Berlin May 1945
The rumble of artillery was, by now, such a familiar backdrop that Elise found she could slumber fitfully through it, most of the time. There were occasions, however, when the explosions felt very close, and they all reacted in unison, tensing, clutching at their breasts or each other, their eyes dilated with fear. Little plumes of plaster dust dropped lazily from the cellar’s ceiling with every shockwave, fouling the already foetid air and settling in a greyish patina on clothes and bedding.
’If the building comes down they’ll never find us! We’ll be buried alive!’ wailed Rosa, while Rolf did his best to calm her, and Elise prayed silently to God to spare their lives, feverishly fingering the little gold cross she wore at her throat. Oh, dear Lord, make the guns stop, please!
The rockets were the worst though, the infamous Katyushas. They made an unearthly, high pitched, howling sound that shredded already strained nerves and aroused deep terror. The German flak guns, atop their monolithic towers, kept up their steady pom pom pom rhythm, vainly trying to compensate for a now defunct Luftwaffe, and finally aiming down into the streets in a, by now futile, attempt to prevent the relentless Soviet advance into the city.
It was early May 1945, and the Russians were no longer coming; they were here. On 16 April, the Red Army’s juggernaut had launched its massive assault on “the fascist beast’s lair” with two and a half million troops drawn from their seemingly limitless supply of manpower. Stalin’s shrewd exploitation of the fierce rivalry between his Marshals, Konev and Zhukov, ensured further bloodletting for the Soviet soldiers. Many died as they charged blindly into German minefields in the opening attack on the heavily defended Seelow Heights. True to their culture of willing sacrifice and stoicism in the face of suffering, three Russians perished for every German casualty. The fatalism that centuries of harsh deprivation had built into Russian DNA gave them the edge in this final battle against Nazi fanaticism’s last stand. Trapped in his underground bunker beneath the Chancellery, Hitler continued to inhabit his delusional world of a last minute victory until, with the Soviets at the doors of the Reichstag, he committed suicide on 30 April, having made an honest woman of his devoted mistress, Eva Braun, only hours before.
Quite suddenly, after days of constant barrages, the guns had fallen eerily silent. The round-the-clock bombing had stopped some time ago, too, the Americans and British unwilling to risk hitting their Russian allies as they closed in on the heart of the devastated city. The Soviets carried out their own strafing and bombing, but it was nothing compared to the Western Allies’ carpet bombing. The Polikarpov U2s, nicknamed “sewing machines” by the German troops because of their rattly engines, carried nowhere near the destructive firepower of Lancasters and Flying Fortresses, but they maintained their stubborn assault just the same. The little biplane that had been so roundly derided, yet grudgingly admired, by German troops, was now attendant upon the final demise of the Third Reich.
Teetering on the brink of the abyss of historical oblivion, the fatally wounded beast that was German Nazism lashed out in its death throes, determined to drag down with it anything and everyone within its reach in this bloody finale to Gotterdammerung. All escape routes from the city having been closed, the remaining citizens of Berlin cowered in their cellars and makeshift bomb shelters, while roaming SS troops hanged anyone suspected of desertion from lamp posts. There was little food or fuel, and no milk for the children or babies. Armageddon had arrived on the doorstep with only one driving desire – vengeance, on a biblical scale.
’Please, Frau Schumacher, you must try to be quiet. They are coming now and they will hear you.’
Elise knelt by the distraught old woman, soothing her, stroking her brittle, white hair, trying to ignore the sour smell of body odour and stale cologne that exhaled from her clothing. They’d all had to get used to going unwashed, and while you could tolerate your own smell, others’ was a different matter. The old lady’s eyes were wild with terror as she pressed a bony fist against her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle her sobbing and moaning. Elise often wondered which was worse: the bombardment, or Frau Schumacher’s histrionics.
’Where is Herr Schumacher? Where is he?’ she repeated, her frail hand gripping Elise’s with surprising strength. ‘He’s been gone two days. He’s dead, isn’t he? Rolf’s dead!’ She feebly thrust Elise away from her, as if the young woman were somehow responsible for this latest misfortune, and began to sob loudly, wringing her spidery hands.
‘No, of course he’s not dead.’ Elise smiled reassuringly, keeping her voice as calm as possible. ‘He’ll be back any minute, you’ll see. He’s very smart and resourceful. The guns have stopped now, so all will be well. Calm yourself and try to rest.’ She placed her arms around Rosa’s thin shoulders.
The old woman continued to whine softly as Elise looked away, biting her lip. If only Erich were here, but they were all women without men, except for the very elderly like Frau Schumacher, although she was probably one of them now. She was tired of being brave, being strong, when she felt anything but. Rather than soothing Rosa, in her present state of nervous exhaustion what she really wanted was to give the old lady a good shaking. Hopefully, though, she was right, and the sprightly Rolf would reappear unharmed at any moment. Although he was too frail to protect her, she drew strength from his indefatigable optimism and resilience.
Rolf Schumacher, a man in his eighties, had been sheltering in the cellar with the two women, but despite Elise’s pleas and impassioned attempts to dissuade him, he had stubbornly insisted on venturing out in search of food as soon as the guns fell silent. He had not yet returned. Elise had lost track of time, but the old woman was probably right: her husband had been gone close to two days. ‘I am no man,’ he’d declared, voice trembling, ‘if I can’t look after the women entrusted to my care.’ He’d promised to bring water too, and so had sallied forth, like a diminutive, white-haired knight, armed with a pail instead of a panzerfaust.
They had no news about events outside their hiding place, no way of knowing anything about the status of the final battle for Berlin. The radio was useless because there was no electricity. One of the final broadcasts had informed the hapless populace of the Fuhrer’s death and the news had been received with universal indifference. There was no gas and no water either, apart from the outdoor pumps and hydrants, but, in a bizarre touch, telephones kept ringing spontaneously, even under the rubble.
The odd little trio was cocooned in their cramped confines of the dank, gloomy cellar, furnished with makeshift beds, a bucket latrine in the farthest corner behind a crudely erected screen, and little else besides a dwindling cache of stale food. They covered the bucket with a towel between uses, but the stench was getting steadily worse nonetheless. Rosa was now refusing to use it altogether, and the faint smell of ammonia Elise was picking up from her surely indicated that she had soiled herself. A small cast iron stove had provided enough heat to boil potatoes and dried lentils, using scraps of wood for fuel, but the potatoes had dwindled to a few sad, shrivelled specimens, the lentils were finished, and the fuel supply was exhausted. Their water reserves were now critical too, as no one had been keen to venture out and establish if the courtyard pump was still intact and functioning. One bucket was empty, the other only a third full, the surface of its contents an unappealing, oily, leaden colour. Their dining table was an upended apple crate, which Rosa had covered with a small, embroidered white cloth in a sad little gesture towards familiar domestic niceties. Life had been stripped to the bare bones of its carcass, a grim preoccupation with survival, alongside an equal sensation of apathy, of needing to accept whatever fell to their lot. Frau Schumacher, indulging her flair for the dramatic, had stated quite matter-of-factly that, with no gas, they would all have to hang themselves or find poison somewhere. Elise had shushed her, but she knew full well that suicide was an option now being taken by many, even whole families. Four thousand Berliners would commit suicide during this final campaign. The rest steeled themselves for whatever was coming. ‘Der Ivan kommt!’ was the whispered warning that afflicted even the bravest amongst them with stark terror.
Elise froze. Frau Schumacher may have been hard of hearing, but she wasn’t, and she’d distinctly heard voices outside the cellar door. Sensing the girl’s sudden tension, the old lady ceased her wailing to watch Elise’s whitening face, followed her rigid gaze to the door, and began to tremble violently. Her mouth opened and closed like a beached fish, but no words formed. Slowly, Elise lowered her down on to the grubby sofa that served as her and her husband’s bed, pulled the blankets up to the old woman’s chin, and then rose to her feet facing the door and whatever lay behind it. They had all heard the horror stories about Russian soldiers raping German women, from young girls to grandmothers. Goebbels had used these stories to foment and strengthen opposition to the approaching Soviet Army, exhorting the populace of Berlin to fight to the last or face the barbarism in store for the defeated. The Nemmersdorf massacre in East Prussia was well known, the appalling images widely circulated to motivate resistance to the ‘Asiatic horde’. Refugees streaming in from Pomerania and Silesia had substantiated the horrific reports of Soviet soldiers’ brutal treatment of German women. Rape was often a prelude to murder, they claimed, while multiple rapes by up to twenty or more soldiers were common, leaving the victim bleeding, unconscious or dead. They even raped Polish and Russian women they liberated from Nazi forced labour camps, so how could German women expect any mercy? There was no other source of information now besides the rumour mill, and it had been in overdrive, filling with deep dread all the women who remained in Berlin.
With ample time on her hands, confined to the cellar, Elise had thought carefully about what she’d do if confronted with rape. She hadn’t menstruated for three months due, no doubt, to stress and malnourishment, so the likelihood of pregnancy resulting was remote, although venereal disease remained a distinct possibility, especially since the Red Army was so derelict in providing treatment for its soldiers afflicted with the disease. She’d decided that, in the event, she wouldn’t resist because she’d heard stories about what happened to women who did. Quite pragmatically, she felt she should just submit without a struggle, however harrowing the experience, and try to detach herself while it was happening, disown her body temporarily. She had to stay alive for Erich, and if it did happen to her, then she would never tell him. Her mind raced. Please God, don’t let there be too many of them!
A sudden blow against the door saw her jump violently and by now her heart was pounding so hard she thought it would tear itself from her chest. She tried to swallow, but her throat was completely constricted, her mouth bone dry. Despite her efforts to reconstruct the rudimentary barricade after Rolf had left, the door began to jerk open gradually as successive blows rained down on it. The Hindenburg lamp, fixed to a support beam in the cellar, guttered as a sudden draft wafted in. Elise watched fascinated, as if disembodied from herself, gazing impotently at a horror unfolding with slow, relentless intensity.
And then the door burst open, scattering the slats of wood and loose bricks with which they’d futilely tried to shut out the violence and mayhem that was Berlin under siege. Into the cellar stepped two well-built Soviet soldiers. They wore the fur hats, ushankas, and bulky, belted greatcoats of the Red Army uniform. Rubble dust powdered their black boots and each cradled a Russian ‘burp’ gun, the iconic shpagin machine pistol, with the distinctive circular magazine. After pausing momentarily, they stepped further into the dimly lit cellar, their eyes darting suspiciously around before returning to the thin young woman who stood motionless facing them, experiencing a weird kind of relief that the unbearable tension of waiting was over at last. One of them pointed to the sofa and said something in guttural Russian to the other. They both laughed, and then one strolled over to prod the blankets with the barrel of his gun, prompting a thin, cat-like wail from Frau Schumacher. He laughed again, turning to his comrade. ’Babushka.’ Then he turned his gaze upon Elise, his eyes taking her in slowly from head to feet and back again. He spoke again to his companion and again both laughed. To Elise, it sounded like a very unpleasant, sinister laugh; she clenched her fists, reminding herself of her strategy, telling herself to be strong. Even though she was thin, she was still a pretty girl, blue-eyed with wavy blonde hair and a nice figure; the two Russians couldn’t disguise the naked lust in their eyes as they appraised her. The soldier standing closest to her removed his ushanka, thrust it into his coat pocket, and stepped nearer, his body language tense and menacing. Elise continued to stand very still, offering no provocation, her face expressionless. The strangest image formed in her mind: of facing down a cobra as it slowly spread its hood, ready to strike. Like many Russian soldiers, his hair was cropped into a short stubble, exposing the bony contours of his skull and his prominent ears. She could see he was only about eighteen or nineteen, just a boy, his eyes bright and hard as he looked at her, fired with the knowledge of the unspeakable act he was about to commit, and far beyond any appeals to chivalry. He handed his gun to his companion and began to unbutton his coat, leering at her as he did so. Just as she had vowed, Elise felt herself begin to drift away, to detach and distance herself from her own body, as if she were merely an impassive observer of the ugly scene about to unfold. It won’t be so bad, she thought. It will be over quickly. Then, with the randomness induced by unprecedented trauma, she suddenly thought, I hope they don’t tear my clothes too much.
A shadowy movement caught her eye, harshly jerking her back to reality as she realised with sudden shock that a third person had entered the room, another Russian soldier, who was standing motionless just inside the door. He was dressed similarly to the other two, but wore a bandolier and sidearm over his black leather greatcoat; his bright blue military cap bore a red star with the familiar hammer and sickle emblem. Elise swallowed hard as nausea gripped her. Oh god, now there are three of them! Then the Russian spoke softly and the two young soldiers, fully focused on the girl before them and hence unaware of his presence, spun around to face him. The one standing next to Elise quickly thrust his ushanka back on and reclaimed his weapon from his companion before both of them snapped to attention, saluting the newcomer. The man nodded curtly, but without responding to their salute, and then spoke softly again, at the same time stepping aside to clear access to the door. He looked straight ahead as the two young men strode quickly past him and out of the cellar.
Elise thought, He must be an officer, and then her legs felt very wobbly as if she were about to fall. As she swayed on her feet, the Russian came forward quickly, taking her by the elbows as he guided her towards the cot that served as her bed. Elise sank on to it, staring fixedly at the man’s belt buckle as she did so. It was an SS belt buckle, which struck her as an odd sort of souvenir. Her eyes travelled upwards to his face, but he wasn’t looking at her; he was looking over at Frau Schumacher. He moved across to the sofa where he dropped on to one knee beside the prostrate old woman, gently drawing back the blanket covering her face. Frau Schumacher stared back at him with horribly dilated, watery, blue eyes.
‘Is this your mama?’ he asked in perfect German, turning to Elise.
‘No.’ Elise couldn’t conceal her surprise. ‘She’s my neighbour, Rosa Schumacher. Her husband went out two days ago to get food, but he hasn’t returned yet. She’s very upset,’ she added lamely, rising shakily to her feet.
The Russian patted the old woman’s hands where they clutched feebly at the blanket. ‘He’ll turn up. You won’t get rid of him that easily.’ Rigid with fear, Rosa merely stared at him with a stricken expression.
He stood up, looking steadily at Elise, who felt completely baffled, not only by the fact that he spoke German, but by his display of humanity to the elderly Rosa. She refused to drop her guard though, eyeing him cautiously as she took a step back. She was face-to-face with the enemy all Germans had been encouraged to believe were ruthless barbarians, untermenschen, subhumans.
‘Where is your apartment? Up there?’ He pointed to the ceiling.
Elise nodded. ‘Across the courtyard.’
‘Is it damaged?’
Elise began to feel increasingly uneasy, but she answered him in a level tone. ‘It was all right when we came down here. I don’t know about now – ’ Her voice trailed off.
‘Show me,’ he said abruptly, moving towards the door, indicating for her to go ahead of him.
She paused, gesturing towards Frau Schumacher. ‘I shouldn’t leave her.’ A desperate ploy; perhaps he was squeamish about raping her in front of the old lady.
‘She’ll be all right. I will post someone.’ He motioned again towards the door.
Elise hesitated, but did as he requested. He had a quiet air of authority that intimated he was used to being obeyed promptly. They climbed the cellar steps to the courtyard from where she led the way into the building, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the brighter light of a soft dusk. There was a pervasive smell of ruin: brick dust, mortar, ruptured sewers, rancid water, acrid smoke. Death. The distant crackle of small arms fire made her jump and she pulled her coat more tightly about her thin frame. From the street came the sound of guttural voices, shouting in Russian. The battle must be over, Elise thought. The war is lost.
Reaching the lobby, she turned towards the staircase, glancing behind her to see if he were still following. He barked something and a tall, shadowy figure, another soldier, emerged to stand legs akimbo, rifle raised to his chest in the centre of the courtyard. Elise swallowed hard, once more checking fearfully over her shoulder. The Russian officer’s featureless silhouette was directly behind her as they climbed the stairs; his boots, crunching on the rubble and glass-strewn steps, were like a count down to horror, something ungodly about to happen. A cellar’s not good enough for an officer to commit rape in, Elise thought bitterly. He wanted a degree of comfort. She hoped her apartment had been obliterated, or at least looted of the bed – an idea which instantly struck her as ridiculous – but, as she fumbled the key from her pocket, and unlocked the door with trembling fingers, she could see that, apart from one or two shattered windows, fallen belongings, and the ubiquitous plaster dust, it was largely unscathed. Giving no thanks for this fact, she crossed to the kitchen table, groping for candles and matches, telling herself firmly to be brave, that rape by one man was preferable to gang rape by three. By the time she had the stubs burning and had turned to face him, the Russian was sitting quietly in one of the armchairs, motionless, studying her silently. Elise watched him indifferently, feeling resigned to her fate. He removed his cap, liberating a thick shock of springy, blond hair.
‘Sit down. I won’t hurt you.’ He indicated the other chair. ‘Not all men are beasts.’
Elise crabbed sideways, trying to keep as much distance as possible between herself and her unusual guest, and slid into the armchair opposite him, blinking furiously to hold back the tears of release, suddenly aware how exhausted she was. Hunkering down in the thickly upholstered chair like a hunted animal trying to minimize its profile, she watched the Russian warily. He was slightly built, quite different from her husband. His features were boyish, refined; not at all like the brutal, porcine caricatures of Soviet soldiers depicted in Nazi propaganda with large, retroussé noses and slanted eyes. On his right hand, as was traditional in Russia, he wore a heavy gold wedding ring, which gleamed dully in the candlelight.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Elise. Elise Kruger.’
‘You are married?’
‘Where is your husband?’
’He is – was in France. I haven’t heard from him since the invasion.’
‘What is his name?’
‘Erich. Erich Kruger.’
’Is he Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS?’
‘Where else has he served?’
‘On the Eastern Front. Erich is a panzer commander.’
The Russian nodded. After a brief silence he asked, ‘Have you any food?’
Elise shook her head. ‘Not here.’ She waved a hand towards the kitchen. ‘A little left in the cellar.’
‘When did you last eat?’
’I don’t remember.’ His questions were beginning to irritate her. Her brain felt sluggish, unable to concentrate, and the situation itself, conversing with a Russian soldier in her sitting room, frankly bizarre. Her shoulders slumped wearily. ’Herr Schumacher, Rolf – ’
‘Yes, yes. He was going to look for food.’
He reached inside his coat and brought out a parcel wrapped in flaccid, greasy brown paper. Then he got up, walked to the table, and laid it down before opening it to reveal the contents. Elise saw bread and sausage; as the smell of it reached her nostrils she ran her tongue over her lips, feeling saliva flow into her dry mouth. From a pocket the Russian drew a small, flat, corked bottle, placing it next to the food. He gestured towards it. ‘Vodka.’ He smiled briefly. ‘Eat,’ he said simply. ‘Then sleep.’
As he turned to leave, he hesitated, then stooped to retrieve a framed photo off the floor, carrying it over to a candle to study it more closely. ‘This is your husband?’ he asked softly, holding up the picture of the young German officer.
Elise nodded. ‘That’s Erich.’
The Russian handed it to her. ‘Luckily, the glass is not broken.’
He strode to the door, where he paused to inspect its level of security, assiduously examining the thick chain that dangled there and checking for its complement bracket. ‘Lock this. There will be a guard. Don’t open it for anyone.’
Elise stood up. ‘Rosa – ’
He nodded, thrusting his cap back on his head. ‘I’ll see to it.’ And then he was gone.
’Lock it now!’ he called back from the other side of the door, making her jump, and then she heard his boots crunching on shards of debris as he descended the stairs. The apartment door was sturdy, made of good, solid wood. Elise locked it and secured the heavy chain Erich had installed, having instructed her firmly to keep it on at all times. She clutched his photo to her breast, rubbing it up and down against her clothing to remove a silvery coating of dust before replacing it on the bookcase.
Then she fell on the food like a starved wolf, desperately trying to discipline herself to eat slowly and save some for tomorrow, conscious that she must ruthlessly husband anything edible. Who knew what was coming? Many Berliners were adamant the Russians would starve them. Afterwards, she placed the vodka along with the remnants of bread and sausage in the dark, empty cavern that was the pantry, before crawling into her plaster-coated bed, fully clothed, and was asleep in seconds.