Berlin December 24th, 1939
Christmas Eve. Katarina was at home with her parents. It was Sunday, but as was often the case she would be working. She never minded working at Christmas. She would see her parents for a few hours, and they would celebrate Christ's birth, as did many others but she found she got as much pleasure from trying to brighten the lives of those who were suffering in the hospital at this time of year. This year even more so, she considered, as now there was a war on. She hadn't seen much evidence of war so far. Not much had changed really. There had been reports of battles in the North Atlantic and ships had been lost but for her, it was business as usual.
"What time will you be home tomorrow, Katarina?" her mother asked, "Will you be at the normal time?"
"I think so, Mama." she replied, "I don't know of anything changing but, of course, that means nothing these days."
"You work such long hours anyway, my darling. What is it tonight, twelve?"
"Yes, Mama," Katarina smiled at she thought about how often they had this conversation, "Six until six. I will be home about seven."
Her mother meant well. Katarina knew she was worried about how long she worked without a break, sometimes weeks passed without her taking a day off but she was still young and in good health. There would be time for rest when she was older. Right now, though, her patients needed her, and she couldn't let them down.
Katarina looked at the clock on the wall, one-thirty. She had managed six hours sleep this morning, not too bad she considered as she had never been able to sleep well during the daylight hours.
“Would you like to help me decorate the tree?” her mother asked.
“Of course,” she replied with a smile, “I wasn't sure that we would have a tree this year.”
For the next two hours, Katarina and her mother decorated the small Christmas tree with the decorations they kept in a box in the kitchen cupboard. Small wooden figures to hang from the branches and a star for the top.
When all was finished, Magda brought out a wooden figure of an old man with a white beard who held a pipe in his hand. She separated the top half from the bottom, much like the Russian babushka dolls she had seen and placed a small amount of incense in a tiny bowl that was set at the top of his legs. She then struck a match and lit the small pile of grey powder before reuniting the two halves of his body. Before long, a thin plume of smoke curled lazily from the small hole that served as the old man's mouth, filling the room with the heady aroma of incense and giving the impression that the man was smoking his pipe.
“Mmm... I love that smell.” a voice from behind them made them both turn.
“Oh, Hello Papa. I didn't hear you.” Katarina knew he hadn't been to work, but she had not seen him since she arose.
“Hello, Sweetheart,” Siegfried said. “I hope we didn't disturb you while you were in bed.”
“Oh no, Papa, I didn't hear anything today. I slept quite well thank you.”
She turned and kissed him on the cheek. “I must go and get ready for duty.”
“Would you like some coffee before you go?” her mother asked.
“Mmm... yes please,” Katarina smiled, “I will sit with you for a while before I leave.”
Less than two hours later, Katarina closed the apartment door behind her and went down the stairs to the main lobby. Frau Muller, the concierge, was, as always, standing by the door to her own apartment.
“Hello, Frau Muller,” she said cheerily “All set for Christmas?”
“Good evening, Sister Langsdorf,” came the reply, “Yes, all is ready.” There was no smile, just a matter of fact answer as was usual with the concierge.
“That is good, Frohe Weihnachten, Frau Muller,” Katarina waved as she headed for the door.
“Hmm... ” was all she heard as she closed the door behind her and headed off towards the tram stop.
Berlin was decorated for Christmas as in previous years but, since 1933, the trees were topped with not stars but swastikas.
This was something that Katarina had grown up with since she was fifteen, so she didn't really notice anymore.
The tram was quite busy, even though it was Sunday and as she boarded, a young man in a grey Wehrmacht uniform stood up and offered her his seat. She politely refused as she really didn't feel like squeezing into a seat that was already partially occupied. No, she was happy to stand for a while. It was only for a few minutes after all.
Berlin seemed like one big building site these days. The Nazi's were building a vast road across the centre of the city and huge monoliths, topped with swastikas, were rising along it.
The light had all but gone now and the trams dim lighting turned the windows into mirrors. It was difficult to see out because of the reflections and the condensation, so Katarina looked at the reflections of the other passengers around her. Most just sat with expressionless faces. Some were chatting in couples, and others just stared out of the windows, lost in their own little worlds.
The hospital ward had a nicely decorated tree at the end, but it had nothing on top of it.
Doctor Kruger, as the senior physician, would not tolerate a swastika, but he could not use a star, even a five pointed one, for fear of offending the authorities, so he kept it bare. There were a few traditional wooden decorations on the tree but since no-one in power had much interest in the medical profession no comment had yet been made.
Katarina took off her cape and hung it on the hook in the nurses restroom then headed for her desk to take the handover from the day shift matron.
They spent a few minutes going through the medications and charts and, as there had been no new admissions since Katarina had left for home earlier that day, the business was very soon concluded. After a brief, chat, Katarina was wished a Happy Christmas by her colleague and was left to take up the running of the ward.
Although she was only the assistant matron, the actual matron having been taken away for other duties more and more frequently, Katarina had taken to her ever increasing responsibilities with maturity and cheerfulness. Nothing was too much trouble, and all the other nurses, however, much experience they had, all supported her because of her good nature and willingness to work hard with them.
Katarina visited each of the thirty beds in her ward at the start of every shift, checking their paperwork and spending a minute chatting. If they were happy and relaxed, she reasoned, it made her job easier and also helped them to make a more complete recovery.
The ward was a general surgical ward and the patients, all male, were of all ages with a variety of ailments and injuries.
The incident in September had been an isolated one but, for reasons unknown to her, no other SS personnel had come to the ward. There were other soldiers, who had passed through but, for the most part, her patients were civilians with a variety of injuries such as road accidents, falls, and mostly old men who had age related illnesses. For Katarina, those were the worst. They would often come to her in a poor state, and she would look after them and make them comfortable until they either recovered or, as was most often the case, they succumbed to whatever ailed them.
At first, Katarina would be saddened by all these things but now, after six years, although she still felt it, she had learned how to deal with it and soon pushed it to the back of her mind to get on with her own life. She saw it for what it was, a part of the never ending cycle of life and death. If she could make these patient's lives a little easier, then she would be content.
Half way down the ward, on the left-hand side, was an old man. He had been brought to the ward after his wife had passed away at home. He suffered from dementia, and now there was no-one to look after him. Doctor Kruger had made enquiries about getting him into a mental health hospital but what he heard had disturbed him deeply. The Nazis had been running a programme of euthanasia. They had begun with those who were born with incurable disabilities but recently had been quietly extending that to include anyone who was not fit to work on a permanent basis. This, of course, included those like the old man. He decided then not to say anymore and try to keep him on the ward as long as he could.
Katarina walked to the side of his bed.
"Good Evening, Herr Schiller. How are you today?" she asked, expecting the same blank look she always got.
This time, however, she was surprised and very pleased when he replied:
"Good evening Matron," and smiled a big wide grin.
"My, my, Herr Schiller. You are bright this evening."
"Am I?" he replied, "Yes, I suppose I am. My wife is coming to collect me tonight."
Katarina realised he was back in his little world again.
"Ahh, that is nice, you will like that. No wonder you are cheerful."
"Cheerful?" he said, "Am I? Why?"
"Your wife is coming, isn't she?"
"Is she?" the old man smiled up at her, "That will be nice."
Katarina smiled and patted his hand as he closed his eyes to sleep. She felt a little sad but inside he seemed to be happy, so she walked on to the next bed and left Herr Schiller to dream of his wife.
She spoke to every patient, reassuring them with a kind word here and a sympathetic ear there, but tonight, Christmas Eve, all seemed well and quiet.
Around midnight, she was sitting at her desk when one of the nurses tapped her on the shoulder.
"Matron, it's Herr Schiller."
"What is?" Katarina asked.
"He is sitting up and talking as if there is somebody there, but there is no-one."
"Would you like me to see him?" she asked.
"Would you mind, Matron? It is a little unnerving."
"No, I don't mind at all, Sister." She smiled as she got to her feet and walked quietly across to the old man's bed.
As she approached, she could see that Herr Schiller was indeed sitting upright and appeared deep in conversation with someone sitting beside him although the chair at which he was directing his speech was empty.
As the two nurses got near, he stopped talking and looked at them and when he saw Katarina his face lit up.
"Ah, Matron!" he said, "You see, I told you she was coming."
Katarina wasn't puzzled, she knew how the old man's mind worked by now, and she humoured him.
"Who, Herr Schiller?" she asked gently and quietly, so not to disturb the other patients.
"My wife, of course," He spoke as though she should have known but had probably forgotten, "Frau Schiller."
Katarina smiled and nodded.
"Yes, I am sorry, I forgot you said she was coming."
"This is Katarina, My love. She has been so good, looking after me," once again directing the words towards the empty chair.
"Let me make you comfortable, Herr Schiller."
Katarina puled up his pillows so he could lean back against the bed frame with some comfort, then pulled the blanket up around him to keep him warm.
"You see?" He said again to the chair, "Always considerate, always looking after her patients. She is a good girl, Heide."
"You will make me blush, Herr Schiller, I am just doing my job."
"No, Matron, You do far more than just your job. You change peoples lives and one day you will be someone's guardian angel, I am sure of it."
He looked across to the empty chair.
"A sister? No, I don't think so."
Turning back to Katarina he continued;
"Do you have a sister, Matron?"
"A sister? No, Herr Schiller, I don't have a sister. What made you ask that?"
He looked back at the chair.
"No, you see, I didn't think so," then again to Katarina, "My wife thought you had a sister. I didn't think you had. She was wrong."
“Ah, I see,” she replied. “No, no sister. Just me, my Mama and my Papa.”
Herr Schiller smiled and then turned his head towards the chair once again.
"Oh, all right then, Heide," still talking as if his wife was really there, "Just a few more minutes to say goodbye to the Matron."
He looked up at Katarina, his eyes becoming moist but looking happier now than she had seen him.
"We are leaving now, Matron. I am pleased that I had you to look after me. Thank you."
He paused for a moment.
“Heide says you are blessed and some day we shall meet again.”
Katarina placed her hand on his and smiled:
"You should rest now, Herr Schiller. Are you comfortable this way or do you prefer to lay back?"
"I am fine this way, thank you, Matron," he said drowsily. "I am ready now, my love."
He closed his eyes and breathed out with a long sigh before his head rolled slightly to the side.
Katarina picked up his hand with two fingers against the pressure point on his wrist. She moved them slightly, left, right but no, there was definitely no pulse. She placed her fingers on his neck, seeking a pulse at the Carotid artery.
Nothing there either.
“Would you check his pulse please, Sister?” she asked the nurse beside her.
After several attempts the nurse replied;
“No pulse! But you were just talking with him!”
The nurse was puzzled.
“Surely he ... ” she didn't finish but stood there frowning, “You don't think that...” She paused, “Shouldn't we...?”
“Revive him?” Katarina finished he question for her. “No, I think it is best to let him go peacefully. After all, what does he have to look forward to?”
Katarina was also at a loss to understand. Did his wife come to collect him?
She looked at the other nurse then, taking a deep breath, pulled herself back to reality.
“Would you call Doctor Kruger, please. He needs to certify death.”
Thirty minutes later, after the doctor had completed the necessary documents and Herr Schiller was finally ready to be taken from the ward, Katarina and Doctor Kruger went together to the nurses restroom for some refreshment. They sat for a while, each with a cup of coffee.
“You are very quiet, Katarina,” the doctor said, at last, “Are you all right?”
“Hmm... I am, I think. It was very strange... Herr Schiller,” she answered slowly, thoughtfully, “He kept talking as if his wife was there. As though she had come to take him home.”
Martin Kruger nodded sagely as he listened.
“I have seen that before,” he said, when she finished, “I think that it is the thing they most desire and as their brain begins to die they think that is what is happening, that their loved one has come to take them to heaven.”
They sat silently for a minute. Katarina deep in thought.
“But what if it is true and it really does happen, that we do meet our loved ones again?”
“Well,” Doctor Kruger, replied, “I suppose that we will only know for sure when our own time comes.”
“Yes, I suppose so. Oh well, for the rest of us, life goes on.” Katarina stood and took her cup to the sink to wash it.
Doctor Kruger smiled as he watched her leave the room and thought to himself that this was one very special young lady.
The rest of the night was uneventful. The nurses carried out the checks as required and around five forty-five, the morning staff began to arrive.
By six, the handover was complete, and Katarina left the ward after visiting each patient in turn and wishing each of them a happy Christmas.
The streets were quiet, and Katarina soon arrived home and crept quietly through the front door so as not to awaken the other residents. Frau Muller was not at the door, which was not surprising at seven O'clock on Christmas morning. She tip-toed up the stairs to her own front door and inserted the key, turning it slowly, so it didn't suddenly click open, then closed it equally carefully behind her.
As she passed the kitchen, she saw a light showing under the door, so she turned the handle and opened it.
Siegfried Langsdorf was at the stove about to pour some coffee.
“Good morning, Papa,” she said, walking over to him and embracing him. “Happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas, Darling,” he said back to her, “A good night?”
“A strange one.” she replied, “An old man with dementia passed away, and he was convinced his dead wife had come to collect him.”
“Well, maybe she did.”
“Do you think that is possible, Papa?”
“Why? Do you think it is not?”
Katarina pondered the question.
“Well... I don't know. Maybe the Lord sends our loved ones to us to show us the way.”
Her father didn't answer her but let her consider the options.
“Or, maybe...” she continued, “Maybe our brain just begins to shut down, and that is what we think is happening, as Doctor Kruger said.” She paused for a moment, “But he did seem very lucid and content at the end.”
“Well then,” her father replied, “That is all that matters. Whatever actually happened, that man was not afraid to die and passed away contented.”
“Do you know, Papa?” Katarina put her head to one side and smiled, “You are exactly right. It really doesn't matter. Herr Schiller was happy at last.”
She put her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek.
“I will get some sleep and see you later for dinner. Goodnight, Papa.”
“Good night, Sweetheart,” he replied, “Sleep well.”
“Yes,” she said, thoughtfully, “I think I will now.”