Furtive Steps at Dawn Away From a Hostile City
Berlin's capture in April 1945 by the Soviet Army led to plunder, rape, and killing in city neighborhoods. To survive, Barbarah Straede and her German friend, Heinz Cramer, fled by foot on a desperate, 100-mile journey to reach American forces at the Elbe River. Her story continues...
Leaving the house in Berlin in the early morning was like walking onto a stage for the first time: Fright, unaccustomed bright light, and a hostile audience were all there.Skip to next paragraph
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I walked a little behind Heinz with my head down so that I would not be obvious at first glance as a young woman. A haze of smoke hung over the Berlin streets. There must have been heavy artillery fire going on as well as rifle fire, but I don't recall hearing them.
Civilian corpses and dead German and Russian soldiers were lying there, but no living traffic at that early hour. Heinz had warned me not to be squeamish.
Circumventing the dangerous main street, we turned onto narrower avenues that led westward toward the neighboring suburb of Zehlendorf. Our objective was to reach the American lines on the other side of the Elbe River.
We had expected the battle to move away from us and toward the center of Berlin, but as the morning wore on, we saw increasing numbers of Russians. We also met German civilians who had been ordered out of their homes and told to make ready for evacuation to the east, perhaps as a first stage to labor camps in Russia.
We entered Zehlendorf, where we noticed civilians wearing white armbands. So we tied handkerchiefs on our left arms. We asked the way of an elderly woman. ''You won't get through,'' she said. ''There have been ever so many try, and they've all come back.''
Heinz said, ''We can't go back, and we won't.'' In the hot sun, sweat ran off our faces, partly, I suppose, from the constant fear. Those few people we met on the streets were dazed and wandered along in the midst of a nightmare.
Suddenly, a Russian brandishing an old German saber told us to halt. He and a comrade came up, took hold of my arm, and asked to see our papers. But when Heinz said ''Amerikansky,'' they were delighted. The one with the sword waved it over his head, while the other gave a speech about the great and glorious friendship between Russia and America. They let us pass.
We were now near the dreaded Schlachtensee station, where a Russian barrier was supposed to be. Heinz poured over our antiquated map of Berlin. The sun was still hot on our backs, and the air had grown smokier.
''We'll have to try our luck,'' he said finally. He wanted to get into the Grunewald, the forest that stretches along Berlin's western edge, where he felt it would be safer. Once through the woods, we might be able to reach the Havel River.
I followed at Heinz's heels as we went through back gardens and between many houses to the Schlachtensee, a lake on the edge of the forest. We didn't encounter a single Russian along the way. But at our approach, women scuttled into doorways like frightened lizards and dragged their small children behind them.
We followed the lake's shoreline for a long time and finally stopped to eat. I dug bread, butter, and sausage out of my pack, and we munched dry sandwiches while listening for the sound of Russian voices or the shot that might whine past our heads.
Heinz said, ''I'll go up the hill and find out what's ahead.'' I could hardly keep from crying out, ''Don't leave me alone!'' But I bit my teeth together. We were caught up in this business because I had stayed in Berlin, so I had to be quiet and do what he said.
When he returned, we shouldered our packs and went on. Russian vehicles were on the next road, so we walked parallel to it, crouching until we could find a place to cross. We forgot to look around us until a voice called, ''Stoy!''
Ten paces away stood a grim-faced Russian sentry, gun pointed at us. Heinz raised his hands, and the Ivan, as Russian soldiers were called, motioned us to follow him.