20th Anniversary of the German reunification, Part One: Escape from Eastern Germany
Not my family ... but one in the same circumstances.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the German reunification, I want to share with you some bits of my own family history. My mother’s family originally stems from the former German Democratic Republic, which was part of the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc; my father’s family lived in the Western part of Germany. Although I grew up in the West, I’ve always felt aligned to both parts of the country. The Peaceful Revolution initiated by courageous Eastern Germans, the Fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989, and finally the political reunification on October 3, 1990, can still move me close to tears whenever I think about them.
My maternal grandmother, Eve-Maria, was a widow who brought up her four children in in the town of Halle in Saxony-Anhalt. Because my grandfather, a soldier, had been killed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Eve-Maria was actually ‘fortunate’ in that she received a war-widow’s pension (in contrast to those poor women whose husbands had received injuries during the war but died from them after it), so her family, if in no way affluent, was able to get by well enough. By the mid-1950s, Eve-Maria’s elder daughter was training as a cook, her younger daughter (who was to become my mother) attended high school, and the two boys went to middle school. Eve-Maria’s mother lived close by with her second husband, so the family was comfortable and had no wish to leave their hometown.
Then Eve-Maria attracted the attention of the Stasi, the infamous secret police. Her sister lived in the West, as did several cousins, and the women kept up a lively correspondence. Eve-Maria was approached by a Stasi agent and urged to recruit her male relatives living in the West to spy for the Stasi. Throughout the existence of the GDR, the Stasi used a net of so-called ‘unofficial informants’ in the West to infiltrate key industries, the press, political parties, you name it. I have no idea in which these male relatives may have held interesting positions; possibly they didn’t, and the Stasi just wanted them as sleepers.
Her small but contented existence threatened beyond redemption, Eve-Maria decided to get out and leave the GDR with her children. Although the rest of the country was cut off, in 1956 it was still possible to cross the border in divided Berlin, and that’s what she planned to do. Nobody was allowed to even entertain the smallest hint of suspicion (that would have meant prison, and losing her children), so Eve-Maria told no-one except her mother. Then she packed three small bags – each with no more than what one would take for a day trip – and sent the family off to East Berlin in separate trains. First to go was my aunt, 17 and recently pregnant. Two days later my mother and uncle, 16 and 14 at the time, followed. Last to go, another two days later, were Eve-Maria and her youngest son, aged 11. Each group arrived at a station in East Berlin, and then was to try as unobtrusively as possible to get on the S-Bahn (a local train service) and cross the border to West Berlin. To this day I do not know how she was able to stand the insecurity of not knowing for four whole days if her children had arrived safely at their destination.
In West Berlin, the older children stayed with relatives while Eve-Maria and her younger son were admitted to Marienfelde reception camp (the very place pictured above), where she was interrogated repeatedly in the course of a month about her Stasi interactions, and finally the status of political refuges was granted to the whole family. Back in Halle, after a few days my great-grandmother stealthily entered Eve-Maria’s appartment and was able to retrieve a few precious possession like photos and some pieces of table linen and glassware. Everything else was lost.
At last Eve-Maria and her children were flown out of Berlin on a plane, then settled in a series of refuge camps – sometimes three families sharing a single room, divided with grey blankets. My cousin was born in one of the camps. There were generous mortgages for refuge families at that period, and Eve-Maria’s widow’s pension was continued, so she was able to buy a small house near the shore of the Baltic Sea. My aunt’s boyfriend followed her to the West a few years later, and they are married to this day. Eve-Maria didn’t return to the East for more than 30 years due to fear of the Stasi’s revenge; just a year before the wall fell she finally dared to go on a group tour to Mecklenburg, where she’d lived as a happy young bride.
My grandmother never spoke about the past unless I asked her about something directly. But I know she was satisfied when the GDR regime fell, and that she rejoiced at the reunification.
Are there special days that make you think of your family history, and the way it was shaped by the big events of those days?