Running Through A Hail of Gunfire
Six days on the run from Russian-occupied Berlin, Barbarah Straede and her German friend Heinz Cramer are scrambling to reach the safety of American lines at the Elbe River. Ahead, 60 more miles of the unknown.
ALONG THE HAVEL RIVER — On our fourth night, we slept on hard bales of cotton wool aboard the anchored barge Oder Queen. With us were Anny and Harald and their mischievous twin boys, Werner and Jurgen.
The day before, we had waited for the military situation to shift before making our next move. But daylight brought no change: scattered firing around us; bombers passing overhead; wounded soldiers wandering on the shore.
A passage in our rowboats through the Narrows of the Havel River was still clearly impossible. Russian and Nazi German guns commanded either side of the channel.
We could try now to cross the Glienicke Bridge into Potsdam or wait until Potsdam was retaken by the German Armies that might be coming up from the south.
Suddenly, the whistle of rifle bullets made us go down flat on the deck. The volley was quickly over, but I saw Heinz look up sharply and then hitch his trousers. I recognized the sign: He had come to a decision -- get off the barge. I followed him past the field hospital.
He said briefly, ''It feels like a trap there.'' He wanted to scout around. We walked on until coming to a point where we could see the Berlin-Potsdam highway, and walked boldly onto it. Heinz had just said we could follow it to the bridge when the Stormoviks, the fast little Russian fighter planes, swept down above us.
I hugged one tree at the edge of the road and Heinz the next. Six planes, on one another's tails, flew past down the road like staccato thunder. Concrete chunks flew from the highway beside us under their fire. We dove headlong into the bushes and then into the woods.
Three German Army men and their leader were there. Had they come from Potsdam, Heinz asked. Things were going well there, their leader boasted. The Russians would be forced out. This was the Nazi Party voice, and we knew there was not a relief Army in Potsdam, nor was the battle going badly for the Russians.
We reached a crossroads where one path led directly back to Peacock Island, then took the other route, which led to a shoreline restaurant called Moorlake. We entered through a gate and stood in the short end of an L-shaped courtyard.
Coffee was being served, and children were playing there. Once in a while, an anxious mother would call to them to stay away from the gate to the water or the Russians might shoot.
''We might as well see if they do shoot,'' Heinz said. We walked along the road and, at the first shattered tree, we stopped and retraced our steps.
Then Heinz went ahead to scout, returning quickly. ''Boats,'' he reported. ''Fleets of them, and nobody guarding. There's only one thing: Are you game to try the shore way home?''
When we reached the barge, Heinz presented his plan to Anny and Harald. He and I were to abandon the clumsy rowboat, take the shore road to Moorlake, and there liberate one of the boats. Anny and Harald were to take their boats and slip along near shore on the German-occupied bank at dusk. We would meet at the ferry landing for the Jungfern lake.
As Heinz and I started out for Moorlake, Anny ran after us and entrusted Werner and Jurgen to us. It was sensible in case something happened to the folding boats, but we did not like having them with us -- they attracted excitement.
We had barely reached the beginning of the shore road when infantry bullets whammed into it, 50 yards ahead. Soldiers nearby said that this was the second burst in 20 minutes. In that interval, we could reach Moorlake. I remember those 20 minutes as a constant repetition of: ''Werner and Jurgen! Keep right behind us!''
When we reached Moorlake, Heinz went through the water gate and deposited knapsack, the boys, and me. He was to bail out the boat and return.
I lifted Werner and Jurgen onto the counter. Suddenly there was a burst of artillery fire behind us. A child in the building opposite the bar began to whimper, ''Mummy, Muummmy!'' His mother answered that she would be up in a moment.
A German soldier walked by, swinging his cape. At that instant, the Russians broke through the gate in a burst of gunfire. I saw the spurts of flame from their pistols reflected in the windowpanes opposite me. They rushed straight into the German when they broke through; he fell over without a sound.
First I thought, shall I run and chance finding Heinz? Had I been alone, I might have, and maybe all the way to the Elbe.
Chances of finding Heinz now were practically nil, and I had the children and could not risk it. My second thought had been translated into action before I was conscious of it: safety for the children.
I yanked them by the napes of their necks and rushed them into the safety of the stone doorway of the hotel. While I fumbled along the wall with my shoulder, I could hear voices laughing and talking from the restaurant. So unexpected was the Russian breakthrough that the off-duty soldiers were caught off-guard.
I heard a moujik (peasant) in a heavy Army overcoat, a rifle at the ready, run through the gate. There was someone shouting from just behind him in Russian, ''On tam!'' and the moujik kept asking, ''Where? Where?''
He passed the doorway. It was Heinz, telling him, ''He's over there.'' I called, ''Heinz!'' He grabbed our knapsack and yelled, ''Run!''
I still had the boys by the backs of their necks, and we ran. Outside the gate Heinz paused, took both boys, slapped their backsides, and said, ''Run, Werner and Jurgen, run as fast as you can, down the road that way and shout, 'Daddy!' Now! Run!''
Then Heinz and I ran in the opposite direction under a blaze of revolver fire. Sparks flashed all around our feet. We ran, knowing that logically we were in for it. But suddenly, there came the gloriously quiet feeling, ''Nothing is going to happen to you. They can't hit you. And, if they do, what of it? You're having a run for your life this time.''
We ran until we found the canoe Heinz had chosen, tumbled in, and pushed off noiselessly. The canoe drifted out until we were beyond pistol range. The first stroke of the paddle drew a sucking gurgle after it, and we froze, waiting for a shot to follow, then pushed farther out, keeping low in the canoe.
The water spread dark and still around us, and I felt at ease for the first time in days. We could have been on the Charles River at home in Massachusetts.
Heinz said he had found the canoe, emptied the water, and run into Harald, who had lost his nerve and decided it would be safer to make a portage across the island than to go around the point. He asked Heinz to help carry the boats.
They had just passed Moorlake when they heard gunfire. Heinz yelled, ''The Russians have broken through.'' He turned and ran to me and the twins. Harald had been just down the road when he sent Werner and Jurgen running. ''We couldn't risk separating the family forever,'' he said.
Quickly now we decided to move on toward the Jungfernsee in the very leaky canoe. We followed the shoreline and rounded a point of land marking the entrance to the lake. Leaving the canoe on shore, we struggled through trees, and soon, we realized we had lost our sense of direction.
The night was misty and moonless. We stopped in the middle of slender trees, unpacked, and waited for the light. Not even a shot or two from a nearby sentry brought much concern. We were too wet and tired. Death had been very close at Moorlake, but we had survived.