach it.”
Katarina knew that quite often, because of the way nerves worked, that people who had limbs amputated could still feel them, even though they were no longer there. She couldn't tell him there no feet so she merely replied:
“That will be the bandages, Helmut. I am afraid you will have to put up with it for a while. Lay back and rest while I go and get Doctor Kruger.”
As she walked away, she beckoned one of the other nurses.
“Charlotte, Would you sit with him for a moment while I get the Doctor. He does not know about his legs yet so keep him occupied and don't let him touch or even look at his legs,” and as the other nurse sat, Katarina went off to find the doctor.
When she returned with Doctor Kruger, Helmut Kassell had drifted into sleep.
“Oh, I am sorry, Herr Doktor,” she said, “he was quite awake five minutes ago.”
“Don't worry, Matron,” he replied, smiling at her, as he emphasised 'Matron', “That is often the case. He will probably do that a few more times before he is fully awake. I shan't disturb him now but I will come back from time to time to see how he is doing. I am quite confident that you can look after him in the interim.”
After a quick check that there was no blood on the bandaged stumps, he left Katarina to her work.
The young soldier seemed to become unsettled as the day wore on., groaning and thrashing about. Katarina began to grow concerned as he was becoming feverish.
“Charlotte,” she called as the other nurse passed, “Would you call Doctor Kruger again, please?”
“Certainly, Ka... Matron,” the nurse replied with a wry smile, but Katarina had already turned her attention back to her patient, cooling his head with a cloth soaked in cold water.
He was calm by the time the doctor arrived but was breathing heavily and rapidly.
“What do you think, Matron?” Dr. Kruger asked as he placed a stethoscope upon the patient's chest
“Well, Doctor,” Katarina thought as she spoke so the words came out a little slower than they normally did. “I think that he may have a little infection but mainly I would believe that inflammation of the amputation wounds and also at the area around the less serious but, nevertheless extensive shrapnel wounds would be the most likely cause.”
“You have learnt very well, Katarina. Those are my thoughts exactly. And what would you suggest as treatment?” Doctor Kruger looked at her patiently through his small round spectacles.
Katarina smiled before she replied.
“I have an excellent teacher. I would think that perhaps just Penicillin to fight further infection and, therefore, combat the inflammation.”
“Very good indeed, Matron. Anything else?”
Katarina pondered for a moment.
“I did think Aspirin but we don't want to reduce the clotting process at the wounds so, I would say nothing else at this stage although, if he comes round and suffers pain then maybe a little morphine?”
Doctor Martin Kruger looked at her with great pride.
“I believe God brought you to this profession, young lady. I agree with you entirely. I shall administer the drugs forthwith.” and with that he turned and went to the drugs locker for the syringes and medication.
Once Gefreiter Kassell had calmed somewhat the doctor looked at Katarina and said:
“Do you know what the time is? You have been here over twelve hours.”
“I know,” she replied, “but he is in such a sorry state I will stay in case he wakes again.”
“You are a wonderful nurse, Katarina but you cannot look after all the patients by yourself. There are other nurses too.”
“Yes, I know,” she replied, “but if he comes round and sees a familiar face, he may just react a little more favourably.”
“I can see you have made up your mind. It's no use me trying to change it. Ok, young lady, but be careful not to make yourself ill. I don't know how Germany would manage without you. Goodnight, Katarina.”
“Goodnight Doctor Kruger, she called after him as he walked away shaking his head and chuckling to himself.
Katarina settled down in a chair next to the young soldiers bed and it was some hours later when she heard a voice calling.
She sat up suddenly, realising she had fallen asleep.
The voice was coming from the bed beside her. The young man had woken and was trying to attract her attention. The ward was in semi-darkness, the only light coming from the desk where the duty nurse sat and from the corridor outside.
She rubbed her eyes to wakefulness.
“Hello,” she said to her patient, who was lying on his back with his head turned towards her, “You are back with us then?”
Helmut smiled at her, weakly.
“I think so,” he whispered. “Have you been here all day and night?”
Katarina leaned over to make him more comfortable.
“Yes,” she replied.
He closed his eyes once more for a moment then blinked them open again.
“You are beautiful. Like an angel. I am alive aren't I?”
Katarina laughed gently.
“Yes, you are alive,” she answered, “and I intend to keep you that way. How do you feel?”
“I've been better,” he replied with a slight laugh which made him cough.
“Hey, take it easy now. You need a lot of rest.”
Helmut lay still again then frowned.
“How long have I been out?”
“According to your records, nearly three days.”
“Three days!?” The young soldier began to cough again as he struggled to sit up. Katarina had to hold him down and spoke gently.
“Don't try and struggle. You will burst your stitches. Now, relax and lay back.”
The young, blond haired, blue eyed man did as he was told and lay back. He was too weak to argue anyway.
“That's better,” Katarina whispered. “Now then, you haven't received any serious wounds to your stomach or chest so I will get you a drink. Would you like coffee or just water?”
“Just water please, Matron, thank you.” Helmut took her hand and squeezed it gently, “You truly are an angel.”
Katarina stayed with him for the rest of the night, catching an hours sleep here and there as he alternated between sleep and wakefulness.
By six the next morning, the rest of the ward was beginning to stir and an exhausted Katarina returned to the duties that she would normally have been doing at this time.
Exactly at seven Doctor Kruger appeared for his ward inspection. He made straight for her.
“Good morning, Matron,” he smiled cheerily. “And how is our patient this morning?”
“He is awake and responding very well, I am happy to report, Herr Doktor.” Katarina smiled wearily.
The older man looked at her.
“What time did you go home, Katarina?” She didn't answer.
“You didn't, did you?” he continued. Katarina shook her head.
“Oh, what am I going to do with you, young lady?” the doctor sighed with exasperation, “I wish you would put yourself first for once!”
There was a pause as he looked at her, a small smile flickered across his lips.
“Right then, have you slept at all?”
“I have, a little,” she replied, “In the chair.”
“Good!” he said, “When we have done all the main duties today, you will go home and rest as soon as you are able. Yes?”
“Yes, Herr Doktor,” The young nurse smiled at him, “I promise.”
Suddenly, the doors to the ward flew open and an SS officer stormed up to Doctor Kruger.
“Where is my son?” he demanded loudly.
The doctor drew himself up in front of this arrogant man.
“Would you please keep your voice down!” he said, “This is a hospital, not a barracks. Now, who exactly is your son?”
The officer looked angry but he was more concerned with finding his son at that moment than with this impertinent old man in the white coat.
“My son is Gefreiter Helmut Kassell of the SS Leibstandarte.” His voice was quieter, but his tone was, if anything, more menacing. Doctor Kruger remained unbowed.
“If you will follow me, I will take you to him. This way please.”
As soon as the young corporal saw his father, his eyes opened wide, as if in fear.
“Father!” he said, “I am sorry, I couldn't... ”
Katarina laid her hand on his shoulder.
“It wasn't your fault.” she said in soothing tones.
The tall blonde officer looked at Katarina. Anger in his eyes.
“I will be the judge of that. Now, stand aside, I wish to speak to my son!”
Katarina opened her mouth to say something but Doctor Kruger stopped her by gripping her arm.
“Matron,” he said quickly, “Your other patients require attention.”
The look on his face spoke volumes so she said nothing and went to attend to the other duties that really could have waited.
Leutnant Kassell had been beside his son only five minutes when a chilling scream rang out,
Katarina ran over and saw the sheet had been pulled back and her patient's bandaged stumps were exposed for all to see.
“Get out of here you fool.” she cried, “Don't you know what you have done? He didn't know!”
Twenty four year old Helmut Kassell was sitting looking down at where his legs once were, a look of abject horror on his face, all colour gone from him. His breathing was rapid now and very shallow.
“Get out!” she yelled again. Leutnant Kassell gave her a withering look then, drawing himself up to full height, turned and began to walk toward the door.
“Father, wait, please,” Helmut called after him.
He stopped and walked slowly back to his son's bedside.
“Please forgive me,” he begged.
As he pulled himself towards his father, Katarina turned away to allow a them little privacy.
A shot rang out and she spun around to see the Luger pistol, fall from Helmut's hand and clatter to the floor.
Leutnant Kassell bent and picked up the gun and released the mechanism before returning it to the holster from where his son had taken it as he embraced his father. Turning, he walked towards the door and left without a backwards glance or another word being spoken.
For a moment, there was a stunned silence then all the nurses and Doctor Kruger ran to the young soldier's bed. They just stood and looked helplessly. There was no use trying to save him, he had put the muzzle of the gun under his chin and squeezed the trigger. There was little left.
Doctor Kruger put his arm around Katarina who just stood, staring.
Eventually she pulled away from him with the words:
“Huh, some angel... ”
“Sorry? What... ?” the doctor asked, puzzled.
“The last thing he said to me was that I am an angel. Couldn't help him though, could I?”
“Now don't you start thinking things like that. You made his last hours bearable. No-one could have foreseen what happened. Our lives will always involve life and death,” Doctor Kruger smiled again at her, “and, for what it's worth, I also think you are an angel so never give up, however bad things might seem.”
“I suppose you are right,” she sighed, “I won't.”
It took some time to remove the body and clear up the mess but, eventually, all was clean again and the ward was back to normal.
Katarina sat down for a moment's rest when suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up and smiled as the doctor looked down at her.
“I think you should go home now, Matron. You look exhausted.”
“Yes,” she replied, “I am.”
As she stood the doctor continued:
“Hell of a first day as Matron don't you think?”
With a wry smile she replied:
“Yes, and a long one too.”
“I am proud of what you have achieved in the past thirty-two hours, Katarina, well done. Now, go home and get some rest. I will see you n the morning.”
Katarina thanked him for his kindness and left for home, glad to be able to get out of there for a few hours at least.
It was three in the afternoon when she finally walked through the door to her apartment. Her mother greeted her with a hug
“Katarina, where have you been? You didn't come home at all last night?”
“No, Mama, I am sorry but we had a really bad night... ” and she told her mother all about what had happened.
“Oh my poor darling,” her mother cooed. “Are you going straight to bed?”
“In a minute, Mama. I will sit for a while with you if you have time.”
“I always have time for you, Sweetheart. Have you eaten.”
It was then that Katarina realised that she hadn't eaten at all since the day before.
“I will get you some bread and cheese. Would you like coffee too?”
“Mmm... yes please, Mama.”
As Magda prepared the food and drink she asked Katarina if she had heard any news while she had been at work,
“No, Mama,” she replied, “Why, has something happened?”
Her mother placed the food and coffee in front of her and sat down opposite.
“The British have declared war with us because of Poland, and the French too.”
Katarina's heart sank.
“Oh, Mama, I so hoped it wouldn't come to this. I like the British and you and Papa have so many friends there.”
She reached out as she spoke and took her mother's hand.
“Will Papa have to fight them?” she asked.
“No, Sweetheart, he works for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, he will not be called upon to fight.”
Once she had finished her food and coffee, she stood.
“I will sleep now Mama. I don't suppose I will see you before I work again tomorrow. Tell Papa I am sorry I missed him.”
“I will,” her mother replied, “Sleep well my little angel.”
“I do wish people wouldn't call me that,” she said with a smile, “I am no angel, I am just me, trying to do what is right.”
Suddenly she said:
“Mama! With all that has happened I almost forgot! Doctor Kruger had me appointed Assistant Ward Matron”
“Oh, Katarina, that is wonderful news! He must think a lot of you. Is it all right if I tell your father or do you want to tell him?”
“No, you can tell him if you like.”
Magda's mouth widened into a broad smile.
“He will be so proud of you, as am I,” she enthused and threw her arms around her daughter and hugged her tightly.
“Now go and sleep,” she said.