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.

Ilse R. is a strong-faced woman of about fifty with iron-gray hair and an air of dignified reserve. She was dressed in a neat gray suit, shiny from much pressing. Her daughter Inge, blonde, looks a good deal like her mother. The younger daughter, with hair dyed black, has a thinner and finer face and must favor her father, from whom Ilse R. has been divorced for five years.

I am not a person of much education, but I have always worked hard to improve myself. The profession in which I worked in East Germany is a dignified profession and, I think, a useful one. I was a real-estate agent. This means that I helped people to find houses. Such a job is important and satisfying in a country where there are not nearly enough houses because of the bombing and the slow rate of reconstruction and all the many other factors which force two or three families to live together in a small flat. Sometimes these apartments will consist of only two rooms in one corner of a bombed-out building. There is no plumbing, no light, no heat. It was my job to find people better places.

My difficulty was this: I worked for a private housing agency. There aren't supposed to be such things in East Germany, but there are. The state is anxious to stamp them out, but it is difficult to do so because the problem of housing is so great. People need the private agencies still because the state agencies have a bad reputation of promising big new flats on a specific date at no rent at all, with great new playgrounds, and so on. But the big new flats and the playgrounds never materialize. So people have little faith in the state agencies, and they come to us in the private firms for help.

The people in the state agency were very anxious that I should work for them. That was one of their methods of breaking up the private companies—to hire away the people that worked there. I did not want to go because I liked my boss and I liked my job, even though I made very little money at it. The state agency offered to pay me more money and give me free insurance and a pension besides. But I could not change.

I could not change because, in the first place, I did not like the idea of going through their inquiries. They make a very thorough probing of your life, and it is easy enough for someone to say that you are an enemy of the state. That goes into the files, whether or not it is true, and one day, when they want something from you, they take out the file and accuse you. I couldn't go through that, so I continued to say no.

Also, I could not face the heartache. There is a terrible angst in East Germany on the question of housing. How could I go to work every day and talk to people who were desperate for a place to live—young people who wanted children, old people whose children didn't want them any longer—and lie to them? To lie would have been my job. I would have had to promise apartments, knowing that there would never be any apartments. I could not do it.

No particular displeasure was shown at my refusal to work at the state agency, and I began to think that nothing would come of it. I should have known better.

My daughter Inge had just finished her baccalaureate with excellent grades. She is a bright girl, and we had always talked about her studying medicine. She had worked very hard, studying every night and giving up many things that a girl that age wants. I had always taught her that hard work brings rewards. She believed what I said, and she never once lost faith that she would go to medical school and be a doctor.

When she applied for admission to the university, she was refused. Soon I found out why: I should have gone to work in the state housing agency, as I had been invited to do. Because I refused to take such a job, the revenge fell on Inge. How does it feel to be a mother in a case like that?

We talked over the situation in the family, and we decided that Inge and I should come to West Berlin and try to make a new life. Anna, her little sister, had no pass for the frontier, so we were forced to leave her behind. We all wept when we parted.

It turned out well because Inge used great intelligence. She made friends with a girl who looked very much like Anna, except that the girl had black hair and Anna's hair is blonde, like Inge's. But the West Berlin girl had a passport, and Inge told her what she meant to do and begged her to let her borrow the passport. The girl agreed and, may God bless her, gave us the passport. Inge took the passport and a bottle of black hair dye and went back across the frontier.

Inge dyed Anna's blonde hair black and cut it short in the Raggedy Ann style of the West Berlin girl whose picture is in the passport. Then, together, the sisters walked to the border, Inge with her own pass and Anna with the passport of the black-haired West Berlin girl. The border guard was very suspicious. He asked many questions and kept them waiting for fifteen minutes while he and others went over the passport. But finally he let them through, and we are together again. Inge may be a doctor yet.

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