I was a restless teenager living in a place where time stood still: East Germany in 1959.
After the war, my family and I were lucky in one sense, living in Erfurt. It was close enough to West Germany so that we could receive the TV and radio broadcasts from the West. Their entertainment was great, their political discussions amazing, but what was even better was the color, the people's clothing, the streets of houses, the openness and smiles on their faces. All I saw in the Communist East was gray on gray. People were not happy. And the brown coal we all used for cooking and heating made everything dirty and dark. I wanted more.
Even as an 18-year-old woman, I wanted to discuss politics. I wanted to travel, to see things. I knew there was something wrong when we had to close the windows in summer when turning on TV from the West or when the doorbell rang and we had to rush to change the station, because you could not be caught listening to RIAS, the radio and TV station in the American Sector. I had graduated and I wanted out. Someone had mentioned that most of the military were required to march in the May Parade. So May 1 was to be my chance.
I had arrived in East Berlin by train. I bought an S-Bahn train ticket that would take me to Berlin, then east to Strausberg, finally swinging around to Potsdam. The train would have to go through the American Sector. But before entering that West Berlin territory the infamous VOPO (Volks Polizei) with their Russian Army comrades came aboard.
At that point, the train was overflowing with people. Some came with family and all their worldly possessions. Some would make it out. Questioning who belonged to which suitcases, parcels, one after the other, these frightened people exited the train and stood on the platform. Where those souls ended up, I have no idea, as I was only thinking selfishly of making it out myself.
Here I was, sitting on the train, reading Das Neue Deutschland (The New Germany), the official community party newspaper of East Germany, wearing on my lapel a bonbon, the Communist Party's pin. I never belonged and never would; this was to be my deception. As the police slowly moved through the train, spot-checking IDs, nonresidents were immediately escorted off. I smiled calmly at them, though shaking in my boots. I carried only a large purse with one day's change of clothes. Nothing else. Luggage was a straight giveaway.
One very inebriated young man not only tried to hug the military patrol, calling them his best friends, but also tried to share his bottle of booze and a fried egg sandwich. He was told several times to find a seat and behave or he would be arrested. When the train started to pull away, the East German police and a Russian Army soldier stayed on.
The next stop would be in West Berlin, but that did not mean freedom; the train and trainline territory belonged to the East German government. The young man continued to hug people and make friends and finally sat pretty close to me. His smell was very unpleasant. As we approached the stop, I knew I had to make a run for it. If I was caught, I would go to jail; to flee was a crime.
When the train slowed, I jumped up, and after what seemed like an eternity for the doors to open, exited and ran up some very steep steps into the sunshine. All this time I heard running steps behind me. Seeing a storefront with a sign, Wechselstube (money exchange), I thought to run inside, figuring no one would pursue me now. But fast footsteps continued as a I quickly ran across the street.
When the doors were flung open, I froze and did not turn around. My pursuer came up behind me, but I did not flinch. My senses were acute as a voice as sober as mine said, "Looks like we made it." The supposedly besotted young man from the train then explained his own ruse of distraction. He had soaked his clothing in liquor for a week.
After exchanging what little money we had (we only got one Deutsche mark for every 10 Ostmark) we bought our bus tickets to the nearest Fluchtlingslager (refugee camp) in the American Sector. We were assigned to gender-separated barracks-style quarters, and after clearance, I was flown to West Germany and freedom 10 days later.
Thousands fled on a regular basis, and East Germany was losing the young, the talented and the highly educated. Its answer was the Berlin Wall, erected in August 1961.
Today there is one, free Germany, united again as the wall was torn down 20 years ago this November, but I will never forget the peril I was in.
Reny Sherrill is retired from banking and lives in St. Petersburg.