Excerpts for Escape to West Berlin

Escape to West Berlin
"I KNOW THE TWO OF YOU CAN'T GO, but I can go by myself," I whispered.
I was standing at our living room window, looking out at the dull, rainy East Berlin evening and rehearsing the words I'd say to my parents. "You have no idea how much I look forward to going every year!"
I frowned. Those words didn't adequately describe the way I felt about our visits to my step-grandfather's farm. I loved every minute of every day there: sitting up in bed and watching the sun rise; having eggs, milk, fresh bread, and real butter for breakfast; helping Oma, my grandmother, work in the garden while she told me stories of her life during the war; riding Marta, Opa Fritz's gentle old horse.
My parents and I had gone to the farm every August that I could remember. But this August wecouldn't go, because Mutter's doctors said that my new brother or sister would be born then.
Until last night, we had still planned to go to the farm. If the baby came early, Mutter had reasoned, old Dr. Klein in nearby Alt Mittelheim could deliver it. He was a friend of Oma and Opa Fritz's, and he'd delivered most of the young people on their farm cooperative. My parents liked and trusted him. But yesterday we had gotten a letter from Oma saying that Dr. Klein had suffered a stroke and couldn't work anymore. If the baby came early, Mutter would have to go to another town, farther away, to a doctor she didn't know. She and Vater had talked it over and finally, late last night, decided to cancel our trip. "I'm sorry, Heidi," Mutter had said. "We'll go next year." I'd replied, "Yes, Mutter," then cried into my pillow half the night. I didn't want my mother to be in any danger--but how could I bear not to go to the farm?
This morning I'd awakened with a brilliant idea in my head: I could go alone! "After all, I'll turn thirteen next week," I'd said excitedly to my best friend, Petra Hansen, "and I know where to change trains."
Petra had been skeptical. "My parents would never let me travel alone," she'd replied, shaking her head. Nevertheless, she had helped me list the reasons Mutter and Vater should let me go, and coached me as I practiced the speech I'd make to them tonight at dinner.
"Is it still raining, Heidi?" my mother asked, coming into the living room. Usually she was slender, like me, but these days she waddled like a duck on the Spree River.
"It's drizzling," I replied, lifting my dark, heavy hair. In this heat, it clung to the back of my neck like damp wool. I'd thought of cutting it short, but Petra said that it made me look like Jackie Kennedy, the American President's wife. Jackie Kennedy was the most glamorous woman we knew of, except maybe for my aunt Adelheide, Vater's younger sister, who lived in Munich, West Germany, and was an airline stewardess for Pan American Airlines. I was named for her.
Mutter picked up a magazine and fanned herself with it. "I wish we'd have one good storm that would cool things off instead of this constant rain. I think your father's right: July 1961 will go on record as the hottest-ever month in Berlin."
"Maybe so," I said thoughtfully. That was another reason for me to go to Opa Fritz's farm, I thought. It would be much cooler there than in the city. "Mutter, I have something important to ask you and Vater over dinner."
"Sounds mysterious." She smiled. "Do I get a hint beforehand?"
"No. I want to ask you both at once."
"Okay. Your father should be home any time now.Would you set the table, please? Little Franzi wants me to put my feet up for a minute."
Little Franzi was what we were calling the baby. If it was a boy, his name would be Franz Dieter, for Vater and his father, who'd died in World War II; if it was a girl, her name would be Franziska Anne, for Vater and Mutter.
I went into the kitchen and got three blue-flowered plates out of the cupboard. They were part of a set that had belonged to Mutter's family. Mutter had told me that during the war she and her mother had packed the china and other breakables in straw-filled barrels and left them in the basement of their Berlin home while the family went to stay with cousins in the safer countryside. They'd come back to find their house partly destroyed by bombs, but the breakables were still nestled in the straw, waiting for the war to end.
When I crossed the hall to the living room to set the plates on the table, I saw that Mutter wasn't putting her feet up. She was standing at the living room window just as I had been, holding the lace curtain aside so she could see the street below.
"Is Vater coming?" I asked her.
"Not yet. You know how he forgets the time when he's working on cars."
I nodded, but I could see the worry lines in her forehead. Did she think something might have happenedto Vater? I knew that she worried about his working across the border in West Berlin. I worried, too.
In school, we had learned why Berlin was divided into East and West. Back in 1945, when Germany lost the war, the four main winners divided it up: the Soviet Union took East Germany; the United States, Great Britain, and France took West Germany. Even though Berlin was in the middle of East Germany, it was split the same way: East Berlin was given to the Soviet Union; West Berlin, to the others.
Since then our leaders had been making East Germany, and East Berlin, into an ideal socialist society modeled on the Soviet Union: the government owned all the farms, factories, and stores, and in return gave everyone a job, low rent, and free schools and hospitals. Someday, when the system had been perfected, we would all share equally and live in peace and prosperity. But, as our leaders often said, it took time to build an ideal society. Meanwhile, the East was poor and shabby. Many people were growing impatient and leaving--even though they knew they'd be imprisoned if they got caught, since leaving the East was forbidden. Many other people, like Vater, were "border crossers," who had jobs over in wealthy West Berlin instead of here.
Just last week I had heard one of our governmentleaders give a speech on the radio about the border crossers. "They take the benefits we provide, yet they're also earning high salaries working in the West!" he'd shouted. "We will soon be forced to take severe measures against them!" I didn't know what "severe measures" were, but after hearing that speech, I'd begun to worry about Vater.
"Your father probably had a last-minute customer," Mutter said. I wasn't sure whether she was trying to convince me or herself. "Hurry and finish setting the table. He'll be hungry when he gets home."
I brought out the glasses and flatware, and set three places at the table. I hoped our government wouldn't make Vater quit his job. He'd worked at Heinrich Sterns's Auto Shop from the time the war ended, before anybody knew that it would someday cause trouble to live in East Berlin and work in West Berlin. He was such a talented mechanic that many customers asked for him. "Herr Klenk knows what's wrong with a car just by listening to it!" one man had raved. Vater liked Herr Sterns and the men he worked with, and he often told us how modern and well stocked the shop was.
While I was putting out the napkins, cutting board, and bread knife, the mantel clock on the living room shelf struck seven. Bong-bong, it said in deep, important tones. Like the china plates, it had spent the war packed in Mutter's family's basement. When itbonged, I liked to pretend that it was saying my family's names.
First came "Karl Franz!" and "Anne-marie!" for my parents, then "Hei-di!" for me. After our names came "Frie-drich!" for Opa Fritz, "So-phie!" for Oma, and "Adel-heide!" for my aunt. Next was "Die-ter!" for Oma's first husband, Vater's father, who'd been killed in the last days of the war, when the young boys and old men had been the only ones left to fight. If I was awake at midnight, I'd also "hear" the names of my other relatives who had died before I was born: Mutter's father and three brothers, who, like Opa Dieter, had been killed in the war, and her mother, who had died of cancer. Soon I would have to add "Fran-zi!" for the baby. But where? I already had twelve people.
Just as the seventh bong-bong, the one for Opa Dieter, was fading away, Mutter turned from the window.
"He's here!" she cried, her face glowing with relief and happiness. "He's coming up the walk. Unlock the front door so he doesn't have to stand out in the rain."
I ran into the entryway and pressed the button that unlocked the door to our building. Then I opened our apartment door and listened to Vater whistling as he came upstairs.
I loved that moment, I thought, when Vater got home and we were all together.
Mutter pushed past me with her baby-stomach and stood in the doorway. "Karl Franz, you're late!"
He said, "I stayed to talk to Heinrich Sterns."
I saw Mutter raise her eyebrows and Vater nod. What was that about? I wondered.
After Vater got inside, my parents exchanged a hug and kiss, then Vater winked at me. "Heidi, are you too grown-up to say hello to your father?"
"Well, not quite," I teased. I gave him a kiss, the way I always did. Unlike Mutter, who was nearly as tall as Vater, I had to stand on my tiptoes to do it. His black hair and blue workshirt smelled of the auto shop. I liked the smell because it was his.
Once the door was closed, I asked, "You didn't have any trouble with the border police, did you? Coming home?"
"No, none at all. Were you worried?"
"A little," I confessed.
"Well, don't worry anymore." He grinned as we went into the living room. "The government might not like my working in the West, but they can't stop me. It isn't illegal. Now tell me, how is your first week of summer vacation going?"
"Fine." I added happily, "No more school until the first of September! That's still more than a month away."
Vater said, "I'm sorry we can't go to the farm this year. You won't get bored staying home, will you?"
"It depends," I replied slowly. "I've thought of something I want to do on my vacation. I'll tell you and Mutter about it over supper."
"We'll be all ears," he promised, and went to wash up.
I poured orange soda into our glasses while Mutter set the food on the table: canned sausage, canned beets, half a loaf of bread, a small block of cheese, and sliced tomatoes from our garden plot. Hooray for our garden, I thought gratefully. Without the tomatoes, this would have been just another sacrifice-for-tomorrow supper.
That was what I called the meager meals we often had, because our government leaders said the food shortage was one of the sacrifices we were making for a better tomorrow. I tried to be patient, and I was proud of helping to build our new society--but it was hard to eat our dreary little meals when just over in West Berlin you could get oranges and bananas and bottles of Coca-Cola. Occasionally we were able to sneak something across the border to bring home, but if we got caught, the East German border guards would take it away. "Probably so they can eat and drink it themselves," Petra often grumbled.
After we'd sat down, Vater sliced the loaf. We alltook some bread, and cheese, and sausage, and helped ourselves to the tomatoes and beets. As we ate, Vater told us about his day: he'd figured out a tricky problem with a carburetor; he'd gotten to service a gorgeous new Mercedes; and he'd had to scold Arno, the apprentice, for hiding a rubber snake in the new bookkeeper's desk drawer and making her scream. Finally he said, "What were you going to tell us about your vacation, Heidi?"
I put down my fork, cleared my throat, and began reciting the words I'd rehearsed: "I know the two of you can't go to Opa Fritz's. But I love the farm, and I'll die if I can't go there this year!" I reminded them that I'd be thirteen next week and that I'd gone to the farm every summer of my life.
"But you've always gone with us. You can't be thinking of traveling all the way to Alt Mittelheim by yourself," Mutter protested.
"I can certainly go alone." If I hadn't been trying to sound reasonable and grown-up, I would have stamped my foot in frustration. "I know exactly what to do. Listen: I get on the train here at the East Berlin station. It's number fifty-four, it's called the Vindobona, and it leaves at nine-oh-eight every morning. Here are the towns it goes through: Zossen, Uckro, Doberlug-Kirchhain, Elsterwerda, Grossenhain, Radebeul, Dresden."
My parents looked surprised that I knew so much.
I continued. "When I get to Dresden, I catch the train to Tharandt. I get off in Freital and take the local train to Alt Mittelheim. When I get there, I wait at the station for Opa Fritz to come. I mustn't leave my raincoat on the train, I mustn't talk to strangers, and I must always cooperate with the transport police."
Vater laughed. "Very good!"
I nodded eagerly. "See? I can do it. And I won't go until the middle of August, when you're on vacation. That way Mutter won't be alone all day."
"I don't know, Heidi," Mutter said. "What if you got sick? Or what if you went to sleep and didn't get off the train in Dresden? You'd end up in--"
"Vienna, Austria," I supplied promptly. "That's the end of the line for the Vindobona. But I wouldn't get that far. The border police would wake me up and throw me off the train at the Czech border."
My parents looked at each other. Their eyes asked, "Shall we let her go?"
Then Vater turned to me and shook his head. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. Another time it would be all right, but we have too much on our minds now, with the baby coming."
I swallowed hard and looked down at my plate.
"Besides," Vater continued, "things are tense in East Germany. Thousands of people have fled West thissummer, because of the food shortage over here and the government's threats to us border crossers. I've heard there are four times as many transport police as usual on the trains and subways, to try to catch people who are defecting to the West."
"But I wouldn't be defecting. Why would they bother me?"
"They're bothering everybody. It isn't a good time for you to go alone."
"Your father is right," Mutter said. "We'd worry about you the whole time."
I had one more argument, the one Petra had thought was the best. "Oma said in her last letter that she's worried about Opa Fritz's heart. What if he--I mean, what if something happens and I never get to see him again?"
Vater merely said, "Oma has always been worried about Opa Fritz's heart. Even Dr. Klein couldn't get him to slow down or take the heart medicine he needs. Opa Fritz is in no more danger now than he's been in for years." He brightened. "I'll tell you what. After the baby's born, you and I can go to the farm for a weekend. How will that be?"
"Fine," I murmured. Going for a weekend wouldn't be a real vacation.
"Heidi--" Mutter began.
"It's all right," I said quickly. If we kept talking about the farm, I'd burst into tears.
We were quiet for the rest of the meal. When we'd finished eating, I helped Mutter clear the table, then went to my tiny bedroom, which opened off the living room.
Max, my stuffed toy gorilla, smiled sweetly at me from his perch on my pillow, and I picked him up and hugged him. He had been mine since my fifth birthday, when Oma and Opa Fritz had given him to me. He knew all my secrets. He saw all the hairstyles I tried in front of the mirror, he watched me experiment with Mutter's makeup, he heard me swear under my breath whenever I had trouble with my homework, and he knew how much I liked rock-and-roll music. He even knew that I still had nightmares about swimming because I had almost drowned last June. Sometimes, like now, he saw me cry.
"It's not fair, Max," I whispered bitterly. "I didn't ask for a brother or sister, but I'm getting one, anyway, and it's ruining everything. We can't go to the farm, and we never get to go to the movies or spend weekends in the garden cottage anymore. Besides, I'll have to share my room, and there's hardly enough space in here for me."
I smoothed the top of Max's head. I had been cryingon him so much lately I was almost surprised his fur wasn't growing, as plants do after it rains. The thought of his plush head-fur getting longer and longer made me laugh. "I'd have to trim it," I told him, "or you'd look like the hoodlums we see over in West Berlin."
His face seemed puzzled and a little hurt.
"Sorry, Max. I shouldn't laugh at you," I said. But I did feel better.
I brushed away a tear from my cheek. Then I put Max back on my pillow and turned on my radio, as I always did after supper. Evening was when I could tune in the Western European stations. I had to keep the volume low so our neighbors wouldn't hear. It was forbidden to listen to Western radio stations here in the East. Our government said they played indecent music and told lies about us. But I listened to them, anyway; I loved rock and roll, and the best songs were from America, England, and West Germany. Although I couldn't understand all the English words, I didn't think the songs were indecent. They were mostly about love and broken hearts. As for the lies, I didn't listen to the news broadcasts, and wouldn't have understood the ones in English.
I put my ear up close to the radio. My favorite station, the British one in Luxembourg, was still faint and filled with static, so I turned the dial to the American Forces Network in West Berlin. Unlike Radio Luxembourg,it didn't play the very newest hits, but the reception was better.
The tuning eye on the radio turned a strong bright green, and Elvis Presley crooned a ballad about being lonely. I wasn't crazy about Elvis: his tight clothes and smoldering eyes made me uneasy. Still, his deep, velvety voice soothed my anger and disappointment, and soon I started to feel better about not getting to go to the farm. After all, I thought, my parents were having a hard time. It couldn't be easy for Mutter to be having a baby after all these years, and Vater must be anxious about the severe measures the government was threatening to take against the border crossers. Besides, maybe once my parents had Little Franzi to care for, they would treat me as more grown-up. Already they were letting me go out more on my own, since Mutter often needed me to shop and run errands for her.
When Elvis had finished, I gave a big sigh and turned off the radio.
"I'll be back," I told Max, setting him on my pillow.
The television was on in the living room, but Mutter and Vater weren't watching it. I knew they were probably in the kitchen, having a private conversation. Often they turned on the television, then went into the kitchen and talked softly. That way, if they wanted to criticize the government or say other things that mightget them in trouble, the sound of the TV set would keep the neighbors from hearing them.
I crept into the entryway, next to the kitchen door. I was torn between wanting to respect my parents' privacy and wanting to let them know that I'd thought things over and understood why they didn't want me to go to the farm.
I had just decided to wait and talk to them later when I heard Mutter say, "Shall we tell Heidi?"
It was funny how such softly spoken words could hit you like a punch in the stomach. I stood as still as a statue, listening.
Vater was silent for a moment. "Not yet. Let's not burden her with it."
Mutter said, "All right. Now let's go watch TV and try to relax."
Quickly, before they saw me, I tiptoed back to my bedroom.
Burden me with what?
Copyright © 2004 by Maurine F. Dahlberg