Why We Crossed Over: Five East Berliners Speak Out
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.
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.
Dieter S., twenty-one years old, has classic German good looks: blond hair, clear blue eyes, a fine nose, and a square chin. His father was killed in action, and his mother died after the war. He grew up with relatives in East Berlin and received a secondary school education. He belonged to various Communist youth organizations as the price of securing this education. Dieter crossed the East Berlin-West Berlin frontier the day before the wall went up.
After I had finished my regular schooling, I was told that I would make a good hospital worker, and I was assigned to a hospital for training. It was my hope to become a laboratory technician, and I was told that this was possible. Nevertheless, I continued to work as an orderly. This is not bad work, but there is not much future in it if you ever want to get married and have a decent life, so I worked hard and kept asking for higher training.
I knew in my heart that I would never have a chance for such training. I was not doing the right things. Often I skipped the lectures on Communism that all the hospital workers were supposed to attend. I cannot explain this, really. A lot of people go to the lectures who do not believe them. Most people, in fact, do not believe them. Besides, the lectures are extremely boring and very long. I had heard it all many times. Still, it was better to go if you wanted to get ahead. I knew it, but I could not make myself go. At the same time, I had dropped out of the various organizations I belonged to as a student. The reason was the same: they were dull and boring, the same thing over and over again.
One day my supervisor called me into his office. He charged me with my behavior and asked what was wrong with me. I told him I was discouraged about my future and asked why I had not been given the training I had been promised. He grew angry. He said that people who showed no sign of loyalty to the state would not be picked for higher training. He told me that I was politically unstable and that a serious view of this was taken by the authorities. Naturally, I was frightened and didn't know what to say. He sent me away.
A day or two later, I had a call from the police. They said that they knew that I had been going frequently into West Berlin to see my aunt. They knew also that I had many friends in West Berlin and that I had been seen riding on a motor scooter with a decadent girl from West Berlin who had long hair, like Brigitte Bardot's. All of this was true enough, and I could only admit that it was. I was ordered not to go to West Berlin any more, and, in particular, not to visit my aunt. I said that she was my only relative. The police said that this made no difference, that she was a bad influence who made me forget my loyalties.
I expected that when I told my aunt she would cry or be upset and maybe ask me to flee from East Berlin. Instead she advised me not to get into trouble on her account and to do what I thought best. Because I knew that I was being watched, I stopped crossing the border. Also, I went to the education classes and let them try to rehabilitate me. All the time I was melancholy. I did not hear what was being said in the education classes. I felt that there was no hope in the world for me.
After a while, I was called into the supervisor's office again. There was another man there to see me, and the supervisor went out of the room while he talked to me. The man was from the police, and he had my record with him in a folder. My name was on the cover. He riffled the pages of the folder as he talked to me. It made me nervous.
The man told me that there had been some doubt about me, but the authorities were encouraged at the progress I had made. They were convinced that I was trying to do better. He was very charming and sympathetic. He knew all about my plans and hopes to be a technician.
This, he said, was very possible if I had the right attitude. All I had to do was observe certain patients and fellow workers whose names would be given to me, and report what they said and did and who they saw. It was simple. It was a patriotic duty. It was a way to get ahead. I told him that I would think about it.
That night I crossed the frontier into West Berlin and knocked on my aunt's door. To be a technician in a laboratory does not mean that much to me. There is a limit to what you can be asked to pay, and I have paid enough.
Ursula F., twenty-five years old, is a small, pretty girl with a mass of auburn hair. She has a quick laugh and a mobile, expressive face. She speaks a witty German, full of unexpected phrases.
A few years ago, when I was studying in Berlin Free University, I used to go out sometimes with a boy who hated Communism. He used to ask me, "How can you think of going back into that prison? Why should you put your mind into cold storage?" I was younger then, and I thought it was possible to live under the Communists. I used to tell my friend: "It is too ridiculous to last. Don't worry." Now I am older and I still think that the Reds are ridiculous and that they can be killed, really destroyed, by laughter. The trouble is, of course, that everyone is too scared or too tired or too bored to laugh. Therefore, they go right on Communizing and Bolshevizing and looking fat and severe. Anybody want to laugh?
I am asked all the time why I decided to come across the border. It is difficult to package up the reasons and give them to you with a red ribbon tied around them. To be truthful, it was no one thing. It is the corrosion and gradual wear and tear that get one in the end.
This is my case history: I came to West Berlin to study in the Free University. This was not a wise decision politically, but my love is literature and I wanted to read my books in peace and discuss them in freedom. At least, I thought, I'll have that secreted in some corner of my mind, even if I do go back. And so I have. After I had been in West Berlin for a while and had even fallen in love a little bit with the boy I told you about, I started to receive callers. These ladies and gentlemen talked to me very mournfully about my family and about my duty to the fatherland and how I should go back to East Germany. I kept saying no. I wanted to finish my studies. But they sometimes came to see me every day. When I was trying to study, two of them would come and talk to me for five hours or more, repeating the same things over and over. Finally I gave up. It was impossible. I went back home. I haven't seen the boy again, but maybe he is still here somewhere, and if he is, I want to tell him how right he was.
So I went back and finished my studies, and then I had good luck and was given a job in a publishing house. I started as a clerk, but after a time I was asked to read and criticize manuscripts. Some of them were pretty good, but we never accepted these. We were very eager to publish good, solid socialist realism, but anything with a grain of truth in it had no chance. I used to read things first, so I could do some good: if a young writer wrote a critical novel, I could always send it back to him and warn him not to submit it elsewhere if he wanted to stay out of trouble. Some of those young men, burning with talent and frustration, really needed protection. God knows what will happen to them eventually if they keep writing.
After I had been at the publishing house for a time it was suggested that I join the German-Soviet Friendship Youth Organization. Everyone has to belong to something like this in order to keep up appearances, and it seemed pretty harmless, so I joined. One night I lost my temper during a discussion period and asked why there couldn't be free elections and a sound economy that would furnish the necessities of life in East Germany. I was ruled out of order and was told to sit down. Our activities at the youth organization included not only dialectical discussion but also rifle practice. We were supposed to be ready for the American aggressors and their West German lackeys. As for me, I would have shot the gun off into the air like a red Indian, mad with joy at the first sight of an invader from the West.
Nothing came of my speech except some suspicious looks and a friendly talk with the group leader. He liked me, I think, so the report he turned in on me couldn't have been too awful.
At about this time I began to go with a journalist. He was a nice young man, and he introduced me to his friends. They cling together, journalists, and tell each other all the stories that they write each day. After a while, the police came to me and asked if I knew So-and-so, my journalist friend. I said yes. And did I know his friends? Was I an intimate member of their group? Yes, I said. Ah, then, would I mind, as a small gesture of citizenship and loyalty to the state, writing a little report now and then on what they said and did—especially what their political sympathies seemed to be?
I refused. The same policeman came again and gave me another chance. Again I declined. He was very angry and went away. The next day two other policemen came to my house and searched my effects. In my handbag they found a copy of a West German newspaper. This was the sinister evidence they were looking for, and they waved it around and lectured my poor mother about it until she nearly cried. Then I was ordered to report on the following Monday for political education. On Sunday I took a train to East Berlin, walked to the nearest border checkpoint, and said to the guard: "I just want to buy a copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine." He smiled and let me through.
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.
Georg K., about forty-five years old, is a graying, untidy, impatient man. He is much absorbed in his profession and seems to be wholly apolitical. He and his wife have two sons, seventeen and eighteen.
I will give you the short explanation of why I left East Germany. It was impossible for me to practice my profession properly. It was impossible for me to exercise the normal rights and pleasures of a father. In these circumstances, how could I remain?
Still, I reflected for a long time before deciding to leave. It is not easy for a man to leave the place he knows as home. It is not easy for a doctor to leave his patients.
It is true everywhere that a doctor does not choose his patients, and this is one of the noble things about the profession. In East Germany today, however, a doctor's patients are sometimes chosen for him. No one ever said to me: "Do not treat So-and-so for cancer; he is an enemy of the state." But the police have let me know, in various subtle ways, that they know that I have been treating unreliables. They hint that secrets pass between us in the consulting room. They try to make me feel uncomfortable. I have found myself feeling very defiant and noble, like an officer in the underground, signing a prescription for a man whom I know to have the wrong politics. This is not a good position for a doctor to be in.
Physicians in East Germany, like physicians everywhere, complain that they are overworked. Of course we were overworked! An army of doctors has crossed the border in the years since the war, and there are few left in East Germany. However, it was not overwork that drove me into the West. It was frustration that drove me out.
I will say nothing about the bureaucracy, about the endless paperwork, about the formalities, about the silly procedures in the hospitals. I will give you an axiom, though. It is this: Politics poisons medicine. The hospital to which I was attached was headed by a man who was an imbecile. He was a Communist. Twenty years ago he would have been a Nazi, and probably was. That was the kind of man he was. He drove everyone mad with his stupidity and with his political questions. I would be reading an X ray from a man with pneumoconiosis, and he would slip up behind me and ask if I had read Khrushchev's latest speech on disarmament. What did I care about some Russian and his sophistry? I was trying to see if some poor miner with six kids had a chance to live.
All of this I was able to suffer. But I discovered, through my family, that this was not enough.
My older son, applying for the university, was told that he could not attend. The reason? Simple. His father was a doctor, an academician, a university graduate. I was a bourgeois. Therefore, my children were, by inheritance, too bourgeois to deserve a university education. Higher education is reserved for the workers,
My sons, like the sons of all middle-class people, needed to be purified. In order to qualify for the university, they had first to perform several years of manual labor in a factory or on a farm. Then, depending on how well they enjoyed being proletarian, they might be considered for higher education.
I have nothing against the working class, and heaven knows I have worked for that class as best I could, even before the socialist paradise arrived in Germany. But why should my sons lose years of their lives because I, a bourgeois, fell in love with a girl of my own class and we brought them into the world?
Well, now I have brought them into another world. It is my hope that the reason I had to do this will not forever poison their minds against the working class.
That is where the stupidity lies. The Communists always produce the opposite reaction from the one they seek. You cannot pump a stomach without leaving a bad taste in the mouth.