In East Berlin, a train station becomes a haven for kindness
One woman has never forgotten the stranger who helped her return to safety in a divided city.
Next year, Berlin will be marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was not there for that momentous event, but I was in Berlin in December, 1961, four months after the wall had been built.
It was a cold, snowy December, and it was my first visit to the city that, from 1871 until the end of World War II, had been the capital of all Germany. At the time of my visit, it had been divided among the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Only the Eastern part of it was still a capital – the capital of the German Democratic Republic. Staying in the West as I was, I had seen some of it, but I wanted to see it all.
So I walked through Checkpoint Charlie into the Eastern, Soviet-controlled part of the city. I remember that I found a museum of modern art and went inside, but the walls were bare. I asked at the desk – in pidgin German – where the art might be.
The young woman at the desk looked at me. She looked all around to see if anyone was listening, and then, shaking her head, whispered to me in English. "Remember, like Jerusalem, we are now a divided city."
I went outside again, stamping my feet in the snow as I walked along the showplace of Berlin – Unter den Linden, the wide, elegant avenue that begins at the Brandenburg Gate. My feet were getting colder. It had become late afternoon and the sun was sinking. In the distance, I could see a railroad station and nearby – in lights – the news of the world was being reported. I saw the names Kennedy and Khrushchev flashing, which worried me. My elementary German could not help me translate the news.
I was already getting cold, so I decided to walk into the station to warm up and – in German fashion – sat down at a table in the buffet with an elderly couple perusing travel brochures for the Soviet Union. We communicated with nods and smiles the way one does when one does not know another's language.
Suddenly an East German Vopo – a policeman – was at our table, leering at me, talking with the elderly Germans. Then he left.
Like lightning, the old man held me by the hand and led me up the stairs to the overhead S-Bahn that still linked the Eastern part of the city with the Western. He then thrust an East German mark for the train fare into my hand and pushed me toward the immigration window where my passport had to be examined so I could return to the West. Somehow he let me know that the Vopo had offered to drive me back to the crossing point at Checkpoint Charlie and, under no circumstances, should I go with him.
I passed through immigration and boarded a train for West Berlin. Below us, as the elevated train moved, I heard military police dogs penned below the tracks barking and howling, awaiting the chance to pursue an East Berliner attempting to go west.
Back in the West, I found myself shaking a little, wondering what the news of the world might be, and worrying about the kind old East German man and his wife. Had she left the buffet table before the Vopo returned and then met her husband somewhere outside? What repercussions might there be for their kind deed?
The next morning, there was a telephone call for me at my pension. It was an official at the American Consulate wanting to know if I was there because I had not walked back from the East through Checkpoint Charlie. It was reassuring to know that my government cared.
But equally comforting was the thoughtfulness of the East German couple, although their gesture was, perhaps, fraught with danger for them.
During the years that the Wall stood, I passed through Checkpoint Charlie many more times and wrote about my travels in the East.
I made many cherished friends, and in those totalitarian days, it was only the most courageous who were willing to be seen with a Westerner. Throughout the years, I have kept in touch with them.
I never had the names, of course, of those kind acquaintances in the Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, but they are the friends who remain the most valued of all.