A Brief, Uneasy Respite In the Midst of Danger
As World War II ended, American Barbarah Straede and her German landlord, Heinz Cramer, fled Russian-occupied Berlin on foot and, later, by boat. Their desperate objective: to reach the American forces at the Elbe River. On the fifth day, their story continues
BERLIN — After several nights spent in the woods and along the river, it ceased to be strange to us. We accepted nature as offering the larger, safer refuge in war.
After a cold, wet night in the boat, the next morning we rowed back across the inlet from Peacock Island to a nearby barge, the ''Oder Queen,'' whose chimney was sending off a lazy trail of smoke.
Heinz rested on his oars, and as we looked hopefully up, our eyes met those of a gray-haired, ruddy-complexioned old woman dressed in a stained black skirt and a man's shabby pea jacket.
I shouted, ''Can we boil water for coffee on your fire? We have our own coffee.''
''Meinetwgen (As far as I'm concerned),'' she answered.
We dubbed her Sadie; no formal names were ever exchanged. There was a steaming kettle on the stove in the barge's small galley, and I made coffee and fried strips from the piece of salt pork Anny had given me the day before. The smell of real coffee drew our hostess. She regarded us with more favor and addressed us abruptly: ''Where'd you come from?''
''Kladow, last night. The Russians are there by now.''
''And before that, Berlin. We left after the Russians arrived.''
''Are the Russians in Potsdam gaining any ground?'' asked Heinz.
Sadie shrugged. ''All gossip, gossip. They say there are six German revolutions there now.''
Heinz and I looked at each other. Had the German people risen in this ultimate hour? In Potsdam?
''I beg your pardon, Gnaedige Frau; what did you say?''
''I said there are six revolutions in Potsdam now.''
''Revolutions. They marched up from the south yesterday. Or regiments, or some such name.''
''Do you mean battalions?'' Heinz asked.
''Whatever,'' said Sadie, who didn't seem afraid of the Russians. ''Germans, Tommies, Ammies, Ivans,'' she snapped. ''They're all alike to me. Are you going to wash up those coffee cups, you?''
I got up hastily and cleared the table.
''You can leave your things here if you're going to look around,'' she muttered, and stomped off up the ladder.
We piled our knapsack and pouches in a corner of the tiny deck and went forward to balance along the center plank of the cargo cover to a bending, swaying gangplank that took us down to the shore.
Wherever we went there were wounded German soldiers. Some dozed on the ground, some huddled around two-stick campfires, and others limped restlessly along the shore.
Soldiers who were less severely wounded were digging foxholes in the sand against shelling or bombing.
Suddenly, there was Anny, full of delight to have found us. She and Harald and their twin boys, Werner and Jurgen, had left their house at Kladow after we did. They had hidden until the shelling stopped and then embarked by rowboat, arriving here without adventure.
Reunited, we weighed our options. Out of the eddying spate of rumor, we clutched at one possibility: The situation in Potsdam might be worsening for the Russians. We might be able to slip into the northern part of the city and through it to reach the forests that stretched in an almost unbroken line to the Elbe River. This was the simplest way.
A second option was to take our boats through the Narrows to the Jungfernsee and find a water route to the Elbe. The last option was to strike directly west on foot through territory that must, by now, have been under Russian occupation for several days; but the battle front stood between us and that goal.
That option was hopeless. We could not cross the front line now; it was much too active. Descending the Narrows in boats was too hazardous. We concluded that, until there was more definite news from the Potsdam battle, there was little we could do but wait.
Shelling suddenly began again, aimed at a small craft attempting to come down the Havel from the direction of Gatow. Everyone stopped to watch as several shells hit the water near the boat, threatening to swamp it. The gunners appeared to lose the range, and we all sighed with relief. But one last booming shot sent splinters and water flying into the air. Horribly, the boat and occupants disappeared from sight.
Shells whined over our heads now, and machine guns continued to bark and then were still.
Later, around 4 o'clock, we were hailed from a passing rowboat with six men in it. Their leader was the deserter we had talked with at Anny's house in Kladow. The others were Kladow neighbors.
''How'd you get here?'' cried Anny, astonished.
''Oh, we came across after midnight, just when the Russians were moving in,'' answered one.
''Where are your wives?'' Anny looked expectantly along the shore.
''Home in Kladow,'' was the laconic answer. ''We thought the Russians might shoot us, you see, so we left.''
Anny was open-mouthed in horror.
''We thought we might be useful in the hospital here,'' added another virtuously. As we offered no comment, they rowed on.
''Why, the cowards!'' exploded Anny. Harald looked wistfully toward home, Kladow, just hidden by the tip of Peacock Island.
Early dusk was falling when the rumor spread that a German hospital ship was to be allowed by the Russians to cross to Gatow, pick up the badly wounded there, and transfer them to the hospital on Peacock Island.
Talk of such negotiation had been current all afternoon and, with eager curiosity, we and others watched a converted tugboat, Red Cross flag flying, nose out into the mainstream.
It proceeded cautiously up the Havel. No one was convinced every battery on the Russian side had been notified; we expected shots. It was not entirely certain they would be allowed to land at Gatow, and less certain that they would be allowed to return to the island. The doctor and his stretcher bearers stood on the deck.
The ship returned when it was dark and unloaded its awful freight, then turned and nosed out again toward Gatow, hoping, in spite of Russian refusals, to bring a second load.
Sadie gave us permission to sleep on board the barge. Grateful for shelter, Anny and I descended into the dim hold of the Oder Queen to push and pull at her cargo of bales of cotton wool and gauze until we had cleared space for the six of us.
Sleeping in cotton wool sounds soft and easy, but not those piles. Tufts of cotton attached themselves to clothing and shoes and hair, and got into eyebrows, nose, and mouth. Anny and I were covered with clinging wisps. Moreover, the bales were rock-hard. They bulged into your spine; if you rolled between bales they tried to extinguish you.
I was just about to fall asleep when the sound of heavy footsteps on the deck above brought me wide awake.
Three German soldiers, just back from 12 hours at the front, dropped down on the cotton, one of them landing on my foot. The men bedded next to me, and Heinz and I had a comradely chat with them.
One had been able, by the strange twists that can occur in war, to use a pay phone in a Berlin suburb where he was fighting to call his wife inside the city. ''First time I had spoken to her in eight months,'' he said, ''but unfortunately we had to leave so quickly I couldn't finish talking to her. ''
All I could think in the final waking moments was that flight was imperative. This day on the Oder Queen we had lost momentum.
We had won temporary shelter here, but we could not stop. We had miles to go to the Elbe River and the American Army.
And then I was asleep, embedded in the cotton wool along with my friends and three unseen and unknown soldiers.
Fifth of 10 chapters. On Tuesday: Shot at by Russian soldiers and escape by canoe. Earlier chapters ran on April 24, 25, 27, and 28.