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Rita's Story

Red Cross, Berlin

Winter came, and the snow fell very softly, as though not to hurt anything it touched.  For Christmas, I fetched a little tree from the woods.  It wasn't very big; about three feet tall, but it seemed to be saying it wanted me to take it with me.  When they saw what I'd brought, my sisters were very excited.  The people I worked for gave me six candles and six candle-holders.  These were the only decorations on the tree.  It was not cold outside, and for our Christmas dinner, we had sausage and potatoes.  Great big snowflakes were still falling and I remember looking up into the sky and laughing as some tickled my nose as they touched it.  It was beautiful.  At midnight, we could hear the church bells ringing so we all went to mass.  The church was full with farmers, and refugees, and we made friends with some of them, and in the days that followed, exchanged stories; finding out where others had come from and how they came to be there.  One woman with a son and two daughters, came from our home town: we were to become friends for life.  These children were the same age as us, and one even had my name - Rita.

One day, a family arrived and told us that there was a Red Cross in Berlin where people would register so that when relatives came, they could be told where to find each other again.  That was wonderful, and made lots of sense. How else could one know where to find out where the rest of our families were?  We had aunts and uncles God only knew where. Nothing for it but I must return to Berlin and register.  Should we ever be allowed to return home, the Red Cross must know how to contact us. I packed my bags once more, and off I went.  By now, the going was much easier.  Buses were running, and also, trains were running again. I got as far as the border in just one day.  From then on, you had to watch out.  First came no-man's-land, and then the Russian border.

It was evening as I walked along the platform where the train was standing.  It was a goods train, carrying coal.  It belonged to the Americans and one woman with two daughters seemed to be begging one of the soldiers for a lift on the train to Berlin.  The soldier said it would be all right, but they wouldn't take any men because if they were caught, they would be shot.  They said however, the men could, if they wished, bury themselves in the coal wagons.  The girls and the woman climbed into the last coach, so I called "Me too".  He said "Okay baby" and I jumped on as quick as lightning.  The soldiers laughed and joked and played the mouth-organ.  The train moved off, going faster and faster.  I sat there very quietly, thinking that we must be nearing the border, and that any time now, we would be searched.  I looked for somewhere to hide.  I went outside.  Ours was the last coach.  The night was dark and very cold, but there seemed to be a lot of fun going on inside.  They were singing, and I am sure, dancing.  The train came to a halt, and some Russian guards came aboard.  All went quiet.  The door opened, and someone grabbed hold of me, dragged me inside and threw me into a large wooden box. I thought it was a coffin!  The next minute, I heard heavy boots, some rifle shots, and a Russian asking for a little girl.  I was praying very hard, hoping my thumping heart would not be heard.  An argument broke out.  The Americans were saying that there was no girl, and the woman was saying that there was one more girl in the coach.  Outside, I heard shooting and screaming, as, one by one, the occupants of the coal trucks were discovered.  Once again I had escaped the clutches of the Russians.

The train moved off, but I stayed in my box for another half hour before the lid opened and I could see four smiling faces looking down on me.  They helped me out, and called me "Lucky Star".  At that time I did not know what it meant.

What had happened was this ................... After the Russians took the woman and her daughters off the train, one of the Americans remembered about me.  Quick as lightning, he hauled me back into the coach, opened the lid of a coal box, and pushed me in.  He then put a blanket over the top and lay on it.  It was the mouth-organ player.  He pretended it was his bunk, and because the box was floor level, it did not give me away.  They were determined I was not going to be found out.  To this day, I thank those lads.  I only wish I could have spoken their language.

In Berlin, I registered with the Red Cross.  The whole building; an old hall, was absolutely plastered with photographs, letters and addresses.  Almost everyone who came, stuck or nailed something to a vacant space.  "Have you seen my mother, brother, sister, husband, or even child. I am so-and-so", and so on and so on.  I started to read, but after a while it got too much.  As far as I could see, no-one I knew had any information pinned to that wall.  Some people stood for hours in the hope of being recognised, or recognising a lost friend or relative.  I had come what I came to do, so now I had to set about the task of getting back to the West.  The last encounter of crossing the border had really frightened me, so this time I would only travel by train as far as the border, then I would try and cross no-man's-land by foot at night.  I would play this one by ear and by instinct.

It was dark when we got to the border, and what surprised me was the number of people who wanted to travel East, and the same amount longing to reach the west.  Some guides came along and offered their services, for a price.  Money, jewellery, cameras etc. All I had, was enough money to buy a train ticket on the other side to get to my family, so I refused.  People were very easily parted from their belongings in this way.  A party of about twenty people and two guides were left.  I stayed behind, and walked alone.  In the distance, I saw a house with the lights on.  I approached very carefully incase it was occupied by Russians as I knew I was very close to the border.  It turned out to be a guest house and the door was open.  I thought to gather some information, and maybe get a drink.  Inside, the landlady greeted me and asked me what I would like to drink.  I said that a cup of tea or coffee would be very welcome.  She said that the choice was mine so I had coffee.  There was no-one else about, and that suited me fine.  We began a conversation.  At first about the weather, then people.  When I thought I trusted her, I asked her how far from the border we were.  She told me that it was not far, and when I asked whether many people crossed there, she told me that some did.  By that time, she realised what I was really there for, and she gave me some sound advice.  "I like you" she said.  "Take notice of what I'm going to tell you.  There are people in this district who are posing as guides.  First, they take all they can off you, then they will lead you straight to the Russians.  You can believe it or not, it's up to you".  I was terribly shocked, but I believed her.  I was thinking of all those people who had given all they had, only to be betrayed later, and how I could so easily have been one of them.

I did not ask her how she knew, but she told me that they sometimes called in for a drink, and she had heard them, when they'd had a few, boasting of their accumulated goods.  For this dirty deed, of course, they were also paid by the Russians.

The woman offered me a bed for the night, but I could not afford it, nor would I have been able to sleep, after what I'd just heard.  Besides, I had more important things to do this night than sleep.  I had to make use of the darkness to try and cross over the border.  I said farewell, then walked out into the night.  It was very dark, and it had started to drizzle.  At first, I resented it, but later thought that it might be a good omen.  Not many people would venture out unless they had to.  I walked on, and every so often, I made a point of stopping and listening.  There was not a whisper.  Only when I was sure I was still alone, would I venture further.  The rain was getting heavier, and I began to wonder where I was, and where this road was leading me to.  I thought that maybe I had lost my way, and that I was on my way back the way I had come, or maybe I was over the border.  My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of voices in the distance.  Two or more people were talking and laughing.  I hid behind a tree, very low so as not to be spotted.  Still talking, they came nearer.  I slipped further back, and they passed me by.  I retreated too far and could not hear what was being said, but at least I was not seen.  A slight noise behind me made me jump, but it was only a rabbit who was as startled as I .  It was very eerie, but on I walked, not meeting another soul.  I did not notice when the rain stopped, but it must have been about three or four o'clock in the morning when I stopped in front of some barbed wire.  On one of the pillars, there was a notice but it was too dark for me to read it, so I hid myself in a ditch until early light, and then, on hands and knees, I crawled back to the notice board.  In big letters, it read "You are now in the West".  At first I was proud of my achievements, then I wondered if it was a trap.  I kept going, longing to meet someone to confirm my hopes.

It was much lighter now, but there was still not a soul about.  The railway line came across my path, and I wanted to follow it, but I didn't know in which direction to follow it.  I sat and thought, waiting for inspiration from somewhere, but there was none.  Then it came to me.  If the sun rises in the east, and sets in the west, then I would work it out from there.  Morning had broken from my left, so I would turn right.  It brought me to a small village from where I was able to get a bus to the station, and then a train back to my family.  I kept thinking of those 'guides' and all those poor people who trusted them.  From now on, I would call this village 'home'


Part 9 - 'Home'