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Sunday 10 November 2019

Remembering the Berlin Wall

In 2004 this story was published in a magazine; it concerns the fall of the Berlin Wall. It seems appropriate to resurrect it on the thirtieth anniversary of that historic event. The story is now featured in my collected short stories volume four, Codename Gaby which contains 18 previously published short stories with historical themes - here.


I waited and waited. And the memories flooded back, bringing the heartache as well as the joy, the short-lived joy...
Berliner Weise mit Schuss?’ the blond young man asked as I came over to his table with a damp cloth.
I smiled. ‘Just a moment, while I clean this away.’ I wiped pastry crumbs from the Formica surface.
Bringing the white beer injected with raspberry syrup, I noted his thin angular frame in ill-fitting worn overalls. His long dirty fingers prompted me to think of artistic hands.
‘Thank you, fraulein,’ he said, and smiled sheepishly, sipping the drink. His eyes were a beautiful slate grey, but they tended to avoid mine.
The restaurant was not busy, even though it was lunchtime. Most of the factory workers gathered in the bars or brought sandwiches. Few could afford Western prices for food, even sixteen years after the war.
‘I've not seen you in here before,’ I observed pleasantly.
He said, defensively, ‘No, I – I only – I promised myself this drink, my father said he used to–’
‘I’m sorry, I only meant I would have noticed you. I meant nothin–’
Mollified, he shrugged narrow shoulders, seeming unsure of himself.
‘Was it worth the wait?’
‘The drink.’
He sipped at the liquid, nodded. ‘Yes, it’s very nice.’ He turned, to eye Heinz drying dishes behind the counter. ‘Did you make it?’
‘No. I’m the cook around here, not the barman!’
He looked unkempt, as if the clothes of a manual worker were totally unsuited to him. Impulsively, I said, ‘Do you paint?’
He couldn't be more than twenty, I thought as he creased his brow in confusion. ‘No, I’m a machinist,’ he explained.
‘My hobby’s drawing, and I just wondered–’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, I draw,’ he smiled, ‘whenever I can.’ He pulled out a few scraps of paper from his torn pocket. Carefully, he spread them on the Formica, and gazed up, clearly seeking reassurance.
If the sketches of the ruined Reichstag and the Schoneberg district’s Rathaus had been inept, lacking depth or any artistic merit, I would still have praised him. He seemed so lonely, so timid and vulnerable, in need of warmth. I flushed at these thoughts and said, truthfully, ‘They’re wonderful. I can only draw people. I’m hopeless when it comes to buildings!’
I glanced at Heinz, who was preoccupied with watching the passers-by in the street. Nothing spoiling, so I sat on the empty wooden chair opposite the customer and asked, ‘May I?’ and held the crumpled sheets as he nodded. ‘You’ve drawn these straight lines free-hand–’ I looked up, to see his eyes shining, alight, his lips smiling.
I waited, and waited.
The restaurant had changed beyond all recognition in the intervening twenty-eight years. I used to count the days, before that terrible night.
Shaking off the melancholy, I stepped inside, smiled at the headwaiter. With commendable alacrity, he rushed forward and pulled out a chair at the table by the window.
The scene outside had altered, too. Now, West Berlin was affluent. ‘A coffee and cognac, please, Hans,’ I ordered, and allowed more memories to sweep over me...
His name was Dieter. He crossed daily from East to West Berlin to work in the factory opposite the cafe. His parents were old before their time, incapable of crossing to the West; he was devoted to them, and wouldn’t leave them though he had heard that many had passed through the reception centres last week.
Rumours were rife. The Soviets seemed in a belligerent mood: the tension was palpable. Some said it was like the Berlin Blockade all over again. He couldn’t remember that, though.
To take his mind off the rumours, I would pack a sandwich lunch for us both and we would walk down Ku-damm with its wonderful shops and rich colours.
His eyes opened wide in amazement every time we walked down Kurfurstendamm: ‘We have nothing like this in our sector.’ The ghost of a war-torn Europe still stalked the streets there. Unlike the eastern sector, restoration had moved fast. I proudly told him that my mother was one of the famous rubble ladies a trummer frau who dug the city out of its wreckage with her bare hands, brick by brick. There were enormous rubble mountains, now landscaped, to testify to their efforts.
My mother took to Dieter immediately, but typically expressed concern about his gaunt appearance. But no amount of potato dumplings and pork, cooked with fried fruit and rich gravy, put so much as an ounce on him. ‘He uses up too much nervous energy, dear,’ she observed kindly.
Another time, while drawing the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Dieter remarked, ‘I really feel we are all part of history, even now...’
I wondered if our stroll down the Strasse des 17 Juni had affected him. The street was named in memory of the Germans shot down by Russian tanks in 1953 when Dieter was only eight when the East Berlin construction workers laid down their tools in protest over greatly increased work ‘norms’. Near here, at the Grosse Stern, too, he had been anxious to sketch the sixty-four-meter column of dark red granite, sandstone and bronze, surmounted by a gilded figure of Victory: Siegessaule, as it is called, was raised in 1873 to commemorate the Franco-Prussian War.
The following day, we had embarked on the tiring climb of steps up the column, and the view had taken away what little breath he had left!
‘Berlin’s heart!’ he said, eventually, trying to take it all in.
I pointed out the Philharmonic Orchestra’s building, the Kustgewerbemuseum, the Natianalgalerie and the Staatsbibliothek, the latter with its ‘three million volumes, the largest library of its kind in the world,’ I concluded proudly.
Perhaps the altitude made us light-headed. We embraced, and kissed then frantically broke away in a mad dash to save his drawings that had blown free! Laughing, we chased the sheets of paper.
Breathless at the column’s base, Dieter checked the rescued sheets, shrugged, ‘Only one missing, Olga,’ he said, taking my hand. ‘Brandenburg Gate.’
‘We’ll go there again tomorrow, then.’
He shook his head. ‘No, I can’t. I’ve been given the day off, because my mother is very ill... I’ll be with her, in the hospital.’
I was sympathetic. ‘Another time, then. The gate’s not going anywhere, is it?’
As we descended the stairs, I thought on what he had said when he confronted the Brandenburg Gate, the statue turned round to face east, underlining the tragic sundering of the city. His tone had been sombre, yet tinged with hope: ‘One day, we’ll walk through there, a free people again.’ For one so young, he could be very serious.
That night, he telephoned, briefly. His mother had died, his father was adamant that he should find a better life, elsewhere. He spoke guardedly, but I understood. After the funeral, when he returned to work, he would seek asylum. My mother prepared the spare room and I counted the days, anxiously.
Then he telephoned again. ‘I’ll be returning to work tomorrow,’ he said. That was all. I didn’t sleep that night.
Next morning, August 13, 1961 I hurried to work early.
The news trickled in gradually. East Germany had closed the Berlin border, unravelling barbed wire, delivering prefabricated concrete blocks. The train services between the sectors were halted. The news revealed that 50,000 East Germans who worked in West Berlin had been turned back. The S-bahns and U-bahns were blocked.
My heart sank as I watched the television newsreel. There were no pictures, but the hazy unsubstantiated reports were enough: East German police used hoses, truncheons and teargas on crowds milling round the closed crossing points. Some bold ones had chanted, ‘Hang old Goat-beard’, referring to Herr Walter Ulbricht. But they too were brutally repulsed.
Mayor Willy Brandt appealed for calm and broadcast to the East: ‘You cannot be held in slavery for ever.’
Every spare moment, I stood at the Brandenburg Gate, watching, waiting.
Within two weeks, the Berlin Wall was erected. In the pouring rain, I whispered, ‘We’re all part of history, even now.’ And I could feel warm droplets on my cheeks, but their source was not the sky but my heart.
I tried telephoning, but the plugs had been pulled.
The weeks stretched interminably. Then, as various networks sorted themselves out, and brave people escaped, through old ruins, gardens, backyards, tunnelling, before the barriers became too formidable, I received a scribbled note on the back of a sketch of the Brandenburg Gate from the eastern side:
‘I’ll come to you on the 10th. I love you. D.’
Mixed with the heady anticipation was fear, for as I had anxiously paced the Wall I often heard shouts and shots, and been blinded by soulless searchlights.
How many nights had I paced the Wall? I wondered, sipping coffee in the cafe window. Too many. Eventually, I stopped. But I had never forgotten. Dieter was one of many brave men who had dared to make their bid for freedom and failed.
But I held close to me the thought that they hadn’t failed. Every sacrifice kept the hope burning, the light ever stronger. Thomas Jefferson’s words echoed down the years: ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.’ History was harsh, I thought.
I was sure I had heard the shots. The news report had been brief, the next morning. A young man had been shot trying to cross the Wall. No further information reached me.
Then, years later, as Glasnost took hold, some relaxation was permitted. I owned a string of restaurants by this time. I’d been married, for three years, then divorced. Depressed and lonely, I made enquiries concerning that fateful night. And learned the truth and received letters from the eastern sector.
Now, I finished the coffee and left my restaurant, clutching Dieter’s old sketch with its faded message.
Crowds were milling, as they had done for day after unbelievable historic day.
I had watched with tears streaming as people clambered on top of the hated, reviled Wall and chipped at it, unmolested. I thought of all the dead: perhaps they were looking down now, and smiling, at last!
The opening of the Brandenburg Gate was a solemn moment. Herr Kohl walked through, and I strained to see.
There were so many people!
Eyes streaming, I rushed into the crowd.
Surging forward, the East Berliners were laughing, cheering, singing, holding some people aloft in their infectious joy. Their future was uncertain, probably full of privations, but at last they were free! Amazingly, some held up a wheelchair, and I recognised the occupant from his recent photographs: he laughed, tears streaming. ‘Dieter!’ I called, waving his drawing.
Obligingly, they lowered him in his chair and uncannily an opening in the crowd permitted me to run to him.
Those letters had prepared me for his disability: the bullets had deprived him of the normal use of his legs.
I was about to step forward, to hug and kiss him when he held up a hand, peremptorily. ‘No, Olga, wait, please.’ And he struggled with both hands on the chair arms, and raised himself with great effort to his feet. Gripping a stick in each hand Dieter slowly, mechanically shuffled each foot forward, and walked into my arms.
For those precious few moments we could not hear the shouting and singing of the crowd.
After we had kissed, he said, softly, ‘Let’s walk through Brandenburg Gate. I have a drawing to finish, no?’
And, slowly, we walked through.

Olga Jager, November 1989

also in Kindle here...


John Holt said...

An excellent piece. The Wall was meant to stop people from leaving the Communist East. To that end it did provide a physical barrier, but it could not stop people's hopes, people's dreams; people's determination to be free. This short narrative tells that story, the story of hope. Many people died because of their determination to be free, their refusal to be enslaved. Brutally murdered, their bravery will never be forgotten.

Unknown said...

Thanks, John. Glad you liked it.