Facing Russian, Nazi Soldiers in the Woods
AMERICAN Barbarah Straede and her German landlord, Heinz Cramer, fled Berlin on foot to escape marauding Russian troops in May1945. Heading for American forces at the Elbe River, 100 miles away, the two elude capture and gunfire. The story continues on the seventh day . . .
When Heinz woke me before daylight, I knew we were now beyond the Russian-German front, stepping into the unknown of Russian occupation. To reach the Elbe would still be a long, uneasy journey, but there was no more indecision; we were moving.
Heinz said a Russian bivouac was nearby, so we slipped quietly away, and soon found a westward road, free of Russians.
But their havoc was strewn everywhere: Wrecked typewriters, ripped featherbeds, women's clothes, empty jewelry cases, dirtied blankets, tablecloths, torn sheets, and dishes were scattered throughout the woods; smashed telephones and mirrors, and bicycle upon ruined bicycle lined the road. The overland phase of our escape was beginning. So much uncertainty and danger was behind us that it was impossible to feel the acute fear we had felt the morning we left home.
Now, up ahead, was the eerie town of Krampnitz. No smoke rose from the chimneys. No movement in the streets. Instinctively we circled around the town.
Moving cautiously as we neared a small cluster of houses, we heard what sounded like the calling and moaning of wounded people. But at the first building, a white kid ran bawling toward us. Its bleating mother was tethered in the farmyard. A flock of sheep was penned in one corner baaing with hunger. A dead lamb lay on the edge of a shell hole.
The strange silence pursued us as we moved from tree to tree in the heat, trying not to attract the attention of Stormoviks (fighter planes).
Later we sat at the edge of a clearing to eat. With five or six days to go, our food resources were down to two precious tins of corned beef. The first bite tasted wonderful. Minutes later two gunshots skipped through the trees near us.
Down the path, an excited Russian brandished his rifle and motioned us to come over to him, then gestured that we were to stay where we were. He patted his rifle to emphasize the order and ran on, disappearing over the shallow lift of the hill. We heard more shots.
When he came back, I held out my American passport and Heinz his expired press card from New York. ''Amerikansky,'' said Heinz. Ivan launched into a speech in voluble Russian. We looked interested but uncomprehending. Finally he asked slowly, ''Versteh nyemets?'' (Understand German?) We answered in careful German: ''Etwas versteh'.'' (Somewhat.)
He told us the quickest way to reach the Americans, only a few kilometers away, he said, and due in Berlin the day after tomorrow.
We smiled, and Ivan saluted with a big grin. We found the road and followed it to the Russian guards at the partially dynamited bridge. With colors flying, that is, with our chins up and a 'don't you speak to me, I'm out on business, air,' we charged across the bridge. It worked.
We hesitated before a farmhouse. An elderly woman's brown hand beckoned us energetically from the nearest window.
''Around to the back,'' we heard from the window. ''Quick.'' She wore a shabby blue dress and inquired merely, ''Germans?'' and waved us into her kitchen.
''You're thirsty? Hungry?'' She turned to the stove and poked up the fire. ''Sit ye down,'' she said, using the familiar form of the verb. This was a new Germany, receiving us without mistrust, as fellow Germans.
A German war poster: ''Feind Hort Mit'' (The Enemy is Listening) was everywhere as a warning against loose talk. ''Nazi Hort Mit'' could have served as the party slogan since the National Socialist Party took power in 1933.
The Nazis estranged German from German; child was encouraged to denounce parent; neighbor to denounce neighbor; workers denounced employers, all for expressions of ''political deviation.'' The blockleiter rode tyrant over his city block.
Newspapers and radio furnished heavily censored news; all foreign news was filtered by the Propaganda Ministry, and Germans lost touch with the history of their own century.
My husband had been in a special position: The journalistic network informed himwithin limitsso we knew more than the average German. (But our telephone was tapped, and we never went to bed without bracing ourselves for a 3 a.m. knock at our door by the police.)
Also, the genuine Berliner despised Hitler and his minions. The old Communist Party framework still held together, even printing clandestine leaflets. People listened to foreign broadcasts (but held what they heard to themselves).
There was even a successful play in Berlin in early 1944 satirizing the Nazi government. In it, Henry the Eighth demands to know what the market women are saying. They are, he says, ''the only ones who know what the people are saying.'' (It was three weeks before the Propaganda Ministry closed the show.)
Most Germans outside the capital city went along with the regime. Hitler had brought them out of the Great Depression. Germany appeared to flourish politically and economically; socially the people were being brazenly deluded, but they felt cosseted.
Here, suddenly, I was hearing what I thought was an honest voice from this woman who took us in without question. Was the spell now being unwound, to be destroyed forever in the blood and ashes of Berlin, this April 1945?
''I know what it's like,'' she chattered. ''I've had six Ivans here since the first day. They're billeted everywhere, in every house, every farm. I have a house full of women. I'm the only one can show her face because I'm an old hag. You going to Elbe?
''You know, the Russians slaughtered all the hens and geese,'' she said. ''There's no field plowed where the Russians are this year. No horses to pull the plows. No men to sow the fields. No woman or child to weed or harvest. ''
She ladled us out two bowls of steaming soup and patted my shoulder. ''It's Ivan's dinner, but they'll never miss this.'' Heinz asked where we might spend the night. ''Up in the old cloister where the Dutchmen are staying,'' she said.
We had a long hill to ascend before we reached the old cloister. My new boots were gradually working the skin off my swollen feet. Nevertheless I had the feeling my feet would not give out, no matter how far we had yet to wander.
Just below the hill was a wide field of winter wheat ready for harvesting. As we reached it, a Russian military vehicle roared through the field. A Russian officer raised a machine pistol and fired. Bullets began striking at our heels.
The colonel, with a broad grin on his face, was taking potshots to make us run. We didn't give him the satisfaction of looking around again at him. But it was a long two minutes until the apple boughs hid us from view and he stopped firing.
The higher we climbed, the more serenely the evening light and landscape spread out around us. The fragrance of apple blossoms came to us like honey to the tongue. We accepted their beauty as we had accepted every other sight and sound on the way, without a cry of protest or astonishment.
At the top of the hill was an open, wind-swept space, and the ruins of the cloister were shaded by crooked cedars and a dark, wind-bent oak. In the direction of Berlin, the trees hid the sky, and I did not have the energy to go beyond them to see if the fires of destruction were still burning there.