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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 . . .

By Barbarah Straede WinslowSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 1995


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.

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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.