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The Nurses. Chapter 9

Katarina gets a shock as war draws inexorably closer.

Berlin. June 1st, 1940

 

 

Saturday. A beautiful summer day. Warm and sunny. On her ward, Katarina was too hot. All the windows were open but there was not a breath of air for them to make the slightest of difference.

 

So far it had been a busy day. All the beds were occupied and, as usual, she didn't have enough nurses to help her so she was constantly moving from patient to patient, attending to their needs, administering medication, checking pulses, blood pressures and changing dressings.

 

About halfway through her shift, Doctor Kruger appeared.

 

"Good afternoon, Matron."

 

He always greeted her this way, even though she was only an assistant matron.

 

"Good afternoon, Doctor Kruger," she smiled, "It is warm today."

 

"Yes, very," he replied. "I have been trying to get some fans but no-one cares enough to let us have any."

 

"I am not surprised," she said, "Nothing changes. Never mind, we will manage."

 

She liked Doctor Kruger. She had worked with him since she began her training. He had always looked after her and explained everything to her, probably because she had always been interested and very eager to learn as much as she could.

 

He was older than her father, maybe almost old enough to be his father, she thought. In an ideal world he would have retired and be enjoying his life, pottering around, tending his garden, reading, or whatever he enjoyed doing. Germany in 1940, however, was far from an ideal world and Doctor Martin Kruger had no such dreams. His pleasure, now, was to nurture Katarina as if she was his own daughter, or granddaughter, and watch her grow into a confident and efficient nurse.

 

Katarina knew what he was doing and she loved him for it.

 

As she worked, she noticed that the doctor was not his usual self. On the surface he was the same man she had known for almost a third of her life but he seemed preoccupied, as though something was troubling him and didn't want it to show. When they were near each other he spoke as he always did but now he said little before trying to find reasons to move away from her.

 

In the end, Katarina stopped him near the office.

 

Putting her hand on his arm she asked him directly.

 

“Is something wrong, Herr Doktor?”

 

He looked a little startled, alarmed even.

 

“Wrong? No. Why do you ask?”

 

She looked at him straight in the eyes.

 

“I have known, and loved, you for the last seven years and you have always been honest with me. I Know you well enough now to know when something is troubling you so, I will ask you again. Is something wrong?”

 

Doctor Kruger took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes and seemed to deflate as his shoulders slumped forward.

 

“Katarina.” he began slowly then stopped. “Come into my office.”

 

He took her arm and guided her through the frosted glass door, closing it behind them.

 

Gesturing Katarina towards a large, comfortable sofa in the corner of his office, he went behind his desk and sat heavily in the big leather office chair and leaned forward, pressing his face into his hands, elbows on the big solid desk.

 

After a moment, as Katarina waited with trepidation, he reached down and pulled open a draw from which he withdrew a buff folder and placed it on the desk in front of him.

 

He opened it slowly, as if the front cover was very heavy.

 

Finally, after what seemed to Katarina like an eternity, he looked up at her. She thought for a moment that she saw a tear forming in his eye.

 

“You are right, Katarina, something is troubling me.”

 

She didn't speak but listened intently as the old man continued.

 

“I have received papers from the Red Cross. They are sending you to France, to a military hospital.”

 

“To ... to France?” she whispered. She felt numb. Katarina had never been away from her parents before. She had travelled, of course, been to England a few times but never alone.

 

“Our army marched into France a few weeks ago, as you probably know,” the doctor continued, “There have been casualties and they need good nurses to tend them. I have tried to stop it, but there is nothing I can do. They don't listen to an old man like me.”

 

He looked old now. He seemed to have aged ten years in the last few hours.

 

“The only thing they would listen to was my plea to make you a full Matron.”

 

He pushed folder across the desk to her.

 

“I am so sorry, Katarina. I tried, I really did. At least, as a Matron, you will be treated as an officer.”

 

Katarina stood and went around to the other side of the desk and crouched beside the devastated doctor.

 

“Herr Doktor,” she began, “Martin. You cannot protect me all my life. I know you would like to and I appreciate that, I truly do, but we are at war now and if they say I am needed in France then to France I must go. Don't be fearful for me. You know I can look after myself and, being honest, can it be any worse than it is in Berlin?”

 

Doctor Kruger turned in his chair and looked her in the eye.

 

“You never cease to amaze me, Katarina. You see something good in everything.”

 

He laid his glasses on the blotter in front of him upon his desk and, pinched the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb.

 

Taking his hands in hers, Katarina smiled as she spoke again.

 

“You have taught me well, Martin and now, as hard as it will undoubtedly be, it is time to use what I have learnt. If I am lucky enough to survive this war, then you can be assured it will be because of what you have taught me.”

 

Professor and nurse, teacher and student but, more importantly, friends, they remained thus for a few minutes until Katarina asked the as yet unmentioned question.

 

“Where and when am I going?”

 

Doctor Kruger took a deep breath and straightened up in his chair. He opened the file and took out a travel document. Putting on his glasses, he read the neatly written form.

 

“You are going to Amiens and you leave in four days, Wednesday. I have requested, and it has been accepted, that you may leave here after this duty and have the next few days with your family.”

 

Katarina stood and the doctor closed the file and handed it to her.

 

“Everything you need is in there, Katarina. All that remains then is for me to wish you good luck and bon voyage.” He extended his hand.

 

The young nurse took his hand then, suddenly, threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.

 

“I owe you everything, Martin. Thank you. I will never forget your kindness and all you have done for me.”

 

He clasped her shoulders.

 

“You are the best nurse I have ever known. If I had been your father, well, grandfather," he smiled slightly, "I could not have been more proud. Now go, say your goodbyes and may God watch over you.”

 

He turned away, not wanting her to see his eyes filling with tears.

 

Katarina understood and, after squeezing his arm, opened the frosted glass door and left the office to return to the ward.

 

Although she didn't know it then, that would be the last time she would see him.

 

It had been very emotional saying goodbye to her colleagues. She had seen many come and go over the years but now it was she who was going. She had spent her whole adult life at the Charité. She knew it's ways and it's people and now she was setting out on a new adventure. She remembered the SS soldier who had shot himself the year before and now she was going to treat other young soldiers only, this time, they were not at home or near family.

 

The ride home seemed slow but she saw nothing of it. Her thoughts were miles away. She hadn't opened the folder that Doctor Kruger had given her. She wanted to wait until she could look at it with her father.

 

France may as well have been on the other side of the world. She had never been there and knew nothing about it. Papa had a big map of Europe. She would ask him to show her where Amiens was.

 

Thirty minutes later she opened the door from the street and walked into the main lobby of the apartment building where she and her parents lived.

 

The door to the concierge's apartment was open and there was quite a commotion going on inside. Katarina stopped and listened for a moment. She could hear raised voices.

 

"I told you all I know." she heard Frau Muller say. "What do you want me to do, go into his apartment and ask him?"

 

"We need more evidence," a man's voice replied. "It would serve you well to remember why you are allowed to stay here."

 

Suddenly, two men appeared at the door, both wearing black suits with matching hats.

 

Katarina stepped back as they stormed past her and outside to the shiny black car that she hadn't even noticed was there when she passed.

 

She knew who they were. The Gestapo were no secret, even though they were called the secret police.

 

She looked back to the open door of the apartment as the concierge appeared.

 

"Frau Muller. Is everything all right?" she asked

 

The concierge glared at her and slammed the door shut.

 

"Well!" she thought."At least, in France, I won't have to worry about the Gestapo!"

 

She was pleased to see that her father was at home when she closed her own door behind her, closing out all thoughts of black suits and black cars.

 

"Hello, my dear." He greeted her cheerily "How was your day?"

 

"Hello, Papa." she kissed his cheek. "Not good really. Is Mama here?"

 

"Yes, she is in the bedroom. Is something wrong?"

 

Katarina paused and took a breath.

 

"Can we go to the kitchen? I need to talk to you both."

 

"Of course, Sweetheart." he called his wife to join them, "Is it serious?"

 

"Yes, Papa," she replied, "It is."

 

They went together to the kitchen and sat at the table when they were joined moments later by her mother.

 

She placed the grey folder on the table. There was no doubt to her father that it contained official documents because, on the front was the Gothic style eagle with the wreath and swastika that appeared on all official paperwork.

 

He didn't speak but allowed Katarina to tell them in her own time.

 

She struggled to know how to begin so she opened the file and stared down at the order that was at the top of the sheaf of papers.

 

"I..."

 

She stopped.

 

Magda looked at her with fear in her eyes as Katarina tried to find the right words.

 

She looked at her mother, then at her father and back again to her mother and finally she found the strength.

 

"I am being sent to France." she blurted out finally. "To an hospital in Amiens."

 

There was silence. Magda Langsdorf put her hand to her mouth and moisture welled in her eyes.

 

"When do you leave?" her father asked.

 

"Wednesday." she replied simply.

 

"Then I have time." he went on. "I will speak to some people at the ministry and get this stopped."

 

"No, Papa. Please don't." She put her hand upon his.

 

"But Katarina, You are only twenty-two years old. they can't send you to a war zone!" Her mother almost shouted the words

 

"If I don't go now," she explained, "Someone else will have to go in my place and that would not be fair."

 

"Siegfried, make her see sense!" her mother implored, "You can't let her go to war!"

 

Her father looked at her and studied her for what seemed like forever.

 

"Siegfried... Please!" Her mother repeated.

 

Herr Langsdorff placed one hand upon that of his wife and reached across and placed the other upon his daughters. He understood his daughter like no-one else could.

 

"I have feared for some time that this day would come. I hoped that it would not but it has. I do understand you, Katarina and I also understand that you would not be happy if I intervened. I respect your decision and commend you for it."

 

"Siegfried!" Magda begged, "You can't let her go... Please!"

 

Katarina took her mother's other hand..

 

"Please don't be upset for me, Mama. Papa is right. I would not be happy knowing that someone else had to go to war because my father knew people. Besides, I am a nurse, not a soldier. I will be in a hospital, away from the fighting."

 

The fear showed in Magda's face as the tears streamed from her eyes but she softened and even smiled a small smile of acceptance and nodded.

 

"Yes," she said, "You are right, of course. You must follow your heart."

 

"There is one more thing I have to tell you." Katarina smiled now. "Doctor Kruger spoke to the hospital administrators and told them that I had done a good job as assistant Matron, especially as the ward doesn't have an actual matron of its own. They agreed to make me a matron officially and that means I will treated a little better while I am away."

 

"Well, that is something, I suppose," her mother answered.

 

"If you will excuse me, I will have a bath if that is all right," Katarina said as she got to her feet. "I need to relax for a bit."

 

It had been a long day and, as she slipped down into the hot water, she felt all her tension begin to dissolve as the heat enveloped her and helped her relax.

 

She tried not to think about what the future might hold. Instead, she just closed her eyes and thought of nothing.

 

"Katarina!" she stirred to the sound of her mother calling. "Dinner in half an hour."

 

"Yes, Mama," she called back.

 

Thirty minutes later, she sat at the table with her parents dressed in her nightdress and robe.

 

They ate in silence until Katarina placed her knife and fork on the plate and pushed it away.

 

"I am sorry, Mama, I can't eat any more."

 

Magda looked at her and smiled, also placing her cutlery on her plate and pushing it away.

 

"Nor me," she said.

 

Siegfried looked at them both and also smiled.

 

"I know how you both feel," he said, "but this is too good to waste!"

 

Eventually, her father finished eating and put down his cutlery.

 

“Now then,” he said, “Do you want to discuss it or shall we leave it until tomorrow?”

 

“I would like to talk about it a little, Papa. If that is all right with you of course, and you, Mama.” She turned towards Magda.

 

“I think so,” her mother replied resignedly. “It is better out in the open after all.”

 

Katarina pushed the grey folder over to her father who studied the front for a moment. To him, it looked exactly the same as countless others he had dealt with since Hitler came to power.

 

The contents, though, were not and he carefully opened the front cover to reveal the official papers inside.

 

The first sheet on the top of the pile was conspicuous in that it was topped with a large red cross instead of a swastika. It was the order from the Red Cross telling her about her posting and where and when to go. The rest of the papers were travel documents and orders for the various checkpoints she would pass through.

 

The last was a letter to Katarina from the Red Cross. It confirmed her appointment officially as a full matron.

 

Looking up at his daughter, holding the documents in his hand he spoke.

 

"So," he said slowly," You are to catch a train at six O'clock on Wednesday morning at the Hauptbahnhof."

 

Siegfried removed his glasses.

 

"It will be a long journey, I think."

 

He pressed his forehead with his fingertips before turning to the papers in front of him.

 

"I know there are flights from Templehof, transports to the front. At least, let me see if I can get you on one of those."

 

Katarina smiled.

 

"All right, Papa," she agreed, "If it makes you feel better."

 

He placed his hand upon hers across the table.

 

"It does," he said, "If you won't let me keep you in Berlin then the least I can do is make your journey a little easier. Now, it says here you are to report to the hospital at Amiens on Monday the tenth of June at seven am. So, all I have to do is find a flight that ensures you are there for Sunday afternoon."

 

He paused for a while as if in thought before continuing.

 

"That should be possible," he said, eventually. "If not then you still have the train I suppose. I will take care of it first thing Monday morning. For now, though, let us enjoy the weekend together. In fact," he said after a slight pause, "I will also try to get some time off. Whatever time we have before you leave we will spend together, yes?"

 

Katarina smiled,

 

"I would like that, Papa," She answered, "I would like that very much."

 

For the rest of the evening, the three of them sat in the living room listening to the radio. There was a recital of Gotterdamerung with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

 

When it was over, Katarina stood.

 

“Well, I will try to sleep now,” she said, stretching her arms, “Goodnight Mama, Goodnight Papa. Sleep well.”

 

“Goodnight Katarina. You too,” they replied although they all knew that it was unlikely.

 

Once in her bed, Katarina closed her eyes but sleep would not come. She hadn't been to France so didn't know what Amiens was like, except that it didn't really matter, it was an occupied war zone anyway.

 

She had never worked anywhere but the Charite but then the memory of Gefreiter Helmut Kassell came back to her. Were these the kind of injuries she would now have to treat, the kind of young men she would be looking after?

 

She shuddered as she remembered his father and what happened that day.

 

“At least,” she thought, “There would be no fathers.”

 

Eventually, as the night wore on sleep did overtake her and she slept fitfully until the daylight, once again, began to filter through the curtains. She opened her eyes and looked at the clock beside her bed, almost five am. She had slept for only three hours.

 

Sitting up, Katarina swung her legs out of the bed and slipped her feet into the slippers that lay on the floor alongside. She sat still for a moment, on the side of the bed until she remembered, she wasn't going to work today at the hospital and she wouldn't see it again for some time.

 

She sighed, let the slippers fall back to the floor and lay back down, pulling the blankets over her.

 

There she remained until she heard her father in the kitchen some two hours later.

 

 

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