Shouts Across the Elbe At Long Journey's End
ELBE RIVER — After a dangerous nine-day escape from Berlin on foot at the end of World War II, Barbarah Straede and her landlord, Heinz Cramer, have eluded the invading Soviet Army. Reaching the Elbe River, 100 miles away, their journey has one final hurdle before they reach the American forces.
Someone was pounding on the door of the barn at 4 in the morning. ''The Russians are over the Havel!''
Bleary-eyed, we sprang up quickly, swung out of the barnyard, and headed west on our bicycles away from the Havel River. The Brauns, a young couple and their daughter, came with us. A little later, stopping for a rest, Heinz collapsed, his face ashen, his lips white. He had carried too heavy a responsibility in our escape. The sense of hurry now made any counsel difficult.
I sped ahead and found an inn, where we fed Heinz. He recovered slowly, returning to normal once we started again. But I watched him carefully.
Pedaling down the highway, we came upon a line of empty German Army trucks headed west. What if we could hitch a ride to the Elbe? We went on to the village where the trucks unloaded and sat on a curbstone, conversing with everyone who came past. One fact became clear: The Americans were really at the Elbe but had stopped. There was a ferry 20 miles west.
Finally, we were allowed to clamber into a truck crammed with spare tires and refugees. Destination: Burg, near Magdeburg, where, our driver said, there was a bridge to the Americans.
The main current of traffic was flowing east toward the front, and we sped.along until the truck was halted by a traffic block. We watched while the steady flow of traffic began to ebb. It became a trickle, then dried up altogether. A sweaty, dusty messenger wove among the waiting trucks, dragging his feet to slow his motorcycle at each window.
''Sorry folks. Ride's over,'' our driver said. ''I have to go back to pick up troops and move them west. Sorry.'' Dissolution had begun. Like the steady unraveling of a garment, the front crept back, moving toward the troops between it and the Elbe. It was all over -- not the war, but their resistance.
We cycled to a sign reading, ''Jerichow 10 kilometers, Elbe Ferry 20.'' Finally, we stopped for the Brauns, who were complaining about the speed we set, just as I spied the signpost, ''Elbe Ferry 10 Kilometers.'' Heinz and I went on alone. There was a grim jubilation welling up inside of me. After all the insecurity and fear, there was one more river to cross.
Finally, on the other side of a steep hill, there was the Elbe. Below us thousands of German soldiers sat looking across the river. We forged a way through them as they joked about our haste.
''Where're you going? For a swim?
''Going to try feminine charms on the Ammies?''
We reached the water and dared raise our eyes to look across. The Elbe is a might river. It flows across Germany, from southeast to northwest, like a great dividing line. Half a mile away, on the flat opposite bank, was a small formation of tanks and guns. Around them, looking but an inch high, moved figures in brown khaki. No bridge, no ferry, no way to cross. ''What do we do now?'' I asked Heinz. ''Shout,'' was his laconic answer.
''Who, me?'' I asked. ''They'll never hear me.''
''Sure they will. Go ahead, try.''
I put my hands up to my mouth to form a megaphone. I shouted, ''Halloo.'' The wind carried the sound away.
''Halloo. Send a boat over, please.''
Again the wind carried the syllables away. ''Keep it up,'' Heinz said. He clapped me on the shoulder. I stood there for half an hour, shouting, waiting with held breath for drops in the wind, trying to seize the opportunity each time.
''Halloo! Doggone you, I'm American!'' I shouted, not seeing a thing for the blurring tears in my eyes. But something was happening over there. Figures moved toward one of the boats on the opposite bank. It took a long time for the boat to cross, but finally it reached us. Four faces, obscured by drab helmets, looked noncommittal. They all chewed gum. One asked, ''Where are the Americans?''
I said, ''Here,'' and held out my passport. The youngest officer looked at it and said, ''Sure. I guess you're American all right. Want to go across, I suppose.''
Heinz had brought the bicycles, and one of the GIs said, ''Baggage, too?''
The first one looked at Heinz. ''He with you?'' he asked. ''Yes,'' I said.
''OK,'' he said, ''but nobody else.'' He glared at the crowding soldiers behind us. We pushed off. That was all, no pathos, no welcome, no rejoicing, simply an encounter among many to them. The boat was carried downstream by the strong current, and we landed finally below the encampment. I tried to thank the GI.
''It's OK, but I'm not supposed to let anyone across. Please, just get lost.''
It was 10 miles to the American sentry post. They gave us permission to pass to the next town, Tangerhutte. The captain there was amazed at our journey from Berlin. For 10 days I had not changed my clothes. My Army boots had been stolen the previous night, and my bandaged feet had been stuffed in my old walking shoes. My hands were impregnated with dirt, and beneath the baggy sweater and trousers, I was like a walking skeleton.
I was sent for by a colonel who was quartered in a fine old German country house. I walked into a spacious, 18th-century drawing room where a fire was blazing in a marble fireplace. Around it, chairs drawn near the brass fender, sat a group of American officers. One got up and said, ''Would you sit over there, please,'' indicating a sofa.
He came over to sit in the chair beside me. We found something to laugh about, and, as if that were a signal, two others left the fire and came over. It was not long before all had drifted to my side. To me they were first of all voices -- soft Virginian, hard-syllabled Minnesotan, drawled Texan, crisp Californian.
I listened in vain for one breath of New England twang, until the last officer also left the fireplace and came across the room, and the colonel himself asked my name. There, finally, unmistakable, was the sound of home. He remained standing, not committing himself to any familiarity, keeping the necessary distance between interrogator and interrogated. Where was I from?
''Where in Boston?''
''Near the city, not in it.''
''Just where, then?''
I could see his eyes narrow in suspicion. I told him. Now he was tense, all suspicion. ''Ever heard of the town of Weston?''
''Yes,'' I answered. ''My brother lives there -- at 71 Sunset Road.''
The colonel sat down. ''My wife lives two doors down the street,'' he said. Everybody spoke, laughing, amazed at once. Coincidence, of course. But now, for the first time in many years, it was my own language, spoken without fear or distrust. A circle had just rounded, and this was finally the beginning of a long journey home.
My husband, Wolfgang, died in a Russian prison camp in June 1946. I worked for the British Military Government in the west of Germany, returning to the United States in July 1946. In Boston, I continued to write, worked in business for many years, and actively promoted better opportunities for businesswomen.
Heinz Cramer rejoined his family that May of 1945. Later, during de-Nazification hearings, the French government praised him for saving lives while he was a German news correspondent in Paris from 1942 to 1944. A courageous and resourceful man, and a good friend. He passed away in the mid-1980s.
Last chapter. Previous chapters: April 24, 25, 27, 28; May 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.