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Hitler's Suicide Spurs Escape Toward Elbe

AMERICAN Barbarah Straede, and her German landlord, Heinz Cramer, flee the Russian occupation of Berlin in May 1945. For 10 days they travel on foot, often under gunfire and always stealthfully moving toward the Elbe River where American forces are encamped.

''One more river,'' the refrain hummed through my head. Heinz and I had survived all the hazards of Russian-occupied territory. Berlin was miles behind us, but the Elbe River and safety still seemed very far ahead of us.

After sleeping on the stone floor of the garage, I had what was almost a bath under a water pump in a garden the next morning. Heinz worked at our newfound bicycles, patching an inner tube, straightening the handlebars, and raising the saddle. Then we waited for the Brauns, relatives of ''Papa,'' who let us stay in his garage.

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Finally, about 9 o'clock, they were ready, and we set off on a trail through the woods.

Our new companions, in their mid-30s with a 12-year-old daughter, were quiet people with a grim determination not to be left behind or outdone. Heinz and I were the pacesetters; the Brauns kept close behind.

Landscape and weather were melancholy. We rode through sparse pine forests spread over flat plains. Rain splattered over us in slow-moving showers.

But our progress was beset by mechanical difficulties. My bicycle was too small for me, and the handlebars weren't straight, forcing me to steer continually to the left. Heinz's huge knapsack slipped to one side or the other, pulling his bicycle over.

Another bicycle tire had a slow leak, requiring us to stop every 20 minutes to pump it up. All this slowed our progress, causing me to wish we were on foot.

Now, so near the Elbe, we suddenly expected things to go wrong. Under more active danger, with bombs exploding and gunfire around us, we had expected nothing, but were borne by every eddy of the moment.

We came to the town through which the Havel ran. There were no civilians on the streets; houses and shops were shuttered and silent, but Russians clustered on street corners.

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One soldier came over toward me, hand outstretched for my bicycle, but I said firmly, ''No. Amerikansky,'' and he stopped, his mouth open in astonishment. Then he turned and shouted to the nearest group of soldiers, and they all turned to stare after us, mouths agape. I had said it instinctively, angry at Ivan's high-handed methods of taking bicycles. I glanced apprehensively at Heinz, who grinned crookedly at me.

''It's all right. We're getting to the Elbe. I'll bet they think we're the American Army,'' he remarked dryly, and then braked sharply, for we had come to a crossroad at the center of the town. A short street ahead of us led to the Havel, but the bridge had been blown out. An ugly empty gap greeted us.

We chose a street running alongside the Havel, where we spied a little bakery and braked with one accord. Heinz said to Braun, ''See what you can get.''

Braun sprang into the bakery and ducked out with five big hot loaves of bread. The generous baker told him that the Russians had entered the town just half an hour before. Heinz was confounded; all his calculations gone ph-t-t-t. We had yet another front line to cross.

We asked a woman about the bridges. ''You'd better go south to one of the big bridges near Brandenburg,'' she said. ''There's supposed to be fighting north of here, but none down there. The radio isn't very clear about it.''

Radio. The word seemed an echo from another world whose existence we had almost forgotten.

Then, all too casually she added a momentous disclosure, ''Oh, Hitler's dead, you know. He got married and committed suicide.''

Just like that the man was eased out of it all with ''He got married and committed suicide.'' This meant nothing to the woman. Marrying and killing one's self, all in one breath, was faintly comic.

There came to me a quick, bitter reaction; most of his own people, like this woman, never smelled the evil, and now accepted his life and death with such indifference.

Yet, here was a man who had unleashed evil, who perverted and lied to his own people, who persecuted, tortured, imprisoned, and killed in abominable ways and on a vast scale. A man who promoted fear and mistrust wherever he moved, who had mesmerized and corrupted nations.

I saw the faces of friends we loved who had disappeared into concentration camps. One we learned later was strung up by the neck with piano wire. I thought of all the devastated families.

Dourly, we rode along. Heinz said slowly, ''The only thing is to continue. It will just take a few days longer.''

We easily outdistanced the Brauns. Heinz said to me, ''If you and I were alone we could get across on an old log or even swim. But five of us can't crawl around on the shore without getting caught. Don't worry, Kerlchen (laddie). We're going to make the Elbe.''

We had bypassed a village and were on the main road south. Dusk and misty rain spread over the fields. On our left, inland artillery fired. To our right, marshes and meadows extended down to the Havel.

Heinz led us down a narrow lane leading toward the river. We could see Russians moving toward the water, but we lost sight of them when we came into a willow grove. Heinz told all of us to stop while he went on ahead. Five minutes later he came back looking smug.

''Come on,'' he said quickly. We pushed the bicycles slowly down the lane, passed two abandoned German Army cars, and came out on a grassy lawn at the edge of locks across the Havel. The lock tender himself stood smiling at us from a big flat-bottomed rowboat just at our feet.

''There's a birthday party in the tender's house,'' Heinz said. ''So our friend here wants to get back fast. He can take all of us and the bicycles in one trip.''

Speechless and thankful, we watched the lock tender pole us quietly across the Havel.

He had stretched old blankets from the corner of his house to a tree to hide movement on his lawn from Russian artillery observers. His guests were drinking coffee and devouring cake at a trestle table in the garden.

The new German front line ran just beyond the house. Soldiers dropped by to play with the children or joke with the mothers, and drink with the guests.

I became conscious of my blackened, split fingernails, of the dirt embedded in my hands. My threadbare trousers were filthy, and my feet were swollen and aching. Yet I did not envy the women's clean-looking security, because it was likely to be so transitory.

They told us that the Russian artillery kept the path to the village under fire only by daylight, so we should wait for night.

When it had grown so dark that sky and water were one color, we said ''thank you'' and left. We wheeled our cycles quietly toward Bahnitz, threading German sentry posts, where we were waved along. We had to awaken the Burgermeister -- O sacred law and order! -- to get a place for the night and were assigned to a huge barn with other refugees.

''Kerlchen,'' said Heinz reflectively, ''this is probably our last night in unoccupied Germany. It's a strange feeling to realize that tomorrow or the next day, even these last miles will lie east of the Elbe -- as you and I know what that means -- 'East of the Elbe,' lost to Germany, lost to Europe. They'll never let the American or the British in here.

''What lies east of the Elbe is a lost land with a lost people. What will become of them only God knows. Which will be the stronger of the contrary currents we have seen: complete political and social dissolution of all things German or a new unity of people against their oppressors?

''But at any rate, for you, Kerlchen, this is your last night on German soil. Sleep well on it, Amerikansky.''

Later we were awakened by the violent banging at the barn door.

An excited voice shouted, ''Wake up! The Russians are over the Havel.''

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