Newswire: Berlin-Kreuzberg, Saturday 12. August 1961
Meanwhile, a festival of hope for the future: the Kreuzberger Festival Days, held right on the border. Over 1000 children from both West and East enjoyed this wonderful festival on Thursday and Friday (the festival will end Saturday) to ride the carousels, watch puppet shows and ride the Luftschaukel swings, all to the sounds of joyful hand organ music. Even the grownups that attended were swept along with the tide of happiness that rolled through Moritz Platz.
* * *
On a cloudy but muggy Saturday morning, 10-month-old Bettina Bach and her rotund Uncle Georg set off to visit the final day of Kreuzberger Festliche Tage.
Little Bettina had been a strain on her parents ever since the day she was born. Even when she wasn’t suffering from her usual digestive maladies, she would cry incessantly, especially late at night. The unseasonably cool but wretchedly humid summer weather wasn’t helping matters — now she had a summer cold or a migraine — the doctors were not sure.
When her Onkel Georg volunteered out of the blue to take Bettina to the festival that particular Saturday, her exhausted parents were more than grateful. Georg adored his baby niece and he loved making her smile.
Her father Vicktor said yes immediately. Katharina was concerned that the street fair might be too strenuous for such a young child, but she assented after Georg assured her that he would make sure Bettina got her naps and baby formula at the correct times.
Georg showed up at the Bach’s door alone. He had asked his wife Jutta to come along, but, as usual, she declined. Jutta disapproved of carnivals, circuses and the like, saying they were decadent things run by gypsies and unsuitable as family entertainment. Georg’s buoyant Bismarck moustache was drooping by the end of her lecture.
The trouble did not stop there. The atmosphere was very tense at the border. The lines were interminably long, and it took 45 minutes before Georg was allowed to push the stroller through the checkpoint and past the border guards, who seemed abnormally aggressive in their questioning.
Georg was not too worried because this had happened several times in the past twelve months, but tensions would always ease up in the end. He put the whole thing out of his mind as they entered the festival grounds. Today, Moritz Platz was joyful, with street performers making their way through the crowds, to the delight of the myriad children from all sectors. An occasional breeze kept things bearable, as temperatures slowly rose to a very moist 25° Celsius.
Perched on her uncle’s knee, Bettina was wide-eyed with excitement. Georg was pleased to see her squealing with delight at the Kasperle puppet shows and on the Karussell.
By early afternoon, it was getting uncomfortably warm, and Bettina could barely keep her eyes open. Georg glanced at his watch. It was almost time for her nap. He had a particular Biergarten in mind, one that was quiet and stayed cool, even in this wretched humidity, which was making his shirt cling to his belly.
He gently took her off the bobbing wooden horse and cradled her in his arms, back to her stroller, which he’d left at the edge of the square, parked next to the bicycles. But… where was it?
He looked around at all the people going past. Was he in the wrong place? No, this had to be the place… He wiped the sweat off his wide forehead, which was still sunburned from their summer holidays at the Grosser Müggelsee.
Bettina stirred, moving her arms and legs in a way that made her difficult to hold. He urgently needed a place to set her down. And from that squishy feel of her backside, he knew her diaper needed changing…
Jutta would be furious when she found out. He could imagine her screaming, “You IDIOT! Do you know how long Katharina had to save to buy that stroller?”
He felt hot and dizzy. He needed some place to sit and collect his thoughts. The only option was to run for the next U-Bahn subway train — and quickly.
* * *
Forty minutes later, Georg felt better. He always felt happier on this side of town, especially after a few glasses of local beer.
The stroller was still missing, but he made it on time to his pre-arranged appointment with his Skat-playing buddies from work. This weekend they had agreed to meet in the Biergarten in the shaded alcove of the Hotel Sachsenhof, in the thriving Schöneberg district. He was sure that he wouldn’t be back too late to get Bettina home to her parents. The owner of the hotel, a jolly ex-engineer named Dr. Münch, had just loaned him an old stroller on condition that Georg bring it back by Monday. Better still, Frau Münch had gone and found two spare sets of diapers left behind by a recent guest. As the next hand of cards was being dealt, Bettina dozed in the borrowed stroller after greedily gulping down the last of her baby formula.
When his friends offered to buy a couple more rounds, Georg was more than happy to accept. This western beer was very fine indeed — it not only tasted better, it also didn’t go cloudy in hot weather like the local brews in his sector of town.
By the time the shadows lengthened and the sun began to set, the empty beer glasses on the table had multiplied considerably. Georg tried to stand up to go to the WC and suddenly realized… this beer was a lot stronger than he expected.
Seeing Georg’s unsteadiness, Dr. Münch generously offered the spare room upstairs, for a small fee — provided Georg paid in hard currency. As part of the deal, Georg also got more extra diapers when Frau Münch discovered another unused box in the hotel laundry room.
Georg offered his thanks, then tottered off to the men’s WC at the back of the hotel lobby. As he stood at the urinal, he found himself wishing he lived in this side of town. He secretly envied his friends living here. The food was better, the beer was better, there were so many more things to buy, and nothing was ever out of stock in the shops. The neighborhood was colorful, instead of shades of dull industrial grey. Georg knew that he was very lucky to have work in West Berlin. Employers here paid in good, hard currency that was accepted everywhere. He had nothing but contempt for the money in the east, with those coins that you could bend with your teeth.
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of a telephone ringing nearby. That was another thing he envied. Even his wife Jutta didn’t have the right connections to get a private phone, and she was the daughter of a decorated war hero!
When he came back to the table outside, Georg was still in a stew about not being able to call home. His friends nodded in sympathy when he vented his spleen. Georg’s boss, Günter Hempel, couldn’t resist making an additional dig. “Even if you could call your wife to let her know, those Zoni phone operators don’t work at the weekend! That’s the kind of service you get in a workers’ paradise!” Everybody else at the table roared with laughter.
Georg smiled, “Well, at least they don’t steal baby carriages in my side of the city!”
His friends howled at the rejoinder. Georg managed to win the next hand, then politely excused himself. “My second job as a babysitter, you understand…”
“Maybe you should make it a permanent one — you Zonis always seem to need the extra cash!” said his friend Heger.
Georg let the jibe go with a wave of his hand and headed inside. He had a bit of trouble negotiating the stairs, almost falling twice. When he reached his floor, he put an ear to his door and was amazed not to hear any crying. He opened the door as quietly as possible and tiptoed carefully over to the borrowed crib.
Bettina was still sleeping, so he clambered into his own bed. We must come west more often, thought Georg as he drifted off to sleep. A bit of excitement does a person good…
* * *
The clock next to the bed said five a.m. Georg sat on the edge of the bed, eyes puffy and head throbbing. Even at this hour, the room was still uncomfortably warm.
Bettina’s cries were absolutely piercing, making sharp flashes of light go through his head whenever he winced or closed his eyes. Adding injury to sonic insult, she threw her pacifier with heroic force, hitting him squarely in the forehead.
Tickling her feet didn’t work, making funny faces didn’t work, and he kept forgetting the words to the lullabies he tried singing to her. No matter what he tried, this verdammtes baby would not be quieted.
She started making one particular shriek that really made his vision blur. As he bent over her and tried to change her diaper, she launched into a long series of those shrieks, causing Georg to stab himself in the thumb with one of the safety pins and to drop all the others.
He gingerly tried to get down on all fours without vomiting in the process. On the third try, he finally succeeded, but Bettina let out an especially savage howl that made little purple dots dance in front of his eyes. “Verdammt!” he yelled in sheer frustration.
He only managed to find three of the safety pins. And there was no formula left, he realized with a start.
Another groan, and he managed to stand up, albeit wobbly. Feeling thoroughly miserable, he stumbled to the shared bathroom at the end of the hall.
The cold water in his face revived him enough to formulate the beginnings of a plan. He had no luggage, so all he needed to do was to leave the key at the checkout desk and then get Bettina and the borrowed stroller down the steps and out the door without waking everyone. After that, he could see about getting some breakfast and some milk from one of the bakeries on the way back. Plus, the early morning air would do his hangover lots of good.
He rinsed out his mouth to rid it of the aftertaste of sour beer, then downed another glass of water to alleviate the dehydration. He noticed his head hurt less when he was actively doing something. He trudged back to the room, where Bettina was still crying up a storm. He started to pick her up, then stopped.
No, better take the stroller down first. With a sigh, he set her down on the bed, hoping she wouldn’t try to crawl off. He got the door closed as quietly as possible and started to maneuver the bulky old stroller down the winding staircase, almost slipping twice on the narrow steps. With much huffing and puffing, he set the thing down in the hotel foyer with a heartfelt grunt. He made the excuse of fiddling a while with the blanket and the cushion just to let his head clear.
He wearily trudged upstairs and fetched his still-crying niece. As he gently closed the door with his foot, he fumbled with the heavy room key, but he finally managed to get it in the lock without having to set Bettina on the floor. He raced downstairs, hoping she would not scream.
As he tucked her in the stroller, she let out another piercing wail. Georg rushed to get her outside before she woke all the hotel guests. He just managed to get baby and stroller out the front door without it slamming shut on his foot. He set the stroller down and started off down the street, which was typically deserted at this hour on Sunday.
Unfortunately, her screams seemed to be getting shriller by the minute. To his horror, he could see people in the neighboring buildings roll up their blinds and stare out as he passed by. He desperately hoped there was a bakery or confectionary open somewhere on the way home, any place where he might find some milk for her. He didn’t know what else to do if he couldn’t find any, because nothing else would be open anywhere at 6:16 on a Sunday morning.
It was a relief to see the U-Bahn station ahead, just across the street. If the trains were running this early, the “B”-line could take him directly to the Warschauerstrasse Station, where he knew a bakery that would be open, even at this godforsaken hour.
A sunbeam penetrated the thick cloud cover, which made him squint, which in turn intensified his already massive headache. How he longed to be home in his own bed, sleeping late! As he crossed the intersection, Bettina let out another horrendous howl. Forgetting that he was still in the middle of the street, George wanted to scream back at her.
He lugged the stroller up the metal stairs and onto the boarding platform just as a train rumbled up the track and squealed to a stop. The doors swung open. He tried to get the stroller in the leading wagon by tilting it backward so that the front wheels could use the first step. But he did it too soon, as the step itself was unfolding, so the wheels got stuck in the mechanism and no amount of pushing and cursing would get them free. The doors wouldn’t shut, causing a rude buzzer to sound. He tried vainly to get the back wheels of the stroller high enough to somehow walk the thing up the final step and into the compartment.
The loudspeakers crackled into life. “Hallo! Machen Sie die Türen frei!”
The stroller remained stuck. “Ich brauche Hilfe…” yelled Georg, his voice trailing off when he saw the Wagen was empty of other passengers. Again, the loudspeakers came on. “Machen Sie die Türen frei!”
Ich schaff’ das doch nicht!“ yelled Georg, his face dripping with perspiration in the already rising humidity. Finally, the U-Bahn driver opened a side door and rushed over to help. Together they managed to get the jammed wheel free and lift the stroller inside. Bettina’s crying reverberated through the empty wagon.
“Mensch! That baby is loud!” said the driver, covering his ears.
Georg muttered a red-faced “Danke schön” as the doors shut with a clang. The driver nodded, took out a ring leaden with keys and opened a metal service door to the driver’s compartment. The subway train started rolling slowly down the line.
Mercifully, Bettina’s crying died down to a steady whimper and then she dozed off, lulled by the rocking back and forth.
Georg closed his weary eyes. Several stations came and went by as he snored and smacked his lips. He was dreaming of a nice breakfast, with maybe some imported fresh fruit…
The train stopped with a huge jerk, just after leaving the Schlesisches Tor station. With a massive chugging noise, it slowly rolled backwards to the station.
Georg’s eyes fluttered open. “Was ist los?”
The doors opened and the loudspeaker came on, “Betriebsstörung. Bitte alle aussteigen!” A service disruption — everyone out.
Georg rolled his eyes. “Wunderbar!” The tram doors opened. Georg carefully wheeled Bettina down the retractable steps, this time managing it without difficulty. The loudspeakers at the U-Bahn station crackled again, “Attention please! All trains on the ‘B’-line will end at Schlesisches Tor until further notice! Wir bitten um Ihr Verständnis!”
“Oh nein!” Georg stared gloomily at the long line of stairs leading down to street level.
The U-Bahn driver tapped him on the shoulder, “Brauchen Sie Hilfe?”
Georg waved his hands. “Was ist hier los? I thought the tram went all the way to Warschauer Strasse-”
“Normalweise, it does,” said the driver, “but there’s some kind of a technical problem-”
“Technical problem!” snorted Georg, “Some excuse!”
The driver shrugged, “That’s all I know — the BVG Central dispatcher told me to stop here and go back.” He pointed to the stroller, “Do you want me to help with that?”
“Ja, can you carry that down for me? I’ll carry the baby.”
“Ja, sicher!” The conductor took the heavy stroller and started down. Georg hoisted Bettina and followed.
At street level, Georg set Bettina in the stroller and thanked the tram driver.
“Nichts zu bedanken!” yelled the driver as he ran up the stairs.
A nearby street clock said it was almost seven. Despite the cloud cover, the sticky humidity was already unbearable. Georg had to wipe sweat out of his eyes again and again as he pushed the stroller down the Schlesische Strasse. One more city block and they would reach the street that took them over the Warschauer Bridge and to the tram line home.
He suddenly heard a jackhammer. Who in hell would be using a jackhammer at seven o’clock on a Sunday? He pushed the stroller across the intersection, turned right and his heart almost stopped. “Mein Gott! Is this the start of World War III?”
The Warschauer Bridge was swarming with East German Volksarmee soldiers with machine guns. The rest of the bridge was blocked by troop transporters stretching as far as the eye could see. The air was alive with the sound of barking guard dogs. A group of masons working at gunpoint were digging up cobblestones just behind the Soviet sector border. More soldiers were spreading rolls of barbed wire across the bridge.
In the stroller, little Bettina lay on her back, looking up quietly, her tiny hands and feet making little movements.
Georg slowly turned the Kinderwagen around. He had never felt such intense guilt in his entire life.