A Des­per­ate Time

Gertrude Lar­son was 22 when she was forced to dodge the bombs drop­ping out of the sky over Vi­enna and watch on as the Aus­trian city was re­duced to rub­ble, chaos and de­spair

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Online - Gertrude Lar­son sur­vived the war and, in 1950, mi­grated to Aus­tralia to find a bet­ter life for her son. She be­came an Aus­tralian cit­i­zen and now lives in Man­durah, Western Aus­tralia.

THE AIR-RAID SIRENS CAME with a cal­cu­lated reg­u­lar­ity, sound­ing ev­ery morn­ing at about 9am, bring­ing all ac­tiv­ity in Vi­enna to a halt. We would rush to the shel­ter as the Al­lied bombs above us dropped indis­crim­i­nately.

Emerg­ing some two hours later when the all clear was given, we never knew what we would find. Was our house still stand­ing? Would it be our turn next? Life had be­come an un­cer­tain day-to-day ex­is­tence and a feel­ing of im­pend­ing doom hung over the city. The air-raids were be­com­ing more sus­tained and on Septem­ber 10, 1944, we lost our home and grand­mother, too.

Vi­enna was com­ing to a stand­still: trams stopped run­ning and were left aban­doned on their tracks; build­ings were re­duced to rub­ble; shops were ran­sacked by peo­ple des­per­ate for food.

A dairy ware­house had been dam­aged in one at­tack and, as it was be­ing de­mol­ished, peo­ple jos­tled to get closer to grab items such as but­ter that might have fallen in a crevice. My mother and I man­aged to come home with a few eggs be­fore they were crushed in the pan­de­mo­nium.

The cus­toms ware­house in the Third Dis­trict was badly dam­aged and peo­ple were walk­ing in freely and help­ing them­selves to what­ever they could find, com­ing out with Per­sian rugs and cowhides over their shoul­ders. It was a strange sight and there was no­body to stop them. All law and or­der had bro­ken down. To get home we had to duck in and out of door­ways, as planes directed their guns into the streets be­low.

When we re­turned to our apart­ment build­ing, we had to take refuge in the cel­lar. Above us we could hear the fight­ing. The pound­ing was re­lent­less, day and night with­out let up. Then the shelling fi­nally stopped and I dared to leave the cel­lar and step out­side – all around me was ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion. The houses on the other side of our street and fur­ther along were piles of rub­ble and peo­ple were stum­bling about, di­shev­elled and be­wil­dered.

I picked my way through the rub­ble

Build­ings were re­duced to rub­ble and shops were ran­sacked by peo­ple desparate for food

to the cor­ner. Some dis­tance away I saw a Rus­sian sol­dier in his huge coat with a ma­chine gun on his arm. Rac­ing back to my build­ing, ter­ri­fied, I yelled, “The Rus­sians are here!” Soon our neigh­bours were pour­ing into the cel­lar where we were hud­dled to­gether fear­ing the worst.

We black­ened our faces with soot to ap­pear as unattrac­tive as pos­si­ble, but it did not save four of the women. I sat in the dark­est cor­ner and some­how es­caped.

It was a fear­ful night. The next morn­ing we went back to the third­floor flat we were moved into af­ter ours was de­stroyed and pre­pared to face what­ever was to come. There was fierce fight­ing, heavy mor­tar fire and the sky was red from fires en­gulf­ing the city. It looked like the end.

We had lost all sense of time and ex­is­tence. There was no to­mor­row.

When the in­fer­nal din fi­nally stopped, we be­came aware of heavy foot­steps out­side our door. It was fol­lowed by a hard knock. We made no sound. The knock­ing per­sisted be­fore who­ever was be­hind the door be­gan to force it open. Fear­ing for our lives, we opened the door and found a big Rus­sian sol­dier. He was young, fit and strong. He spoke rapidly and wanted to know why we had not opened the door when he knocked. Mother un­der­stood ev­ery word, she had grown up in Rus­sia and spoke the lan­guage flu­ently, but did not an­swer, mak­ing signs that we were deaf.

But this big Rus­sian man was dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers. He as­sured us that we had noth­ing to fear, that we were un­der the pro­tec­tion of his cap­tain, who would move into the va­cant flat op­po­site ours.

He was over­joyed when my mother at last spoke to him in Rus­sian.

Sit­ting with us in our small kitchen, as though this was the most nat­u­ral thing to do, he told us about his vil­lage be­yond the Urals, his mother, his sis­ters, and about his life. There was no war now. The world was at peace.

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