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...
BERLIN — 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.
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.
We went toward the highway, stumbling through little knots of Russians lying around their midday meal fires, all of whom eyed us with interest. I felt all too female, and all too conspicuous. I began to limp exaggeratedly (I did have a blister) and tried thereby to look old, lame, and ugly.
The sentry handed us over to the officer in command, a tall, dark, thin man, with many medals on his chest. He listened with a puzzled frown to an interpreter's explanation of ''Amerikansky.'' Then he bent down to me, accepting me as American, and told us what we wanted to know. Pointing southwest, he said ''Russky;'' to the northeast, ''Russky.'' Then to the east and southeast, he repeated, ''Russky,'' nodding as if to say, ''It's all right there.'' Then he pointed northwest and west and shook his head, as if to indicate it was no good at all. ''Nyemnitz-Nyemnitz (German-German).''
We thanked him and walked wearily off. We had not been shot nor arrested, but we were warned that there would be a double front to cross, Russian and German, before the river.
A man and a woman came up to us. ''You look as if you are heading somewhere definite,'' the man said. They spoke in the voices we had come to associate with the panic-stricken Berliners, in low, monosyllabic, short-breathed words, with a quick look over the shoulder to see who might be approaching. ''The front is just over there,'' Heinz said. ''We have been told often today we could not get through, but we have gotten through.''
The cool, green tops of the Grunewald fir trees banked invitingly to the west. ''Come on,'' Heinz said, and we turned into a path leading to the woods and toward the Havel. By now, dazed and tired from the heat and the chafing of the shoulder straps, I no longer knew whether I was walking or standing still.
Eventually, we came to a scrubby patch of undergrowth where a fallen tree led into a thicket. Balancing along the trunk, we came to the great hollow the uptorn roots had left, crawled down into it, and leaned back against its side.
It was growing late. Heinz laid the knapsack down and decided to look around. I took off my layers of coats, stretching in the freedom of shirtsleeves, and unpacked the bread and sausage, thankful that every meal meant less bumping of the bag on my sore back and sides. I pulled fallen pine branches together and spread my raincoat over them.
Heinz's scouting trip revealed Russians ahead of us, and beyond them, a railway embankment. We ate bread, sardines, and a tiny bit of chocolate. When Heinz said, ''I think we've done enough for today,'' I could have cried out in thankfulness.
Once or twice during the night, we woke and heard tank cannons firing over us and planes droning, and saw the red glare of fire in the sky.
I woke about six. Heinz was still asleep, his hair matted with pine twigs. I turned on my back and looked up into the fragile, remote blue of a spring sky. What I had seen yesterday had not faded. The corpses, the ruins. Smoke still grazed my eyes. I saw the medals on the commandant's chest, the flash of a saber in the sunlight, the hard faces of Russian soldiers, as if it were now.
When I get home, I thought, I'll tell the family how yesterday was. Then the marrow-freezing realization struck me. In an hour or two, or twenty-four, there could be no ''I.'' There is no dividing line between danger and safety, a line to cross and cry, like a child, ''Safe home!''
I braced against the ground with my whole body in protest. The circle of sky above me did not change. There is no one to run to. The shot that could strike Heinz would be my annihilation, too. I would be a nameless female somewhere in Brandenburg or Kiew, maybe shamed and held prisoner.