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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.

By Barbarah Straede WinslowSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 1995


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?''

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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.