Berlin — The young man gestures to a side street just beyond the graffiti, the guard towers, and the barbed wire of the wall. ''I used to live there,'' he explains. ''And there, on the corner, that used to be my kneipe (pub). You can't believe how strange it is to see it from this side now.''
There is almost always someone, a few tourists or a lone Berliner perhaps, gazing into the east from the observation platform at the far end of the Bernauerstrasse, a rutted, cobblestone street in the working-class district of Wedding in Berlin's French sector.
The wall that has divided the former German capital for 23 years looks just as bleak here as it does elsewhere. But here one has a clear view of the other side.
And for many friends and relatives living in the same city, but under different political systems, the point where the wall cuts sharply across the Bernauerstrasse has long served as a point of silent rendezvous.
Leaning against the platform railings, the young man, call him Hermann, patiently waits to ''meet'' his father, mother, and aunt. He has not seen them since he left East Germany at the beginning of April. Mingling with other passers-by, they arrive at the appointed time but do not respond to Hermann's occasional, but determined wave.
Instead, they stroll by, not daring to look up.
''Too many gruene ecken (green corners),'' sighs Hermann, referring to the green-uniformed People's Police who keep the area under constant surveillance. Even something as innocuous as a casual greeting or a furtive smile to loved ones in the West can be interpreted as a subversive act against the state and result in questions, reports, and sometimes, arrest.
Only at the next corner - well away from the half-closed windows of nearby buildings where members of the Staatssicherheits Dienst (the state security service) photograph and observe suspects - does Hermann's mother clap her hands over her head to show they have seen him.
''That's the saddest thing about this whole state of affairs,'' he said later. ''This wall with the barbed wire, guard dogs, . . . armed patrols. One can never see how ugly and depressing it really is from the other side. You can never get that close. And now to see my parents like this. . . . It's inhuman.''
Despite frigid relations between Washington and Moscow, representatives of the two Germanys describe the rapport with each other as ''comparatively good.'' Yet East Germany's decision to allow more than 25,000 of its citizens to leave for the West during the first four months of this year - more than at any other time since the construction of the wall - was hardly the mark of a striking improvement, or ''thaw'' as some analysts have described it, in inter-German relations.
By early May, the East Berlin regime had drastically reduced the exodus - more than 350 emigres a day at one point - to its customary trickle of fewer than 1,000 crossing over legally every month, most of them for family reunification.
Regardless of the ebb and flow in numbers, the emigrants are part of a cynical trade in human beings. Each year, the Bonn government pays its eastern counterpart some 6,000 to 50,000 marks ($2,300 to $19,200) per emigrant, depending on an individual's ''value.''
For a substantial number of East Germans, the desire to leave is politically or religiously motivated. But for many, it is simply the hope of new life without the restraints or boredom of a totalitarian system where, according to East German critics, ''everyone is taken by the hand'' and ''no one is allowed to decide for themselves.'' A big frustration, particularly among the younger postwar generation, which is fed up with dreaming, is the regime's virtual blockade of open travel to the West.
It was this basic lack of freedom that provoked Hermann, a sturdy, bright construction engineer, into filing his first application to emigrate some seven years ago.
''Quite honestly, if I'd been able to travel and see the world . . . Paris, London, Venice . . . I would have stayed,'' he explained. ''After all, I was earning well. I had an apartment. And life is not all that bad in the East. But because the regime told me where I could and couldn't go, I reached the point when I could not take it anymore. After all, we're all free people.''
Such privately but commonly expressed sentiments suggest that, were the regime to show more trust by allowing its citizens to come and go as they wish, perhaps no more than 5 percent would seek to change camp. Despite the highest standard of living in the East bloc, East Germans compare themselves with the West. But they are also aware that economic conditions on the other side are not all that rosy.
As a West European diplomat pointed out: ''A person is going to think twice about starting anew, particularly if he already has a job, a car, and full security.''
Nevertheless, it is estimated that 100,000 East German citizens may have filed applications to emigrate. More than 400,000 are thought to have put in for exit visas but had them refused or ignored.
This being Hermann's case, he decided to escape. In October 1978 the young East German traveled to Gdansk with a friend and they sought to stow away on board a ship bound for Sweden. They were caught.
Charged with spying for an unnamed NATO country, Hermann and his buddy were sentenced by a Polish court to seven and nine years, respectively, the latter receiving a longer term because this was his second attempt.
While in prison, Hermann deluged the Polish and East German authorities with letters protesting his innocence and his right to emigrate as stipulated by the Helsinki Final Act. For this, he claims, he was often beaten and tortured by guards or inmates in government pay. Things got tougher, he said, when prison ranks swelled with arrested Solidarity militants, who were also beten.
Supported by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, Hermann was released after five years and obliged to return to East Berlin. He was not permitted to work in his previous occupation, but he got a job as a truck driver.
At the beginning of April, Hermann said, he was suddenly summoned to the Ministry of the Interior, where officials told him to leave his job, de-register from the police, and empty his apartment. Three days later, toward midday, he was ordered to leave the country by 6:30 that evening. He had enough time to pack his bags, bid his parents farewell, and get on the next train to the West.
The authorities presented him with a certificate not unlike a university diploma. It declared that he was no longer a citizen of the German Democratic Republic.
Hermann knows life in the West will not be easy. But he has a job on a construction site in West Berlin and an apartment, and is making friends. Yet it is not without a degree of bitterness and sadness that he looks back at his previous existence on the other side of the wall.
''The regime let me out because they considered me a troublemaker,'' he says. ''But that solves nothing. Once the tap is closed and people can no longer leave , the secret police will get back to work. They will watch and make sure that an opposition cannot develop. The reality is that most people will accept this. They have no choice. Some will refuse to tolerate it but will not take to the streets. Everyone is too afraid for that.''