Chapter 20: ANNIVERSARY
12 Aug 1962
One year to the day Anton and Josef disappeared around that alley corner, a loud commotion originated from the west at high noon. It didn’t matter where you were in the city or on which side, everyone heard the clear exaggerated honking from automobile horns pressed hard in a synchronized protest of the wall.
I still hadn’t found Herr Brauner. His correspondence said something to the fact of his location being in —benstrausse. It narrowed his location down to the partial name of a street, but it was still a broad search. Since his apartment number had also been smudged, I decided to blanket what I could with the little information I did have.
So far nobody I’d talked to even knew a family by the name of Brauner. I wasn’t ready to give up. I left my address with multiple shop and café owners in several neighborhoods. They agreed, if they had contact with anyone named Brauner, they would give him my information. It was a frail attempt, but since I had no other connection to Anton and Josef, I had to try.
I continued to venture over to the old house once a week to see if any other letters turned up. Although searches under the boards, through the garbage, and even in the hallway produced nothing, I had to remain positive. It was all I had.
Six weeks had passed since that awful day when Lena fell ill. A week after the incident, Stefan found me cleaning the dining room and initiated conversation. I was as surprised at this as I was with his news.
“Your friend is going to recover,” he said as he watched my reaction carefully.
“She is?” I cried, overcome with emotion.
“Yes,” he replied impassively, “we got her medical attention just in time.”
I felt like screaming hallelujah! She was my best friend, my closest confidant. I clasped my hands together to thank a God, whose possible intervention was the only logical explanation, despite my feelings that “God” seemed to disregard our little corner of the world.
I owed Stefan my gratitude for his quick response, but when I turned to say thank you, he was gone. I really was grateful for his assistance. Even though I knew it was solely his help that saved her life, it was still hard for me to accept.
As time went by, the names Simon, Fritz, and Klaus also became just a distant, sorrowful memory, never to be seen or heard from again. Although our alliance came from difficult circumstances, my wish that Fritz and Klaus had found a successful path to freedom never changed while craving my own desires to find a way across the border as well. I just had to be much smarter about it and much more discreet. I knew very well Herr Franke’s threat was real, as well as the Government’s intentions to find those who plotted an escape.
Tonight, the first anniversary of the wall going up, there were demonstrations being staged on both sides of the border in protest. Despite my fears, I always kept an eye and ear peeled for further secret opportunities. By a small chance of fate, Mama G’s daughter, Khloe, set up a meeting for me with a friend who thought he had found a weak link at the wall. He wanted to talk at a pub in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. Pubs were my least favorite place in the city but always made a great cover to talk without drawing additional attention.
That night I rode the bus to an area of town that initially seemed similar to the rest of the city, yet on approach appeared somehow less run down and forgotten. It was my first time in Prenzlauer, and I surprisingly felt at home. There were amazing displays of artwork on the sides of buildings, musicians and mimes performed on the streets, and people were out and about, including a large group of youth assembled to march near the wall.
I say near because everyone knew by now it didn’t matter if your proximity to the wall was an accident or not, the tower guards had itchy trigger fingers. They even received awards for their valor in protecting the perimeter. My mind went back to the night when I ventured too close just weeks after the initial closure. I had almost become a wall fatality had the senior officer not halted it. I’m sure that same officer now gives the order to shoot without hesitation regardless of who is watching.
Over the course of this last year, much had changed. The increase in nightly action near the wall often confused the skyline with lightening, minus the rain. It had become quite normal to hear the single pop of a rifle or the continuous rounds of a machine gun that we no longer held our breath like before.
Many times, when the western media outlets crossed lines, we could hear the reports in uncensored facts. The number of death and injuries caused by the Berliners’ desperate struggle for liberty was shared as well as the blood lust of the Border Guard.
However, in the daily reports of the “Neues Deutschland” newspaper, the official paper of the Socialist Unity Party in East Berlin, the language was vastly opposite. It defended the ongoing boundary shootings as justified breaches on the border, emphasizing the lives of members of the border security was often put in “extreme danger”.
Once I arrived on Eberswalder Straße, it took only a few minutes to find Mosse’s on Kastanienalle. The pub was small and dark, packed with patrons. My eyes subtly scanned the crowd as I recalled the conversation Khloe and I had barely a day ago.
“How old did you say he is?”
“Eighteen, I believe.” Khloe put her steaming mug to her lips. “He said he will be wearing a brown cap.”
“Will he be alone?”
“Peter will be with him, maybe others.”
“Do you think it’s safe?” I reached for an apple as we whispered in the kitchen.
“Mosse’s? Oh yes. It may be a pub, but it’s . . . different—” Khloe grinned widely. “—well you’ll know what I mean when you get there.”
I was puzzled by her comment until now. Three small children played Topfschlagen in a corner, giggling as they filled a cooking pot with a rock. Josef and I played it on occasion, but somehow Mama Kühn always found a treat to hide. I was sad for these children until I realized they didn’t seem to mind their treasure wasn’t edible. A baby’s cry pulled my eyes towards a table where an infant bounced on his papa’s knee while he balanced his stein of beer in his hand. There were nearly as many children as adults present. I’d never been anywhere like this.
I continued to search the room when a teenager who matched Helmut’s description glanced my direction. The expression on his face told me I’d found the right group. It was the same look of desperation I saw on the faces of Simon, Fritz, and Klaus when I first met them.
“Helmut?” I approached cautiously.
“Ja, you must be Ella.” A young man with a slender build and bright eyes rose to shake my hand. He was followed by three others, two boys and a girl.
“This is Peter, Jakob, and Frieda.”
I nodded and shook all their hands before taking a seat.
“I ordered you an Obstler.”
“Oh, I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t drink.” The disbelief in their eyes was not masked. For what did East Berliners have to look forward to but their spirits?
“No problem,” Helmut cried. In one swift motion, he grabbed the glass, swallowed the contents in one gulp, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“You have family in the West?” Frieda asked quietly, although nobody could hear our conversation above the noisy crowd. It was precisely why they chose this particular establishment in the first place.
“Yes. Yes, I do. Do you?”
“My mother and sister.”
“And you, Peter?” I asked one of the other boys. “Do you have family in the West?”
“No, my family is here. I just want a better life. I know there’s a brighter future in the West.”
I nodded, but his words seemed strange to me. Yes, it was confining and smothering here, but if my family—Anton and Josef—were here, I could possibly be content.
“Peter and I work for the same company,” Helmut interrupted.
“We are rebuilding the former Kaiser-Wilhelm- Palais, a palace on the
Unter den Linden. Are you familiar with the area?”
I was, since it was in Mitte, but the other two were not.
“We happened to come across a shabby building on
Schützenstrauss, and inside were the run-down remains of a workshop.”
Helmut leaned in and whispered, “The back windows lead straight to
Zimmerstrasse and very close to the wall.”
Peter added, “—and no signs of regular guard patrol either.” He looked around. “We walked in and out twice, completely undetected.” “The windows weren’t bricked up?” I asked with surprise.
“No, not at all,” Helmut confirmed.
“Dogs? Lights? Do you know if the fence is electrified?”
They looked at each other uncomfortably. I knew they hadn’t even considered this.
“So, what does this mean?” I questioned cautiously. My previous experience was fresh on my mind.
“Mean?” Helmut looked surprised. “It’s an opportunity.”
“To run the border?” My face lifted skeptically, but all eyes looked at me with surprise. They were convinced their idea was unrivaled.
“Have you ever read the papers on border runs—” I looked at each member of the group then brashly continued, “—seen the photographs of the bodies?” The irritation in my voice was evident. “Have you watched someone be tortured by the Volkspolizei or had to run for your life because you were being pursued?”
Despite the fact the three boys were all approximately two to three years older than me, I was the one who showed the more mature reasoning, . . . yet they blew off my skepticism as if I was an ignorant girl.
“I thought you wanted to leave?” Helmut’s eyes narrowed.
“I do . . .” I assured them, “. . . more than anything in this world, but there has to be a reason the shop is not secured, a trap or something you aren’t seeing.”
“Maybe they just haven’t gotten to it.” Jakob had been silent until now.
I shook my head. “This doesn’t sound right.” I knew this was the approach I should have taken with my first escape attempt.
“I don’t think it will work,” I insisted.
“It could,” Peter protested. “Maybe, if we had more—” “—more people?” I questioned.
“Yes, if we had at least ten or more of us running simultaneously. It would cause chaos, confusion, and with such a short distance, chances are we could surprise the Border Guard and all make it.”
“And chances are one or more would be shot.” I was discouraged. I came here looking for a credible proposal but knew this was too high-risk.
“You’re not interested?” Helmut asked.
“I don’t know, Helmut.” I looked around the room. It was a motion I did more often lately. “I just think if you study it a little more, maybe watch the border a little closer, . . . it just seems like a precarious risk.”
Frieda and Jakob seemed to have their own reservations as well. I felt bad. I didn’t come here to change people’s minds, but after what I’d seen and read and experienced, this was not the direction I wanted to go.
I stood to leave.
“Helmut, maybe give it some more thought or possibly time.”
“Time?” Peter scoffed. “It’s just a matter of time before the East has no one left to kill.”
I bit my lip and forced myself not to respond. I’ve seen this desperation hundreds of times. It wasn’t his fault. I turned to the others. “Thank you for the evening, Peter, Frieda, and Jakob. Nice to meet you all. I wish you the very best in your efforts.”
“You too, Ella.” Frieda touched my hand sweetly.
I nodded and turned to Peter. “Please be careful, and think it through.”
We shook hands and parted as friends.
As I moved to push the exit door open, the words, “Voila le portrait sans retouche” reached my ears. I stopped. My eyes darted behind me in an attempt to locate the source. Helmut noticed my concern and approached.
“Ella, are you alright?”
I nodded but still focused on the woman’s voice. “De l’homme auquel j’appartiens . . .” It was the only French I knew.
“Can I get you something?” Helmut’s hand went to my shoulder, his eyebrows pulled together tightly in concern.
I whispered, “No,” as I jockeyed around him.
“Quand il me prend dans ses . . .”
I exhaled softly. Papa took Mama’s hand. Her brown curls bounced as she giggled and moved towards him. This was the only time I forgot Papa had a bad leg. If it hurt at that moment, we never knew. He twirled Mama around the room. Her smile was infectious. Then came my favorite part, Papa cradled her gently as he dipped her smoothly to his side. They always ended in a kiss. “Il me parle tout bes je vois . . . la vien rose.”
The vision had driven me back to the bar. I stood awkwardly silent in front of the Barmann. He stared at me with a similarly confused expression.
“Is . . . is that a record playing?”
The stocky, hairy man wrinkled his lip but made no response. Leaning to the side, he pointed to the box radio behind him. The song was over. Edith Piaf’s voice ceased. Disappointment swelled inside me. Helmut appeared at my side, a brotherly countenance I recognized on Anton’s face many times.
“Ella, are you alright?” he asked, possibly for the third time.
“Yes, Helmut, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Did you . . . ?” he stopped himself short. I focused on his eyes.
“Did you change your mind?” There was a lift in his voice.
My thoughts went back to my family. I couldn’t believe I was saying this, but my heart was not lying, “Yes, I believe so.”
Helmut’s face brightened, instantly delighted.
I continued firmly, “The plan needs work. Let’s meet again. I’ll send word through Khloe.”
I walked home from the bus stop feeling numb. I had trouble pinpointing exactly what I felt. “La Vie En Rose” definitely triggered the emotional side of me, but surprisingly, the rational side didn’t argue this time. I knew I was ready to try again. I missed my family. It was time.
Less than a week later just after two o’clock in the afternoon, the nasally western reporter repeatedly announced over the air, “Junge erschossen! Junge erschossen!” Johann turned up the volume as I happened to be passing by the room. The small staff crowded curiously around the radio in the back room.
“Boy shot at Charlottenstraße. He remains on the ground bleeding to death.”
I held my breath as I moved my head a little closer. How many people were witnessing this horrific event live?
“He is still alive!” The newsperson nearly shouted through the speaker. “He is calling for help!”
The entire staff was glued to the broadcast, completely immobilized for another twenty minutes in a play-by-play dialog detailing how people from the allied sector of the wall were trying to help a badly injured teenager who had been shot the moment he rushed the wall. Bandages were thrown over the wall from the west. Hands and voices tried to encourage from afar, and the western media photographed the gruesome scene for all to see. This boy, who suffered immensely from multiple gunshot wounds, was left to die in no-man’s-land mere steps from freedom.
“What is going on here?” Frau Franke demanded angrily at the door of the room. We all instantly shot up to attention.
She turned her ear towards the radio and heard, “Western patrol cannot intercede!”
“What are you listening to?” Unaware that we listened to an allied station, her face wrinkled with each passing word. She stomped over to the radio and ripped the knob off the face of the receiver, hoping that would solve the problem—only it didn’t actually stop the sound from coming through.
“East German Border troops are descending into the Sperrzone under a wall of fog that is now covering the body . . .”
Frau Franke was particularly enraged by the report but not for the same reasons we were. Grabbing the box, she pulled it from the wall, ripping the cord. “You will get back to work immediately or look for alternate employment.” She stomped out, the radio clasped in her hands like an enemy by the throat.
We knew we shouldn’t have spent so much wasted time, but it was hard to pull away. Despite the DDR’s best efforts at shrouding the truth of the event, a monument had spontaneously begun to develop on the westside wall. Random flowers appeared both pierced by the wire on top and scattered along the ground near the boy’s final resting place. Residents of both sides of Berlin mourned.
It wasn’t until the next day that it was fully reported on the front page of the newspaper. A young man by the name of Peter Fechter had run the border with a friend. He was shot in the process and declared dead at the Berlin People’s Police Hospital shortly after.
Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, a representative of the border patrol, was quoted in the press as saying that the Border Guard’s brutality in the boy’s case was good for and in the interest of the state. “When this kind of element is wounded directly on the border and not retrieved immediately, then a huge fuss is made. The life of each of our brave young men in uniform is more important to us than the life of a lawbreaker. By staying away from our state border, blood, tears, and screams can be avoided.”
My stomach curled. This boy only wanted freedom and now has been used as propaganda to prove an evil point. As I glanced over the rest of the article, I couldn’t read the words fast enough,
“. . . due to the treasonous act, the body of Peter Fechter will not be released to his family and remains in custody of the DDR. A warrant has been issued for the apprehension of his accomplice Helmut Kulbeik who illegally crossed the border minutes before. Both Peter and Helmut were 18 years of age and—
. . . wait, Peter and Helmut. Panic came in the form of perspiration.
I searched frantically for a photo that did not show the bloody scene. Something, anything that showed his face, but I could not find it.
Yes, they were both eighteen and colleagues in the same construction company. I needed to sit down. My mind was already spinning. I knew in my heart it was the boys I had just met. The ones I’d seen less than a week ago . . . alive, breathing, and talking. Why didn’t they wait? Why didn’t they plan better? I felt my face heat up and bobble between anger and sadness. Why do so many have to die in such desperate desires for independence, for family, for choice . . . and way too young?
I thought of my brother Josef, now twelve years old. He was growing up without a mother, father, or now his sister. Would he forget me? Will he remember the games we played or the walks we took? What about the times he would fall asleep curled up in my lap on the couch while I read Storm’s Immensee at night?
I am not much younger than Peter, and Peter had just begun to live. He had his whole life in front of him, and now it’s gone. Will I die young too? Die, before I see my brother and Anton again?
I had to believe there was a better way.