Chapter 15: KHRUSHCHEV
Traditionally, 1 Januar is a day of new beginnings, but in East Berlin there were few affairs to celebrate. We rarely had anything to look forward to. However, when I arrived at the Franke house this particular morning, the staff room was alive with gossip. A man by the name of Nikita Khrushchev would be arriving in East Berlin later this week. Rumor had it, Herr Franke himself had been invited to attend a private speech given by this man.
“Who is that?” I questioned Johann. His eyes scrutinized me as though I was absurd for even asking. The name Khrushchev came up the night of the standoff, but I did not know why.
“Who is Herr Khrushchev?” his tone filled with contempt. “How could you not know who he is?” He rolled his eyes. “He is the Premier—” I shrugged my shoulders. It didn’t ring a bell. He continued, “—of the whole Soviet Union.”
“Why would he come here?”
“Considering Mother Russia owns East Germany, I would assume he wants to check on his asset.” Johann became snippy. From the way he acted, it was apparent he had some Soviet ties. I knew a decent amount about the German leadership but very little about the Soviets.
“Some asset!” I snapped back sarcastically. “A broken city with a prison wall and starving people.”
“You watch, little miss sassy,” Johann insisted, “he has done great things in Russia and will do great things here.”
“Well, seeing there is no great here, it can’t be that difficult.”
“He is my Premier; he will not let us down.”
“He would be the first, wouldn’t he . . . ?” I turned away before Johann could say another word. With apron in hand, I silently vowed no allegiance to the Soviet Union nor believed anything would ever change.
Today was going to be just another day for me.
“You probably—” Heidi started to say as she walked down the hallway with me.
“I know, I know, I need to be more careful with what I say.” And I cut straight into the library.
After a few minutes of dusting, curiosity overwhelmed me. I brushed along several shelves and passed many books until I found one. It was a book on the Soviet Union, published three years ago. I took a seat as I opened the front cover. Inside was a picture of two men, titled Nikita Khrushchev with Joseph Stalin 1936.
As I read, I learned that the people of the Soviet Union loved this man. He became a hero following the death of their dictator, Stalin. It seemed as though Khrushchev worked to undo many of the previous binding ideas, as well as freed people from Stalin’s gulag camps. The gulag camps were corrective camps created by Stalin. Many of the detained were legitimate criminals, but a good number of prisoners were political threats. Numerous innocent people fell victim to government paranoia and were incarcerated as well.
I paused for a moment as I read. They sounded much like the Stasi labor camps we heard about at Hohenschönhausen, the Labout Camp X. If they were so bad there that Khrushchev released people, why are they utilized here if the Soviet Union controls East Germany? I was confused, but continued.
When Khrushchev gained power, he focused on repairing relations with China, Yugoslavia, and America. He promoted economic reforms such as foreign art, sports, and education for the Soviets. With this kind of resolve . . . how could he not be seen as a hero? That would be like coming here to Berlin and suddenly removing the wall. I paused. Could there possibly be a specific purpose in his visit? I forced these thoughts aside. It was never a good idea to build up any imaginary hopes concerning the wall.
I turned the page. Khrushchev worked to give the people everything they had been previously deprived under Stalin. It appeared his vision for the country was vastly different than his predecessor. He seemed to be driven by change and forward thinking. I read:
In 1956 when Herr Khrushchev addressed the 20th Party Congress in the Soviet Union, he summed up Stalin’s reign in one sentence, “It is here that Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality, and his abuse of power . . . he often chose the path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies, but also against individuals who had not
committed any crimes against the party or the Soviet
A strange feeling ignited within me. I couldn’t stop my mind.
Maybe this was the reason for his visit to Berlin. If a man can truly say those words and believes against the brutalities of one’s own people, he could not possibly be a leader who tolerates the cruelty and oppression this wall generates.
Perhaps in some unusual way Herr Khrushchev recognized how ridiculous this persecution was. Maybe his plan was to transform our lives as well. Maybe Johann is right! Could it really be a New Year worth celebrating?
Throughout the next few days, I continued to read privately about all the perceived successes Herr Khrushchev had accomplished since 1953. I somehow overlooked the brutalities he himself carried out for Stalin prior to his own rise, wanting to truly believe he recognized the error of his judgment specifically in regard to Germany. I never let on about how I personally anticipated his arrival. This would mean I had to apologize to Johann, and I wasn’t about to do that.
Therefore, even at lunch, while several staff chatted on with excitement, I secretly kept an open ear to any news regarding the Premier’s arrival and his unknown objective.
The 6th of January finally arrived. An eagerness grew throughout the day with the knowledge this great and powerful man was somewhere within the city limits. Yet, no word came. No news from the staff, the radio, or even the television upstairs in the master suite. Lena told me she turned it on while the Frankes were gone, but nothing was initially reported outside of his motorcade arrival.
Not a word was expelled. Not even later at night as I walked home from work. The wall, the soldiers, the fear, nothing had changed. Everything was exactly the way it had been for over six months, and slowly, any desperate hope I dared have started to dissipate.
The next morning, I came to work early enough to grab the newspaper before anyone would even know it was missing. I had to force myself to slow down and read one sentence at a time.
On the front page, it showed a picture of Herr Khrushchev. He was a fairly old, balding man with eyeglasses who wore a nice black suit and white shirt. His coat was accented by three-star pins on one front pocket and a circle pin on the other. It did not mention how old the photograph was. He seemed like an Opa or how I would envision my grandpa to be if I had one.
As I read farther down, he was far from kind to the people of East
Berlin. He did not come to tear down the wall. In fact, he suggested it be reinforced. He only came to make sure East Germany did not ask the Soviet Union for any more help.
When Herr Khrushchev met in front of the Communist Leadership at the SED Party Congress the day before, he was reported as having said that the wall had accomplished its purpose of stemming the exodus of citizens from the nation. He believed this action was necessary to stabilize the East German economy. However, Khrushchev insisted no additional Soviet economic assistance would be forthcoming, “Neither God nor the devil will give you bread or butter if you do not manage it with your own hands.” He ended his speech with a clear warning to the East, they “must not expect alms from some rich uncle” and were to survive entirely on their own.
I dropped the paper to the ground. My eyes blurred. Stunned, I couldn’t even process what I’d just read. Everything written about him must have been lies. How does one justify doing all he supposedly has done for the Soviet people in their own country, and here—when this part of the world was controlled by the Soviets—we were mistreated, like rats in the basement; tolerated but despised.
When I entered the staff rooms once again, there was no joyous celebration. There wasn’t any talk of Khrushchev at all. Even though I did not hold any allegiance to the Soviet Union, I briefly felt as though there was a possibility some good could come from this man. I was wrong, but I wasn’t the only one. I looked at Johann who was both silent and discouraged, and I suddenly felt sorry for him. He had a stronger connection than me and now appeared as though he had been abandoned, the same feeling I grew accustomed to many years ago.
“To bed, kleine Maus!” Nurse Margret demanded. “We are waiting on you.”
I scrambled under the thin blanket, my ear turned towards Nurse Margret’s deep voice. Every Sunday night, like clockwork, she read to us before we went to bed. It was from a book she called, “The Word of God.”
“Who is God?” I asked, the first time I could actually say the word?
“He is your Supreme Ruler, your maker, and your destiny,” she emphasized dramatically. All words I didn’t know. So, to a five-year-old, all I heard was “fear him.” I was frightened of this God person she spoke of. He caused scary things to happen like earthquakes, floods, and fire. I decided to stay as far away as I possibly could from this God. Especially since Nurse Margret would often say he watched us. It was from a place called Heaven, and if we were disobedient or naughty, we would be caught and punished.
Now, more often than not, I was both, and I was punished. The consequence often ranged from either the closet or the switch, but I never saw this God personally. I also never spoke to him or felt his anger. I started to believe he was all made up.
“Why do you say God punishes people?” I asked Nurse Margret. I always asked her questions.
“Because He does when they’re bad.”
“Am I bad?” I asked this, knowing full well what her response should be, but she surprised me.
“You are a little stinker sometimes, Adela, but you are not bad.” I thought about this for a while.
“I must be bad if nobody wants me.”
All the other children had fallen asleep. I stood in the dim light before her. My brown hair tangled in all directions, dirty hands, and dirty face. The answer should have been obvious, but Nurse Margret remained quiet. She lifted me up to her wide lap. I had only been there a few times before, but it was only to get a good smack on the fanny.
“You, kleine Maus are special,” she whispered where only I could hear. “God has saved you for a specific purpose. Some children have a family. Some children only have themselves, but you, my little child, are not alone. You, little one, will always be loved by God.”
It was the same hope I had developed for a greater being. One who was all powerful, the one who I hoped would be there for me. Back then it was God . . . today it was Khrushchev, and in both cases an undeniable feeling of rejection had emerged.
As a child, I truly wanted to believe I was special like Nurse Margret told me, but over time, doubt crept in. Eventually, I stopped listening.
I had truly wished Johann was right. I wanted to believe this great man would come to Berlin and do heroic things. Sadly, all he really did was cut the parental strings and leave us to our own. With too many irons in the fire already, we knew from history that doesn’t work. The east could be facing even darker times than before.
I placed one arm around Johann. He glanced up at me surprised.
No words were exchanged. It was the easiest way for me to tell him I understood his disappointment and truly cared. His moist red eyes met mine, and he nodded with reserved accord. Once again, our light had been dimmed, but even in our despair, we still had each other.