Somewhere in West Germany, 1961
I stretched my hands and stood upright, wiped the beads of sweat as my skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, I continued digging again – my passage to freedom.
I along with my friends had started digging at dawn. As audacious as my plan was, we all were brimming with excitement and nervousness in equal proportions. It had taken us hours to dig out a small heap of mud and create an opening still not big enough for a man to pass through. I looked up and squinted at the beams of harsh sunlight coming in from the gaps of the bombed-out roof of the factory. I signaled at everybody to carry on. And though the odds were against us, we persevered.
1960, East Germany
The room filled with the foot-tapping music of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ as I got myself a cup of coffee and reached the window. My humble cottage overlooked the river Spree and it was a beautiful sight to wake up to every morning.
“Wake up Peter,” I shouted out looking across the bedroom towards my best friend, who was sleeping as if he had no worries in the world.
I smiled. We were the eternal optimists. I was often both amused and disconcerted by this. How could hope spring unabated, considering the times we were born into?
Both me and Peter were born in the times of rife and destruction, in a country which was still bruised. The Second World War was long over, but the splinters still hung in post-war Germany, constantly squashing the German spirit apart. We had lost our parents to the war and had spent our childhood in orphanages. We had witnessed the bombings, the billeted soldiers, the hunger, the destruction that the war brought upon us.
Post-war Germany was hounded up like wolves by the winning countries. The Allied powers had their stranglehold in the western part while the eastern part where we lived, was run by the dictatorial rule of the German Democratic Republic or ‘bloody GDR’ as we usually referred to it with gruff disdain.
But, we lived through it all. Today we were twenty-five-year-olds with dreams both for us and for our country.
As I sat at the window, lost in a reverie of sorts, Peter called out in his usual sing-song voice, “Good morning Henry, why didn’t you wake me up sooner kamerad*?”
“Du faule Socke, du!* I did. But, someone likes to sleep in. We ought to hurry. We have to open the book store too. It is eight already.” Quickly I switched off the radio set which was still playing the song by this new American sensation, Elvis Presley.
“Presley will have to wait. We have our own Jailhouses to rock.” Peter winked.
We reached the bookstore and started with our everyday drill. We owned ‘Bloomstain’s bookstores’ in East Germany. Though we didn’t earn a lot, it kept us going.
As I sat at the reception of the bookstore as usual, poring over a book, she entered. The scent of her perfume transported me to lavender fields, while I gaped at her like a fool.
“Herr *…,” she uttered.
“Henry…Henry Schmidt,” I introduced myself.
“Uhh, Herr* Schmidt, do you have the book ‘Farewell to Arms’ by Ernest Hemingway?” she asked.
My head jiggled up and down in excitement and I dashed through the reception to get the book. This was one of my favourite books. Like a child who could not contain his enthusiasm, I blabbered about the book and the author. Her interest was piqued.
From ‘Farewell to Arms’ our conversation moved on to other books and time flew. Her name was Angela and she was from an upper class East German family. I did not want the conversation to end, but we were soon interrupted by another customer. As she stepped out of the bookstore smiling, her eyes glistened like the Blue flower. I was smitten.
She became a regular visitor at the book shop from then on and I couldn’t be happier. As she browsed through the books, flipping pages, I would shoot furtive glances at her, all the while pretending to be engrossed in my work. At times our eyes would meet and both of us would look away blushing like two dewy-eyed teenagers.
And then on a dark and cloudy day, my world shone like that rainbow which appears when one least expects it. She entered the book shop and as always my heart skipped a beat. She spent the better part of an hour sifting through the racks of books. And as she was about to leave, it started pouring. She frowned.
“Fraulin* Angela, can I help you with something?”I could not resist asking her.
“I have an important commitment. I need to reach home. And the way it is raining, I fear I won’t be able to make it.” She pulled back a couple of stray hair that fell on her forehead and looked out the window.
Just then a deafening noise of thunder caught us off guard. She shuddered.
I immediately pulled out my umbrella and she looked at me bemused. I could sense her fear of walking home in such menacing weather.
“I can come along with you and walk you home. It is quite dark outside.”
Underneath a big yellow umbrella, we sauntered through the lanes. None of us said a word but how I wished that we could walk like this forever. Soon enough we arrived at a big blue mansion.
“Thank you, Henry,” she said.
“I will see you tomorrow.” The words escaped my mouth and I hesitated for a moment.
“Yes, you will”. She blushed.
And at that moment, as we stood under a yellow umbrella with rain splattering around us, I knew that we were both in love.
The coming days were the most exciting days of my life. It was as if my life ebbed and flowed ever so gently and I was in a state of trance. Yes, being in love can intoxicate you, they say. It can lull you into rapture and you feel that until now you were just surviving. You have begun to live only now.
Angela soon became the axis around which my life revolved. We met almost every day. Huddled together at the banks of the river Spree, we would gaze at the stars while weaving the dreams of our future.
Life did not look so bleak now.
Peter somehow never warmed up to her. He often told me to rein in and not reach for the stars.
“You give yourself to people too soon,” he would often say grinning away in typical Peter fashion.
But, she was my Perle* and I was her Barchen*.
Little did we know that in a few days, our world would come crashing down around us.
13th August 1961
I woke up and it felt like just another day. But, that’s the thing about fiendish days, they seem mundane and then hold you by your neck and you are left grappling for air.
“Henry, the bastards have built a wall. They have cut Germany into two. They did it all in the dead of the night. No one had an inkling of their devious plans. Bloody GDR… ” Peter fumed with anger while I stared at him in disbelief.
“This seems like the GDR government’s last-ditch effort to isolate the people of East Germany,” he cursed under his breath.
And then the realization dawned on me, leaving me numb. I was in West Germany and my home was in the East. A wall now stood between me and my home. Angela, my precious Perle* was in the East too.
As fate would have it, both Peter and I had come to the West to attend a Jazz festival and stayed back for the weekend. How were we supposed to know that a wall was about to be thrust on us imprisoning us and taking us away from home?
The next few months were a blur for me and Peter. We were stranded in the West and though it was a good place to be, it wasn’t home.
At nights, I would sit and stare at the sky spread out in varied shades of blue, sans any man-made borders. I missed Angela and I missed home.
The Berlin Wall had wreaked havoc in the lives of everyone. Families were separated and people were stranded. A pall of despair loomed large as people struggled to come to terms with the ‘wall’.
Peter had become stoic and did not let his emotions get the better of him. But, I knew that under the tough exterior he pretended to display, he too was a broken man.
It was at this juncture that I decided to do something preposterous. Peter called my idea, ‘blod’*. But, my yearning to be home and to see Angela dissipated all that one could fear. Yes, I planned to dig a tunnel from West Germany to the East.
“Digging a tunnel isn’t as easy as you think it is Henry,” Peter’s disgruntled tone wasn’t encouraging at all.
“I do realize that Peter, but I want to go home. I want to go to…”
Peter looked away.
“You should spread a word amongst your trusted group of friends here. I know you have friends on this side,” I reassured him making an effort to calm his nerves.
The first good thing that happened was, soon we had three trusted tunnellers who were ready to help us in our daunting mission. We skimmed through maps, trying to chalk out a route for our tunnel. After months of thorough planning, we were ready with a solid plan. Our tunneller friends helped us get tools from a cemetery. Now we had rakes, hammers, and wheelbarrows.
After hunting for many days, we found an abandoned, war-ravaged factory and planned to start from here. With much trepidation, we began digging. We were supposed to dig our way through this tunnel and reach the basement of a friend’s cottage in the East. I had met this friend during one of the peasant movements and knew that he was dead against the GDR government’s regime.
In the coming days, the digging continued. It was tough but we were relentless. As we nursed our blisters, Peter would often shout out, “Sind wir verrückt”.
But, there was no turning back now. Peter knew that I wanted to be with Angela and that was what kept me going. He did not say anything though. He was a good friend.
I had already written a letter to Angela and told her about our plans. She was ecstatic.
Finally, the day arrived when we were to crawl through the 80 meters long tunnel that we had clandestinely dug. The trickiest part was when we would be under the Eastern part, close to the cottage. If caught, the Stasi* would not spare us. It was a known fact that Stasi had thousands of informants all around East Germany. They were constantly on a lookout for miscreants and were notorious for being ruthless. But, we had taken the plunge.
The group screamed, ‘Die Freiheit’ and we went in.
Present Day (East Germany)
The end was visible. I had crawled my way through the underground tunnel, all the while in imminent danger of being caught. Just then I heard muffled sounds coming from above. On a whim, I looked back. Peter, who was just a step behind looked at me, white with fear. Was it the Stasi? Was our end near? I had already hacked my way up to the cottage by now. This was the last lap and I could not give up- not now. Right outside the window of the living room, I saw a group of armed men, carrying machine guns. I froze.
And then I saw her. She stood with one of the armed men, pointing towards the cottage.
The next few minutes went in a daze. Peter came up and pushed me back. He looked at her and cursed, “That bitch, she ratted us out to the Stasi.”
I turned around and ran as tears welled up clouding my vision.
The men barged in.
Peter was shot.
I ran back and crawled inside the tunnel. I kept going.
I had escaped.
But, what was left of me?
I had lost my love, my home, and my best friend. Why did she betray me? I would never know.
A frail wrinkled woman sat in front of a TV screen. An exuberant reporter was talking animatedly, “Today marks thirty years of the fall of Berlin Wall or ‘The Wall of Shame’ as it came to be known as. It was a historical day indeed that paved the way for the unification of Germany.”
Just then a peppy teenager barged in the room.
“Oma*, what was it like? You know when the Berlin Wall was built?”
The woman looked listlessly at a lone corner and everything came back rushing in like a giant waterfall. Those memories were still etched in the crevices of her mind.
Everything flashed through her mind like a kaleidoscope- On that bright sunny day, how she was taken in by the Stasi. They asked for the location of the tunnel. She cried. She denied. They promised her that if she told them the location of the tunnel, they would not touch Henry.
So many times she had replayed those moments in her mind. So many times she wondered if she could have done things differently.
He was safe. She never heard from him. But, she knew.
And even after so many years, that’s what mattered to her.
The love of her life, her Barchen* did not die.
The reporter still screamed through the TV and a picture flashed in front of her eyes. The teenager clapped with excitement, “Oma*, see they are showing the Berlin Wall.”
The old woman stared at the picture as tears trickled down her wrinkled cheeks.
“If only they had not built a wall.” She cried.
Author’s Note: The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by East German soldiers, by stringing barbed wires and making concrete barricades. It was built in the dead of the night, ideologically and physically cutting off West Berlin from East Germany. On the morning of August 13, 1961 people woke up and were terrified to find themselves on one side of the wall. Over the years, multiple attempts were made to cross the border and a number of tunnels were dug on both sides.
Kamerad: Mate/buddy in German
Du faule Socke, du: You lazy sock(German slang)
Herr: German word for ‘Mr.’
Fraulin: German word for ‘Miss’
Perle: German word for ‘Pearl’
Barchen: German word for ‘Little Bear’
Blod: German word for ‘Stupid’
Sind wir verrückt: ‘We are crazy’ in German
Stasi: Secret East German Police
Die Freiheit: ‘Freedom’ in German
Oma: ‘Grandmother’ in German
First Published at ArtoonsInn
Cover Photo: Joel Overbeck