The train to Berlin

THE train journey from Warsaw to Berlin seems interminable -- a slow crawl made uncomfortable by frequent stops, delays, and a passenger load that causes the cars to list precariously at times. Finding a place to sit is a task in itself, requiring more brawn and perseverance than anything else. But with my full backpack and Wolverine hiking boots, I was fit for travel, and travel I did, from one end of the train to the other, back and forth, again and again, uttering ``Przepraszam'' to the squat, round-faced Polish women in their babushkas, and ``Verzeihung!'' to the stoic, forbearing Germans as my pack and I squeezed through crowded passageways in search of a compartment with a free seat that had perhaps been overlooked.

It was late evening. The train was dark, except for an occasional waxen compartment light. The air was filled with the viscous palatizations of the Poles, underlain with the gutteral enun-ciations of Germans, the two tongues playing off each other in a not unmusi-cal counterpoint. Facial features and language aside, I could still recognize a compartment of Poles -- its six seats were occupied by at least eight, and food and drink were on abundant display. I decided that such a compartment could readily hold nine.

``Przepraszam -- excuse me. Could I squeeze in?''

The Polish men half waved at me and then slid the glass door shut behind me. Their murmurs might have signified disapproval. I don't know. I wedged myself snugly betwen two who were asleep. I looked about at the others and smiled -- which gesture was returned from haggard, unshaven, silent faces.

I looked out the window at Pomerania -- an eternal plain of black velvet littered with pearls. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, details of my immediate surroundings gradually made themselves known. Each man had several overstuffed bags and packages cluttered about his feet, in his lap, and in the overhead luggage rack. Guest workers. On their way to West Germany. And yet they filled the air with palpable trepidation. I didn't understand why. The West was opportunity and freedom. And light.

We had been 12 hours under way when we pulled into East Berlin. Every Pole in the compartment sprang to life as German shepherds were brought on board, mirrors were inserted under the train, and uniformed officials probed behind our seats with slips of wire. We all watched as the corridor pulsed and swarmed with life in transit. Most of those people had to get off in East Berlin. They had no authorization to proceed beyond the wall.

The Poles in the compartment looked frightened, and when another East German official burst in, they fumbled for their documents of passage, displaying them with the alacrity of old women proffering wallet photos of their grandchildren. ``In Ordnung,'' pronounced the German. But there were no smiles.

The Poles eased back into their places and I listened for all of us as they breathed laboriously, making the air hot. And was it the throbbing of the locomotive revving up, or human heartbeats which fell against my eardrums like the surging of my own blood?

And then, the train seemed to lift itself, like a bubble floating to the surface of a lake -- up, up, rising above the Berlin Wall, slowly, tenaciously. This was not a decision to be taken lightly. The East only grudgingly let her children go. We all pressed our faces to the window and looked down as the train moved out from dim, silent shadows to the glare and defiance of the West. It was like sliding into home plate -- in slow motion.

But I knew we were there when one of the Poles opened the window, wide, to where the wind blew in unrestrainedly. Then he spread his arms and spoke out in heavily accented German: ``Guten Morgen, Deutschland.''

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