Strangers in War Help Escape Route to Elbe

Fleeing on foot from Russian forces occupying Berlin in 1945, American Barbarah Straede and her landlord, Heinz Cramer, scramble to reach the Elbe River and American Forces. Their desperate 100 mile journey includes a rowboat, canoe, bicycles, and lots of help from strangers.

That night, the cloister on the hilltop did not offer much shelter. The roof had fallen in, and the doors and windows were only ragged blanks in the walls.

Nearby, smoke rose from the stovepipe of one of two shacks where the Dutchmen stayed. A young man dressed in a sweater and shabby flannel trousers came to the door when I knocked.

I explained who we were and asked permission to make tea, which he granted after a look over the shoulder at the others behind him. He even told us gruffly to come in and drink in their warm room.

I knew enough Dutch to follow their conversation. In mixed German and Dutch they explained that Holland had been occupied by a civilian Nazi government in 1940, and Dutchmen became a ready source of manpower.

Thousands of men were deported to Germany to work on farms and in factories as slave labor, all needed to keep the German armies supplied and the country fed. Like the forced Russian and Polish laborers, they were treated abominably.

''We didn't like the German people, shouting on the job and losing their tempers,'' they said. ''When we began living outside camp, we found them pretty contemptible; they supported the Nazi government that made the food scarce and brought air raids.

''But you know they don't deserve what's come to them now with the Russians.'' (There was a nodding of heads all around the table.)

''We said: 'Now we can go home to Holland.' We tried to go home. But the Russians say no, you cannot go, first you must go east, first you must go to Russia. We will send you home in ships from Odessa. So we came up here, and here we stay until the Americans come; if they do not come, we will go by night to the Elbe to get away from the Russians.''

Later Heinz and I were looking for a place to bed down when one of the Dutchmen said, ''There's no one in the other shack. Sleep there.''

Exhausted, we spread out our bedding on the far-from-clean floor. Just as we were settling down, two of the Dutchmen rapped sharply on the door.

''What is it?'' we asked.

''Do you know what day tomorrow is?'' they asked.

''No. We've lost count of the days.''

''Well, come out and look, '' they said.

With every muscle protesting, we rose again and went outside. All five of the Dutchmen were gathered on the hilltop looking over the broad valleys. Lights had sprung up on every side, innocent-looking lights that spread rapidly and mightily.

''The villages,'' one of the Dutchmen said grimly. ''The Russians have set them on fire. Tomorrow is the first of May. They're celebrating the great Russian Labor Day.''

Next morning we sat and made a breakfast of bread, butter, and corned beef. After eight days, my feet were bandaged because of all the blisters. To pull on my boots was a painful struggle, but after a half an hour of walking, I could manage bearing my full weight again.

We walked down the hill and headed west. We circled the first village, entering a railroad station, now completely wrecked: instruments smashed, papers strewn everywhere.

It seemed to us that it was Russian policy to destroy just about anything. We could explain it by Ivan's startling inexperience with technical equipment. He seemed curious as a child. Otherwise, explain the moujik (peasant) who had dismounted a faucet in the kitchen to send home, saying he thought it a marvelous idea to stick such a gadget into a wall and water would come out of it.

Toward midday, we passed fortifications being worked on by German civilians. Heinz said, ''I think we had better not use the word 'Amerikansky' any more, nor say we are looking for the Americans. I have a feeling we have seen too much of what the Russians might rather keep quiet. They might not let us through because you are American. The less said the better.''

On this day's journey, we saw nothing of farm activity although it was the month of May. Only the fruit trees stood in bloom, and along the highway we were following, the overhanging branches of pink blossoms had been cut to allow tanks to pass.

We became more aware that day of a second world coexisting with our more open world of flight: that of the German soldiers in the woods struggling to escape the Russians, reach the Elbe, and surrender to the western Allied forces.

We wore no field gray, but so long as the woods were alive with soldiers in flight, one glimpse of us moving furtively between trees would be enough to tighten a Russian finger on a trigger. Ivan's uneasy patrols were everywhere. The ping! plop! of rifles could be heard all around us.

By midday, walking along a narrow highway, the dust became thick and cloudy, creeping through our clothing and sticking to skin and hair.

A procession of sullen men in Allied uniforms came toward us, French, Polish, Belgian, all freed by the Russian advance. Behind them straggled a column of women and small children, pulling hand carts piled with clothing and household goods. The children were too tired to utter a sound.

The women may have been wives, allowed by the Germans to join their husbands working on farms and factories.

By dusk we had covered some 30 kilometers, the same as the day before. ''There's a red roof up there on the hill,'' I said, wearily.

As we came near the gate of the house, a dog barked, and we were stopped by an elderly gentleman wearing a green hunting cap. He was restraining an exuberant black Scottie.

''Is Ivan here?'' asked Heinz.

''No.'' The old man barred the gate by standing in the opening.

''May we come in and rest for a moment, please?'' asked Heinz. The old gentleman gave way slowly.

He put no questions to us and responded to Heinz with evident distaste.

Ivan was not here now, but had come unannounced. A whole unit had camped on the grounds, ransacked the house, but had not sought out the women.

An elderly woman, a young matron, and a girl about 12 years old slipped out from among the trees and disappeared into the house.

A few minutes later a white-haired woman leaned from a window and called, ''Papa! Would they like some soup?''

'Papa'' made a helpless gesture and stood aside for us. His wife made one concession to Papa: We were not allowed over the threshold but firmly given seats on the porch.

The two women sat with us, and the younger woman's husband came in from the woods and joined us.

Papa told us we could sleep in the shooting hut in the woods, and sent us off with the vaguest of directions.

Heinz and I wandered down one forest path after another seeking it, but without success.

We found an abandoned bicycle that had received some Russian treatment but was still usable. We wheeled it along, hoping to find a second.

A little farther on we met the Brauns, Papa's daughter and her husband. They were looking for us and had decided to journey to the Elbe with their 12 year-old daughter.

''We can perhaps give you more food than you now have,'' she said, ''and we have four bicycles hidden nearby.'' Herr Braun added, ''Don't pay any attention to Papa's manners. Come and sleep in the garage. If the Russians come, you'd hear the dog bark, and you could run for the woods.''

Frau Braun even brought us an old blanket, and after eating a piece of bread (our last), Heinz and I crawled, dusty and dirty as we were, under the blankets, glad to be so much closer to the Elbe.

''We've got the Havel to cross again,'' Heinz said. ''We can't avoid the upper reaches of the Havel itself. It will be the last body of water before the Elbe, and there won't be any fighting going on this time.''

Finally we slept, cold and exhausted, alert for the sound of a dog's bark or the sudden opening of a door.

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