Sunday, 13 August 1961
In the days before the border closing, British troops were forced to erect extra tents at the refugee center in Marienfelde to house the waves of DDR refugees, 149,796 as of 11th August. This week alone, 12,448 crossed over despite increased efforts by the DDR to stem the tide.
At Potsdam train station, only one in twelve East Germans were allowed into West Berlin. Over 100 DDR policemen at each border train station harassed anyone attempting to cross.
The unpleasant weather has not helped: conditions resemble a “steam bath” with 95% humidity make life miserable even for those not directly affected by the border closing. In the last three days, there have been many more heart attacks than normal. “Even healthy people have suffered collapses,” said one West Berlin hospital spokesman.
East German border police have even stopped ambulances carrying patients to hospitals in the west in order to demand signed papers from doctors.
More misery for those who did flee East Germany: the exchange rate of the East German Mark plunged to a new low: 100 East German Marks now gets refugees only 20.82 West German Deutschmarks.
* * *
In Friedrichshain, near the center of East Berlin, the excess humidity was causing the windows of Katharina and Vicktor Bach’s flat to fog up, even at nine in the morning.
The apartment floor started shaking as a heavy vehicle roared past, causing crockery to rattle on the shelves. Katharina Bach rubbed the sleep out of her large, dark eyes and sat up. The sheets clung unpleasantly to her body, but this morning it didn’t bother her quite so much as it had the last few days. She glanced lovingly at her husband Vicktor, still curled up on his side with all the sheets off.
She noticed the time. Nine o’clock! She looked around in panic, then she realized it was Sunday. She stretched her trim body slowly and luxuriously, then climbed out of bed. Despite the humidity, she felt unusually refreshed after her first good night of sleep in ages. She reflected for a moment on the reason. Bettina’s not here.
She sighed. God, that baby does have the loudest voice…
She worried before remembering that Georg had mentioned taking the baby to Pankow to let Jutta fawn over her little niece.
After some searching, she finally found her underwear under the bed. Her thoughts drifted back to the night before. She had forgotten how passionate Vicktor could be, and how much she’d missed that. Her full lips broke into a smile. Perhaps it would be good to let the relatives baby-sit more often.
She was amazed she had no hangover. It had been the first time in almost a year that they had consumed any alcohol. She put the wine bottles in a cardboard box, pursuant to taking them later to the trash bins downstairs. She debated whether to shower or make breakfast first. Her stomach picked that moment to growl, resolving the debate.
A few minutes later, a bathrobed Vicktor came into the kitchen. She admired his angular features, his thin nose like a blade. When they first started dating, he was quite handsome, before he started losing hair. He gave her a long, loving hug. “Guten Morgen, Schatz…”
She rocked gently to and fro in his arms, smiling. “Morning, dear. Here’s your Kaffeeersatz.” She giggled. “Your beard tickles!”
Vicktor slowly released her and took the proffered cup of coffee substitute. “Danke, Schatz. Ouch — that’s hot!” He took another sip and glanced at the kitchen clock. “I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“I feel like a new person,” said Katharina. “It’s so quiet…”
Vicktor loved to see her happy again. “It was nice — I don’t think I’ve slept that well-”
“-in months.” Katharina stroked his free hand, “You were really in the mood last night-”
Vicktor caressed her hip, “You know it’s been months since we last had an opportunity, Liebchen.”
“I know…” Katharina sighed. “There just hasn’t been time, what with the baby-” She reached for a rag to wipe the fogged-up kitchen windows.
“Tja, the baby…” Vicktor shook his head. “It just isn’t normal that Bettina cries so much. I don’t understand why the doctor can’t find what’s wrong with her, especially after all those tests.”
Katharina finished wiping and set the rag down. “Schatz, I don’t understand either.”
“Well, it can’t be fear of the dark — she would’ve been screaming in the womb!”
“Very funny.” Katharina was about to make a barbed rejoinder when the doorbell rang. Her dark eyebrows shot up, “That must be Georg!”
“Back with our darling little screaming baby…” said Vicktor. “I’m going to the shower to enjoy the last few moments of peace we have left!”
Katharina went to push the button that opened the entrance to the apartment complex. She went to the front door, waiting for Georg to appear with Bettina and her stroller.
Instead, her heavyset half-sister came charging up the stairs, her hair undone and wild. “Morgen, Katharina!” Jutta was very out of breath. “Is Georg inside?”
“Nein…” said Katharina. “What are you doing here? We thought Georg had taken Bettina to your place for the night.”
A look of panic crossed Jutta’s puffy face. “Oh nein!!”
Katharina felt alarm. “What’s wrong? Has there been an accident?”
“Oh nein! Nein!” Jutta covered her face in her hands.
Katharina grabbed her sister. “Answer me! Has there been an accident? Has something happened to my baby girl?”
“Ah, I… I don’t know!” said Jutta.
“Then why are you here, making a scene?”
Jutta wiped away tears. “Katharina, do you remember where that street festival was — that one they went to?”
Katharina looked puzzled. “In Kreuzberg-”
Jutta clapped her hands to her face. “Oh, nein! NEIN!!! NEIN!!!” Her cries echoed down the hall. Several neighbors poked their heads out to see what was happening.
Katharina started to become angry. “JUTTA! Calm down and tell me WHAT’S WRONG!”
Jutta’s mood suddenly changed. “That Arschloch! That slimy ARSCHLOCH!!! He KNEW!!! ICH WERD’ IHN UMBRINGEN!!!”
Vicktor came to the door, still dripping wet under his bathrobe. “Jutta! What the hell are you screaming about?”
Jutta jabbed her finger at Vicktor, “Don’t YOU defend him — HE planned THIS — I KNOW IT!!” Jutta headed to the stairs, shouting, “I WILL BRING THAT… that… HUNDEKÖTER to JUSTICE if it’s the LAST THING I DO!” She disappeared down the stairs.
The neighbors turned and stared at Vicktor and Katharina.
Vicktor looked down the corridor. “What on earth was that all about?”
Katharina looked shell-shocked. “She’s acting like Georg murdered Bettina-”
“Don’t say that out here!” hissed Vicktor, tugging at her sleeve.
Katharina followed him inside and closed the door. “What has Georg done with my baby?”
“For God’s sake, don’t panic, Schatz!” Vicktor tried to collect his thoughts. “I think Jutta’s just overreacting again. Perhaps he stayed in a hotel last night and he’ll be back with Bettina soon. There’s no way for him to call and tell us, that’s all.”
“Yes, I know, but-” Katharina gnawed on a cuticle.
“Komm, Schatz. Remember when he fell asleep on the bus last year and ended up spending the night locked up in the Werkstatt? Jutta had half of the Volkpolizei in Pankow out looking for him. They still tell jokes at work.”
The worry lines on Katharina’s forehead deepened. “I trust Georg, but I’m really worried. I’ve never seen Jutta react so extreme-”
“Oh, komm schon! Jutta overreacts all the time! Remember when that colony of mice infested her flat, and she had us and ten of her neighbors chasing the little rodents with brooms?”
Outside, several heavy vehicles roared past, making the pictures on the wall rattle ominously. Katharina looked annoyed as one fell on the floor. “That’s a fine thing on a Sunday morning! Sounded like a verdammter Panzer or something!”
“It did sound like a military vehicle,” said Vicktor, frowning. He went to the window, wiped off the condensation and looked out. He saw a troop transporter making a right turn to go south. “Looks like the Volksarmee is moving troops.”
“Moving troops?” Katharina looked alarmed. “Maybe something has happened and Jutta is right-“
“That would be a first…” The jibe died on Vicktor’s lips. “Stop worrying! Look, if Georg doesn’t come by within the hour, I’ll speak with the police.”
“Would you? Please?”
“Yes, Schatz. Now let’s finish our breakfast.” He sat down and picked up a roll.
Katharina shook her head. “I can’t eat. Something has to be wrong.” A look of utter horror crossed her face. “I just remembered … I heard rumors last week-”
“Rumors!” Vicktor rolled his eyes, “Rumors about what?”
“That the border police are only letting old people cross West.” She glanced out the window. “That the borders might be closed for good very soon.”
“Ach Schatz, we’ve heard that before.” Vicktor waved his hand. “The same old game they’ve been playing for months —first, they tighten controls, then they loosen them. Viel Lärm um nichts.”
Katharina sat next to him. “I want to leave,” she said in a tiny voice. “I can’t take this any more.”
Vicktor sat bolt upright. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” She studied his eyes.
“I’ve wanted to…” Vicktor said quietly, “…for years. You and Bettina were the only reasons I stayed.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Schatz. I had no idea!”
Vicktor’s face reddened. “I didn’t dare tell you… I was afraid.”
“Oh, Schatz!” She sighed and went to the window, which had fogged up again. “I used to be happy here. It’s only the last few months that changed my mind. All this paranoia… the rhetoric, the security crackdowns — all this talk of war. And then there are the endless food shortages, the long lines for meat, the power outages — I’m so sick of it all.” She peered through window she’d partially wiped off. “There are sure a lot of people out for a Sunday morning.”
Vicktor joined her at the window. “Maybe they’re all gossiping about Jutta’s outburst.”
“Very funny.” She gave him a reproachful look. “Maybe there is another war…”
“Do you hear sirens or gunfire?”
“…no.” said Katharina.
“There is no war, Schatz.” Vicktor glanced at their television, but there was no point in switching it on until the stations started broadcasting in the afternoon. “I’ll try the radio. The news will be on in a minute or so.” As the radio tubes warmed, music began to fill the room. “Hear that? Just normal Sunday morning music.”
“I’ll feel a lot better when Bettina is back. Something made Jutta upset enough to come all the way from Pankow.”
The news on the radio started. “The Deutsche Demokratische Republichas closed all its borders to the West! In only a few short hours, the working classes of Germany have surrounded Berlin-West with an iron ring to stop Western aggression-”
Katharina started to scream.
Vicktor grabbed her shoulders. “Schatz! Don’t panic!”
“My baby’s GONE!” Katharina continued shrieking. “My only daughter!”
Vicktor put a hand over her mouth. “Stop it! Do you want the neighbors to call the police?” They struggled wildly.
Katharina finally calmed down enough to speak coherently. “They’ve closed the borders!”
“Yes, I heard,” Then he suddenly understood. “If we don’t hear from Georg, that means-”
“Bettina is gone forever!” Katharina started weeping into the sleeve of her robe.
Vicktor sat down heavily and ran his hands through his thinning hair, making it stick up at funny angles. Verdammt! Why didn’t we try and escape? If only I had known Katharina wanted out!
More heavy vehicles rumbled by. Katharina didn’t seem to notice. The air in the apartment grew stickier by the minute. An old Marlene Dietrich song came on the radio.
“Du, du liegst mir im Herzen,
Du, du, liegst mir im Sinn…
“Du, du, machst mir viel Schmertzen,
Weisst nicht wie gut ich dir bin.
Ja, ja, ja, ja-”
Vicktor switched off the radio, almost breaking the knob off. Katharina didn’t seem to notice. She had a sad, faraway look in her eyes as she softly hummed the rest of the melody.
Vicktor remembered her singing it as a lullaby to Bettina, and it almost broke his heart. He got up and brushed the tears from her face. “Schatz, don’t despair. We-”
“Don’t DESPAIR? My baby girl is on the other side, and you say ‘Don’t DESPAIR’?!” She pushed his hand away. “Those BASTARDS!”
“What would your sister say if she heard you?” The words came out of Vicktor’s mouth before he knew it.
Katharina slapped him. He grabbed her wrist before she could strike him again. “Stop it!”
“Let me go!”
“Not until you calm down!”
She squirmed out of his grip and ran into the kitchen. Rummaging around, she found a knife. “Stay away from me!” She edged her way to the door.
Vicktor put his head in his hands. She blames me for letting Georg take Bettina to the festival. He threw up his hands. “I give up. GO if you want to! What are you going to do with that knife? Run up to the border guards and force them to let you through?”
“Well, what would YOU do?”
“PLAN an escape,” said Vicktor quietly. He reached for his wallet and keys. “I’m going out to see if the border really is closed. Perhaps there are still some gaps.”
Katharina said in a very small voice, “I want to go too.”
“Not until you promise to put that knife down.”
She set the knife down slowly.
“Forgive me?” said Vicktor.
“Yes,” Katharina wiped away her tears.
They quickly got dressed. Vicktor cautiously followed her out the door at a distance.
Their neighbor Frau Meier came running up with a horrified expression. “Have you heard? The border-“
“Yes, we know.” said Katharina. “We think our brother-in-law is trapped in West Berlin with our little daughter.”
“Ach nein!” The old woman put a hand to her mouth. “How terrible! My daughter is over there too, and now I’ll never see her or my little grandson again!” She looked imploringly at Katharina, “Do you have any way of contacting West Berlin? I just want to know if they’re all right.”
Katharina caught Vicktor’s look of warning. “I’m sorry. I wish I could help but…”
“I’m sorry, Frau Meier, but we have to go.” Vicktor took Katharina’s hand and pulled her gently away. As the stairwell door closed behind, Vicktor whispered, “Don’t tell anyone else about Bettina. You never know who might be an informant.”
“But what else can I say? All the neighbors will know that Bettina’s gone-”
“Tell them…” Vicktor thought for a moment. “Tell them NOTHING. Word gets around fast. People in our situation are likely to be put under surveillance. We probably don’t have much time as it is.”
“I know, I know.” Katharina put on her sunglasses to hide her tears. “Let’s go.” she said, her voice still hoarse. They left the cool of the stairwell and went outside. Instantly, they were surrounded by a sea of bewildered faces. Vicktor knew that there was no point in asking anyone for information.
Without another word, they cut their way through the crowd and descended the steps to the underground. “The ‘E’ line is not running!” shouted someone behind them.
The station lights were off. As their eyes adjusted to the gloom, they saw the subway timetable had been fly-pasted over with an “All service suspended” notice.
“I bet the S-Bahn trains aren’t running either,” muttered Vicktor.
“So we’ll walk. They can’t stop us from that.” Katharina pointed to the tunnel leading to the other side of Karl-Marx-Allee. “Let’s go.” Fresh tears started to run down her cheeks.
Vicktor put an arm around her. “Komm, Schatz. Walter Ulbricht’s bureaucrats can’t be that efficient. There has to be a way out.”
She brushed his arm away. “We’ll see.”
* * *
Georg wheeled Bettina down Motzstrasse. It was mid-morning, and he feverishly was hoping that the hotel reception was open on Sundays.
As he crossed the street, he saw the curtains move in the lobby window. The front door opened and Gertrud Münch came running out. “Herr Bauer! I am so glad to see you! Komm, come in!” She helped him carry the stroller over the lip of the doorframe. “Thank God that you’re safe! Isn’t it horrible? Walter and I were so afraid that you had been captured or worse!”
“I saw all the soldiers and turned back,” said Georg despondently. “I didn’t know where else to go-”
“You can stay with us, of course! We only heard the news a few minutes ago! When Walter went to your door to tell you, and then he saw you were gone — I can’t tell you how awful we felt! You didn’t see the Saturday evening edition of the Berliner Tagepost — the refugee center in Marienfeld is so overcrowded that people are living in tents!” She stuck her head in the adjacent dining room. “Walter! Bring some milk for Georg Bauer’s little girl!”
“What? They’re safe?” Walter Münch emerged from the dining room. “Ach, Gott sei Dank! We felt so guilty for not warning you in time! Come, come, sit down and have some breakfast, I’ll get your daughter some milk!”
* * *
The outline of the sun appeared through the thick grey clouds, then disappeared. The only vehicles on the streets of East Berlin were military, mostly Russian.
Katharina and Victor made their way down Gruner Strasse feeling alone and vulnerable. They were the only civilians in sight. Katharina saw a few curtains flutter as they passed by, “Look at them all — cowering like rabbits!”
“What else can they do?” said Vicktor, as another tank came clattering past. “March outside and tell the Volksarmee and the soldiers to get lost?”
Her response was drowned out by a troop transporter, but something about the look in her eyes made Vicktor nervous.
The air got thicker with dust and diesel fumes. A Soviet jeep went past, honking at them. Katharina yelled something back.
Vicktor grabbed her arm. “Do you want to get us shot?”
“They almost ran us over!”
“They’re Russians. They can do anything they want,” said Vicktor. “There are too many troops here. We should try another street-”
“I want to see what it looks like,” said Katharina.
The street opened up as the buildings gave way to vacant lots. The sun came out briefly, making the rolls of barbed wire stretching across the street sparkle with an oily menace. There was a small crowd of East Berliners standing to the side, staring helplessly. Ten to twenty meters away was West Berlin, but there were East German soldiers with machine guns everywhere.
Katharina nodded to Vicktor, and they moved on towards Zimmerstrasse, literally split down the middle by the border.
When they got there, it was almost impossible to see the street underneath all the East German soldiers swarming over it. Some were digging up cobblestones; others were ripping up asphalt with jackhammers while the higher officers buzzed around the perimeter, shouting orders in every direction. Huge spouts of dust erupted everywhere, mixing with the diesel smoke hovering like a sheet suspended in the thick, moist air.
In the corner of his eye, Vicktor spied some soldiers pointing their way. He grabbed Katharina’s arm. “We have to go.”
Potsdamer Platz was even more intense, with an unbroken line of troop transporters going all the way to the Brandenburg Gate. Behind the waist-high tangle of barbed wire, soldiers were carrying wooden posts to a long line of civilian construction workers who were digging holes along a thin red line painted on the ground. As soon as the posts were in the dirt, another wave of workers poured concrete. More soldiers strung up the barbed wire and stapled it to the posts before the concrete was even dry.
Virtually unnoticed, Katharina and Vicktor walked along the perimeter of the nascent Todesstreife, or Death Strip. Visibility was so bad that they could not even see the buildings on the other side. Dust caked the insides of their mouths and made breathing difficult, and Katharina developed a dry, hacking cough. Vicktor wished they had thought to bring mineral water and some rags for covering their mouths. They headed north.
* * *
Frau Münch finished filling the baby bottle and placed it in Bettina’s tiny hands. “I can’t believe they actually closed the borders!”
Dr. Münch nodded, “A few minutes ago, we heard that yesterday they were stopping S-Bahn trains coming West and forcing out East Germans at gunpoint! You and your little daughter were verdammt lucky — I don’t know how you made it past!” Dr. Münch glanced at Bettina, “What about the rest of your family?”
“There’s only my wife.”
“Was she one of the detainees at the border?”
“No,” Georg shook his head, “She stayed home. She hates the West.”
“Then it’s even more of a miracle that you are here,” said Dr. Münch.
Georg pulled out his wallet, “I hope I can repay you for all your kindness, but at the moment, all I have are East German Marks-”
“Don’t worry about that — you can stay for free until the situation in Marienfeld gets better!” said Frau Münch, ignoring the look her husband was giving her.
Dr. Münch didn’t look pleased. “Hmm, that might be a while, from what I hear. They have thousands to find homes for.” He took the empty bottle from Bettina’s hands, “Wow, she was hungry!” He looked at Georg. “I bet you’re hungry too.”
* * *
It took a couple of long detours before the Bachs reached Leipziger Strasse, at the edge of Berlin-Wedding. They saw instantly that the barbed wire was already on posts, and the soldiers there were fully intent on preventing escapes.
Only two meters away, crowds of West Berliners were taunting the soldiers, who were clearly angered.
Vicktor was about to say something to Katharina when he realized she wasn’t next to him any more. He looked around frantically, but all he saw was empty street around him. He was about to yell out when he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. There she was, up ahead — walking towards the barbed wire!
He was horrified to see her go up to the wire and look over. A soldier armed with a Kalashnikov got right in her face. “Step back!”
Katharina stared at the red line on the ground and said nothing.
The soldier motioned with the gun. “Treten Sie zurück!” Behind him, the West Berliners started yelling again.
Katharina turned slowly and stared at the sweat rolling down the soldier’s face. “My child is over there.”
The soldier flicked the safety off. “Dies ist Ihre letzte Verwarnung! Treten Sie zurück!”
The crowd started throwing rocks.
Vicktor came running up and grabbed her arm. “Come on, Schatz, let’s go!”
Katharina didn’t utter a word, but her feet dragged as he pulled her away. He took her to a side street. “Are you crazy? Getting yourself shot won’t bring Bettina back.”
She returned his look. “That soldier was going to shoot me, wasn’t he?”
“Do you think they have any choice?” said Vicktor, “What do you think would happen to them if they refused to shoot?
“If enough of them refused, the border would still be open!” replied Katharina, anger in her voice.
Vicktor wiped sweat and dust off his face. “You can’t get through by confronting them! But they can’t have everywhere covered — there aren’t that many soldiers in the Volksarmee! There can’t be!”
Katharina didn’t say another word until they reached sight of Invalidenstrasse.
Fifty meters ahead, the soldiers were standing in small groups, eating their rations, machine pistols slung casually over their shoulders. Katharina pointed, “Look! Nobody’s giving orders! They’re just standing around!”
They ducked around the corner of a church a hundred meters away. “Look at them,” muttered Vicktor, peering at the soldiers. “If I only had a car! We could crash through and be gone before they could rouse themselves enough to aim.”
On the other side of the fence, some more West Berliners were standing almost close enough to touch the soldiers through the wire. They started yelling, “Look at those poor Zoni swine! Sklaven! Sklaven!”
As the soldiers turned to confront the hecklers, a young man coming from the opposite side of the street crept up to the barbed wire and snipped it in two places. He dashed through.
Vicktor grabbed Katharina, “Look! Our chance!” They began to run.
But it was too far to go. Ahead of them, a young woman carrying a toddler snuck out from behind a rubbish container and wriggled through the gap. Four Volksarmee soldiers stormed over, too late to stop the woman, but fast enough to block any others.
“Stop!” Katharina tugged on Vicktor’s arm. “It’s no good! Schatz, hör auf! We’ll be shot!”
Vicktor dragged her several meters before he stopped.
Several solders were staring at them now. Vicktor stared back at them before Katharina managed to drag him back to the corner of the church.
“We were so close!” said Vicktor. Sweat was running down his face, making his combed-over hair dribble down his forehead.
“Komm, Schatz.” Katharina tugged at Vicktor’s hand. “We should go home.”
“We were so close!”
Katharina saw him wipe away a solitary tear. “There’s no point in trying now,” she said softly. “Tomorrow is another day.”
* * *
That night, they lay in darkness, staring at the ceiling, exhausted but too frustrated to sleep.
“Stop being defeatist! We’ve got to find a way—there has to be a way out,” said Katharina, her voice rising.
“Not so loud!” hissed Vicktor.
“It’s our own bedroom — no one can hear us!”
You can’t be sure!” said Vicktor.
“Yes! You should be too!”
Katharina turned on her side and whispered, “We could dig a tunnel!”
Vicktor shook his head. “No good.”
“Have you tried digging in this soil? There’s too much sand underneath, which makes it worse than rock because it collapses so easily.”
Katharina chewed her lip. “You’re probably right. Anyway, it would take years for the two of us.”
“But recruiting others is out of the question. I don’t know anyone I could trust. And even if we could find a place to start digging, it would be impossible to dispose of the dirt without arousing suspicion!”
Katharina made a mental list of all the people she knew, but it was no use. Every single one of her family, friends and colleagues was a loyal Genosse, a true believer: that was the disadvantage of having an underground Communist war hero for a stepfather.
She glanced at Vicktor’s profile, silhouetted in the faint glow of the window. Most of Vicktor’s family and childhood friends had perished in the bombing of Dresden. Apart from Georg, he didn’t have any real friends, or at least any that she knew.
She saw Vicktor’s expression had turned rueful. “I wish I had friends in the West.” he said softly.
“Me too. Or family.” She winced when she realized what she had just said.
Vicktor didn’t seem to notice. “That would be ideal — the only way to start a tunnel would be from the West. There would be no shortage of people to help, perhaps even some of the American soldiers would pitch in.”
She said, “So what can we do? We only have ourselves.”
“I don’t know. That gap in the barbed wire was our best chance…”
Katharina let out a sigh. “Look, we were not at the right place at exactly the right time. We can’t depend on being lucky. We need a good plan.”
“We need some sleep first.” said Vicktor. “I have to work tomorrow and pretend like nothing has happened. Besides, even with the most brilliant plan, we will get nowhere if we are too tired to carry it out.” He fluffed up his pillow and rolled over. Soon he was snoring.
Katharina’s eyes would not close. She stared at the lights slowly drifting across the walls, her mind racing.