Finding Life Beyond The Wall: My father's survival and escape from East Berlin

Emma Schardt

East Germany was my dad’s prison. Walls blocking his entry into the west, guards everywhere, and the constant suspicion in everyone around him chained my dad in fear. Not only was his body trapped, but so was his mind. My dad had no freedom of opinion. My dad had no 1st Amendment right granted to him. My dad had no political freedom either. The government was suffocating him little by little, day by day. Homes were bugged by government officials, when the residents weren’t home. Verbally opposing the Russian practice of abuse, their political power, and overbearing invasion of the lives of people was punished by arresting people. This was a recurrence of the Espionage Act, which forbid the Americans to criticize the country and the government, passed in America during World War One. Political freedom was also controlled by the tyranny of the Russians.

But, more than the ability to speak freely about important issues, my dad missed his family on the other side of the wall, his family on the West side: my great-grandma and his cousins. The government split up families by placing a Wall between them. Only people from the West could visit those in the East since German people had a better life in the West, and those in the East would want to return to that better life. People in the East weren’t allowed to visit the West at all even to see family, and East Germany didn’t consider freedom a right, so those who escaped made it an achievement. Whoever could flee from the guards and the wall could obtain freedom. But the very attempt to find freedom often cost East German’s their lives. Every day, people attempted to climb the brick wall which divided Germany. Every day, blood spatter flew through the air and militarized police gunned those people down. The moment a guard saw someone trying to flee they would shoot, no regret, no second thought. My dad saw people he didn’t know killed, and sadness captured his body. Chris Gueffroy, an acquaintance of my dad, was the second to last fatality of the Berlin Wall and the last to be killed by firearms. My dad knew many who suffered the trauma of fleeing.

Everywhere he went, he heard, “Deutsche Demokratische Republik this…” or “Deutsche Demokratische Republik that.” In English this means, “German Democratic Republic”. Except it wasn’t a “democratic republic”. Democracy didn’t exist under Russian rule. The voice of the people was silenced, any discussion about what was wrong with the government was punished. Everywhere my dad walked, magazines, posters, and quotes all relating to the German Democratic Republic bombarded him with propaganda: criticizing the West, supporting the draft into the Army, implementing the idea that life in the East was the best the people could have.

“The government was like a scourge of mosquitoes. Annoying, everywhere, nagging you, and once you come in contact, you’re infected,” my dad said.

One day in 1989, as my dad and his friend, Andre Winkler, walked through the crowds of people in the city square, they spotted a smaller group carrying bags. My dad immediately thought that they were trying to escape. He couldn’t help wondering if they were crazy. Didn’t they know the consequences of being caught? One glance at his friend and my dad could tell his thoughts weren’t too far off.

“It was hard to talk about our thoughts, because we were in the city and you never knew who was listening. Even at home, I never knew if the government had invaded my house with planted bugs and were now listening to my conversations,” my dad said.

They kept their heads low for the next few days, not making any moves nor having any conversations that could be deemed suspicious. Every day on their way home, they lingered around the train station. Everyday they saw a new group of people with bags in their hands, waiting for the train to come. One afternoon, they stayed, discussing the idea of escaping: creating escape plans, coming up with stories, and determining the best ways to flee without getting caught. Until the Summer of 1989, when Hungary became the first country to take down its wall, fleeing to the West was a death wish. With this in mind, my dad and Andre decided it was best to purchase a ticket to Sofia, Bulgaria to not raise suspicion. The train stopped in Budapest where they could get off and flee. Once they finalized their plan, they returned home to inform their parents.

My dad didn’t even know how to tell my grandparents, especially because they hadn’t heard much from my aunt since she left for her visit to my great-grandma in Dähre. My grandparents knew my dad opposed the government and politics during that time. My grandparents recognized his feelings towards the life they were currently living. My dad sent my grandma into great panic while my grandpa had a less extreme reaction to the situation. At the end of the day, my grandparents were both just as worried as my dad was. They tried their best to be supportive, given the situation, because they couldn’t stop him since it was nearly my dad’s 20th birthday, and they had no more legal control over him. Due to the risks of being caught, arrested, or my dad getting drafted in the army, my grandparents had to be just as careful as my dad. One word to the wrong person could’ve gotten him in trouble. My dad, however grateful for his parent’s support, felt guilty; yet, he knew that escaping would give him a better life. The escape was like racing in front of a train to escape a fire. There were countless ways that it could go wrong. He and his friend could’ve been overheard and caught at the train station; they could’ve gotten pulled aside for the random inspection. The possibility of jail, or worse, loomed over them like the shadow that the Berlin Wall cast over the people of East Germany. My dad’s parents had a hard time realizing that this wasn’t the life they were supposed to live, that they weren’t meant to live under a dictatorship and have every aspect of their lives controlled. My dad did realize this, so he and his companion agreed to meet and get prepared as well as say their goodbyes.

“I packed a small duffel bag with some clothes, some necessities, a limited amount of money and my ticket,” my dad said.

When my dad was packing his things, he realized that he was leaving his old life behind. This meant he was leaving his childhood in a different world, one which he couldn’t return to. The memorabilias, which once symbolized safety and happiness to him, would now only be seen by my grandparents and my aunt. This made it even more difficult for him to leave, another reminder that he was setting out into the world alone.

As the escape slowly approached, my dad’s nerves grew, and my grandparents became more anxious. On the ride to the train station, my grandma wouldn’t stop bawling. Once he thought she had stopped, she began to cry again, and my dad remembers this as one of the hardest parts of escaping East Berlin.

“My heart felt heavy the closer we got to the station. I was slowly realizing what I had been preparing to do and what it not only meant for me but also everyone else in my life. I remember hearing one tissue blow after the other, followed by a whimpering sound as my mom tried to gulp down her tears. My heart was heavy because I saw the look in my dad's eyes when he looked back at me and then at my mom. I had never seen such fear in his eyes. Although he didn’t want to say anything or show any emotion, his eyes said everything,” my dad said.

My dad’s mind was just as heavy with every thought: “What if Andre doesn’t come? What if someone pulls us aside?”

All of these questions were like monsters stampeding through his mind, making every thought heavier than the next. My dad saw the tram pass and he could already make out the station from afar. My dad and his parents were inching closer and closer until finally they pulled into the cobblestone curb in front of the station. As my grandparents and my dad sat in the car, in front of the train station, he took a deep breath, and slowly reached for his bag. His hands were so tightly wrapped around the bag it felt as if he was suffocating it. He cautiously opened the car door and stepped out.

“It felt like the whole world was moving in a time-lapse and my parents and I were in a slow motion clip,” my dad said.

“My mom was already waiting for me to get out of the car to hug me and never let me go. However, I waited while my dad ambled his way toward me since if I hadn’t hugged him first, my mom might have never given me the chance to hug him. When I wrapped my arms around his neck he whispered in my ear: ‘Good luck my boy. Take care of yourself.’ As I turned around to say goodbye, my mom had already fallen into my arms before I could fully face her. I felt her tears fall onto my clothing and soak through to my shoulder as she tried to stay strong. The sobs had gone to a silent cry, but I knew that she was holding back the urge to just shove me back in the car and take me back home. I remember staring into the city square at the rainbow of cars speeding past us and the people bustling past us. It was as if they were all on a moving walkway like in an airport. Everyone was continuing their day to day lives and on the day that changed mine, I never felt fully present. After about two minutes, my dad slowly started tugging on her shoulder to gradually pull her away, but she resisted. I didn’t want to leave her arms at that moment. I couldn’t bear leaving her in that pain, but I also knew I needed to make my way to the train. Once she released her grip, I walked inside the station, after finishing my wave and walked up the stairs to the platform to search for my friend,” my dad said.

My dad raced up and down the platform from one end to the other multiple times, looking left and right with no sight of his friend. He could hear the train, a 1960 German National Railway model, from a distance. Bell ringing, tracks screeching, the train pulled into the station and a crowd of people dived out onto the platform. My dad got on the train without regret, knowing this was the day that he escaped the draft. My dad entered the train knowing that, if his friend was really determined to escape, they would meet again. My dad wandered the train in search of his seat and recognized familiar faces from the city. He must not have been the only one desperate to flee that day. He felt a sense of safety knowing others must be experiencing the same kaleidoscope of thoughts and emotions as he had. The train ride was bearable, but nerve wracking. Time seemed to drag on.. Most of the train ride consisted of looking out the window. At the first stop, my dad hadn’t seen anyone questioned or suspected of escaping. He watched people get on, as well as get off, multiple times during the twelve hour trip, but not once did he see his friend pass him.

The sky had gone from cloudy to mid-day sun, which heated up the train like a sauna. My dad watched East Germany fly by, a scene filled with goats, horses, cows, birds, pine trees, meter high grass, hay bales, sunflowers, and leaves flying with the wind. He passed farms, fields crowded with farmers, small houses with colorful flowers in the front. Brick homes, white wood houses with smoke coming from the chimneys flashed before his eyes. The sparrows floated on the cotton sky, the sunset-- red, orange and pink--combined with the pearl white clouds. As the sky grew darker, Budapest came closer.

When the conductor announced the Budapest station, my dad stood up, grabbed his bag, made his way to the door, and waited for the train to come to a halt. As the brakes screeched against the train tracks, jolting him slightly forward, my dad felt a knot grow in his stomach. He opened the door of the train and slowly descended down the steps of the train and descended onto the platform.

Late that evening he made his way towards the German consulate to apply for asylum. He was also informed that he had missed the bus for West Germany which traveled through Austria, meaning he would have to spend the night in Budapest. He was given a small amount of Forint (Hungarian money) from the consulate, which he admired so much because he had never held currency from the West before, and he could call it his own. He held the money in his hands and recognized the privilege he was holding. The money was a sign that he made it. He accomplished his dream. He walked over to the telephone box, old and rusty, to call his mom and inform her that he was safe, had arrived and that he was ok. He dialed her number and it rang for a few seconds before she answered with relief “MICHAEL!”

My dad knew she was trying to hold back her tears, and he tried to comfort her in every way that he could, but he could only hear her sobs through the phone, and his heart felt heavy once again. That phone call made him realize what he had done and who he had left behind.

“I don’t think I ever felt the pain that I did that night, standing against the phone pole listening to my grandma cry. I hadn’t fully realized how great her worry and fear was and how this impacted her as well,” my dad said.

As the crying subsided, they agreed my dad would call in a few days, when he was in Austria and then again when he got to West Germany. He slowly made his way to the hostel at the train station to find a place to spend the night and something to eat.

Waking up with a full stomach the next day, my dad felt anxious. Waiting for the bus was nerve wracking.

“I had been dreaming of going to the West all my life. Now I finally took my chance and packed all my bags, but it all came down to waiting for the bus that would transport me from Budapest back to Germany, except this time I would be on the west side of The Wall,” my dad said.

He and the other passengers of the bus stopped in Austria and spent the night at a guest house, which was all just a blur to him. Everything was so surreal; he had never imagined being able to experience life in the West. Seeing the houses, meeting the people, watching the kids had been bizarre. He sat at the window during every trip so far and just focused on the moving images of lives he saw in front of him, imaging the life these free people loved.

They were approaching Germany. He had seen the first signs. People were starting to become more awake and present; some even started collecting their bags.

“I was overwhelmed with joy, fear, anxiousness and more. Once our bus pulled into the parking lot and the doors were open, everyone rushed out. We were greeted by tens and tens of TV Networks all waiting for the chance to film us. Us. The people who had escaped. Looking for a better life. The people who made it, who had a dream and took their chances,” my dad said.

That day my dad became one of them. One of the people who took their life into their own hands and created their own destiny.

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