Chapter 18: RUN!
The next day couldn’t move fast enough. I sped through my duties and was nearly completed by early afternoon. I even did it with a smile on my face. It seemed silly to work this hard with the knowledge that this was my last day. However, my new acquaintances made it very clear. I needed to act as though nothing was changing.
“Don’t bring any attention to yourself, and keep your normal routine,” Fritz insisted.
Thankfully, no one noticed my unusually high spirits or cared to pay any attention to my permanent grin—except for Lena of course. I wanted to tell her the details but respected her warning. She gave me a tight hug before we parted and told me how much she loved me.
I wanted to say goodbye to Katharina, but again, I knew it was a risk I could not take. I stepped out of the house and took one last look back . . . back at where my life had been spent the last eleven months. I would miss very little from here. I shed no tears as I walked briskly towards my destination.
I was on time, but only Simon sat at the table. This made me a little nervous. It’s possible I read too much into it, but that wasn’t uncommon for me. Most people tend to overreact when engaged in unlawful activities. I didn’t remove my mother’s sweater, the only item I brought with me, as I sat down. Simon seemed as nervous as I was, and the trust game began again. We sat there in silence for a few minutes. I couldn’t handle it much longer.
“Why do you want to leave East Berlin?” I spoke up.
Simon scoffed, “Same reason as you. My family is there.” “How do you know my family is there?” I responded quickly.
“Christoph told me.”
I could hear the barmaid’s conversation. This was her evening job. She worked as a hairdresser during the day. My fingers tapped anxiously on the table.
“My wife and children were visiting her parents at the time the wall went up.” Simon’s voice was low and regretful. “They became permanent citizens of West Berlin that night.” My heart softened for him. I could only imagine how much harder the separation if Anton and I were married.
“Have you tried any of the legal ways?” I questioned. “I heard married people have a better chance at getting a travel visa.” I personally had already tried three times and was denied all three.
“Yes, . . . a dozen times.” He stared out the window. “It is impossible.”
Right then, Fritz and Klaus arrived. It wasn’t until they sat down I recognized a similarity.
“You are brothers,” I said with some surprise.
They glanced at each other, but Simon ignored it. “Why are you late?”
“Doesn’t matter, we’re here now.” Klaus was definitely the feistier of the two.
“Did you place the vehicle where I told you?” Simon continued. I was in the dark about their plan. It almost scared me that I was so desperate to leave without even knowing what I was willing to do.
“It is there. We spent the afternoon reinforcing it. It’s ready.”
My eyes grew wide. Slowly I pieced it together. We’re going to run the checkpoint. My heart rate increased. I said nothing. I’d heard of a few successful tries, but there were many more unsuccessful attempts. The newly fortified checkpoints had deep ditches and concrete barriers. The weapons unleashed on the vehicles alone most certainly cut through everything, including bodies. I closed my eyes tight. I could not turn back now. I imagined Anton and Josef’s faces.
“The mattresses and sand bags are sec—“
“Shhhhh,” Klaus hissed as quietly as possible. My eyes opened at the urgency in his voice. He nodded towards the newest patrons of the café. Two men in uniform had entered and walked straight to the bar.
“This is very unusual,” Fritz spoke quietly. The officers turned and looked right in our direction.
My face went white. I could feel my blood drain as I stared. What have I done? My mind started reeling. How could I be so careless?
Klaus saw my face and steamed, “Relax! You must compose yourself! If they suspect anything at all, we could be arrested.”
“They’re coming over!”
“Get it together!” Klaus whispered.
I turned my head to try and catch my breath. By the time I turned back, the officers were right next to us. The official gray uniform of the NVA was close enough for me to touch. Nationalen Volksarmee was a large military group used to strengthen the presence of the government all over the city. It wasn’t often they worked in pairs like the Border Guard.
Whatever was going on was highly unusual.
My legs started to shake uncontrollably underneath the table. Klaus grabbed my knees with his hand, subtly enough the soldiers wouldn’t notice, but firm enough to get them to stop. They looked each of us in the face before they stopped at one.
“Are you Simon Alger?” the officers questioned.
“Yes, sir,” he answered clearly, but I was sure his stomach was in his mouth.
“We need to speak with you outside.”
“What is this about?” Fritz spoke up. He was instantly shut up with a dagger of a look.
“None of your business, unless you are Simon Alger!” The officer reached for his baton. He lifted it halfway up in a threatening manner.
I hadn’t been this scared since the August night my life turned upside down. I knew I could not hold it together for long. My teeth started to chatter. I bit my lower lip as hard as I could. I tasted blood but did not stop.
“Get up!” The second officer had lost his patience.
Simon rose to his feet, but he was still slower than the soldier wanted him to be. The man grabbed his neck and shoved him aggressively away from the table.
As the men moved towards the door, Fritz whispered low enough for only us to hear, “This is going to end badly. We must leave as soon as they are outside.” My eyes widened, but he didn’t look me in the face as he continued, “There’s a back exit through the kitchen to an opposite alley.”
All faces were fixated on the windows out front. Because we were lower than street level, all we could see were their legs from the hips down. In a matter of seconds, a strong swipe of the baton cracked against the back of Simon’s knees. He was on all fours against the ground. His shrieks could be heard throughout the room, which had gone completely silent moments before. Another swipe of the baton connected across the back of his head. His body writhed in pain and curled up fetal style on the sidewalk. Patrons started to run for the exits out of fear. “Now!” Fritz cried, “Now, now, now.”
He pushed me out of my chair. The three of us sailed the opposite direction and through the back. This led us up to a vacant road. We ran until we could no longer hear Simon’s screams.
I had no idea where we were headed, we just kept moving. I did not want to be alone; I stayed the steady pace of Klaus and Fritz. They guided me to their apartment building off Falkoniergasse in Mitte. This location was closer to my old home than my new one. We paused on the empty, narrow street before we rushed up the side stairs to the fourth floor.
Once inside their apartment, we only had a brief moment to rest.
“They will come looking for us here if Simon gives us up. It is only a matter of time,” Fritz spoke candidly.
“If this was about the escape plan—” I coughed hard in between labored breaths, “—why didn’t they have us all go outside back there?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Surely they would have known we would run if they knew.” I tried to make sense of it all, and the harder I tried, the harder my head hurt.
“She’s right.” Fritz paced back and forth. “There is no way they would have only taken him out if they knew . . . if they knew about the plan, they would have detained all of us.”
“What if he cuts a deal?” I asked in a panic.
“What do you mean?” Klaus asked.
“You know . . . a deal . . . a trade . . . us for less pain, or his life.” “Would he do that?” Klaus looked at me with a new fear.
“Would you do it?” I shot back . . . then asked myself silently, . . .
Would I do it?
Now the brothers lost color. I stood up.
“He knew everything, right? The whole plan, right? Why did they only come after him?” I pushed. “Think! We have to figure this out.”
“I don’t know,” Fritz groaned. “It was a pretty firm plan.” “No,” Klaus mumbled, “it wasn’t.” “What?” My eyes narrowed.
“Klaus? Are you aware of something?” Fritz sat next to him on the couch.
His brother shook his head. Small beads of sweat formed on his cheeks. “I . . . I’m not sure.” He buried his head in his hands. “He may have stolen the van.”
Fritz and I shot horrified looks in his direction at the same time.
“Stolen the van?” Fritz raised his voice. “What happened to the van being his friend’s?”
“It was his friend’s van, but he wasn’t as cooperative as we hoped . . .”
“How long have you known this?” Klaus shrugged.
“Are you kidding me?” I cried angrily. “I can’t believe I was stupid enough to trust you.”
“What are you screaming about, you crazy girl?” Klaus fired back,
“You almost got us all killed back at the café!”
“Shhhh,” Fritz cried, “we have neighbors! Keep your voices down!”
“I only wanted to leave East Berlin,” I whispered hotly between gritted teeth. “I was under the impression you had a good plan.”
“We all want to leave Berlin!” Klaus broke. His eyes filled with tears. Our whole family is over there living a life of freedom and happiness, and I . . . we, are stuck here in this awful, miserable place.
“That’s enough.” Fritz lifted his hands calmly. We need to think clearly. It won’t take them long to figure out we ran.
I took a deep breath. Losing my temper wouldn’t help our situation right now. “Is there a possibility Simon could lead them here?” I joined them on the couch.
“I don’t think he would.”
“Does he have this address?”
“Yes,” Fritz answered, “this was where we met the first time.”
“Well, the police can be very persuasive.” I stood up and turned off the light. At the window, my view was limited, but the street seemed bare.
“How do you know about the police?”
“Let’s just say I happen to see and hear more about the government than I want to sometimes.”
“How?” Klaus snapped. He was back to his old self.
“Does it matter?” I retorted.
“Shhhh.” Fritz put his hands up. I ignored him.
“Since Simon knows this address, there is a chance he could . . .” I felt the hair on the back of my neck begin to rise. “We must leave. We must leave now!”
Fritz and Klaus stood still.
“Now!” I cried more forceful.
Fritz quickly grabbed a bag and filled it with a few necessities. Once again, we raced out the door, and despite our best efforts to avert attention from our flight, our footsteps thumped much too loudly down the stairs. A door creaked open on the first floor. I pressed tightly against the perimeter walls, but the others didn’t stop. My mother’s sweater snagged as Klaus grabbed my wrist and dragged me out the back entrance.
By the time we reached the end of the street, a canopy of chestnut trees provided a small cover as a white and green Wartburg Coupe passed us unseen. The car, known by many as the choice of vehicle for the Stasi, drove well below the recommended speed, slowing the closer it got. It stopped directly in front of the apartment building we recently exited. We held our breaths, unsure whether we should remain hidden and watch or chance being seen and flee.
The car idled quietly in the muggy summer air. “Nothing’s happening. No one’s getting out, and no one’s getting in,” Klaus reported hoarsely. His sweat pooled at our feet, and it had nothing to do with the humidity.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Fritz whispered. “Even if this car isn’t here for us, it’s only a matter of time before someone will be.”
I steadied my trembling hands against the smooth bark of the tree, afraid I would pass out. I peeked to the right. The car didn’t move. Turning back, I braced myself for support and suggested, “If we cut back through the park over there, we can head west to my old home on
“Bernauer?” Klaus barked. “Right to the Border Guard?”
“My apartment was evacuated. Nobody is there. If we’re careful and can get in, it will be a good place to hide.”
“Aren’t they checking?”
“They’ve already been there and seen that it’s empty. They boarded up the front door, but we can go through the back window.” I fought hard to keep my thoughts from returning to that terrible night.
“We need to go somewhere, Klaus,” Fritz insisted, “a place Simon doesn’t know about.”
“Fine,” Klaus snapped, “but we need to go now, the car seems to have no intention of leaving.”
“Can you see inside?” I inched forward.
“Not well, I think there are two people.”
We shared looks of agreement and one by one slipped carefully across the street. We hoped the darkness provided enough camouflage from the driver’s rear-view mirror. None of us even looked in the direction of the vehicle as we crossed. Its engine continued to idle smoothly as we ran swiftly and discreetly through the park. It was a terrorizing sound, lingering in my mind even after we were streets away.
Despite the familiarity of the streets the closer we got to Bernauer, I was running on fumes. What should have been no more than a ten-minute jog turned into much longer as we cautiously inched our way past vacant apartment buildings blocked by barricades and pockets of soldiers. We scrambled to a stop behind a large dumpster a street away from my old flat. My neck ached from constantly looking around. Again, we surveyed our safety before we moved.
Although my kitchen window was dark, I felt a strange sense of warmth as we stood before it. It was my home. Klaus reached into a container and tossed rubbish around until he found a soiled rag. As quietly as possible, Klaus wrapped the rag around his fist then pressed the glass pane until a corner broke. It was the same window Josef and Anton had crawled out of, only this time, we crawled in.
The shattered dishes from the night the soldiers broke in, crunched beneath our shoes. I felt for the flashlight under the sink. The small beam illuminated a path to the living room where shards of broken wood scattered about reminded me of the night of the intrusion and the careless destruction of my mother’s clock.
“What happened here?” Klaus mumbled irreverently. I ignored him and parted the front window curtains. I’d forgotten about the solid wall of red brick. With the lights out and only using the small flashlight, the brothers turned the couch right side up.
“You don’t think they’ll track us here, do you?” Fritz asked as he brushed some dust off a pillow.
“Simon never got my last name,” I recalled, making my way down the hallway. “There are hundreds of girls by the name of Ella.” I was being dramatic.
“Yeah, but how many look . . . different?” Klaus pointed out as he helped me upright my bed.
“It doesn’t matter,” I sneered. “This house was in my father’s name, besides Simon knew very little about me.” Klaus followed my beam of light to the living room where Fritz had fixed several chairs back on their legs.
“Well, we definitely can’t go home again.” Klaus slumped to the couch discouraged. He had irritated me since the moment we met, but it was true—Simon knew a lot more about them than me. I suddenly felt sorry for them. Their life would never be the same.
“You can stay here as long as necessary,” my tone was softer. “We just need to be aware of the soldiers’ post checks in the alley. They used to be fairly predictable, about twenty-five minutes apart. If we monitor the times, we’ll be OK. Until then, we need to rest.”
“To Anton . . . and Josef, may you . . .” Fritz ran his hand across the front wall where I’d drawn months ago. He attempted to read the expression that was quickly fading. I paused in the doorway but remained silent. “I can’t seem to make the rest of this out.” He turned to Klaus who took no interest in it. “This is quite a fascinating picture . . . Ella?” He turned and saw me staring.
“It says . . . ‘be as free as a butterfly,’” I whispered.
“Did you?” He pointed to the picture. “Did you draw this?” It was apparent he was impressed.
I nodded but brushed it off. “Here’s a blanket. I’m sorry there is only one.”
“I’m fine.” Klaus scowled and pulled the collar of his jacket up as he stretched out on the couch, leaving the floor to his brother. “Thank you, Ella.” Fritz reached for it. “Goodnight.”
I went to the room I shared with Josef. The clothes I had taken refuge behind in the closet were strewn across the floor as if the
Volkspolizie had revisited the flat, but I was too tired to care tonight. I was exhausted and scared, yet as I lay there in my old bed, I felt an odd sense of comfort as well.
Despite the unknown I faced, I gained strength from this place. As I stared at the dark, empty walls, a calming peace came over me. It was though I could feel the souls of my family will their might into me . . . it was simply enough strength for me to press on.
I was a Kühn. Not by birth but by choice. It confirmed to me, with
their help, I could face whatever lay ahead.