May 5th, 1988

The postcard arrived in his mailbox on the 4th.

This was it. It was now happening. The last few years might have been like a dream, but the months leading up to this moment had been like the day of a storm, when the clouds are gathering and the air pressure has dropped, and you know something’s brewing, and you welcome it but at the same time it makes you nervous. There had been massive preparation involved leading up to this moment. And here it was, the postcard.

He knew in the back of his mind that, under what one in the West might call “normal circumstances”, it wouldn’t have been a sure thing that he and she would stay together. It wasn’t a sure thing as it was, but they were in love, and there was so much riding on the decision now that there really wasn’t room for second thoughts. The decision had been made and they were sticking to it. They’d met a couple of years before, back when she had come to his hometown to visit a mutual friend, and sparks had flown from the start. He not being allowed to leave the country, they met regularly in Prague. They spoke for hours on the phone, knowing full well that the Stasi was listening. Eventually they decided that the only way they could be together would be to marry, so they got all their paperwork in order, including the application for permission to emigrate for personal reasons. This last point had required some careful thought – he would have done anything to leave the GDR and emigrate to the West, but this could jeopardize a relative’s chances to be accepted to university or be promoted at work. The state tended to hold things like that against your family if you demonstrated your desire to leave*. They determined that there was no immediate danger to anyone’s career. They arranged a modest wedding and reception. He did most of the planning, as it had to take place there in East Germany. Her parents came over, as did several of her friends. His friends were there. His parents refused to come. Afterwards she drove her car back over the border, packed with more of his things. And then the waiting began.

When the postcard came, informing someone that he or she was now permitted to leave the country forever,  you then had to quickly collect the relevant papers at the relevant government authorities in order to receive an official exit visa which was only good for 24 hours.  He’d already sorted his belongings in anticipation of its arrival, assigning everything he couldn’t take with him – record collection, furniture, housewares. When his postcard arrived, he called round and let his friends know, and they convened that evening for one last night of drinking, smoking, and reminiscing together.
It felt permanent, and sad. He wanted nothing more than to get out and experience life in a free country, but it was painful to look at his friends and wonder if he would ever see them again. He was leaving 27 years of his life behind, locked away forever behind an iron curtain.

A few of his closest friends stayed through the night, and crashed at his place in sleeping bags. The next morning, bags packed, he was accompanied to the train station, where they all said their last goodbyes. There were tears. He promised he would write. What a feeling it was, the finality of it, as the train pulled away from the station. He was leaving his country and the only home he’d ever known, and even though he’d hated it and couldn’t wait to get out, it still came with a measure of unease. What would happen to him now? Would he even make it out? The border police were not above playing games with those bearing exit visas, if they were feeling ornery.

There were three older women in the train compartment with him. Two looked past retirement age – retirees had more freedom to travel in the West, since the GDR half-hoped they’d leave permanently and would have to stop drawing on their pensions. The third probably had a temporary travel permit. No one spoke. This train served as a normal regional train with stops along the way, people getting on and off until the last town before the border.

WikimediaCommons

Gutenfürst, the fortified GDR border station. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There, at the border station, the train was stopped and the customs officials summoned him to alight and join them for questioning in their administrative building. They made him unpack all his baggage and identify everything while the train sat in the station. They searched all his things, examined his customs forms, asked him questions. After an hour, they were satisfied and allowed him to board again, and then the police came through to see everyone’s travel papers. The train moved again. He stood in the aisle outside his compartment, smoking cigarette after cigarette and watching the land roll by. They passed through the death strip, something he had naturally never seen before with his own eyes, and recognized it as the furthermost boundary of his entire world until that moment.  Beyond that point, the other passengers suddenly became cheerful and more talkative. A member of the Bavarian border police appeared – Grüss Gott, where are you traveling to? Ah, Munich? You’re moving to be with your wife? Very nice. He had never heard someone in uniform speak to him in such a friendly manner. The atmosphere inside the compartment turned palpably lighter. He was in the West. He was out.

She was waiting for him on the platform when the train pulled into Munich. It happened to be her thirtieth birthday, and so she’d made reservations at a nice restaurant in town. He still remembers everything about that day. It was a beautiful spring evening, the sun was shining, and he was riding through his wonderful new city in the passenger seat of his new wife’s Citroen. He was indescribably happy, with a feeling that his future – their future – fanned out before him, seemingly without limit. Hinterm Horizont geht’s weiter. They would travel. They would start a family. There was no way to know that within two years they would split up, that the Wall would come down, that his old country would cease to exist, that he’d start a new career  – after it was clear that his East German diploma, from the best of universities, was somehow suspect – and that neither the career change nor the divorce would be his last.

 

 

*From Wikipedia’s entry on crossing the inner German border: “The process of applying for an exit permit was deliberately intended to be slow, demeaning and frustrating, with a low chance of success. Applicants were pushed to the margins of society. They were demoted or sacked from their jobs, excluded from universities and subjected to ostracism. If the applicants were parents, they could face the threat of having their children taken into state custody on the grounds that they were unfit to bring up children. The heavily politicised East German law code was used to punish those who continued to apply for emigration despite repeated rejections. Those who repeatedly submitted emigration applications faced charges of “impeding … the state and social activity”. If they sought assistance from contacts in the West, such as relatives or West German state bodies, they were guilty of “illegal contact” or “traitorous information transfer or activities as an agent.” Criticising the political system was a crime of “public disparagement”. Over 10,000 applicants were arrested by the Stasi between the 1970s and 1989 on such charges.

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