14 Escape to East-Berlin
14 ESCAPE TO EAST BERLIN
Looking back to this time convinces me that we are stupid to worry about an uncertain future when we have overcome so many insurmountable obstacles in our short lives. How can we possibly doubt the existence of forces beyond our understanding when we remember the challenges we have come through so far. It never came without a struggle, but we triumphed time and time again against the odds.
Our worry and stress is wasted on unimportant things which rob us of so much that is precious. I am certain there are tears in your eyes as you remember the trials we put ourselves through to find a place where we could be together. Let’s promise each other to live each day from now on as if it were our last.
Something inside us told us that there was meaning in what we felt. Looking back at it all, nothing would ever convince me to doubt the existence of something greater than us.
We are still poles apart on this question and I respect your loyalty to the goodness you found in the Church you grew up with, but my God is far from the one forced upon me by the Christian Brothers.
When you have children, you don’t want to admit that you don’t have a clue about God so you pay lip-service to what the Church tells them. You know adversity will eventually force them to search below the surface to find something, albeit nebulous, that will have value for them.
We parents know we have lost your trust on this because so many of our answers just didn’t stand up to your insightful questions. Thank you for showing us our ignorance. The holes you picked have allowed us to improve and become more tolerant people. We tried to teach you about God, but you have turned the tables on us.
“What God,” you asked, “would torture and damn anyone to Hell for all eternity, while we consider the death penalty inhumane? Would a loving God keep our unbaptized children away from us in Limbo? Would he turn his back on our gay children having chosen that path for them in the first place? Wouldn’t he forgive all those who overcome by sorrow, pain and depression took a hand in their own lives? Would his son really have ignored women in his choice of leaders even if that was normal in his day? Would he have started his mission by producing hundreds of litres of alcohol for relations who had already managed to drink the bar dry? Would he expect us to trust gospels word for us which were chosen at the expense of many others by men who willingly burned heretics and witches and eaten a good dinner afterwards?
Your questions have humbled us. We know less about God or his son than we thought. We have become more careful about what we believe and it is good so.
It isn’t easy to have the carpet pulled from under your feet by the people you love. We all crave a comfort zone and trying to hang onto it can be our downfall.
On his return to Dublin, Shaun felt lost. The compass was suddenly pointing in the opposite direction and he didn’t have a plan. By chance, he heard something about the GDR Society. They awarded one scholarship per year to Irish graduates to continue their studies in East-Berlin. It was a long shot, the ramifications of which he hadn’t even begun to think through, but he was desperate and this was a desperate solution.
“I have a great idea,” I wrote to you, deliberately underplaying the problems. “There is a scholarship for the GDR and I have applied for it.”
The invitation to the GDR Society came in early June. Sitting on the bus into the city, I didn’t feel especially optimistic, but I didn’t have a Plan B and I was sure that somebody as special as Magda wasn’t sitting at home every night pining away for me.
Shaun sat through a long, boring meeting and had already taken their silence as a sign of the worst when they surprised him by announcing that he had won the scholarship. He wanted to jump in the air and shout for joy, but the heavy atmosphere among so many serious Marxists dampened his reaction to a polite handshake and a speedy exit.
He rushed home, still in disbelief. He would be spending the next year as a student at the Humboldt University in Berlin, less than an hour from the Polish border. Granny and Granddad’s reaction was predictable. They could see no sense spending a year in a country many had risked their lives to escape from.
“I need to ring Poland,” he told them. “Don’t worry about the cost. I’ll pay it in full when the bill comes.”
Shaun had installed a phone and agreed to pay a year’s phone rental charges in advance just to have normal social contact.
Magda’s neighbour had the only phone on the block. He repeated the name Magda several times, when he heard the neighbour’s voice. The sound of a large dog barking in the background was suddenly broken by Magda’s voice. She changed quickly into German, when she recognised him.
“I’ll see you in Cracow in October,” he shouted down the line, trying to compete with the dog at the other end.
There was a pause.
“I got the scholarship,” he explained.
A longer pause followed and it was only the continual barking of the dog in the background which told him that the connection hadn’t been broken.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” she managed to say and then there was another awkward silence.
“I’ll write to you and explain everything,” he promised.
Bye, she answered as if she had been waiting for the excuse to hang up.
He felt embarrassed and humiliated in front of his parents who had obviously been listening in the other room. He had expected more and now he worried that she had met somebody. He had made no promises and made no demands.
“Are you that stupid?” he asked himself. “Do you think anyone that attractive is sitting at home every night reading your letters?”
Caragh would be far more difficult to face than his parents. The weekly squash games had extended into meetings in the city after lectures and before long he and Caragh were a couple again. They hadn’t talked about the split. She hadn’t asked, if he had any contact.
It was a taboo subject between them. She was having a bad year. The accommodation situation was getting on top of her. She sat in the car waiting for him after lectures, hating the idea of returning to the shared house.
Shaun had kept the news of the scholarship from Caragh for as long as possible avoiding meeting her all the week. They had arranged to go dancing the following Saturday and he knew he couldn’t cancel.
Brid, Caragh’s best friend would be there with her boyfriend. Liam, who was well over thirty, was tall and well built and enjoyed the bachelor-life. Shaun had always looked on him as a staunch ally in his efforts to avoid making definite commitments.
Shaun arrived late and pushed his way through a crowded bar, finding Caragh admiring a stunning engagement ring. Liam exchanged a meaningful grin with Shaun and sat silently making no comment as the two women continued to admire the ring. Brid was clearly over the moon and stressed several times that it was the most expensive ring in the shop.
Shaun congratulated both and pretended to be greatly impressed with the quality of the diamonds, while cursing secretly to himself.
“Maybe we could make it a double wedding Shaun.” encouraged Brid, as Caragh pinched her leg to get her to shut up.
Shaun looked in Liam’s direction for support, but saw his former ally fully enjoying his predicament.
“This round is on me,” Shaun proposed being happy to have the chance to escape.
He felt miserable and confused, knowing that his news would come as a great blow for Caragh. He wished in that moment that he had never met Magda and that he was free to say to Caragh what he knew she was waiting to hear. She deserved the best, but what he had to offer her was sympathy and self-sacrifice rather than the emotion he had felt with Magda.
“You were very quiet all the evening,” she probed as they drove home.
“I didn’t want to tell you earlier,” he admitted. “It just didn’t seem to fit in, but there’s news about the scholarship.”
He could see the blood draining from her face and he knew her well enough to be able to read her thoughts. He was tempted to say that he got the scholarship, but was turning it down, especially after the awkward conversation with Magda, but he knew that he would have to find out face to face or regret it for the rest of his life.
“I won the scholarship and I’m taking it,” he said knowing his words were as sharp as stab wounds.
The full story was out and he couldn’t take it back. There was a minute of absolute silence, as the bomb dropped.
“If you go to Germany, you will never come back to me,” she prophesised.
“A year passes quickly,” he argued without conviction.
“I’m not just talking about the scholarship,” she probed.
“If you go away for a year, you won’t be coming back to me,” she repeated.
“I’m not going to stay in East Germany,” he scorned.
She held the tears back until they got into the house and they stood together just inside the living room door. He couldn’t look into her eyes. He buried her head into his chest, feeling the warmth of the tears on his shirt. She sobbed her heart out and he hated himself for the conflict that was raging within him. One voice told him to make her happy and another told him to remain hard or cause more pain in the long run.
“What would you say, if we were to get engaged?” he heard himself asking.
“Do you mean it?” she asked, her big eyes looking up at him.
He kissed her on the lips and tried to enjoy the sudden happiness his words had brought about.
He spent the next few days thinking about his future life with Caragh. They would scrimp for the next year or two to put a deposit together for a small terraced house in Clondalken . Christmas and Easter would be spent in Galway together with her family. They could maybe even look forward to a few weeks in the Greece or Spain each summer. He would be the envy of Drimnagh, but that was totally lost on him at that moment.
In fact, he was hopelessly lost, but he hoped that events would sort themselves out and he would just fall into the outcome. The year away would give him time to sort his head out.
After a year in East Berlin he would be able to accept his lot with thanks. He would learn to appreciate Caragh from the distance and she would count the days until he returned.
He tried to imagine Magda but could only see her preparing to go out with a tall handsome young man. Would she keep him hidden when he visited her in Cracow or would she tell him not to come at the last minute?
No matter what, he would see it through. Cracow would be another Berlin. This time he would have to share her with a Pole instead of a German, but like Berlin every minute in her company would become a treasured memory. He would get to know her surroundings and her family. He would walk with her, arm in arm, through the streets of Cracow and store up every secret moment in his heart forever.
She would send him black and white pictures of their time together and he would store them secretly in a tin box, which he would take out on some black day in the distant future. Their time would pass quickly, as it had in Berlin. Then he would return to Dublin and do the right thing and nobody would ever guess what torment lay inside him.
A bearded young man in his late twenties was sent by the Friendship League to meet Shaun at Friedrichstrasse. He was surprised not to be greeted by someone in a blue FDJ shirt.
“Are you Shaun Mosely?” he asked, in reasonable English for somebody who had never spent a day in an English speaking country. “Welcome to the GDR. My name is Gert. I’m taking you to the student hostel.”
They walked in silence and boarded a train which took them past Alexander Platz and on to Janowitz Bridge. Shaun looked out over the Spree and remembered that last afternoon. The sun shone in a hazy sky, the little harbour had lost the magic of that afternoon with Magda in his arms.
The alarm sounded and the train doors closed automatically. He turned backed from the window and smiled a sad smile towards the drab bearded man beside him and looked up at the miserable faces of shabby passengers jammed together in front of the exit.
“The next stop is ours,” Gert informed him, standing up to make for the door.
Shaun grabbed his luggage in haste and followed. The square in front of Berlin East Station was surrounded by tall grey concrete buildings, each one as ugly as the next. The oppressive drabness of his new surroundings was uninspiring.
Gert stopped briefly outside the twenty two storey student hostel and signalled for Shaun to follow. Shaun was already pumping with sweat, trying to guide a large suitcase over uneven ground. Gert stood already at the reception by the time he pushed his way through the glass doors. He was already holding the key in his hand when Shaun reached him.
“You’re on the fifth floor,” he informed.
The lift stank of something unknown to Shaun’s memory-bank of bad smells, but it was definitely toxic. Gert didn’t seem to notice, proving how accustomed one becomes to even the worst smells. The corridors had faded, patterned linoleum. The walls were stained and devoid of decoration and the doors were badly scratched and chipped.
Gert opened the outside door of the flat with the key, finding that each of the inner doors also needed a key which he didn’t have.
“Is anyone at home?” he shouted several times, but nobody answered.
He cursed and looked impatiently at his watch.
“My wife won’t be happy if I arrive late for dinner,” he complained.
He ran at one the doors, applying force to the point where the lock blocked the door from opening. Had the door been of any quality, his efforts would have been in vain, but it gave on the first attempt. They found themselves in a large room with four unoccupied sets of bunk beds. There was a movement in one of the other rooms. Gert went and knocked but nobody came to the door.
“The League will be in touch,” he assured offering Shaun his hand.
Shaun sat on the edge of one of the four bunks and stared down at the cold linoleum. It reminded him of the shabby floor tiles in his Tallaght school, except that they were even uglier. A bare pillow and duvet lay folded on each mattress. He had read the information about the bed linen at reception and knew that towels and covers were only available every second Tuesday.
He stared through the window, across a neglected green to the other side of the square: A soulless, grey office block was topped by a huge sign which read “Neues Deutschland” in dreary white neon letters. Now he knew where the world’s most boring newspaper was published.
The door opened quietly in the next room and Shaun went to investigate. A small Asian-looking youth disappeared into the bathroom. The youth had seen him, but made no attempt to acknowledge his presence, closing the bathroom door as quickly as possible behind him. Shaun waited at his door, until the youth reappeared.
“Hi, I’m Shaun,” he said offering his hand.
The youth looked fearful. He looked at Shaun’s outstretched hand, but continued back into his room. The door had been opened only very slightly, but Shaun could see a number of Asians of similar build sitting on bunk beds.
Just as Shaun was about to return to his room the door opened again and another Asian approached and introduced himself as Jin Jong.
“We are from North Korea,” he informed Shaun proudly.
“That’s interesting,” Shaun replied, lost for words, “I’ve never met anyone from North Korea.”
Shaun spotted the badge showing an effigy of Kim il Sun on the youth’s lapel.
“I hope we get a chance to get to know each other,” Shaun encouraged.
“That would be very nice.” the youth agreed automatically without any hint of enthusiasm in his voice and within a few seconds Shaun was standing alone in the corridor again.
Now he understood why the whole apartment stank of rice and fried fish. However, the smell which was to confront him when he opened the bathroom door was much worse. Nothing would convince him that the toilet had ever been cleaned and he had no intentions of standing in the bath until he had bought every possible cleaning agent. He felt something cracking under his foot and bent down to discover the remains of a large black cockroach.
The sun had long disappeared by the time he unpacked and he decided to explore the surroundings just to break the boredom. A cold breeze blew pungent fumes into his face. They spewed from the exhausts of heavy old trucks and small inefficient Trabbis. Nonetheless, even the polluted air of the Karl Marx Allee was preferable to what the student hostel had to offer. He feared that every piece of clothing he possessed would soon reek of stale fish or be infested with cockroach larvae.
He sat alone at a small table near the window of Restaurant Budapest and looked out at Saturday evening in East Berlin. He had no picture of Saturday evening in Cracow, sixteen hours away, but he doubted that Magda was sitting alone.
In Dublin, he imagined Caragh thinking of him, wishing he was by her side.
“I am an idiot,” he told himself. “What force has taken possession of me? I am miserable and all who love me are miserable because of a stranger who has moved on.” He thought of all the pseudo-communists, who would envy him the adventure East Germany presented, and he was ready to swap with any of them.
The following week, he was moved to a two bed room in a smaller apartment, on the other side of the corridor. He shared it with Roland, whom he was warned by other students not to trust.
Despite the numerous warnings regarding Roland, he turned out to be an accommodating, courteous roommate, who made the business of sharing a small room, as agreeable as possible. Shaun never learned if there was any truth to the nasty rumours about him being a rat, but he didn’t intend propagating Capitalism so he was prepared to give Roland the benefit of the doubt.
The other room in the apartment was occupied by three Poles and he was soon socialising with them and a larger group of Polish friends. They often visited concerts at the Schauspielhaus, where the opulence added to the excitement which he always felt at classical concerts. The beauty was all the more impressive, when judged against the general gloom of the East. The various theatres such as the Volksbuhne and the Deutsches Theater gave them the opportunity to enjoy plays at very affordable prices.
Shaun avoided political themes when speaking with East Germans. Coming from the West, he was expected to have warped ideas, but East German students had to measure their words. The warmth of the welcome on one particular evening had him mistakenly assume he could speak more openly than usual.
“How do you feel about being kept behind a wall, when other Eastern-Europeans can go wherever they want?” he asked bluntly.
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. Shaun was about to apologise for asking such a question, when one of the students ventured an answer.
“How do you think we feel? We can’t even go to Poland now because of Solidarity and when we go to Hungary we are treated like second class citizens.”
He hadn’t said anything, which anyone else in the room didn’t feel, but he had said it. His girlfriend pulled him away, unable to hold back the tears. The others stood up and took their leave in silence. Recognising the line between good acquaintances and trusted friends was a vital skill.
Shaun returned home with a student from his hostel, regretting his stupid question during what had otherwise been a lovely evening. Jorg broke the silence, as the S-Bahn left the small suburban station.
“We have everything we want here,” he whispered, “and things are bound to improve in the future. We are sure of a job, a good health service and the good standard of living. You can’t compare us with those unfortunate Koreans you shared with. People think they are unfriendly, but they are just terrified of each other.”
“When I first came to the hostel,” he explained,” there was a chatty, good-looking one, who talked openly with a girl from my year. One day a big black limousine arrived from the embassy. He was dragged out of the room and that was the last we saw of him.”
“What about tonight?” Shaun asked.
“You weren’t brave enough to give an honest answer to the question I asked.”
Jorg smiled : “There are some questions you learn not to ask and others you learn not to answer.”
Everyday life at the university was difficult to come to terms with. On the positive side, one was free to decide which lectures or seminar groups to attend and there was a special orientation course for Western students. This allowed the small number of western students to come into contact. Most of these, like Shaun, were more than critical of the GDR authorities and the limitations on freedom. A small minority held onto their extreme Marxist views, despite their exposure to the raw socialist reality. It only added to their credibility as career Marxists when they returned to the comfort of the West.
The highly politicised style of lecturing was the hardest aspect of university to come to terms with. On his first day he presumed he had strayed into a lecture on Marxism Leninism by mistake, but decided to sit it out anyway. It was close to the end by the time he realised that it was actually a lecture about Goethe. This was not the way he wanted to remember Goethe and within a few weeks he was opting for an early morning swim rather than another fruitless morning at the university.
Finding a theme for a master’s thesis in this environment was not going to be easy. The idea of having a master’s was appealing, but he just couldn’t motivate himself. He attended some seminars in the hope of coming across critical GDR writers like Plenzdorf or Braun, but the whole focus seemed to be on Science Fiction which avoided current issues.
Shaun mentioned Volker Braun to Jorg, and he told him to read Christa Wolf if he really wanted something critical. Undaunted, Shaun searched book stores in the hope of finding even one of Braun’s books, but without success. Finally, it dawned on him that publishing critical East German writers for Western readers created the false impression that the state was open to reform. On the ground, the true situation was very different.
His real reason for studying was to visit Magda as often as possible, but to organise anything involved queuing for permission and sitting for hours in the Polish Embassy when you had the paperwork ready. He also had to admit a fear of what he would find in Cracow.
West Berlin had been too prefect to be true. He would meet a colder Magda in Cracow and return depressed and defeated. Nonetheless, he knew he had to go and find out. He couldn’t keep his life on hold forever.
From the outside, it looked like he was enjoying life to the full. He went drinking with Jorg and some of his German friends. Anne, an Oxford graduate often called in and they went for a beer or shared a bottle of wine and criticised everything about East Germany.
Just a few weeks in the GDR had convinced him that western democracy, for all its faults, was heaven in comparison. A Hungarian girl called to practice her English once a week. She flirted endlessly and he couldn’t say he found her unattractive, but his life was already complicated enough and so he found strength to withstand temptation despite his lonliness.
An attractive Russian student invited him to join a Russian tour group for a week. Helene earned extra money as a tour guide and she did he best to pass him off as her apprentice. He was extremely grateful for the opportunities she made possible at some risk to herself. He knew that even the smallest things in the GDR could be blown out of all proportion. He knew there was little rish for him, but different rules applied to students from socialist countries.
The Liga did eventually get in touch as Gert had promised. Ironically, they were housed in what had originally been Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry. The huge building on Otto-Grottowahl Strasse was overwhelming as the architect had intended. It had a direct view of the wall and the panorama of West Berlin which lay behind it. The sharp straight lines or unadorned windows conveyed a cold unbending Nazi strength, which was not out of place in the East-Germany of the mid- eighties.
The western students were cordially welcomed in the huge marble lobby and led to a lecture hall where an officer from the Volksarmee (People’s Army) explained that the GDR had built a wall to protect its citizens in 1961. No time was left for questions.
Then they were taken to the Brandenburg Gate, which marked the only opening in the Berlin Wall.. A check-point stopped East-Germans from approaching within a hundred metres of the gate itself.
The bus, clearly marked with the insignia of the Liga, stopped briefly at the check-point and proceeded right up to the Brandenburg Gate. Few East Germans had been this close since 1961. They were directed into the small room in the gate and presented with a commemorative plaque to mark their visit.
After a short talk from the officer in charge they climbed onto a podium alongside the wall. They stood at eye level with those a few metres away in West Berlin. Those on the west side must have thought they were sons and daughters of important communist officials. Shaun could gauge the hostility from the spectators on the western side as the group mounted the podium on the eastern side.
Another day, the Russian girl invited Shaun to go with her to Karlshorst. The area was known for its huge Russian military base. He had never been there and was quick to agree.
A bitterly cold wind howled, as they crossed the city by tram. Shaun felt he could have almost passed as a Russian. He had just purchased his first pair of winter boots and Helene had given him a Russian hat which one of her tourists had left behind.
She invited him for a coffee in a Russian cafe and they drank a small glass of vodka before facing the cold again. He listened to her Russian, as she chatted with a woman she recognised at the next table and regretted not having persevered with his Russian lessons after college.
They crossed the road with the snow blowing into their faces and before he knew what was happening, a Russian soldier was checking her identity papers. The soldier waved them both passed and Shaun found himself inside the Russian base. He looked at her in alarm.
“Don’t be such a coward,” she chided, “nobody will notice. Just read a magazine when I go to the doctor and say nothing.”
The time waiting was like an eternity. A huge weight lifted from his shoulders when they had cleared the gate again and stood on the outside.
He wrote regularly to Caragh telling her about his strange experiences. The letters he received were sad and depressing. They were filled with problems at school and the constant search for somewhere better to live and someone to share with. He promised to return for Christmas and spend a week over New Year with her.
Finally, he had the papers ready to go to the Polish Embassy for a visa. He needed to have a clear mind when he met Caragh during the Christmas holidays. He would make Christmas the most wonderful reunion with Caragh and put this madness out of his head forever.
He had just returned from the Polish Embassy when he picked up a letter from Caragh at reception.
Things have been awful without you. I don’t know how I can go on. I’m sharing a house with an alcoholic in his fifties and a young girl who is hardly ever there. I’m frightened to be in the house alone with him. The landlord isn’t prepared to do anything. Like the rest of that scum, he’s just interested in his rent..
School is just getting on top of me. I can’t sleep and I’m exhausted before the day starts. What I want to say is that it’s not working without you. You are the only one who cares and you are far away.
I’ve thrown caution to the wind and booked a flight to Berlin. The Principal knows. He thinks it’s a good idea. He even suggested which doctor to go to for the sick cert. I’ll be arriving on Saturday week at 17.00. Please don’t leave me standing at the border.
Caragh’s letter left me in a state of shock. Things must have been really bad for her to decide to come to East Berlin. I was a lousy boyfriend. I had lied to her and run off, leaving her to cope on her own. She deserved a really special time. It was a chance to make up for the nightmare she was going through.
West Berlin had been such a long time before. Only God knew what had happened since then. It would serve me right to find out Magda was engaged, but at least it would set me free and allow me to be the person Caragh needed me to be.
A little over a week later, Shaun stood at the border crossing in Friedrichstrasse. Heavily laden pensioners emerged through the doors at regular intervals. The authorities allowed them visit West Berlin once they had retired.
A visibly worn Caragh appeared through the steel doors, looking nervous and disoriented. Seeing her again should have made him feel the same way he had, each day, when he had met Magda in Berlin. What he felt was a mixture between sorrow and guilt which left him empty and filled with self-loathing.
He put his arms around her and squeezed her, kissing her on the lips. She searched for something in his eyes, something that he couldn’t fake. It felt strange sitting beside her in the S-Bahn, especially when the train stopped at Janowitzbrucke and he resented her suddenly for intruding on a side of his life which he had locked away from her.
Caragh’s appearance at the hostel was greeted by looks of surprise. Roland had offered to move in with the Poles next door and leave them alone. The Poles were confused, having only heard about Magda. They wondered about this Irish stranger arriving unannounced.
I tried to hide my guilt with frantic activity. I filled the days with museums and the evenings with concerts and restaurants. We ate pig’s feet and sauerkraut at the oldest pub in Berlin and sipped champagne at the Schauspielhaus. The days passed quickly and I managed to avoid the occasion for real conversations.
I found that I wasn’t bad as a tour guide and I had left the highlight for the final evening. I thought I would be clever, and manage to kill two birds with one stone: The memory of that terrible night on the boat with Brian and his Worker’s Party friends would be rewritten. I had longed for Caragh’s company on that evening and now I would experience it with someone warm and loving and it would convince me that I would be an idiot to throw it all away.
Even the normally gloomy East Germans were in high spirits that last evening. The romantic atmosphere left Caragh with the reassurance she had come for. Shaun wanted to take her in his arms and swing her around and around, but there wasn’t enough space.
They stood on the dance floor almost motionless as the band beat out the last number. Shaun embraced Caragh so tightly that she could barely breathe. She didn’t resist. It was as if they knew it was their last dance.
The music played out and the queue formed at the cloakroom, but they stayed motionless on the dance floor. They walked through a hushed East Berlin in the early hours of the morning, taking a taxi the last part of the way. They held tightly onto one another in silence on the bunk until the day broke and light filtered through the gaps in the curtain.
“I love you,” he lied as they stood back where he had collected her. “Don’t let things get you down,” he persuaded. “You won’t feel it until Christmas and we will have a really lovely time together.”
She waved one last time with tears in her eyes and turned slowly away. Lonliness and doubt overwhelmed him as he turned towards the train. He knew what he had to do if he were ever to find peace.