“Apart”, Chapter 2

Newswire Berlin:

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.

“You’re paranoid!”

“Yes! You should be too!”

Katharina turned on her side and whispered, “We could dig a tunnel!”

Vicktor shook his head. “No good.”

“Why not?”

“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.

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Apart – A Story Of Divided Berlin (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1

 

 

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.

An Open Letter To Lefsetz

Dear Bob,

When was the last time you visted the L.A. Zoo? Go to the gorillia compound. Ponder this: you are looking at the king of the jungle!

Now ask yourself: who is the captive? Who is captor? This animal is far stronger and faster than ANY Olympic athlete.

You asked about the meaning of life? There it is. Human teamwork allowed us to:

a) Travel to the jungles using vehicles we collectively devised, designed and developed

b) Capture gorillas in their OWN habitate and to breed them in captivitiy.

You live in L.A.

If man were to disappear from the L.A. Basin overnight, the infrastructure would crumble and get buried. It would not take very long to return to its natural stage: desert.

Running water and water pipelines are miracles we engineered, through our teamwork.

We have no natural camoflauge, no protective fur and, let’s face it, we suck as animals overall. Unlike all other mammals, our young are unable to walk within a few hours of birth. We are forced to modify our surroundings to survive.

So we do it.

We are the grand experiment to see if intelligent life can manage an entire planet.

Which makes me very glad that Mitt Romney lost.

Yes, things could be better. But only if we collectively fight to make it so.

Close Encounters Of The Corrosive Kind

            I was coming back from Berlin. It was Sunday, the afternoon before Rose Monday, which is the grand finale of the Rhineland ritual of Karneval, but there were still quite a few revelers in outlandish costumes to be seen, especially in Köln Hauptbahnhof, known to tourists as “Cologne Central station,” spoken with a canned British accent.

I quickly grabbed my things and hopped on a regional train to Köln Süd to avoid the crowds milling about. The train I really wanted to take would be along in 15 minutes, and I wanted to enjoy the rare winter sunshine and warmer temperatures for a while.

            I admit I was tired and not as watchful as I should have been…

            When my intended train came into the Köln Süd stop, I grabbed my suitcase and tote bag of dirty laundry and took a quick right after the doors opened. Big mistake.

            I sat down opposite a fat teenager with glasses, who was attempting to grow a faint moustache. His leather satchel took up almost all of the seat opposite him (almost all seats on this train had matching pairs of seats facing each other), so I pushed it a little to make room.

            “DON’T touch MY satchel!” he growled in German.

Without thinking, I automatically took it and put it next to him on his seat. You don’t talk to me like that and get a polite response, not unless you’re a cop in the USA.

“I SAID DON’T TOUCH MY STUFF! And Get the FUCK OUT!”

“You don’t own this train,” I said evenly, in English, though I really wanted to shove the satchel down his throat.

“GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY SEAT!” he said in English.

“No.”

“Do you want me to beat the fuck out of you? Do you really want that?” He leaned forward into my face, “I’m much bigger than you. You are an old man.”

“No to all of the above,” I said, staring back at his frog-like face. He was quite overweight, with no evidence of muscles. I was sure my long arms could hold him at bay, if he really wanted to throw punches. “Shall I call the police?” I offered.

He smirked, “Don’t make hollow threats!” That much was true – I had no mobile phone, and certainly had no wish to deal with having to explain this ridiculous situation to a police officer who might just take his side because of nationality (we Yanks harbor a legendary (and justifiable) distrust of police). “Now get the fuck OUT!” he said.

I stayed put. No way was I going to give in to a bully.

I know a thing or two about bullies, having spent my early teens as a punching bag in my adopted state of East Tennessee. The last thing you ever would want to do would be to show fear and give in to their demands.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, old man? Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?” I responded.

“I am from GERMANY!” he said with evident pride.

That should have confirmed my suspicions, but the heartbeat thumping in my ears got in the way. “All of Germany?” I countered, “So you’re saying the entire German nation coughed you up out of its womb?”

“Get the fuck off my train!”

“This is not your train.”

“Maybe it is!”

“I bet you’ve been drinking.”

He blew in my face. “Want some more, old man?”

The absurdity of the situation was by now breathtaking. Here I was, in the midst of a festival of mandated happiness, and I find myself sat opposite this creep!

Just in time, my experience as a teacher kicked in, and I started playing with his answers. “You own this train? Do you have documents to prove it?”

“Get the fuck out of my seat! What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you fucking stupid?”

Bruhl station came and went by in the background. Passengers disembarked and boarded. Not one of the other passengers showed the slightest interest in what was going on.

I replied, “I’ve heard more ‘fucks’ out of your mouth in five minutes than you will ever get in a lifetime. Why don’t you get up and leave?”

“Because I was here first! Do you want me to take your bag and throw your stuff around? Get the fuck out!”

At this point, I actually felt a twinge of pity for him, perhaps because I hadn’t really noticed the red letters in Fraktur silk-screened on his black t-shirt peeking out of his windbreaker. I started turning his questions around and asking him to justify his attitude. I really wish I could recall just what I asked him, but adrenaline is not a great memory aid.

But I was starting to gain ground: three questions up and three wrong answers. I calmly informed him of this, ignoring the heartbeat, drumming in my ears.

“What the fuck have I to do to make you leave?” he blurted, getting redder all the time.

“Ask me politely.”

“Will you leave… please?” he said, drawing out the last syllables.

“Certainly.” And I did. I got up and moved across the aisle to a vacant seat just behind him, where I could keep a close eye on his movements. He immediately thrust his precious brown leather satchel back on the seat I had just vacated and scowled into his smartphone. (Oh, the irony…)

The train switched tracks as we approached Sechtem. I knew then and there, we would have to wait until the RegionalExpress overtook us.

As we rolled to a stop, more passengers left, but his eyes were glued to his phone screen. The platform outside was full of brightly colored clown costumes and their well-lubricated occupants, waiting for the train coming the opposite way to whisk them into Cologne for their beloved Karneval Sitzung shows and familiar jokes and singing.

There were so many beer bottles rolling around, I was momentarily tempted to step out to collect a few for the deposit money.

But no, our train beeped its warning and the doors slammed shut. We rolled onward, down the stretch to my stop. I continued to keep an eye on him, but he was still glued to his phone, perhaps typing in something, perhaps playing a game of some sort…

My station pulled slowly into view, a bare platform of concrete slabs stranded in asphalt. The doors opened.

I waited around 30 seconds before collecting my suitcase and getting up to leave. His eyes were still welded to his phone screen, as far as I could tell.

The train sped away, leaving me flooded with strange feelings. Was I really that rude to push his satchel aside when I had boarded? And what had gone so horribly wrong with that boy’s existence that he had to lash out like that. Yes, he was fat, but so are a lot of others, yet I had never seen anyone react so hostile in my 17 years living in Germany.

Once home, I opened a couple of Hefeweizen beers as the sun slowly set and switched on my hi-fi. I popped in my Super Audio CD of Goat’s Head Soup and pondered the whole thing while the bittersweet melody of “Coming Down Again” played in the background.

I spent most of the Rose Monday napping off and on while the populations of Cologne and Bonn paraded around in clown costumes, showered onlookers with candy and rattled their bones with thundering ‘oompah’ music from marching bands. I was completely kaput.

It took my two more troubled nights to realize his boast, “I am from Germany!” held the key. This was not typical German at all, not in Postwar Germany, where an agonized and protracted debate on the validity of national pride had clouded the months leading up to hosting the World Cup in 2006.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced his parting words, “Have a nice day” really meant he was going to text his pals in Bonn Central station to tell them who to go looking for, perhaps under the tunnels of the Bonner Loch under the station.

Several things still stand out about the whole episode, not the least being that the other passengers studiously ignored my plight, despite him openly threatening a much older man such as me. I had witnessed this willful ignorance, this unseeing before, on the S13 train, when a large jackbooted skinhead, high on godknowswhat, snorted and stomped like a wild bull, head down, perched alone in ‘his’ 4-person compartment, whilst the other passengers cowered into their newspapers.

It was 3:30 a.m. when I suddenly woke up with the realization that I had argued with a Neo-Nazi, my first such corrosive encounter. I had been blinded by that cliché that all Neo-Nazis were tall, athletic skinheads. Yes, I had gotten myself into a war of words with a Neo-Nazi.

And made him say “Please.”

It didn’t feel like victory, and I certainly didn’t feel like bragging about the encounter. But it would not exit my thoughts without a tussle, so I had to put pen to paper this morning, on the 5:30 train to Cologne.

© 2012 W.R. German. All rights reserved.