Chapter 1 – Sunday 13 August 1961
I open my eyes and see a head hanging upside down. Grinning at me.
Brigitta springs down from the top bunk, lithe as a cat, and whips the blanket off me.
“Komm, Sabine. Steh auf!” Come on, Sabine. Get up. She is excited. We both are.
We haven’t seen our older brother Dieter in – how long has it been? – Six weeks? More like two months now I think about it. Yes – it was the middle of June, before school ended. Now that he lives and works in West Berlin we don’t get to see him so often. During the week we’re at school and most weekends he works long hours at the Hotel Zoo. But not today.
Brigitta takes hold of my hands and pulls me out of bed.
“Okay, okay. I’m getting up.”
The linoleum is cool under my feet. It is still early. I glance at the alarm clock that sits on top of the old chest of drawers. Half past six. But already, through the gap in the curtains, I catch a bright glint of sunlight. Another hot day; perfect weather for sunbathing and picnicking.
“What shall I wear?” I ask Brigitta, who has already put on her blue summer skirt and is pulling on her white blouse.
I pull open the wardrobe door which creaks in protest and consider my options. They are not many. It has to be either the blue dress with the tiny white polka dots or the yellow one, bright as a sunflower.
“Wear the yellow dress,” says Brigitta. “It’s a happy colour for a happy day.”
I slide the dress off its hanger. “Back in a minute.” I tiptoe down the corridor to the bathroom so as not to wake Mother.
The plan is for Brigitta and I to take the S-bahn train to the Hauptbahnhof in West Berlin, meet up with Dieter and then go on to the lake at Wannsee. Dieter said he would bring the picnic because you can buy better food in West Berlin – oranges and things like that. Besides, it’s best not to carry too much when travelling from the East to the West – it rouses the suspicions of the border guards. People with suitcases are hauled off trains and interrogated. They think anyone carrying more than a handbag is trying to leaving the East for good. A picnic hamper would be sure to raise eyebrows.
I turn the tap and water sputters out. The plumbing in the apartment is temperamental. I don’t want to risk waking Mother with the banging that comes from the pipes if you wait for hot water to come through, so I quickly splash cold water over myself at the sink and pat myself dry. Then I put on the yellow dress and join Brigitta in the kitchen.
She is standing on a chair so she can reach the half loaf of Schwarzbrot that is left in the cupboard. She passes it down to me and I cut two slices of the dense, dark brown bread. There’s no butter to put on it. I went to the shop yesterday but Frau Maier said they had run out of butter and, no, she didn’t know when the next delivery would be. We eat the bread as it is, gazing out of the window at the empty street five storeys below.
Out of habit I reach for the dial on the radio. I like to listen to RIAS, Radio in the American Sector, even though, strictly speaking, it’s illegal to do so in East Berlin. But then I think of Mother, of how tired she looked when she came home from the factory last night, and I leave the radio switched off. Mother needs her rest. Last night she told us to enjoy ourselves and that she sends her love to Dieter. She hopes he’ll have time to visit us soon.
Brigitta clears away the breakfast things while I fetch our Personalausweise, the personal identity cards that every citizen is required to carry with them at all times.
“Fertig?” asks Brigitta when I reappear. Ready?
I nod. “Let’s go.” She opens the door to the apartment and we slip outside onto the dark landing.
Spread out on the kitchen table it looks like a feast. I go over everything one last time to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.
Six bread rolls, still warm from the baker’s. Emmental cheese. Eight slices of smoked ham. Apfelstrudel. Bananas and oranges – a rare treat for Brigitta and Sabine. Lemonade. And Schokoladenkuchen – chocolate cake which I baked myself. Sabine will be impressed at my new found culinary skills. You can’t even buy proper chocolate in East Berlin. And as for bananas and oranges, well, most people have probably forgotten what they look like.
I start packing the food into the picnic hamper, wrapping the bread rolls in a clean tea-towel to keep them fresh. I wonder what Sabine and Brigitta are doing right now. I bet they’re already on their way. Brigitta always did wake up at the crack of dawn and she won’t want to miss a minute of today. I lay the rolls at the bottom of the hamper and place the ham and Emmental on top. Just wait until they see this food. They’ll have to take some back for Mother – she loves fresh oranges. And a slice of chocolate cake.
Thinking of Mother, I feel a little guilty. It’s my first Sunday off in ages and I should really be visiting my family in East Berlin. But Sabine and Brigitta so wanted to go to the lake at Wannsee and we should do it whilst the good weather holds. Of course, Mother could come too, but Sabine said she would want to rest after a hard week at the factory. I reach across the table for the bananas, slotting them into a corner of the hamper. I tell myself I’ll visit Mother in East Berlin in September. And, of course, at Christmas.
I place the chocolate cake carefully into the hamper and arrange the oranges around the edge. My resolution to visit Mother in September has assuaged my feelings of guilt and once more I feel excited that Sabine and Brigitta are visiting me today and not the other way around. The truth is, when I think of my old home in East Berlin, it’s like a different country, a different world, even though it’s only the other half of the city in which I still live. But there’s no way I’d go back there. The Communists in the East talk of building a better future for everyone – housing, education and all that, but really they just want to control people’s lives. No one is allowed to criticise the Party. If you do, you’ll be locked up. They spy on their own citizens all the time. Who can live in a place like that? They call themselves democratic, but that’s a joke. I mean, how can it be a democratic country when there’s only one Party? The other parties are just there for show – puppets of the Communists. Over here in the West, we don’t just have real democracy and the freedom to say what we think, we have shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs on the Ku’damm that most East Berliners couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams.
I go over all these arguments in my head every time I think about my decision to move west, justifying my actions to myself. But, I do have one regret and that’s that I didn’t try harder to persuade Mother, Sabine and Brigitta to come with me. But I was impatient to get going and Mother…well let’s just say Mother doesn’t like change. Sabine, I know, is torn, but she tends to take Mother’s side saying Mother doesn’t want to leave her home and her work, that she still likes to visit Father’s grave, all the old arguments. But I can see which way the wind is blowing. There’s no future for them over there in the East.
I close the lid on the hamper and pull the leather straps through the metal buckles. As I pull the straps tight I decide once and for all that they must leave East Berlin and come and live in the West. I will not take “no” for an answer.
I check my watch. It’s still early, only seven o’clock. I’ve got plenty of time before I need to catch the train from Anhalter Bahnhof. I make myself a black coffee and switch on the radio, tuning in to RIAS. As I’m carrying the coffee over to the table, the announcer says something so shocking and unexpected that I come to a sudden standstill, jolting the mug. I yelp in pain as hot coffee scalds my right hand.
The stairwell is gloomy, even in the middle of the day.
I don’t believe in ghosts but the smell of frying cabbage and stale tobacco which rises up to our landing from Herr Schiller’s apartment on the floor below evokes a memory so strong, I feel as if Father is here right now.
The pungent smell catches my nostrils and I am taken back eight years to the age of nine, one year older than Brigitta is now. Brigitta is a baby in our mother’s arms. We are standing at the door to the apartment. Dieter is on Mother’s right and I am on her left. Father is on the landing. Mother is asking him not to do something, almost pleading with him. I don’t understand what they’re talking about. Something about construction workers and a general strike. Mother says it will be too dangerous. I can hear the fear in her voice and I move closer to her. Father says not to worry. Everything will be different now Stalin is dead. Father says we must stand up for what we believe in and he looks down at Dieter and me and smiles. I catch the sense of his words and feel proud of him. I want him to be proud of me too. He kisses Mother on the cheek, pecks Brigitta on the forehead, then bends down to Dieter and me. He ruffles Dieter’s hair and strokes the side of my face, planting a kiss on the tip of my nose. Dieter asks if he can go with Father, but Father says, no, not this time. He promises he’ll be back in time for dinner. We never see him again.
I know now that Father was going to a demonstration at Alexanderplatz. People were demanding political change and workers’ rights. They didn’t get either. Instead what they got were Soviet tanks that rolled in and quashed the demonstration. Hundreds were arrested or injured. Dozens killed. One of them was Father.
I try to dispel the memory by pressing the light switch. The fluorescent lights flicker reluctantly into life and the timer starts to tick, like a bomb about to explode.
“Race you to the bottom,” I say.
“You’re on,” laughs Brigitta. We have this thing about making it to the ground floor before the light times out. Before we are plunged into darkness.
It’s a long way down. We live in a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor, the fourth to be precise, of an old nineteenth-century apartment block in the Prenzlauer Berg district. As we run down the stairs, I can’t help noticing how shabby the building has become. The olive green paint is peeling off the walls and the linoleum on the stairs is wearing thin. My hand brushes lightly over the wooden banister which has long since lost its sheen.
Brigitta is already ahead of me. She always wins this game.
We pass Herr Schiller’s door on the third floor where the smell of tobacco is at its strongest. It mingles with the aroma of frying potato and cabbage. I smile to myself. Herr Schiller likes his food, and it shows in his substantial girth. His size matches his larger than life personality and generous spirit. He’s a good neighbour to have. I can hear the crackle of his radio but I can’t make out the words.
Brigitta speeds up past Frau Lange’s door on the second floor, so I do too. Brigitta insists that Frau Lange is really a witch waiting to toss little children into her Kachelofen, the large, round coal burning oven that takes centre stage in traditional German living rooms. I fear Brigitta may have read Hänsel und Gretel a few too many times. I don’t know what Frau Lange does exactly, but I think she has some senior role working for the authorities. Anyway, there’s something unnerving about her. She is Herr Schiller’s opposite in every way imaginable. Whilst he is round and fat, she is thin and angular, where he is jovial and generous, she is dour and mean, where he is kind and friendly, she exudes an aura of hostility. So it makes sense to try and avoid unnecessary encounters with her.
From the apartment on the first floor the sounds of small children are clearly audible; running, laughing and shrieking. The Mann family have a four year old boy called Olaf and a six year old girl called Michaela. They often play in the Hinterhof, or courtyard, out the back of the building, but today they are cooped up inside. I think I hear a woman crying, but it’s difficult to be sure over the noise of the children.
“I win,” shouts Brigitta who makes it to the bottom just as the lights click off.
“Well done,” I say, pausing a moment to catch my breath.
We walk past the post boxes lined up on the wall like a row of metal bird houses and push open the heavy wooden doors that lead out onto our street, Stargarder Strasse.
“Which way?” asks Brigitta.
I think for a moment. “Let’s walk to Alexanderplatz,” I say, “then we can take the S-bahn train to the Hauptbahnhof via Friedrichstrasse without having to change.” Friedrichstrasse is the last stop in East Berlin before the line crosses the sector border into the West.
We set off at a brisk pace. Stargarder Strasse is empty at this time on a Sunday morning. The shutters at Frau Maier’s food shop are pulled down and the Kneipe on the street corner where the locals like to go for a drink is in darkness. We turn into Prenzlauer Allee, the main road that leads to Alexanderplatz. A tram trundles past, otherwise the road is quiet.
We walk past bombed out plots and bullet damaged buildings. This part of Berlin still bears the scars of the Second World War. The Americans and British are helping to rebuild West Berlin, but here the Soviets are letting everything fall apart. I know Dieter will try again to persuade us to leave East Berlin and join him in the West. The last time I saw him, in June, we talked about the large numbers of East Germans who are fleeing Communism simply by crossing the border into West Berlin. They go to the refugee centre at Marienfelde where they are given food and identification papers. “You should do it,” Dieter said. “Before it’s too late.” I know he’s right. We should have done it months ago. This time I’ll make Mother see sense. I’ll insist that she…
“Watch out!” Brigitta grabs my arm.
I was so lost in my thoughts that I hadn’t seen the car chugging along the road. It’s a Trabant, a square box on wheels that everyone calls a Trabi. The two-stroke engine is causing the exhaust to spew out a haze of noxious fumes. We both cover our mouths as the car limps past. What a joke. I’ve seen cars in West Berlin and they’re so much better than what we have here. Besides, you can’t just buy a car in East Berlin, you have to apply for one and then it takes about ten years to acquire it. That vehicle is probably the driver’s most prized possession and it looks as if it was made out of cardboard and sticky tape.
We arrive at the concrete expanse of Alexanderplatz without further mishap. The huge square is empty save for a handful of people milling about outside the Rotes Rathaus, the nineteenth-century red-brick Town Hall. I never want to linger at Alexanderplatz, knowing it was here that Father was mown down by a Soviet tank, so we head straight to the S-bahn, buy our tickets and make our way to the platform.
We’re in luck. A train arrives within seconds and we jump on. As it clanks its way westwards we talk about how much we’re looking forward to seeing Dieter again.
“Will he remember to bring oranges?” asks Brigitta.
“I hope so.”
“And chocolate cake?”
“He better do.”
“If not I’ll push him into the lake with all his clothes on.” We both laugh.
The train stops at Friedrichstrasse before crossing the border into West Berlin. I peer out of the window at the empty platform, impatient for the train to start moving again, but nothing happens.
“Why aren’t we moving?” asks Brigitta after a moment.
“I don’t know.”
We look up and down the carriage. Other people are also clearly confused. Then there’s an announcement over the loudspeaker on the platform.
“The train at platform B is terminating,” says a crackly voice.
I look out of the window and see that we’re on platform B.
“All passengers must leave the train on platform B,” says the crackly voice. That’s odd. I don’t know what’s happening, but this train clearly isn’t going anywhere.
“Look,” says Brigitta, pointing through the train window. Two soldiers armed with machine guns are marching, side-by-side along the platform. The sight of them gives me a queer feeling in the pit of my stomach. Brigitta looks at me with wide eyes, her eyebrows raised.
“Komm,” I say, jumping to my feet. “Let’s find out what’s going on.”
We leave the train along with the other dozen or so passengers. They are as confused as we are. A man says something about a radio announcement this morning but I don’t catch exactly what. We head towards the exit. A large crowd has already gathered in the station concourse. Everyone is talking and shouting at once. I hold onto Brigitta’s hand because I don’t want to lose her in the crowd. We squeeze our way to the front. I see a uniformed S-bahn employee trying to make himself heard above the noise of the crowd, and gesticulating with his hands. I make my way towards him, dragging Brigitta in my wake. I have a bad feeling about this but I don’t want to say anything to Brigitta until I’m sure. When we are close enough I hear the S-bahn employee telling people to go and buy a newspaper if they want to know what’s going on. Some people have already done so and are waving copies of Neues Deutschland around, crying and shouting. I go cold all over when I hear what they are saying.
“Die Grenze ist geschlossen!” shouts a man. The border is closed!
“Mit Stacheldraht!” cries a woman, tears streaming down her face. With barbed wire!
The coffee has gone cold.
I push it to one side and bring my fist down, hard, on the table.
“Verdammt!” Damn! My voice sounds unnaturally loud in the empty kitchen.
There is only one thing on the radio today. The thing I feared most has happened; the border between East and West Berlin has been closed. With barbed wire. And not just barbed wire through the middle of the city but all the way around West Berlin making it impossible for East Berliners and East Germans alike to access West Berlin. According to the radio, armed guards are manning the checkpoints between East and West and armed Factory Fighters, those East German workers trained for combat, are guarding the barbed wire. The Communist Party didn’t like the fact that so many people were leaving for the West, so they have plugged the hole which was West Berlin. The border is now closed. No one can cross it, in either direction.
But what I don’t understand is, how the hell did they manage to pull off a stunt like that? Nobody had any idea, although maybe we should have guessed something like this might happen.
I think of Sabine and Brigitta getting up this morning, looking forward to the picnic. Will they have heard the news on the radio? Or are they at this very moment at the border, being refused entry to West Berlin? If they don’t know about the barbed wire then they could be on the train heading towards Friedrichstrasse right now. The radio announcer said that no trains are allowed to cross the border.
I’m so angry I think I might explode if I sit here any longer. I throw the cold coffee down the sink and grab my jacket from a hook on the kitchen door. Bernd, my flatmate, is still asleep in bed. I don’t bother waking him, but go out slamming the apartment door behind me.
Outside, the streets of Kreuzberg are just waking up. Bleary-eyed students blinking in the bright morning sun; old men shuffling on their way to the kiosk to buy the morning paper and their daily supply of tobacco. The debris of Saturday night – beer bottles and cigarette stubs – litters the streets. When I returned home late yesterday evening, the streets were packed with the usual throngs of students, drinking and partying. Bernd was going out and tried to persuade me to join him, but I knew I had to be up early to meet Sabine and Brigitta, so I went to bed.
I head up to Zimmerstrasse which runs along the border between East and West Berlin, and stare in disbelief at the sight in front of me. Yesterday, this was an ordinary street. Now there are huge tangled coils of barbed wire, at least a metre high, running down the middle of the road. On the other side of the wire armed Factory Fighters are standing guard.
I follow the path of the barbed wire, around Potsdamer Platz and along the edge of the Tiergarten until I reach the Brandenburger Tor, the old city gate. With its enormous six stone columns crowned with the statue of Victory riding her chariot, the Brandenburger Tor is Berlin’s most famous landmark. It lies at the western edge of the huge park, the Tiergarten. The park is in the British sector of Berlin, the gate is in the Soviet sector, hence on the other side of the border. Today East German soldiers are standing in a line in front of the gate, rifles at the ready. The message is clear: Keep away!
Crowds of angry men and women have gathered on the Western side. They are shouting abuse at the East German guards across the border.
I try to see past the soldiers into Pariser Platz on the eastern side of the gate. I can just make out handfuls of East Berliners over there. Are Sabine and Brigitta amongst them? It’s impossible to say from this distance.
It feels as if the world has gone mad. Berlin is one city. You can’t just divide a city in two by rolling out barbed wire, can you? Some small part of me hopes that the East Germans are just trying to make a point, a symbolic gesture, trying to assert their sovereignty. Maybe, it’s partly our fault for not taking them more seriously; for buying up all their cheap petrol until they run dry; for going to the East for a haircut that costs peanuts; for laughing at their crappy cars. But even so, this is going too far and they need to be told enough is enough.
So I join in with the angry crowds for a while, shouting abuse and throwing stones, even though I know that sort of behaviour never really does any good. And then the West Berlin police arrive to try and calm things down. I don’t want to be arrested so I distance myself from the crowds and wander disconsolately back towards Potsdamer Platz, wishing more than anything I could crush the barbed wire flat.