Caught Between Two Warring Armies
To escape the Russian Army's plunderous conquest of Berlin, an American and her German landlord flee on foot. Their desperate goal is the American front line on the Elbe River some 100 miles -- and 10 long days -- away.
Heinz stirred and woke. We had spent the first night in the Grunewald Forest west of Berlin, hidden in the root crater of a fallen tree. I kept saying to myself, ''Let's not leave. Can't we stay here until the nightmare outside is over?''
Heinz suspected my preoccupation, and asked, ''Do you want to go back to Lichterfelde?''
I shuddered and said, ''No. Definitely not.''
''Well, let's get on our way,'' he answered. ''We have to cross the Havel River.''
As we slung knapsack and pouches over our shoulders again, Heinz put a hand on my arm and said, ''Listen, Kerlchen (laddie), if anything happens to you, I won't be able to prevent it. I should only get shot for trying, and you would be without any help then. Do you understand?''
I nodded. Oh, I did understand, and I would rather have Heinz alive and near, and suffer anything, than have the hopelessness I now felt turn to bitter reality.
We scrambled up a railway embankment, then, astonished, we slipped across the Avus Highway without a Russian in sight. Crossing a wide ditch, we came upon a second highway not on our map. Russian trucks and small tanks moved by in an unbroken line, from south to north, toward Spandau.
From the direction of Spandau came the heavy roll of artillery. Bombers rumbled overhead, toward Spandau and away from it again. Fighters zoomed past. Black smoke shifted uneasily over northwest Berlin.
''The poor people,'' Heinz said. ''Look at the aircraft.'' Many bomber formations passed steadily over us toward the center of the city.
We scurried across this busy road when there was a break in the traffic, into the woods on the other side. Not 20 yards away, we saw a steel helmet rise up out of the grasses of a clearing. Then another. The soldiers wore the familiar German field gray under camouflage capes. They carried rifles and hand grenades.
''The fools,'' Heinz said, and motioned them down. Behind us we could see and hear the Russian traffic plainly. The two soldiers crept quietly toward us despite Heinz's gestures to stay away.
''Hallo,'' one said. Heinz put his fingers to his lips and the soldier continued, dropping his voice. ''Have you any idea where the Russians are?'' It did not seem that life could hold any more surprises after that question.
Heinz said, ''Sure. They are 20 yards from you now. Where ... did you come from?''
The two shifted their rifles.
''Well, our company has no communication, and we don't know where the rest of our front is,'' the first one answered. ''We're out scouting.''
Heinz said dryly, ''So far as we know, the Russians are everywhere, and you're behind their front.''
They moved off, dodging from tree to tree. ''Let's get out of here,'' said Heinz, anxiously. ''We are behind the German lines again.''
We reached the top of a hill and there below us, stretching calmly right and left, were the wide, smooth waters of the Havel River.
A rifle started to bark and ping on the hill south of us. Below was a wharf with three small boats and a big rowboat nearby, its oars in position. On the bottom of the rowboat was a cargo of bright-blue hand grenades.
We had slight qualms, but we climbed into the rowboat and shoved off. We were still at a high-tension pitch after the sights and sounds of the past few days.
I dropped the grenades gingerly overboard. Heinz took a few energetic strokes and we were free, free of the clinging, dangerous land. Drifting smoke and distant explosions kept the atmosphere sullen.
It took us a long three-quarters of an hour to row across, for the boat was a clumsy thing. The shore we approached seemed peaceful. We rowed past a settlement of summer cottages and finally headed onto shore at a wooded point below it.
''Howdy,'' said a voice. A man sat there, tranquilly fishing, regarding us with friendliness. He had caught three fish and began to collect fish and line and rod.
''Where're you from?'' he asked.
I had my arm around a sapling and must have been looking at him with my mouth open, for I had to shut it and swallow before I could say, ''Berlin.'' Unknowingly, we had arrived in Gatow.
''Oh, really?'' he said. ''How is it over there?''
''Awful,'' I said with fervor. ''We're trying to get away.''
''Bad as that.'' He strolled off.
''Any fresh water here?'' Heinz called after him.
''A pump up in the colony; I'll show you where.''
Heinz followed him, then brought back a bottle of drinking water. I kicked off my shoes and wiggled my feet in the river.
''Our friend has invited us to lunch, provided you can fry fish,'' Heinz said, ''and wait till you meet his wife!''
We took the oars, oarlocks, and the food pouches with us and went up to the colony. Our friend's wife was an enormously large woman, with a definite dark mustache on her upper lip.
She was sitting on a wooden chopping block near the door to their house. She uttered a noncommittal, ''Guten Tag'' (Good day), and indicated that the house was mine for frying fish.
The tiny one room was spotlessly clean and tidy. A gray parrot perched opposite the stove.
I cleaned and fried the fish and made coffee from our Army ration block. While we ate, we talked about Berlin. At one point, we heard the unmistakable whistle of a shell coming toward us. Heinz and I ducked, but there was no explosion. No one else paid any attention.
''Nasty little brute,'' said the fat woman.
I looked blank, and then remembered the parrot. He started off on another eerie shell scream until I shoved a cracker at him.
On my way to get water to wash the dishes, I came across a group of German soldiers. With camouflage capes, steel helmets, and rifles, they walked silently along in dazed and jerky movements. Seeing them heightened my sense of apprehension.
Later we returned to our rowboat. ''Thank God, we're off the land again,'' said Heinz. ''I don't feel safe on solid ground any more.''
The brightness of the day had dimmed while we were on shore, with an ominous bank of clouds moving toward the sun.
It took us hours to reach the juncture of narrows north of Potsdam, where there is a passage westward to the Jungfernsee, a lake west of the Havel. From there we would approach the Elbe. By the time we were at the bend leading into the lake, the first leaden drops of rain were falling.
Tall, thick reeds lined the shore, extending far out into the water, and we headed there for shelter. Heinz stood up to give a final mighty shove.
Whiz! Ping! Shots rang out from the rising shore above us. And then a second: Whiz! Ping! Someone was definitely firing at us.
In the reeds we sat tightly together on the rowing seat and pulled my raincoat over our heads and put the knapsack between us.
The shooting stopped, and the rain trickled through the raincoat pockets onto our necks.
When it let up, I got bread and butter out of the pouch, but the rain began again. We were soon thoroughly miserable.
The clouds covered the sky now without a break. Darkness came down, and still we sat, holding the coat over our heads with aching arms.
We sat all night in the rain and slid from the seat to the floor because the raincoat covered more area that way. But the rain poured over the floorboards in rivulets that immersed our bottoms.
The hours dragged past, and it was with lifting spirits that we saw the graying of the sky that heralded the third day of our flight.