Part I: East Germany
(The Iron Curtain held the world hostage on both sides of the infamous border for decades. For the Germans, the hostage situation was a little different because entire families were divided — as are Korean families, I understand. Many Westerners also experienced the East Bloc and were horrified or fascinated or both. My own experiences were mostly in East Germany and Hungary in the late 80s. The following is a series of memories and comments on the situation back through my own eyes both as a journalist and as a plain citizen visiting my then wife’s family. It is important to be detailed and clear, because this is my tiny contribution to the subject I once studied: History. My only tiny feeling of personal pride was having seen early on that the curtain would break open soon (after my first trip in ’86) and that the break would come in Hungary. No editor at the time was interested, the comment was “too speculative.” One East German colleague I met in Budapest thought I was nuts. I was happy to publish one little piece in the Boston Globe, finally, on November 9, 2009.
I will publish this in several installments and at some time in the future will add some photographs from my own collection (it is in storage far away), so please feel free to check back or subscribe.
On November 13, 1989, I entered East Germany illegally and in full knowledge of what I was doing. It happened on the Glienicker Brücke that connected East and West Berlin over the Havel river. This pretty little cantilever bridge was a neural spot between the then moribund East Bloc and the preening Western Democracies, an almost legendary construction that had been used for spy exchanges between East and West. It was a crisp, cold day, almost blinding. My visa for the German Democratic Republic, GDR, had just been stamped out by a curt border guard who had informed me that in order to return, I needed a new visa. “But I left my belongings in the hotel in Potsdam,” I stated politely. “Well, you’ll have to get a new visa,” he said with finality, punctuating a visible disinterest in an American citizen by turning to the next fellow in a fairly long line of people wanting to cross the bridge.
I set off as in a daze, my mind crunching the possibilities available to me to get my belongings back and, above all, to complete my job, which was perfectly unpolitical: I was writing an article on the particular baroque style of Frederic the Great of Prussia, whose palaces at that point in time stood on either side of the Wall: Sanssouci in Potsdam, Charlottenburg in West Berlin, with a number of other architectural testaments spread liberally around the area. My mother, Karen Radkai, was doing the photography. It was one of the few times we worked together — alas, for she was a terrific person to work with — and we were freelancing. House & Garden, where she published often, had registered interest in purchasing the article.
A lot has been forgotten over the past decades, a lot has been buried under the more egregious or absurd aspects of the East Bloc in general and East Germany in particular, the Orwellian control mechanisms in place, the prisons, the shoddy manufacturing (not all of it), the inefficient economy, the drab housing. In addition to all the spying, including preposterous attempts to gather people’s odors, the system had generated a few very pedestrian inconveniences. For one, if you wanted a visa as a westerner, for instance, you had to apply at least a month ahead of time and you had to know exactly where you were going to go and when, since the authorities, obsessed as they were with control, did not really take to spontaneous travel. Secondly, to phone the GDR from the West, you needed a healthy dialing finger, plus about a day’s worth of time. A special operator would register your call early in the morning and then connect you at some time during the day, it could be three, eight, or ten hours later. You just waited and waved away any other incoming calls (this was before all the sexy communication systems we have today).
That is the information that shot through my mind as I sauntered towards West Berlin on the Glienicker Bridge. That, and my rather innocent mother and her assistant wandering around Potsdam enjoying the somewhat dreary sights. Even though I had warned her this might happen, as a native German from the unified country, she simply could not conceive that there was this long, spooky, insurmountable wall cutting Germany and the world in two. So I did something inconceivable: I stopped before reaching the West Berlin side of the bridge, turned around and started walking back, trying to look as casual as a 6’3” man with a mop of unruly blond hair and wearing a trench coat (finest spy garb…) might be able to. A pebble on the beach and all that. There was not that much traffic, and what there was, was coming toward me from the east. In my peripheral vision, I caught the border guard dealing with someone’s papers, and I willed him to keep looking away from me at whatever he was doing. “I’m just a little grey mouse, as grey as the tar,” I mantraed to myself, heart beating like a loose wheel on a roller coaster. … I passed under a small East German banner. And suddenly, like a baby out of the womb, I was reborn in the GDR. But without a visa.
As I mentioned above, I knew what I was doing. I had found out the day before that I only had a one-time visa, care of an East German misunderstanding. But in those heady days after the now famous announcement by Günther Schabowski, I could not believe it, even though the opening of the border was only one way at the time, from east to west – and West Berliners were still not permitted to cross the border. And secretly, I did want to beat that bizarre system just once. I guess everyone did at some point, some with more risk than others. My own risk would have probably been a few hours at the custom’s house or police station. Some people I knew risked more. And I hope to unveil some of their stories in the following narrative. They are not the prominent folk, people whose quotes are famous and repeated like gospel. They are just everyday people with their struggles and tribulations. East Germany Part II continues…