First, Some Hot Soup, Then a Run for Cover
On a perilous escape from Berlin as the Soviet Army plunders the city, an American woman flees by foot and rowboat. With her is a German friend, Heinz Cramer. Their objective: the Elbe River, some 100 miles away, where American forces are encamped.
Heinz and I spent our second night in a cramped, rain-soaked rowboat on the Havel River and awoke to a light drizzle. Bread from our backpacks turned soggy in our hands, and we drank cold river water.
We scanned the banks for signs to tell us whether we were behind Russian or German lines, then rowed downstream. Two miles ahead of us through the Sacroer Narrows lay Peacock Island, on the left; the shore of the Havel curved toward it from the right.
Heinz was not sure I would be able to stand up to a 100-mile journey on foot with the backpacks. Not only were my shoes in poor condition, but I was also convalescing from an illness.
Artillery started firing from the shore, sporadic at first; but as we moved nearer to the Narrows, it intensified. We pulled in nearer to the shore, hoping to get the trees on the shore between us and the gunners.
A young man standing on a wooden wharf not far ahead waved to us to come for shelter. He was tall, well-built, and dark-haired, dressed in sweater and plus fours, and heavy boots. His ''good morning'' was tentative.
Heinz asked, ''Do you know where the Russians are? We want to go toward the Elbe. Can we land here, or should we go on to Potsdam with the boat and start from there?''
The man said, ''The Russians are up behind us, parallel to the shore. Wait until the artillery stops, or until evening, and cross over to Peacock Island. You can go through Potsdam and out to the west. It's still open. But don't go through the Narrows by daylight. The Russians and the Germans both shot at a boat until it sank.'' With that he turned and headed up the path away from the dock.
Angry shots suddenly came past us. Heinz and I clung to the dock as the waves from exploding shells rocked the boat. Incongruously, two little boys appeared, pedaling their bicycles madly and happily on the path above us. This was our introduction to the indomitable twins, Werner and Jurgen.
Each burst of firing left the twins shouting for delight in this strange world. One of them hopped off his bicycle to pick up a discarded pistol; his brother promptly grabbed a handful of bright new cartridges. Then they were off out of sight, leaving their cycles on the path.
The man in plus fours came back and hovered, already half in retreat. ''My wife says come and get dried out. There's hot soup for you.''
Harald's house stood at an angle to the waterfront by a narrow road in a place called Kladow. His wife, Anny, met us at the door, took one look at our sorry state, and shooed us to the warm kitchen where we hung our outer clothing and our shoes around the stove.
Anny was Viennese, small-boned, with curly black hair and a pair of big sparkling black eyes. Her face was full of animation. A rosy flush along her high cheekbones gave her an excited, healthy look; when she spoke in earnest, there was a lilt to her voice.
While we were spooning down her thick rice soup, a young man arrived, half in German uniform and half in civilian clothes. He and Harald argued. Harald was trying to persuade him to change entirely into civvies if he sincerely intended to desert, and not run about in a combination that announced his status.
Anny plied us with quick questions about the behavior of the Russians in Berlin and listened intently to our answers.
''Harald,'' she called to her husband, ''we can't stay here if the Russians come.''
Harald looked sulky and answered, ''But there's the house, Anny.''
''Oh, hang the house,'' she said. ''What use is the house to us if it's burned down or plundered or full of Russians? We can't stay here.''
Harald flushed a dark sullen red, and Anny changed her quick tone abruptly. She said, '' Harald, do find the twins.''
After the boys were found, Anny turned out their pockets, finding a hand grenade which she held up in horror until Heinz relieved her of it and took it down to the waterfront.
Discussion continued until Harald finally conceded and went to dig out two folding boats and alcohol he had buried in the garden. Anny flew about the house packing knapsacks.
While gunfire and explosions continued around us, we decided to leave separately and meet later. The twins, Werner and Jurgen, disappeared while we made preparations. Minutes later, the boys returned with a brand-new pair of laced Army boots that were exactly my size.
The deserter had unified his appearance and offered to contribute cigarettes and bacon if we would take him along. But he still wasn't entirely sure about going.
I was growing sick of the monotonous thud of splinters on the terrace and of the jolting of the house with every shell. I was sick of the German soldiers creeping, uneasy and miserably conspicuous, up and down the street.
With relief, I retied my stiff new boots and shouldered the pouches. We arranged to meet the others and said goodbye.
Just as we stepped outside near the corner of the house to make a run for the boat, a hand grenade exploded with a venemous fury. A German soldier, who stood 10 feet from us, was cut to pieces. Heinz dropped the oars and knapsack and we both ran back to the shelter of the doorway.
This deadly episode meant two things: We could not cross the road to the water by daylight, and the Russians were very near. It would be a race between Ivan and nightfall.
While we waited, German soldiers ran past the house, taking up new positions. We realized we were between the fronts.
''Look, Kerlchen (laddie),'' Heinz said quietly when it came time to leave. ''We've got to run and crawl for it. The boat is just to the left of the wharf. There are enough bushes on the top of the bank for cover. Don't look around me. If the Russians take me, pay no attention. Come on, Kerlchen.''
We ran! Just two dim shadows fleeing across the road. I headed for the dark outline of bushes and slithered in among them. Momentum carried me down the overhang on belly and knees. Then I was on my feet, and we were both at the boat untying and pushing off.
Shots whipped into the bushes. The flow of action swept away fear; we were on the water again, and our own masters.
By the light of the fires burning in Berlin and Potsdam, we pulled for Peacock Island and were within hailing distance of it when artillery began again in earnest.
Soon there was an unbroken ring of mighty fires around us, except for a black gap due west. Fires were blazing in Berlin, Wannsee, Potsdam, Spandau, and Gatow. Bombers overhead poured their complement of havoc into the flames. Antiaircraft fire was flickering over Berlin.
The battle we could see was on such a gigantic scale that it grew remote from us by reason of its very magnitude.
We pulled the boat through some reeds to a shelving bottom near shore and waited there, watching for Anny and Harald's paddleboats, watching the crimson sky.
Hearing and seeing nothing of Anny and Harald, we went on toward the island and rowed between it and the mainland, where we found a bridge connecting the two. Barges were anchored all along the mainland shore, and we looked longingly at their solid bulks; but no one hailed us. We drifted again to the island side and quietly tied up to a sapling for the night.