Chapter 17: SECRETS
As 1962 wore on, I continued to work hard and serve the Frankes faithfully, despite my heart not being in it. I put the night of the Lent dinner and the awful man’s actions behind me, except for the longing it created to find a way to escape.
Every day staff gossip revealed another successful attempt across the wall, among the many unsuccessful ones as well. Most of the discussions took place in the staff room and rarely included Lena and me.
I just happened to be a good listener.
I was lucky enough in the next few months to never share words with Stefan again. We passed each other often in a room or in the yard, but silence prevailed. I also never saw him and his friends gallivanting around. In fact, I never saw his friends anymore. I was sure they had all been enlisted since conscription was now the law.
Once again, however, it seemed Stefan was magically devoid of military responsibility. He seemed to spend a great deal of time in the mortuary now, not that I really cared. Although, I often wondered if his actions the night of the party with Colonel Anker were deliberate . . . I guess I would never know.
As time passed, Katharina and I became much closer. It was still beyond the watchful eye of her mother, but on occasion, we would sneak a moment in the library. She would share the details of her latest book or direct me to the next one I should read. It was something I looked forward to often. We never talked about her family or their business. It was easier to pretend they didn’t exist. Eventually, I reached a point with our friendship that I felt I could tell her about Anton and Josef. The more I talked about them the less they disappeared from my life, and Katharina was so compassionate and understanding—a rarity I was lucky to have, both in her and Lena.
I was now almost one year down in service and one to go. The waxen “394” appeared boldly on my mirror as the end of July neared. Secretly, I had reached that crossroad again. The one I’d so gently set aside, the wish that I never stopped thinking about. I needed to see Anton and Josef again. I grew weary with loneliness.
“Lena,” I whispered when we were alone in the laundry room. I had finally gathered the confidence to start the conversation. She looked up but continued to fold the linens. “Do you think Christoph knows people who can . . . um—” Her eyes grew wide in anticipation. “—get someone past the wall?”
Lena reached for the door and closed it carefully. “I told you, Ella; don’t talk about such things here!” she demanded angrily; a reaction I half expected. “I thought you knew by now. All the people who come here— very powerful people of influence—you could be killed for even thinking such a crazy thought!”
I lowered my head but did not regret the attempt. “I miss them,
Lena.” My eyes were moist. “I miss them so much it hurts.”
She sighed then came and wrapped one arm tenderly around my shoulders. “How do you know they are there?”
“I don’t.” I took a deep breath. “I have to be hopeful. I only want to be with them.”
Lena reached for a handkerchief from a pile of clean cloths. She sweetly wiped my falling tears aside then whispered, “Let me see what I can find out, but promise me we will never talk of this here again.”
I did not realize the magnitude of it like she did. She knew too much about the inner workings of this family, but she was my closest friend, and she wanted to help. I trusted her wholeheartedly.
Within the month, Christoph had sent word through Mama G that we needed to meet. The place selected was near the edge of the city, an area I was not too familiar with, but I was eager to go. He met me after work a block away from the Frankes’ and led the way.
After one bus ride and a series of back-alley turns, we entered the basement of a small free-standing home. I entered cautiously, surprised to see it was a full-service café filled completely to capacity with patrons smoking, drinking, and sharing laughs. It was precisely a gathering the East German government did not support. They believed any time people united in a common interest—despite how innocent it may seem— opposition to the cause was fueled. I knew this through the many Zeitung I read.
We maneuvered past the crowd towards the back and joined a small group of men mustered around a narrow table. Conversation abruptly stalled. All eyes turned to me, as if Christoph wasn’t there. If it hadn’t been for the twitch of their lips as they blew their cigarette smoke away, I would have thought I was looking at figures in a museum.
“Ella, this is Fritz, Simon, and Klaus.” Christoph wasted no time with introductions. “Gentlemen, this is the one I told you about.” Christoph tipped his hat in a motion to leave.
I reached for his arm. My fingers trembled with the touch. I was suddenly alarmed. “I . . . I’m not sure about this,” I stuttered.
“You’re not?” Klaus, the youngest and most handsome of the three, balked. “How do we know you are who you say you are?” He smashed the lit end of his cigarette into a brass ashtray in the center of the table.
“I’m not a spy!” I defended sharply.
“Ella, please keep your voice down,” Christoph insisted. “They are good men.”
Christoph’s confidence in his friends was reassuring, but their scowls remained. Turning, he faced them. “She wants what you want.
Give her a chance.”
“Wait.” I didn’t let go. “Why aren’t you going with us,
He grinned widely and placed his hand over mine. “Lena is my life, and she’s in East Berlin.”
I smiled for my friend. She was one of the lucky ones.
Each of the men relinquished. They held out a hand simultaneously to shake Christoph’s goodbye and then stretched it forth again to welcome me. I knew this was more to appease their friend, even as I took a seat.
“How are you acquainted with Christoph?” I quizzed. It didn’t matter to me who answered.
Simon spoke first. A short man with a full mustache and round eyeglasses, he looked like a school teacher. “I’m his uncle.”
My eyes widened. I hoped for a strong association, but you can’t get stronger than family. Klaus, who still didn’t seem to trust me, returned the question. “How do you know Christoph?”
I spoke immediately. “Through his girlfriend, Lena. We work together.”
Klaus turned to the others. “I don’t think this is a good idea.” He didn’t even try to be discreet, speaking in front of me. “This was supposed to be confined to just us,” he added.
“I can be trusted,” I stated firmly.
All three paused and stared uncomfortably my direction.
“Look,” I continued, “it seems we are all in the same situation. We want to leave and need to trust each other.”
“She’s right,” Simon assured. “Christoph would not have brought her to us if he didn’t believe in her. Let’s move on.”
“Why here?” My question was really irrelevant, but I was curious.
Fritz had not spoken until now. He was tall and thin with a receding hair line. “The Volkspolizei don’t come here. This café is left alone.” He lit his second cigarette since I arrived. “The owner pays for privacy with the belief he is loyal to the DDR. See the flags in the window. It has worked for years.”
“But things have changed in the last few months. They’re getting wise to many things.” I insisted. My time spent reading with Katharina often included the newspapers they printed. I was not ignorant to their rhetoric.
“We are safe here,” Fritz assured, “but once we begin, we must act fast. Are you ready to leave, Ella?”
I was surprised by his question. Of course I was ready to leave, but what he really meant was . . . are you ready to die if it comes to that?
“Yes!” to both.
“Meet us here again tomorrow night, same time. All the details will be in play.” We stood and shook hands again.
“Oh, and Ella,” Simon reached over and pulled me close, “don’t speak to anyone, and bring nothing with you.” I nodded and we parted ways.
As I stepped out into the warm summer air alone, I realized Christoph had brought me here—the area wasn’t too familiar. I glanced around to try and gain a perspective when I saw someone approach from the opposite corner. My face tightened and then relaxed when I saw it was Christoph. He had waited for me out near the street, such a gentleman. I beamed as he appeared before me.
“You waited?” I smiled gratefully.
“Of course!” he said, surprised. “I knew you hadn’t been here before.”
As he walked me to my apartment, he told me how he and Lena met, how they planned to wed, and even how many children they wanted to have. I was happy for her—slightly jealous she was this blessed in her circumstances, but why shouldn’t she be? Not everyone in East Berlin should have such a sad story like mine.
“Christoph?” I recalled the question Lena had never answered.
“Why does the name Mielke upset Lena?”
Christoph was silent while we walked. I continued, “I asked her about him after he came to the house, but she wouldn’t tell me.”
“He came to the Frankes’?” Christoph was surprised. “Did she see him, or did he see her?”
“No,” I answered cautiously. His question piqued my curiosity.
“No, she was upset the moment she heard his name and left.” Christoph, himself, seemed visibly upset at this news.
“Don’t tell her I told you, Ella. She is really private about some things, and this is possibly the worst.” I nodded.
“Just promise me if he ever comes to the house again, you will keep her away from him somehow.”
“OK, I promise.”
“Erich Mielke murdered her grandfather.”
My face pulled into a frown. “Are you being truthful?”
“Yes.” Christoph nodded. “Her Opa Anlauf was murdered in cold blood.”
“Anlauf was a good man, a Police Captain at a time when the communist party was gaining strength here in Germany” —Christoph held out his hand to guide me past a puddle of water. His honorable actions came without hesitation as he continued— “and her grandfather tried in vain to stop their illegal rallies.”
“When was this?”
“I believe it was back in the late twenties, when Lena’s mom was young.”
“How was the offender identified as Mielke?”
“The hearings at the trial revealed the communist leadership had assigned Mielke to be the triggerman.” My eyes widened in recollection of my interaction with the man. Christoph looked around. “He was found guilty. It was never disclosed who ordered Anlauf’s death, but there are suspicions. They could be the very ones running this country right now.”
“Why is Mielke not in prison?” We had reached my apartment but remained outside.
“He ran off. Then the case was thrown out and somehow, over time, he became celebrated and now runs Stasi. He answers to no one—” I shook my head, astonished, as Christoph continued, “—and his right-hand man is Markus Wolf.”
“Who is that?” I recognized the name somehow, “Wait . . . the man who was with him at the house was referred to as Markus.”
“Yes, that would make sense they were together. Wolf is Frau
I gasped. It all became very clear. I suspected that Frau Franke had a Soviet ancestry. Her accent was light, but her features always seemed more Russian than German to me.
“So, Frau Franke is the actual reason why their family is close to the government?”
“Well, she’s a big part of it. She was raised in Moscow. I even think theirs might have been an arranged marriage.”
“I didn’t think people did those anymore. It would explain why they don’t seem to be in love.” I summoned my earlier thoughts of never seeing any affection in the home.
“Oh, arrangements definitely exist, especially when it’s politically advantageous.”
“All this time, I thought it was Herr Franke’s doing—”
“Some. They both have dirty hands, stories that would chill you to the bone.”
Just the imagery of Christoph’s words made me shudder. “Why does Lena continue to work there?” I knew my debt was the only reason I remained, but she had a choice.
“Nobody knew the family connection to Wolf until later.
Additionally, I’d never heard of Mielke being at the house before.” Christoph sighed. “Lena’s father was the Frankes’ lead gardener at the time of his death. She was only fourteen when he passed away. Herr Franke felt compelled to offer her a job. I guess Lena feels obligated in a strange way. Her income helps support her mom and sisters.”
I hadn’t realized we had this in common. I was torn. I felt bad I had pushed her so hard for answers. She never even let on that she had such sad secrets.
“When will you meet my friends again?” Christoph changed the subject as he realized how late it had gotten.
“Will you be able to find it on your own?” he asked. “Yes,” I said confidently. “I can get there.” “Goodnight, Ella,—” Christoph shook my hand, “—and be careful!”
“Goodnight, Christoph. Thank you very much.” I placed my hand to my heart. “Thank you for helping me!”
As I entered my apartment, I was wrenched with emotion. I was thrilled with the idea I could actually be in West Berlin by this time tomorrow night, searching for Anton and Josef, only my mind was also clouded with fear.
I knew the depths in which this country would go to prevent people from being successful in their efforts to escape. I, likewise, understood I faced the very real possibility of death or tremendous misery if I was caught.
Either way, I knew tomorrow night my life would be very