EVERY MORNING, ABOUT HALFWAY into my daily jog along Gartenstrasse towards the old West Berlin district of Wedding, my feet pass over a double row of bricks set into the pavement. A metal plaque identifies this seam, which zigzags through the German capital, as the route of the former Berlin Wall. Turning onto Bernauer Strasse, I pass by the weathered gray slabs of the Wall itself and then encounter the cylindrical Reconciliation Chapel, built on the site of the old brick Reconciliation Church, which used to stand smack in the middle of the free fire zone between the two halves of the city and which the East German regime consequently dynamited in 1985. After working up a good sweat, I double back onto Strelitzer Strasse. There I catch a glimpse of a plaque marking this gray East Berlin house as the endpoint of the famous 1964 tunnel which, the sign notes, was shut down after a Stasi agent betrayed the escape route to his minders. A few minutes later I step into the shower and am soon ready to begin a normal working day.
And yet, I can remember a time when this routine jog would have been even less plausible than a non-stop sprint to Vladivostok. It was the summer of 1987. After spending a few weeks with my new East German girlfriend in Berlin, I headed back to the States to continue my graduate studies. As the weeks passed, our suspicion turned to fact: she was pregnant. And not just pregnant, we learned as autumn turned to winter, but pregnant with twins.
Now if you are like me, when you learn that you are about to become the father of East Berlin twins, your course of action is clear. Organizing our “escape” from the Honecker regime would preoccupy me for the next year – and for the rest of my life.
On my parents’ advice, I first contacted our US Senator. Days later, I was awakened from troubled dreams by a call from the State Department’s East Germany desk. The official there assured me that the government would help in any way it could, placing our names on a list of East German-American hardship cases that Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead would be presenting to Erich Honecker for quick action. Ever since then I have regarded this piece of paper as “Whitehead’s List.” It meant the difference between a virtually impossible escape for my new family over the Wall and an arduous but considerably safer exit through the front door.
The twins were born in April. I completed my master’s degree, applied for a renewable five-month, single-exit tourist visa, and flew to Germany in early June. As the plane soared over the Atlantic, I could practically feel my determination, which had been less than ironclad to begin with, leaking into my seat. How would this gambit play out? And while I was certain that I had made the right decision regarding my children’s lives, what about my own? Shouldn’t I turn back while I still had the chance?
On the plane from Frankfurt to Berlin, I was mistakenly assigned to the smoking section. Next to me sat an elderly German woman who lit up one cigarette after another. Just my luck, I thought. Once she noticed that I was a non-smoker, she apologized for my discomfort and we got to talking. She was impressed at my story and then she told me hers: As an “Aryan,” she had been married to a Jewish man when the Nazis came to power. For years she did everything she could to protect him, but eventually they ran out of options and he was duly shipped off to Auschwitz. After the war she left Berlin and on every return visit the memory of her loss nearly killed her. “Everyone needs one great love story in their life,” she told me. Her experience gave me the boost I needed to complete what I had put into motion.
Changing of the guard outside East Berlin's
"Monument to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism"
My remaining doubts vanished the moment I first beheld my beautiful six-week-old son and daughter in our tiny squatter flat in a prewar Prenzlauer Berg tenement. I soon contacted the US Embassy in Niederkirchner Strasse and submitted the twins’ birth certificates to the US consulate, which provided me with American birth certificates and passports for them. And yet, my illusions of playing the white knight and organizing a swift departure vanished just as quickly. The mere possession of passports did not mean they would be leaving the GDR any time soon. They were, after all, still citizens of the GDR, as was their mother, and the entire state apparatus had been designed to keep them that way.
My wife had already consulted a lawyer and filed an application for permission to marry in January, but since I was a foreigner we had to present the children’s birth certificates as the corpus delicti for state marriage permission. Then I had to adopt my own children. We loaded the twins up and rode the shrieking, clanging streetcar up to the sprawling borough council complex of Prenzlauer Berg. In a typically obscure example of GDR bureaucracy, we were allowed into this politically sensitive compound without showing any ID, but they did ask us to register our two baby carriages at the gate.
Once I had signed the necessary papers, my fiancée and I decided to walk over to the next building, a high security area under the control of the Stasi, and plunged into the warren of corridors and offices to check the status of the marriage permission. We reached the counter and my fiancée passed her ID through the slot. “Who’s this?” The desk officer stared right through me. “My family,” my fiancée replied. I showed him my passport. The moment the officer got hold of it, he pulled the curtain shut. A few minutes later, another man in a cheap tweed suit and with a Communist Party badge on his lapel charged out the steel door waving my passport in his hand. “The compound of the bureau council is solely for the use of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic!” this Stasi officer shouted. As I picked up the basket with two screaming babies and followed him to the gate, he added: “Your presence here represents interference in the internal affairs of another state!” He gave me a crisp salute at the gate, and I waited with the still screaming twins on the sidewalk until my fiancée returned. Success! The application for permission to marry had been approved in record time, with some help from the State Department and “Whitehead’s List.” Our next step was the marriage application itself. It will be a piece of cake, I thought.
This thought lasted about five minutes.
Communist era brochure touting
"Berlin, capital of the GDR."
Today, traffic on Leipziger Strasse is frequently
A sky without stars
The marriage registry office was located in the same building as the one where we took care of the “fatherhood recognition.” First, however, we had to get through the gate again. The gatekeeper at first refused to let me back in after watching me get thrown out by the Stasi man just minutes previously, but when we told her that we were there to get married, she finally shrugged her shoulders and let us through.
The tone of the two ladies who ran the registry office was at first gracious, but they soon started demanding documents from both of us. I was able to present my passport on the spot. The adoption papers for the children would be completed that afternoon. I also could present a valid birth certificate from the US, which I had had translated at the state-run “Intertext” office on Friedrichstrasse. All of this was no problem. The problem arose when the ladies demanded an “Ehefähigkeitszeugnis” from me. This was a “certificate of no impediment” to be issued by my “state” declaring that I was legally able to marry, i.e. that I was not already married, did not have any other children to support, and was not mentally ill, convicted of serious crimes, or in any other way prohibited from exercising my marital rights. It would supposedly protect my fiancée from ending up in a bigamous marriage abroad, but for now it kept her from getting married at all. In fact, no American institution – state, local or federal – can issue such a certificate, even if any agency actually tracked this information in the first place. While an American can prove that he is married, he cannot prove the negative, except by means of a sworn statement on his part saying as much. Our friendly bureaucrats, however, refused to believe me, assuring me that every country in the world issues such documents.
A few days later, the US consul, Mary Rose Brandt, furnished me with a standard sworn affidavit in which I affirmed that I was unmarried and never had been married, and was “legally free” to marry and care for a citizen of the GDR. The registry office rejected this affidavit twice, demanding a genuine “Ehefähigkeitszeugnis” from my local registry office in the Midwest, which would then need to be formally notarized by the GDR embassy in Washington. We were getting nowhere.
What might sound like a mere bureaucratic conundrum today represented a vast inconvenience to us back then, considering that public agencies in the GDR only opened their doors to the public on Tuesdays. Week for week, we had to lug our twins the entire distance from the suburban community of Zeuthen many miles to the south of Berlin, where we were spending part of the summer, on a cramped and stuffy urban train. There were no “helplines” to call, no authorities to appeal to. List or no list, the Stasi cast its shadow everywhere. The standoff lasted for six weeks. It was only resolved by a second affidavit from Ms. Brandt, displaying even more stamps and endorsements, which I then had notarized at the consular division of the GDR Foreign Ministry at Warschauer Strasse. The ladies at the registry office were still not pleased with what they saw, but they finally accepted this document on the basis of the Foreign Ministry stamp, which allowed them to shift responsibility to a different agency. However, they did not accept the document without registering their protest at the expression “legally free,” which they said implied that citizens of the GDR were somehow less free than other people.
This authorization came just in time, since we had already scheduled a full church wedding at the French Cathedral on Gendarmenmarkt (the former Platz der Akademie) in late August. A week beforehand we arrived at the registry office with our neighbors as witnesses to the civil ceremony. We had chosen the “non-socialist” marriage ceremony, so the ladies ushered us into a plain room with only a modest ceramic plaque displaying the seal of the GDR – no red flags, no busts of Lenin. There the same woman we had been feuding with for the past weeks formally joined us in matrimony, making only one ideological reference, namely to the Communist leader Ernst Thälmann, who was shot by the Nazis at Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944:
“’A life without love is like a sky without stars.’ Thus wrote Ernst Thälmann to his wife from prison.”
Words to live by.
Communist leader Ernst Thälmann, 1886-1944
Our wedding was the condition for actual permission to leave on the basis of “family reunification,” but even if we now had the permission, we could not have just left. First, my wife had to formally sign out of every organization she had ever belonged to and every service she had ever subscribed to. In a Communist state, that is a lot of organizations and services. A police official provided her with a “Laufzettel” or circulation slip that had to be signed and stamped by each institution. The literal translation is “running slip,” and it literally meant endless running around. My wife had to do everything in person and between four-hour feeding intervals, at whatever office hours the respective institutions offered for this service. Not all of them were gracious about it.
The move itself loomed. My wife had no intention of leaving the country like a refugee, “with just the shirt on my back,” as she put it. In fact, she was not eager to leave her homeland at all. (It was only years later, upon reading her Stasi file, that she learned that the secret police had been seriously considering sending this outspoken young theologian to prison for subversive acts and were delighted to be able to get rid of her so painlessly. Otherwise she might very well have gone to prison.) She insisted on taking along several crates of books, clothing, childrens’ things, and also a set of Wilhelmine furniture which her parents gave her as a wedding present. This meant many hours of typing book titles, authors, publishers, and publication dates – in triplicate – on reams of precious (used) paper and carbons that had been scrounged up by friends and family. An official antiques appraiser had to be arranged to approve the export of the furniture, a procedure that took about two minutes.
When you are packing up to move, you need something to pack your things into. I quickly learned that cardboard boxes were a valuable state asset in resource-poor GDR. You could not even buy them. The only way to “organize” boxes was to go out begging for them, from one friend or shop to the next. My wife succeeded in getting five at once from a local Prenzlauer Berg drugstore, but only after assuring the manager that our move was taking us to the United States and not to the ugly prefab housing estate of Marzahn on the east side of town.
The Marzahn pre-fab housing estate on the eastern edge
of East Berlin. Although widely disparaged today, the apartments
(which had central heating and elevators) were actually quite
popular at the time.
Just arranging all of this took weeks. It is easy to forget that this was not only an era without cell phones or the Internet. Possession of a simple telephone was a rare privilege, for which people had to wait up to ten years or more. (As our friends told us, the meager production of telephones was due not to purely technical problems but rather to the Stasi’s inability to listen in to all the conversations.) Our next-door neighbor had one, but since her two sons (who had “organized” it for her) were officers of the Stasi, we had to assume it was bugged and thus could only use it for the most innocuous of purposes. The only other option was to go down to our very supportive neighbors below, who did in fact have a telephone and did not care what the Stasi thought of them. But they, like so many other East Germans, had a so-called party line (two families sharing one connection) and could only use their phone when the other party was not using theirs. International calls were a special challenge. No one in the GDR could call overseas directly, and only a few public phones allowed you even to call to West Berlin. Instead, the state telecommunications office had to organize all international calls, and also notify the Stasi, which could take hours or days. This means that if I wanted to call my parents, I had to go downstairs to the corner payphone, call a friend in West Berlin who would then call my parents, who would in turn call me back at our friends’ apartment.
My parents could easily have booked a cheap flight for us from West Berlin back to the States, but East German regulations prohibited this. We were not allowed to exit the GDR to West Berlin or West Germany, but only from Schönefeld airport to a third country. For this reason we had to organize our flight via the official travel bureau on Alexanderplatz, where we waited in line for hours as two somnolescent travel agents processed some seventy-five prospective travelers. However, they were only authorized to book us flights on Eastern European airlines, which were all booked solid for months to come. Of course, we could not know for sure when we would be permitted to leave. In the end my parents organized a much more expensive flight for us on Sabena via Brussels in late November.
The pleasures of dictatorship
Throughout my life I have found that the best way to face a difficult situation is to regard it as an adventure. My six months in East Berlin qualified as both. By the fall I began to feel a certain nostalgia for the months I had already spent there and regretted leaving so soon. Throughout our travails we had made wonderful friends, including our next-door and downstairs neighbors, who regularly looked after our twins if we wanted to go out to an evening movie or play, and the old woman next door – the one with the two Stasi sons – who had lived in the tenement since 1937 and who always kept her eyes open for fresh yogurt and juice for us at the supermarket. We were offered a genuine taste of the “solidarity” socialism promised. (Today, in the new East Berlin, I do not even know my neighbors’ names.) I also came to understand the guilty pleasure of life in a dictatorship, a sort of private paradise that requires a wallet full of Western currency and access to the foreign currency shops, a passport allowing you to leave any time you want, and knowledge that your family’s name is on a government list protecting you from real harm. We drank genuine West German coffee every day and, at least part of the time, diapered our children in Pampers rather than in flimsy East German textile nappies. We were living the good life.
By Western standards, the privileges enjoyed by the GDR elite were modest, and included such trifles as being allowed to jump to the top of the waiting list for a primitive car and half a telephone line, having access to a few Western books and periodicals, and the possibility of an occasional business trip to the West. In a society where everyone else just struggled to maintain their dignity, even the tiniest advantage represented the East German equivalent of a mansion in Malibu. No wonder so many once-privileged intellectuals despised the new capitalist order that arrive in 1989, where only money counts.
The giant Lenin statue on East Berlin's Leninplatz.
It was removed in 1992 despite a large protest by neighbors and
Communist Party traditionalists
But East Berlin had a much deeper appeal to me. As a young writer and historian, who had just completed a master’s essay about the Weimar Republic, I was fascinated by our simple life in what certainly looked like Weimar Era Berlin. Where else could you ride a streetcar built in 1900 and an urban train built in 1936, all for just 20 pfennigs a shot? I look back at that Berlin as the “Golden Twenties” without the gold. In any case, our health care was free of charge, the rents were frozen at 1920s levels, food was subsidized, and you could buy first-rate theater tickets for a handful of change. So what if bananas were only available on prescription, if at all? For half a year, I comfortably supported a family of four in one of the world’s greatest cities for just two thousand Euros. Today I burn through more than that in less than a month.
To those readers who have a hard time understanding my attitude, just play this thought game for a moment: Imagine you could travel freely back to Depression-era New York City, and pay Depression-era rents and Depression-era prices, while retaining all the money and perks you have today, and you may start to see what I mean.
A classic Trabi (short for "Trabant" = satellite/sputnik).
Owning one of these babies was regarded as quite a privilege
in old East Germany. We were never so lucky.
But the idea of staying on any longer than necessary was pure fantasy. There were plenty of warning signs that our idyll could not last. These were not just the horror stories we heard on a daily basis from people desperate about their dead-end lives in a dying society where, as they used to say, you do not “live” but “are lived” by a brainless, decadent regime. I began feeling sorry for literally everyone, and that is a terrible thing to feel. We met one couple – he was from the West and she was from the East – who also wanted to leave and had not even made it past the first hurdle before the GDR authorities told them that if they persisted in asking for permission to marry, she would be sent to prison. Taking a walk through our neighborhood one morning I saw a man get hauled out of his apartment house by the police and thrown into a paddy wagon. Was he a political prisoner or just a common criminal, wanted for burglary or another conventional offense? I hoped it was the latter.
One evening in June we attended a performance of Schiller’s “Maria Stuart” at the Deutsches Theater. After the performance we noticed “inconspicuous” men in civilian clothes, slouching on street corners in groups of three, eyeing the passersby. The reason was no secret: somehow everyone knew that Michael Jackson was giving a concert in front of the Reichstag that evening, just a few hundred meters from where we were standing, but on the other side of the Wall. Curious to see how the East would respond, we wandered over to Unter den Linden, in plain view of the Brandenburg Gate. Hundreds, soon thousands of young people congregated to hear the music. The Stasi agents also multiplied and uniformed policeman began appearing at intersections. We never heard a note of music that night, but soon voices arose in the crowd calling “The Wall must go!” and “Gorbachev! Gorbachev!” Now the plainclothes Stasi men came alive. They hurled the young people to the ground, shouting “What did you say? What did you say?” and hauled them off by the collar into side streets where police vans were waiting to bundle them off to Stasi headquarters. (This was one of the first open demonstrations against Communist rule, presaging the mass demonstrations that brought the regime down in 1989.) Did we join in? We could not afford to be heroes that night. We thought of our infant twins asleep in their cribs and of our pending exit visa application and caught the next bus home.
West Berlin fans line up to see Michael Jackson in West Berlin.
East Berliners had no posters but relied on word of mouth.
On another evening, not long after our marriage, my wife and I were walking together near the Neptune Fountain on Alexanderplatz. I saw a little red book lying on the pavement and picked it up. It was a Hungarian passport with two hundred Deutsche Mark notes tucked inside. What to do? Perhaps we had grown overconfident because we naively hailed a nearby police officer, who took an immediate interest not only in the passport and money, but also – especially – in us. When he asked for our IDs, I already saw a night in jail ahead of us. Somehow we were able to convince him that we had forgotten our papers at home, and he then recorded my wife’s name and address. For weeks afterward we lived in terror of a nighttime knock on the door. It never came. Perhaps the mysterious Hungarian was just a harmless tourist after all and not part of some international intrigue. Or was it Whitehead’s list?
Our greatest worry, however, was the health of our son, who had been called back to Charité hospital for almost weekly blood tests. Each time, the doctors took him out of my wife’s arms and did what they said they had to do behind closed doors. Whatever it was, it involved drawing blood from the fontanel on the top of his head. We only heard the screams. The doctors claimed he had some sort of serious kidney disorder, although the medical records were supposedly “lost” in November of 1988 and then were shredded in 1989. It was only after Reunification that we heard the nightmare stories about illegal medical experiments on infants at the Charité, of illegal blood trafficking and stolen organs. Whatever his true condition was and whatever they were doing to him in that room, we knew that we had to get the family out of the country and into the hands of competent physicians without any more delay.
When we finally did get him to a children’s clinic in the States, the doctors there pronounced him perfectly healthy, and he has been ever since. We will never know what the Charité doctors wanted with him.
Through the front door
Our flight was just a week away, but there was still work to do. My wife needed an entrance visa to the US, but to get this the American authorities demanded that she take a tuberculosis test at an East Berlin hospital. We then had to get the results of this test back to the consulate, and then get the US entrance visa to the authorities on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg. Only then would she be granted the exit visa from the GDR. This sounds simple enough in theory, but it required getting hold of the medical report without letting it be sent through the East German foreign ministry first, which would have cost precious time and possibly even derailed the entire process. In addition, in a classic catch-22, my wife was prohibited from having any contact with the consulate, even though there was no other way for her to collect her visa. When the time came, the hospital refused to give her the test results and insisted on sending them to the foreign ministry and potential oblivion. Only with direct intervention by the consulate, which involved a lot of telephone calls and dispatching an agent directly to the hospital to pick up the results, was it possible to get hold of the results and also the entrance visa, which my wife then illegally picked up in person. Now we faced the wrath of the authorities. This was, after all, an offense punishable by prison. The officials groused about this renewed interference in their internal affairs and then merely kicked up a fuss about the absence of my wife’s new doctor title on the documents.
In-flight magazine of the East German airline Interflug (1981).
Another prestigious institution gone with the wind...
At dawn on the morning of November 25, 1988, we sped to Schönefeld Airport in my father-in-law’s Czech Skoda car. We bid farewell to my wife’s parents and her friends, then I hoisted my basketful of twins and we had our passports stamped at the control booth. Our airplane took flight – and steered due north to Denmark. Only then did it turn westward to Belgium, since East German regulations forbade airplanes to fly over West German territory.
This was to be goodbye forever, since my wife would never have been allowed into the country again, even for a brief visit. That is what we thought. That is what everybody thought. Less than a year later, both the state and the entire society collapsed. Then, in April 1990, the East German lawyer who handled our case, Lothar de Maizière, was appointed as the first and last democratic Minister President of the GDR.
The foundations of kindness
I have concentrated on the main points in this account, but I am certain that if I ever requested my Stasi file the entire story would be neatly recorded there, including transcripts of our telephone calls and photocopies of our letters along with bundles of operational orders and assessments. But while I cannot help but be curious, I still do not care to know who was spying on us and what their opinion was of me and my character. We were among the lucky ones, our departure from the country was “routine,” and getting out of there was all I ever cared about.Compared to many other dictatorships that have come and gone since those days, the GDR was not particularly cruel, and yet I have never heard of another regime that was so utterly, inanely futile. That is its tragedy. Imagine a country possessing enough concrete to build a thousand mile long double wall around itself to keep its own unhappy population locked in, but not enough to build apartment houses for them! With the exception of the Stasi man at the borough council, none of the minions we dealt with were cruel or even particularly rude to us. Instead, they were nitpicking bureaucrats, eager to display their power, who nonetheless exhibited an uneasiness that suggested they were no longer entirely convinced of their mission. They seemed terribly distressed that our presence on “Whitehead’s List” and, presumably, a certain amount of stage management on the part of the Stasi, allowed us to trample on the restrictions and regulations they felt compelled to apply to the less protected citizens under their control - always with the purest intentions, of course. That is surely why they always harped on trivial bureaucratic details in a last attempt to maintain their professional dignity.
Back in the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht stated the dilemma of the Communist as follows:
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind
Do not judge us
Twenty years later, I still find this difficult.
I never did escape from Berlin. We returned to the newly-reunited city in 1991 for my graduate work and have remained here ever since. Ultimately, the marriage did not survive. Today, my kids are at college in England. Berlin has transformed itself from the tragic symbol of the Cold War to the party capital of Europe. My jogging route along Bernauer Strasse, where at least ten people were shot dead while fleeing the East German regime back in the 1960s, is now a tourist attraction. I take satisfaction in watching the American and Japanese tourists disgorge from their tour buses and snap photos in front of the Wall, asking and wondering what this was all about.
After all, I already know. And I hope they will never have to find out such things for themselves.