It was now winter, deadly winter. We all huddled together during mass, to try to stop the shivering. Nights were the worst, I was so lonely and cold in my small room. The stone walls seemed to exude coldness. No matter how I huddled under the blankets, I was still freezing. The one good thing was that during the summer the nuns kept a little garden, and now that it was winter there was reason to use the harvests. So while the rest of the city was getting lower and lower in food, we had enough, and even a little leftover.
One evening we were eating our squash, carrots and dry bread, when there was a knock at the door. The nuns looked around suspiciously, wondering if anyone else knew who it was.
“I’ll go answer it.” The mother superior said quietly, getting up and putting her napkin on the table edge. No one ate another bite as we listened to her muffled shoes nearing the door.
“Hello?” she said. From our distance her voice sounded small.
“Yes, this is the fourteenth Panzer division. Hitler has commanded that you shelter the wounded soldiers until they are recovered enough for battle. They will arrive with a quarter of an hour.”
“But, how many are there? We don’t have a doctor? There is no food…what are we to do?” the mother superior responded.
“That is your problem. I am only to deliver them.” The man walked away, I thought, because there was no more talking, and I heard the door close. Mother superior came slowly into the room, with a hollow gaze. I don’t think she saw where she was walking.
“Did you all hear that?” she said bleakly.
“Yes,” someone replied.
“We have a lot to do. Come girls, this is our duty. Perhaps God has placed these men here for a reason.”
She divided us into groups, and given a number of rooms to prepare. I went with Sophia, and Charlotte to find blankets and sheets for our ward. Sophia glared sullenly at me. When I heard her speak to Charlotte, I realized that she was the one who complained in the kitchen. But I did not say anything to her, but merely smiled in a friendly way when she looked at me. We hadn’t even begun arranging the cots on the floor when the men were carried in. I didn’t think the flow of wounded soldiers would ever end. There would be a pause, and I thought that perhaps that was all. Then someone would bring another in, and ushered a whole train of others in. It was nearly midnight by the time the commander man who gave us the news announced that that they were all in now. I sighed in relief, but then realized my job had only begun. Some of the nuns went to kitchen to scrounge up some sort of meal, or at least some tea. I was given the job of cleaning wounds and determining what men had serious dangerous wounds and need immediate attention. I stood for a moment outside the door, listening to them talk and complain. My eyes slid shut, and with great effort I kept them open. My stomach churned to think of the flesh and carnage. The blood and wounds. The men sounded rough and angry. Like the men I saw on my way to Auntie’s house. My hands shook; I could hardly open the door. My head throbbed like the aching hinges of the rusty door. I was so tired, so weary, and this stench of blood and pain was overwhelming.
At last I pulled myself together and entered. The first man I noticed was bleeding quite badly. He was young, and his face was pale.
“Can I help you?” I asked him in almost a whisper.
“You can get this bloody rag off my arm,” he said in angry tones, and then smiled. I knew he was just pretending to be angry.
“Let me go get some clothes, and a bucket of warm water.” He looked up at me with such a strong gaze I didn’t know what to do, and confusedly went all the way to kitchen before I realized there was a bucket and rags outside the ward room door.
“Here we are,” I said to the young man cheerfully. He didn’t seem to notice the pain as I wrenched the sticky bandages off.
“What’s your name?” I asked, trying to make conversation and keep my mind from what I was doing.
“Franz. And yours?”
“Catherine.” He just stared at me for the longest time, until I said it was time to move onto the other men.
“Yes, but don’t forget to come back,” he smiled at me again. I did not know then, I was such a stranger to the world, but I know now that it was then that Franz Gruber fell in love with me.
Some of the men were old and tired. But they were inflamed with the passion of Hitler. Men who hardly had the strength to get out of bed in the morning managed to go fight for the Fatherland.
“Little nun, you just get me fixed up as fast as you can, we’ve got some battles to fight,” they would say to me. I weakly smiled, and didn’t tell them they would be unable to fight for a number of months, or perhaps never again if infection started.
And so I spent the whole night, until the rooms were lit with brightness not from candles, and I knew morning had come. There were three or four men left to take care of.
“Good morning, sir, how are you?” I said to one of them.
“I am alright, alright,” he murmured, looking pityingly at me. I quickly cleaned his wounds, and left, with him still having that look of sorrow and regret.
One of the other nuns came to relieve me. I laid down for a few minutes, and fell asleep. Sometime in the afternoon I woke up and went to check on the men. Most were dozing too. Franz wasn’t. He beckoned me to come near.
“Yes?” I said.
“I am lonely. I haven’t talked to anyone in ages.”
So I sat down to listen to him.
“Do you know how long this war has lasted? It isn’t over yet either, I can tell you that. Have you ever hated anyone? In this army, we live on it. My father was murdered by the Allies. My mother, and the rest of my family died of starvation. I was so young then, and I remember watching them die away, like flowers wilt and are gone. They’ve done that to us…it is their fault we are in this now.” He clenched my hand so tightly I nearly cried out in pain. “My mother, she was so kind, and so beautiful. I loved her with all my heart. She was so full of life and vigor, always ready for a game with us children. But little by little all her strength drained away. She worked, she toiled to make us survive. Food was so scarce, we couldn’t have lived without her. When I was very young, I remember her laughing gaily. But as the English, the Russians and the Americans sucked our very life away, my mother became weak and tired. She didn’t laugh and romp with us. If she had the energy she slaved for a bit of bread, but the energy died. She sat listlessly, with hollow eyes, watching us scavenge for food. Then one morning she didn’t wake up. And it was all because of them.” He nearly started crying. After a moment he regained his composure. “After this war, my dear,” he said hesitantly, “we’ll do something together. We can start a life together, can’t we? After we pound the Allies to pulp, then we’ll live in riches and victory, just you and I.” He squeezed my hand again. I was thoroughly embarrassed and had no idea what to say. I just sat silently, and he took that for an agreement. I heard someone moaning from the other room, and left Franz for a moment.
It was the man with the strange melancholy gaze who was making sounds.
“Are you alright?” I asked him.
“Do you ever feel a dull aching right about here?” He put his hand over his heart. “That is my ailment. What is your name, child?” He spoke so sadly, and so gently.
“Adele. I mean, Catherine.” I cursed myself for saying Adele; I didn’t know why that came out. I hadn’t called myself Adele for years, at least not out loud.
“Do you forget who you are?”He said with a queer smile. “You aren’t the only one.”
“Well, you see, my parents named me Adele, and that is French. But my parents died when I was a child, and my father’s family, who were German, sent me to this nunnery, and renamed me.”
“Which do you like better?”
“Adele. It feels like my name. I just pretend I am Catherine, but Adele is my real name.” It was odd…I hadn’t thought about my name for such a long time. And here I was discussing it with a practical stranger. I desperately wanted to know his name, but was shy, and knew not how.
“Was there some French connection in your life, that your parents gave you that name?”
“My mother was French.”
“Oh, do you know French?”
“No, I wish I did…I have these letters she wrote my father, and I want to read them, but they are in French. Do you know it?”
“Yes, quite a bit. But my accent is terrible, the Frenchmen tell me.”
I had a fleeting vision of this man someday teaching me French, so I could read my mother’s letters. But it was a foolish dream, it would never happen.
“Sir, why did you go to fight?” I asked, very timidly.
“Why? There was no other choice. Either fight or be thrown in prison. Do you ever hate yourself? I did such stupid things. I went to war because I wanted to. Now I see that it was all false. I thought I was fighting for freedom. How foolish of me. How could we be fighting for freedom, when if we didn’t want to fight, we would be killed? That isn’t freedom. It is all an illusion. Do you know what an illusion is?”
I said no.
“It is something you think exists, but really it doesn’t. Hitler fooled us, and we believed him. Germany was so desperate to strike out, and Hitler gave us someone to blame. There are two kinds of leaders. Some appeal to the goodness, kindness and nobility of mankind. Others draw out the evil in the heart, hatred, deception, jealousy, and revenge. That is what Hitler did. And we fell for it.”
He shook his head, as if he couldn’t quite understand how it all happened. He looked confused. When he started talking I was sure I would be bored to death, but there was something in the tone of his voice, in the gentle crescendos of his sentences that I found fascinating. And so we talked on and on until it was time to serve the soldiers their supper. And when I went to bed that night I realized I still did not know his name.
The next morning when I went to clean the men’s bandages Franz became very angry at me.
“Why did you go talk to that crazy old man? I wanted someone to listen, someone to talk to. And you deserted me for him.”
“I am sorry; Franz, but I have an equal duty to all of the men here. I can’t spend all of my time with you, even though I might want to.”
That pacified him a little, of which I was glad because he was raising his voice and the other men were looking a little suspiciously over at us.
When I gave the other man his breakfast, I worked up my courage enough.
“Sir, I still do not know your name, what is it?” I asked.
He laughed a little. “You mean you spent all afternoon yesterday wondering what my name was? What a funny little girl you are. But let me ask you one as well. My name is Fredrick. How old are you?”
“I think I am nearly seventeen. Here at the nunnery we don’t put much importance on ages.”
“I was far off…I was guessing about thirteen. You are so young and dainty looking, in here with all of us. There, we are both even now. Any other questions?”
I said no, laughed nervously and moved away to help someone else. I was a little confused. He only gave me his first name, but yet I didn’t feel it was proper to call him by it. After all, he was so much older than I. But I couldn’t ask him again, he would think I was prying too much. And in my mind, I began thinking of him as Frederick, not “sir” anymore.
Thus passed the next week.