As I held the draft notice that day in March 1945, my heart fell. The war was already lost. Everybody talked about it. Yet I, a teenage girl in Hamburg, had to report for duty within three days to an airbase near my hometown. From there I would travel to another base deep inside Czechoslovakia.
My parents kissed me goodbye with tears in their eyes. Two sons were gone already. One was in Russia, the other a paratrooper somewhere. There had been no word from either one.
“We can only trust in God,” were my father’s words to me. “Do not forget to call on him every moment.”
I was heartbroken. I wondered if I would ever see them again. Times were so perilous! With all the bombing and the strafing of trains, it would be a miracle if I made it safely to the airbase. I did, but it was a long, long journey.
When I arrived at the base in Czechoslovakia, the white-haired paymaster exclaimed, “They are sending us children now! Good heavens, girl, why didn’t you stay home with your mother? Don’t you know the Russians are almost here? Besides, there is no office work for you to do.”
The Russians were very close; this was evident as streams of German refugees came passing through the town. We had to provide them shelter for a night. For the next three weeks they came—in their carts and by foot, hungry, sick, exhausted unto death, and with the horror of the Russian cannons in their eyes. Some had no shoes on their feet. They had plowed their way through the eastern snow with sackcloth wrapped around their swollen ankles. Their babies whimpered endlessly. We did our utmost to be of help, but our staff was not prepared for such an emergency.
In April, the eastern thawing began. Although it was still bitter cold, a fragrance of spring floated on the air. One day the old paymaster took me aside and said, with hushed excitement, “We have just received word that the Russians are closing in on us. I have filled out the necessary papers that will permit you to go back to Hamburg. You shouldn’t have been sent here in the first place. You must leave today if you want to get out of here before they take us all prisoners.”
I caught the last civilian train heading for Prague. The only space to be found was on the rear platform, which was crowded with Czechs and Slovaks. I wondered if these people knew that I was German. As the train lurched into motion, my eyes wandered from one face to another. Not one returned a glance. I attempted to wiggle into a corner, close to a post, but those heavy Czech peasant boots moved not the length of a toe. Instead I felt the burn of garlic breath on my face and neck.
The train rattled on, making stops here and there. It was close to nightfall, but still very light because of the reflection of the snow. The Czechoslovaks rarely spoke. They merely conversed with their eyes. Only once in a while was anything said, and then very quickly and excitedly. But I began to notice that their eyes were focusing on me. Suddenly I became aware that I was being pressed, very slowly, toward the edge of the rear platform, right over the tracks. I looked at them frantically, but received only stony looks. I began to understand. They were debating whether or not they should push me from the speeding train, thus freeing the world of one more German. It would appear to be a very simple accident in a crowded condition such as that. It happened all the time—no one would ever find out.
My eyes locked with those of a tough-looking peasant youth. His eyes seemed to say: “You are German. And there is no excuse for that right now.”
I held tightly to the post, anxiously searching for someone who was not my enemy. Everyone was watching. Suddenly the train jerked to an unexpected, quick stop, making everyone lose balance. I stumbled against somebody’s chest. A strong hand grabbed my arm and held me for a moment. I looked up into the eyes of a large, somber man.
“Thank you,” I mumbled in Czechoslovakian. (I had learned about ten words.) He merely stared into space.
Just then, on another track, a troop train thundered by, heading in the opposite direction. It was packed with battle-weary German infantrymen, speeding to the Russian lines. The Czechoslovakians watched the train until the last car rumbled by. Then they grinned broadly. That trainload of German soldiers would soon be thrown into the jaws of the Russian cannons. There was no longer any reason to notice me.
The railroad station in Prague was full of commotion. Excited people hurried all around me. I was informed by the German military station that only combat trains were heading for Germany.
Panic seized me. “What will I do?” There was no answer. The Russians were only a short distance away! I ran from one platform to another, praying aloud to God for help.
Suddenly a voice, in German, yelled from a troop train window: “Wo gehn sie hin, Fraulein?”
“I have to get back to Germany, but I don’t know how. There is no train.” I was almost crying.
“There is this one. We’ll hide you.”
Eight or ten arms stretched for my hands, then pulled me through the window. The train was packed with men. One of them said, “This is not the most comfortable spot, but there is always room for one more passenger.”
“Where are you going?” I asked uneasily.
“We don’t know. But at least we’ll get out of here!”
They offered me a narrow space in a seat by the window. I would have suffocated otherwise. The soldiers told me that if the train stopped, they would hide me under an army coat. Several times the train came to a stop. Because of allied planes, it had to stop under cover in a tunnel or under the umbrella of a forest. No orders were given, however, and for the moment I was safe from that smelly army coat.
It took more than fourteen hours to reach the outskirts of Dresden. We had to be re-routed to a substation, for the main station had just been leveled by bombs. For miles and miles there was nothing but ruins and rubble. It was hard to believe that this once was the city of Bach and Mozart.
In Dresden I was again on my own. What chaos I met! The Red Cross personnel were busily caring for the wounded and the children, and military vehicles were speeding in all directions. It was impossible to communicate with anyone.
A civilian shouted at me: “Hide in the ruins! There will soon be another bomb attack!”
A feeling of utter despair came to me again. “What shall I do?” I prayed as I walked around aimlessly.
Then a strange feeling came over me. It was like an invisible, loving arm around my shoulder. I felt it very strongly. A few minutes later an army truck whizzed by me, suddenly stopped, then backed up to where I stood.
“Hey, Fraulein, need a ride?”
“Yes. Oh, yes! I have to find a railroad station, one that is still operating.”
“Hop in! We’ll find you one.”
It seemed like a miracle. Suddenly there was a platform, the tracks, and the train.
“Is this for troops only?” I asked a captain, as I walked along the platform.
“Yes, it is. What are you doing out here?”
I showed my papers. He looked at me with kind eyes. “It’s unbelievable,” he said softly. “What has become of our nation? Wait here.” The captain walked over to a group of officers. After a short conference with them, he motioned to me.
“We are on our way to Berlin. Combat, you know. The Russians are close to Potsdam. You may board the train. We’ll take the responsibility.”
I was packed away again like a sardine in a can. This time I had a standing passage. I stood on one foot at a time during the entire trip. It was so agonizing that it still seems unreal to me. A soldier handed me a crust of stale bread. It tasted like cake. It was the first food I’d had for three days. Never had I ever been so grateful for food. I said grace silently.
The sky was filled with allied planes searching for the train. Again we had to halt and wait in forests and tunnels. Often the train had to be re-routed, and it appeared as if we were heading back to where we had been. We saw fires on almost every corner of the horizon, and the belching of artillery was a steady sound.
By the time the train came to a final stop my feet were so swollen I could not feel them anymore. The soldiers spewed forth like wasps with their hive afire. We were in the battle zone—so noisy it was impossible to distinguish single sounds. I knew it was senseless to approach anyone, so I started to walk away aimlessly. I was exhausted and frightened. Then I heard someone say, “Want a lift to Berlin? We’ll drop you off at a subway station.” The voice belonged to the same captain I had met before, the one with the kind eyes.
In Berlin I looked at the land. This was not the earth. This was another planet in its first millennial stage of creation. Color and life had vanished, and all life had gone underground to the subway tunnels. There I saw quivering masses of humanity. Panic was written in many eyes. The faces of even the smallest children told me they had already lived a lifetime. I drifted along mechanically. Once someone tried to rip the suitcase from my hand. I held onto it as if my life were in it.
“Are there any trains still leaving Berlin?” I asked.
“You must be mad, Fraulein!” people snapped at me. “Berlin is encircled by the Russians. Are you anxious to go to Siberia?”
I was ready to give up. What was the use of trying to escape? I was completely exhausted. But at that moment I felt again that invisible arm around my shoulders, urging me on. When I learned that a few subways were still running, I decided against heading for Lehrter Bahnhof. A strong impression demanded that I take another route. I boarded the next subway. I couldn’t tell whether it was going north, west, or south, but upon emerging from the tunnel, I spotted, directly across from me, what had once been a railroad station. In the midst of the rubble was a train. And the persons boarding it were civilians!
“Wait for me!” I yelled. Although there was no indication that the train would leave right away, I ran as fast as my weary feet could take me.
“Please—where does this train go?”
“Hamburg,” somebody answered.
“Hamburg! Oh, thank you, Lord!” I prayed aloud. “Thank you!”
I was offered a seat with a group of mothers and babies. A cup of milk from a thermos was thrust into my hands. How wonderful this world still was!
It was three hours before the train started to move—three frustrating and unnerving hours. What if the tracks should be bombed? What if the Russians should close the circle? So many devastating things could happen at any moment.
Finally the train began to crawl through the countryside.
We heard the far-off sound of bombs. Smoke lay on the horizon. Again the train had to stop and wait for the sky to clear of bombers and fighter planes. I feared that Hamburg had had another attack. What if my home had been leveled! What if something had happened to my parents! But in my mind I could see my mother and my father so vividly that I assured myself they were all right.
The train crept on. A trip that normally would not take one day took two. At a little town close to Hamburg, the train made its final stop.
“The Elbbrücke [Elbe River bridge] is not passable,” someone called out. “Anyone heading for Hamburg must go by foot!”
“How do we get across the river?”
“The smaller bridges [kleine Elbbrücken] are still intact.”
People organized themselves into groups. The strong ones supported the weak and cared for the small children and babies. Groups of people dispersed into different directions.
“Stick close to the ditches and the woods,” someone shouted after us.
We were just twenty-five kilometers from Hamburg, but the last stretch seemed the hardest of the entire journey. I dragged myself as fast as I could. Our group had become very small. No one had to go as far as I.
The Elbbrücke lay like a giant on its back, one foot in the air, the other halfway in the river. I was overwhelmed at seeing those familiar landmarks, despite the destruction. The sirens howled two alerts, but luckily they were only short ones. Once I had time to reach a bomb shelter; the other time I had to hide in ruins.
Tension and destruction seemed all that was left of my beloved Hamburg. The war had taken its toll. I carried my shoes; my feet were too swollen to wear them. Only a few more kilometers and I would be home! Five, three, one block more—then Dunkersweg, the street of our humble living quarters. I turned the corner, closed my eyes, and stopped. I trembled. Would it be best if I turned around and found out from a friend or neighbor if everything was all right? But I had at least to look. I opened my eyes. There was the chimney, silhouetted in the moonlight. The house was still standing!
“Thank you, dear Lord,” I murmured.
But were my parents there? My heart was in my throat, and I ran.
“Hört ihr; Ich bin es! Macht auf! Macht auf! Ich bin es!” There was only silence.
“Hört ihr? Ich bin es! Macht auf!” Then suddenly there was a shuffling sound from inside.
“Wer ist da?” My father opened the door.
“Oh! Carla! Is it you? Mama! Mama! Get up! Our girl is home! Unsere Tochter ist weider zu Hause!”
They both ran to the doorway. “We thought we were dreaming,” Mama cried. We were embracing, kissing, mumbling, and crying, all at once. I was home!
“We have been on our knees day and night, and also the neighbors. They have helped with their prayers,” said my father.
I knew that invisible arm had not been an illusion.