Today is the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall going up. I was vaguely commissioned to write a piece about my husband’s grandmother, who escaped from East Berlin, but in the end it wasn’t published, so I’ve decided to post it here instead. My husband – like many Berliners – gets a bit tetchy about visitors to the city wanting to see the remains of the wall, and has been known to scoff at tourists photographing it – ‘the wall’s gone guys, it’s over, move on!’ But his grandmother loves to recite the story of her escape, and I managed to get it all written down one day. Here it is:
I was working as a scientist in East Berlin when the wall went up overnight in 1961. My 15-year-old daughter was staying with my mother in West Berlin that weekend, so I didn’t see her for two years. Eventually she was granted a visa and visited me a few times, but it was very stressful. She had to queue for hours and go through a heavily guarded checkpoint, always dreading an interrogation or body search.
By 1967 I was desperate to escape. My sister, a ballerina, had committed suicide in West Berlin, and my request to attend her funeral was turned down without explanation. I realised then how cruel the system was, and I felt very lonely. All I wanted was to get out.
I was prepared to take the risk because even if I was caught and imprisoned I would be set free after a few years. It was widely known that the West German government paid a substantial amount of money per prisoner to the East Germans, who were desperate to boost their economy. Three years in prison was nothing compared to a lifetime in East Berlin surrounded by barbed wire and a wall. At the time no one thought that the wall would eventually come down.
My mother organised my escape. She contacted the Red Cross and through them found an American organisation that would smuggle me out for 30,000 DM (14,000 GBP) – all her savings. I had to meet the mediator at a café. As we talked we had to look relaxed, in case there were Stasi agents watching us. He told me to book a holiday at the seaside resort of Varna in Bulgaria, where I was to stand outside the post office every night at eight o’clock, wearing a white coat so the courier would recognise me. My daughter smuggled my important documents, such as my university degree and birth certificate, across the border under her clothes.
Because of my work as a scientist I was considered trustworthy by the GDR, and granted a travel visa. At Varna I stayed in a hotel for East German tourists. We all had meals in the hotel restaurant, which gave the authorities a chance to count people and ensure no one was missing. An undercover Stasi agent usually accompanied tour groups, posing as a guide or traveller. You never knew who it was, but you knew they were there.
To disguise my intentions I established myself as a party girl, staying out late in nightclubs so people wouldn’t immediately raise the alarm when I didn’t show up after a night out. During the day I rested. I shared a room with another woman and the lack of privacy was stressful, as I had no chance to reflect on what I was about to attempt. I felt exhausted from the effort of acting normal.
Each night I stood outside the post office in my white coat, a camera over my shoulder to look like a tourist and my DDR passport in my pocket. I felt very focussed on my escape, but after a week no one had come and I started to panic.
On the eighth night a young man approached me, and I recognised him as an old university acquaintance. He gave me directions to a meeting point, then I returned to the hotel for dinner so the alarm wouldn’t be raised. Afterwards I left as if going to a nightclub. It was a long, eerie walk past tobacco fields to the meeting point. It was getting dark and I felt very lonely. Suddenly along came a massive beige car with American diplomatic number plates. In the car was the boy I knew, along with a driver.
I sat in the back of the car and we drove to the Yugoslavian border. Just before we got there we stopped in a dark forest. The driver pressed a button on the dashboard and to my amazement it opened up, revealing a space just big enough to squeeze into. Once in, I found it bigger than it looked, with enough room to lie down.
When we arrived at the border I could hear the guards asking questions, and I felt ice cold, totally alert and immersed in the situation. Because the car had diplomatic number plates it was unlikely to be searched, but I knew that the alarm had probably been raised at the hotel.
We drove down many isolated donkey tracks and through fields in Yugoslavia, staying in cheap hotels along the way. It took about four days to get to the Austrian border, and whenever we travelled through a town or checkpoint I had to squeeze back into the chamber.
Finally we reached Munich, and I boarded a flight to West Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. I arrived with only my handbag, after a journey that would have taken less than an hour by train. I felt so relieved and happy to see my daughter and my mother.
I had to report to an escapee intake centre, where I was interrogated by the Germans and each of the Allies, first the Americans, then the British and finally the French. They all asked the same questions – where did you live in East Berlin, and what do you know about the Russian military?
I was granted refugee status, but the authorities advised me to leave Berlin because scientists were sometimes kidnapped back by the East Germans, so I registered with the job centre, and found work as a high school chemistry teacher in North Germany, where I still live today. Finally normal life could begin.