Hamburg, Germany. October, 1944
The smell of death seeped into Anna’s nostrils. It clutched at her hair, her clothes, her life.
She paused at the door of the operating room, steeling herself against yet another day of cries and moans, the cloying sweet stench of rotting flesh above the acrid odor of disinfectant. There was only so much sulfa could do to ward off infection. She adjusted her starched white cap, willing herself once again to face the blood and pus, the gaping wounds, the young soldiers’ lost limbs, as she had every day for months in this hell that was the surgical ward. Would this war never end? Her skin turned clammy.
Anna saw her fiancé, Dr. Fritz Baumgartner, in the scrub room. He looked up, smiled and blew her a kiss. She mimed catching it and throwing one back. A warm light lifted her heart. What good fortune that he was such a specialized surgeon that he hadn’t been called to serve at the front. He was needed at this hospital. For now, at least, they could be together.
How often he had reassured her, “This, too, shall pass. We must believe that God has a purpose for us. We are here to help.” His quiet comfort, his faith, her love for him—perhaps it wasn’t enough. Her heart darkened again. She hated this war, despised that she couldn’t do more for these suffering men.
Anna shook her head. How enthusiastic she’d been five years ago when she’d started her nurse’s training as a Red Cross helper. At sixteen, she’d still worn the idealism of the young.
But then a couple of years later, she’d been conscripted for a year in the work camps, where women did the farm labor in place of the men who were at the front. Where women were treated as slaves, as chattels, bearing the brunt of cruel taskmasters’ whims. Her back tightened, feeling again the pain of the riding crop as she had stumbled in the pre-dawn darkness to the fields. She shook her head to clear the memories.
But no relief awaited her at the hospital. Every day since she returned from that conscription she’d felt as if her efforts were tiny and feeble. Her shoulders sagged. She felt as ancient as Methuselah.
Anna pulled up her mask, hoping to block the sick sweat, fecal stench, and vomitus, to no avail. She couldn’t breathe. She just couldn’t face this shift—not yet. She turned away. As if watching herself from above, she found herself running to the end of the long corridor. Past the rooms of groaning young men. Past the Nazi recruiting and anti-spy posters lining the hallway. Past those flyers encouraging blackouts. Past the one depicting a woman plowing the field while her husband fought on the front. Ja, Anna had been there, with those women. She’d done her duty, was still doing her duty for das Vaterland.
She flung open the outside door, tore off her mask and gulped great draughts of fresh air.
Anna walked fifty yards beyond a low bunker and leaned against the sand-bagged wall. The morning sun warmed her up-thrust face and burned a red haze against her closed lids. She barely heard the incessant drone of warplanes anymore—the sound more like bees buzzing around spring blossoms—when blooming gardens were still part of life. Gradually her breathing returned to normal and her shoulders relaxed a few notches below her ears.
Now, Fräulein Schmidt, enough of this self-pity. She opened her eyes and placed her fists on her hips as if lecturing a first-year apprentice nurse. You have all of your limbs. Your whole life is ahead of you. It is your duty to care for these boys and be cheerful about it. Now get back to work. Funny how that voice in her head sounded just like Papa’s, always no-nonsense, so stern.
Anna smiled then, a trembling upward curve of her lips, but a smile nonetheless. Cheery. Calm. This is how she must present herself to her patients.
The buzz droned louder, more persistent. Anna blinked and frowned. She squinted into the white-hot sky, now darkening. Planes. Hundreds of planes. Her eyes widened. A piercing whine cut through the hum. Anna screamed. With a deafening roar, her world exploded around her. The concussion catapulted her to the ground. Bricks rained from the sky. She covered her head as best she could with her arms and buried her face in the loamy earth. Death. Here it comes. Ach, mein Gott, let it be swift.