Why We Crossed Over

Before the border of East Berlin was sealed, the citizens of that beleaguered place, in increasing number, were making up their minds to escape. In the brave, candid statements that follow, we understand why.
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Hans R. is a cabinetmaker, thirty-seven years old. He was a corporal in the Wehrmacht and fought in the winter campaign in Russia. He is married, and he and his wife have a ten-year-old son. He wears his thick blond hair short and straight back. His eyes are calm and steady, and he has the blunt, quiet hands of a craftsman. Hans R. was born in the East German city from which he fled, and he lived there all his life except for his army service.

All of my life I have worked with my hands. So has my entire family. We have taken pride in our trade; we have looked on our trade as an honorable thing. My father taught us this when I and my brothers were very young. I have tried to teach the same principles to my son, not because work is honorable any longer in East Germany, but because I think that work cannot be dishonored forever. Someday it will again be a manly thing to work like an honest man, even in East Germany. I do not think that men can live without a feeling of respect for themselves and their work.

This is my opinion. Nothing will change it. I have left my home, which I love very much, because I could not even pretend that my opinion had changed. Had I been able to pretend, to behave as if I had buried my self-respect and my pride in my work, I would have stayed and I would have won privileges. But I could not do this. People told me over and over it would be smart to do it, but I always thought to myself: If I do start to pretend, what happens to me inside? After a while you begin to believe the pretense. Then you are finished.

This was the root of my troubles. It made a lot of unhappiness for me and my wife and the rest of my family. Many times I was warned. Still I could not change. Of course, I was not so foolish as to say right out how I felt. But it is not necessary to do so. Anyone who has worked with other men knows that it is easy for the boss to tell who is trying to cooperate and get ahead and who does not like the boss. I was the fellow who did not like the boss, and it showed.

Always I have wanted to be independent. During the war, when I disliked the discipline and the orders, I used to think: "After the war is over, if I live, I'll open a little workshop and follow my trade. Then I will be my own boss, and I can do things to suit myself." It always seemed to me a good thing to be an artisan, to make fine chairs and tables and wardrobes and sell them for an honest price to people who needed them and admired them. That is what I wanted to do. I had an idea of independence, of privacy. Also, I had an idea of quality.

It was hard for me to be told not to have such ideas. I was told not to open my shop. They said it would be a waste of needed skill and manpower. Instead I was given a job in a state factory. Each day, each week, I had a certain amount of work to do, a quota to fulfill. It was said over and over that to fulfill one's quota was a sign of patriotism and not to fulfill it was a sure sign of the opposite. Some people believed this. I could not. I couldn't believe that making ugly furniture, bad furniture that wasn't even glued and pegged properly, was patriotic. My father would have refused to do the work I was asked to do—cutting out pieces of wood according to a set pattern and then banging them together for the painters to cover with sticky shellac. It offended me to think that this was the only kind of furniture people could buy, and I was sick to think that I was wasting my trade this way. Nevertheless, I tried to do my best, because times were hard and I had to live. But often my quota was not fulfilled.

Then, in 1952, there was a great effort to get workers to join the Communist Party. I was called in and asked to become a candidate member. Because I do not believe in this particular political system, I refused. After this, things were less pleasant for me. I was told to submit to an examination, which meant an investigation of my associations and long questioning as to my beliefs. At the end of this I was told that I was in need of help. I was ordered to submit to political education. There was no choice in this. I had to submit. But I was not a bright pupil.

At the same time, I had started to make some little things at home—tables, bookcases, chairs, the sort of items that people wanted. I did this partly for recreation and partly for the money that they brought when I sold them. I was making less than 1000 East German marks (about $57) a month at that time, and this was not enough to live on. Sooner or later it had to happen. I sold a table or something to the wrong person, and the police found out. Free enterprise is a great misdemeanor against the state, and I was reprimanded harshly. After that, things did not go so well.

Finally, my wife could not stand it any longer, and we agreed that she should come into the West with our son. I was to join her later. Her plans were discovered and reported by a neighbor—even now I don't know which neighbor—and one day when I came home from work my wife was not there. My son came in from play and his mother was not there. We asked our relatives and friends if they had seen her, we searched the city for two days, and at last we had to go to the police. They said that they had no information about her. I never received any word about her, and the boy kept asking where she was. There was no one to care for him with his mother gone, and he could not understand. Three months later my wife came back. She had been in prison. The police had come and taken her to prison one afternoon, never told her why and never told her child or her husband anything at all.

Things went from bad to worse. One of the men I worked with was arrested one day. He grew very frightened and gave a long confession of lies, or mostly lies, because he was trying to save himself. He denounced me, among others, as an enemy of the state. I heard of this from friends here in West Berlin, where I was looking for work. I had got permission to go to another city in East Germany on vacation, but I came to West Germany instead, thinking that I could find a job and then bring my wife and son here. I went back secretly to our town to find my wife. I had to do this because I had written her four letters and she had not answered. I was very worried, remembering the things that had happened to her before, so I went back. Her mother and father told me that she was in prison again. It was known to the authorities that I had been in West Germany, and if they caught me, I would go to prison for three years. That is the law. So I left, secretly, and came back here. I had to leave my wife in prison and my son with his grandmother.

It is not easy to do such a thing. I only hope that the situation will not last forever. Meanwhile, I am making plans. First I need a job where I can use my hands as I know how to use them. Then, maybe, things will work out little by little. We will keep on trying.

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