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A Night Divided

Jennifer A. Nielsen
























































  The Death Strip.

  In September 1961, a woman talks to her relatives through the barbed-wire fence separating East and West Berlin.

  East Berlin border guards add barbed wire to the Wall in November 1961.

  A map showing the boundaries of the Berlin Wall and the sectors into which the city was divided by the victors of World War II.

  Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light.

  -- Meister Eckhart, German philosopher

  When I want the west to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.

  -- Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Union premier, 1958-1964

  There was no warning the night the wall went up.

  I awoke to sirens screaming throughout my city of East Berlin. Instantly, I flew from my bed. Something must be terribly wrong. Why were there so many?

  Although it was a warm morning, that wasn't the reason for my sweaty palms or flushed face. My first thought was that it must be an air raid -- my parents had described them to me from the Second World War. I pulled my curtains apart, expecting the worst. But when I looked out, my heart slammed into my throat. Not even the darkest part of my imagination could have prepared me for this.

  It was Sunday, August 13, 1961, a day I would remember for the rest of my life. When a prison had been built around us as we slept.

  Lines of Grenzers -- our nickname for the border police, the Grenztruppen -- stood guard along a fence of thorny wire, in some places higher than their heads, and for as far as my eyes could see. They stood like iron statues with stern expressions and long rifles in their hands. It was obvious that anyone who tried to cross would get far worse than a rip in their clothes. Because the Grenzers didn't face the westerners on the other side of the fence. They watched us.

  It was very clear who they planned to shoot if there was any trouble.

  If only I'd looked out earlier. During the night, I'd heard strange noises. Of hammering, heavy footsteps, and hushed conversations from men with sharp voices. But I rolled over and told myself it was only a dream. Or a nightmare perhaps.

  If I had looked, I could have warned my family in time, just as our neighbor Herr Krause tried to warn us.

  He knew this was coming. Hadn't he said for years that our government was not to be trusted? That we might salute the flag of East Germany, but that it was really Russia we bowed to? And my father had known.

  My father!

  As if she had heard my thoughts, from out in the kitchen I heard Mama cry, "Aldous!"

  That was his name. And with a final glance out the window, I remembered the reason for Mama's screams.

  My father wasn't here. Nor was my brother Dominic. They had been in the west for two nights, and were supposed to have come home later today. With an endless row of guns and soldiers between us, the fence just changed that.

  I raced from my room and arrived in the kitchen to see my oldest brother, Fritz, holding my mother in his arms as she sobbed on his shoulder. He eyed me and then cocked his head toward the window in case I hadn't already seen the fence. I only brushed tears from my eyes and wrapped my arms around her back. Maybe she didn't need me, but in that moment I desperately needed her.

  She felt me there and put a shaking hand on my arm. "They've done it, Gerta," she said through her tears. "Worse than anyone ever thought."

  Mama had been a beautiful woman once, but that was years ago. She had come through too much war and famine and poverty to care about the curl in her hair or neatness of her dress. Her blond hair was already turning gray and her eyes bore early wrinkles in the creases. Sometimes I looked in the mirror and hoped life would not be equally hard on me.

  "Why now?" I asked. "Why today?"

  I looked up to Fritz for an answer. He was nearly six years older than me and the smartest person I knew, next to my father. If my mother had no answers, then surely he did. But all he could do was shrug and hold her tighter as her sobs grew louder. Besides, I already understood more than I wanted to.

  The fence was only the beginning. It had just divided my life in half. And nothing would ever be the same again.

  You are your only border -- throw yourself over it!

  -- Hafis, Persian poet, ca. 1325-1389

  I had known something bad was coming ever since the knock on our door Friday evening. Two days before the fence.

  We were in the middle of supper. My parents were discussing the day's news, as they always did. Hatred between the east and west was growing, and Berlin seemed caught in the center of what the world described as a cold war, a standoff of loud threats and puffed-out chests. Hopefully, it wouldn't lead to anyone bringing out their guns. Germany still hadn't recovered from the last war. Across the table from me, Fritz and Dominic were debating who should get the last dumpling -- the oldest brother, or the hungriest. And I was telling them all to be quiet, that I heard something.

  Someone knocked again. This time, everyone went silent.

  Papa wiped his mouth with a napkin, and after a warning glance for us to remain calm, he went to answer the door. Though my mother whispered that everything was fine, I was already nervous. Whenever unexpected knocks came, my heart waited to beat again until I knew who it was. Eight years ago, my father had been involved in some worker uprisings in Berlin. He had never been arrested for that, and insisted he'd done nothing to deserve any special attention, but the Stasi, our secret police force, seemed to disagree. Every few months, they came to ask him questions, looking at him as if he had already been found guilty of something. I always wondered if they were waiting for a reason to take him away.

  This time, however, my father's face widened into a smile, and in a welcoming voice he said, "Herr Krause!" Then he pulled the older man into our apartment with a warm embrace. "Have you eaten supper, my friend?"

  "Thank you, but I can't stay."

  Herr Krause lived next door with his invalid wife. He was a bit odd, collecting scraps of anything that wasn't nailed down and stuffing them wherever the Stasi might not look. He and my father had
known each other for as long as I could remember and had been at that uprising together. Mama once told me he definitely should have been arrested and that we weren't wise to associate with him.

  But when he came in, she left her seat and gave him a polite greeting. The more she disliked our company, the nicer Mama was. A lesson learned from our visits with the Stasi.

  "How can we help you?" she asked.

  Herr Krause kissed her cheek, then dismissed any further pleasantries with a frown at my father. "We need to talk."

  Papa invited him to sit down while Mama said, "Children, go to your rooms."

  We stood to obey her, but Papa said, "Fritz should stay."

  "No, Aldous."

  "He's fourteen years old. Fritz should stay."

  Mama gave in on that argument, but waved Dominic and me off to our rooms. However, I only went to my bedroom door down the hallway, shut it as if I had gone inside, then crept back to the corner. Dominic watched me with an amused smile, then did the same thing.

  "The whispers are growing louder," Herr Krause said. "The government has got to act before East Germany is completely empty."

  I already understood that. Our government had closed the border years ago, hoping to stop the flood of people leaving for the brighter lights of the west. But there were always ways through, and trying to keep people in had only made it worse. Another family from our apartment building had left just yesterday, disappearing without a word to anyone. The same thing was happening all over East Germany, especially here in the city.

  "So you think they'll begin arresting people who try to leave?" Mama asked.

  "No," Herr Krause said. "I think it'll be worse than that. Your family must get over to the west, while you still can."

  From around the corner, I nodded in agreement. Why couldn't my mother see what was so obvious to Papa and Herr Krause and so many others who felt trapped here beneath Moscow's thumb?

  According to Papa, for the last sixteen years, Germany had been split between the east and the west, our people divided for no reason other than what street they happened to live on. That was part of our punishment for losing the Second World War. Break our country into pieces so we couldn't rise up and threaten the world again, the way Hitler had done.

  Now Britain, America, and France controlled the western half of Germany, as well as half of the capital city of Berlin. Russia controlled the east, where my family lived. At first, it didn't matter much to us. Most people shopped, worked, or visited just as we always had, and crossing the border wasn't much more difficult than crossing the street. But Russia's promises of a better life under Communism weren't happening. As the west repaired its war damages, ours remained like unhealed scars. Their shops were full, and ours constantly faced shortages. They were growing stronger, while we leaned on Russia like a crutch, pretending to be every bit as strong.

  People had noticed the widening gap between our countries. As more East Berliners left each week, those of us who remained whispered in dark corners about what if we left too. I heard them. I watched as neighbors and friends made their plans to go.

  My father was one of those who whispered. Our family would have gone to the west months ago if Mama had let us. She was just as stubborn as he was, I supposed. They argued about it all the time. In whispers, of course. Berlin was a symphony of whispers.

  But this was also our home. And Mama couldn't imagine leaving any more than she could think about ceasing to be German.

  "Choose to go now," Herr Krause said. "Or soon you will have no choice."

  "You want us to leave the life we've built here?" Mama asked. "My widowed mother lives just outside the city; she needs my help. Should I leave her too?"

  "Would she ask you to stay here?" Herr Krause asked. "Where it is dangerous to speak, or to act, or even to think?"

  "It is only dangerous because you fill my husband's head with ideas he should not have!" Then Mama lowered her voice. This was not the kind of conversation she wanted our neighbors to hear. At least, not the neighbors who might report us to the Stasi. She turned her attention to Papa. "Besides, our children are in school and you have a secure job."

  "They have schools in the west," Papa told her. "We can find a new home, and a new job."

  "The refugee camps in the west are crowded and don't have enough food to go around." Mama shook her head. After the war, she had gone for months without enough food to eat. Thousands of Germans died of hunger back then, and I knew that memory was never far from her. "We have no family or friends there to take us in, and I won't bring my children into a camp. We're not beggars."

  "I'd rather beg there than live here!" I had left my hiding place and spoken even before I remembered I was supposed to be in my room. But it was too late to go back, so I added, "Please, Mama, listen to them."

  "You should be in bed, Gerta!"

  "What if Aldous goes to the west for a night or two?" Herr Krause suggested. "He can find you a new apartment and ask about jobs."

  Papa's voice brightened. "I could leave tonight and be back on Sunday. We don't have to decide anything for sure until I come back."

  Mama was silent for a moment, then she said, "Bring one of the children with you so the employers know you have a family to support."

  "I'll go," Fritz offered. I knew he would. Last week, Fritz told me he wanted to buy some of the west's magazines and come back here to sell them to his friends.

  "You need to help your mother with packing, and Gerta is too young," Papa said. "I'll take Dominic."

  Dominic came around the corner now, smiling as if he had won some sort of prize. I glared at him, but the truth was, I thought he had won a prize too. Why couldn't Papa bring me instead?

  I asked Papa that very question when he tucked me into bed that night.

  He smiled and pulled the blankets up to my chin. "It's going to be difficult getting across the border in the darkness," he said. "Dominic and I will find the way, then return and show it to you in only a few more nights."

  "What if you don't come back?"

  His eyes became sad, though the smile remained. "I must come back, because nobody else knows our bedtime song."

  He got to his feet and started dancing to my favorite song, "The Farmer in March," which described all the chores a farmer must do to get his crops ready. "They have a lot to do in the home and the garden," he sang as he began pantomiming the words. "They dig and they rake and they sing a song."

  I sang along with him until the very last line, then he kissed my cheek, wished me a good sleep, and closed the door of my room, saying, "I'll see you on Sunday, Gerta."

  No, he wouldn't. Because two days later, our city would be surrounded with an endless fence of wire and thorns. As I was about to learn, he would never come back.

  Eventually, Mama dried her tears and told me and Fritz to go get dressed, that we ought to see the fence for ourselves.

  It was still very early in the morning, and large bulldozers could be heard, already tearing down homes or hundred-year-old trees that were in the way of the fence. Along with most of the people in my neighborhood, I stood on the road, facing the guns that faced us. Mama held one of my hands and Fritz held the other. No one around me cried, and not even the strongest men fought back.

  Why didn't we? I looked around, waiting for someone to rush at the officers in a cry for freedom. Then others would join in and fight until we overpowered the guards and showed them we refused to be held in here like criminals.

  Or until enough of us were shot. The guards looked prepared to do that, if necessary.

  Probably everyone here already understood that, because like me, they only stood and watched. Maybe we were all too empty for tears, and too horrified for words.

  When I asked Fritz when Papa and Dominic would be able to come home, he only knelt beside me and shook his head. Quietly, he whispered, "Papa was a part of the Resistance, Gerta, or they think he was. As long as that fence is up, they will never let him come home, and he won't send Do
minic back to this place. But don't worry, I'm sure it can't last long."

  The people around me had already given a name to this day: Barbed Wire Sunday. The day that divided a city, and eventually a country. Worst of all, the day that divided my family.

  The sun warmed my back as it slowly rose in the east, and I shivered against it. This early morning light had not ended the long, dark night. No.

  For us, the dark night had only begun.

  It's often safer to be in chains than to be free.

  -- Franz Kafka, German author

  It didn't take long for the government to realize that they couldn't guard the fence so heavily forever. Even with the fence and armed soldiers, people were still finding ways out. If things were bad in our city before, they would only get worse now. We all knew that.

  Some people made runs in the dark and literally tore their way to freedom. Others tried swimming the canals where the barbed wire couldn't reach. At least one family simply ducked low to avoid gunfire and crashed their car through the fence.

  Nobody asked who might try leaving next, but everybody wondered. I kept waiting for Mama to tell us we were leaving too. Surely she would, any day now. But she never did. Maybe she had been a prisoner here long before the fence appeared.

  Protests started in West Berlin. They chanted and held signs and aimed their cameras at the Grenzers, who held up mirrors to reflect the sun into the camera lenses and ruin the pictures. Fritz, Mama, and I stood near the fence and looked everywhere among the protestors for Papa and Dominic, but we could never see them.

  "Have they forgotten us already?" I asked Fritz.

  He smiled, as if I'd told a joke, then reached down and ruffled my hair. "Papa would never forget us, Gerta."

  I kept staring, though every time I saw a face that almost was my father, my heart broke a little more. "If he hasn't forgotten, then where is he?"

  Fritz turned to Mama and lowered his voice so only the three of us could hear. "There's talk about an apartment nearby that sits right on the border. You can enter the back of the building from the east and walk out the front doors into the west. Go straight through the fence."

  Mama shook her head. "The government won't tolerate that for long. I don't want to be there when they come."

  And they did. Only a few days later, the government bricked up all the lower exits of that building, thinking that would solve the problem. But then people started jumping from the upper windows, hoping the crowd below on the west side would help to catch them. Fritz was there a week later, watching from a distance when a woman threw down a mattress and all her bedding from the third floor while our police banged on her locked apartment door. When the police got inside, she finally leapt out. But the cushions weren't enough for the hard concrete below.