A penpal on the other side

woman on bench at train station with lots of luggage

I had a penpal on the other side of the Wall.

Early ‘70s. The Cold War was still very cold. With no end in sight. Ever. And I had a penpal in East Berlin. In the capital of the German Democratic Republic. Aka the communist part of Germany, occupied/controlled by the Soviet Union since World War II. On the other side of the Berlin Wall.

It all came about in very random way.

I was at the train station in Malmö, Sweden, with 2 female friends, shooting scenes for a dramatic short film. (Super 8 sound — this is back in the days of real film.)

Somewhere between scenes, a 30-something woman approached us for assistance. She might have heard snippets of dialogue from our film (partly in German — I played a German student visiting a friend in Sweden, in addition to directing the film). Or maybe it was just that a 2 teen girls and a guy with a film camera looked harmless enough.

Either way, she asked if we spoke German. Which we all did. So no problem there. We proceeded to help her find her train to Gothenburg. And chatted with her while she waited for the train. 

Before boarding, Hildegard (not her real name) thanked us for our help and gave us each a bottle of German beer. We’d learned that she was from Berlin. Cool. I had friends in Berlin and had visited there several times. Had already decided it was one of my favorite cities.

It wasn’t until she handed me a slip with her name and address that I realized she was from East Berlin. As in East Germany. On the other side of the Wall. Because when I went to Berlin, I visited West Berlin, the free part of Berlin. The one NOT in East Germany. The part of the divided city that the communists didn’t control. But had surrounded with the Wall to keep people from escaping there.

“45,000 sections of reinforced concrete—three tons each.

Nearly 300 watchtowers.

Over 250 dog runs.

Twenty bunkers.

Sixty five miles of anti-vehicle trenches—signal wire, barbed wire, beds of nails.

Over 11,000 armed guards.

A death strip of sand, well-raked to reveal footprints.200 ordinary people shot dead following attempts to escape the communist regime.

96 miles of concrete wall.

Not your typical holiday destination.”

Joanna Campbell, Tying Down the Lion

I had never really met anyone from East Berlin. Sure, I’d gone over into East Berlin on a day trip or two. But you don’t meet natives when playing tourist. And certainly don’t get into any real conversations. 

Here I and my friends were talking away with a woman from East Berlin and it didn’t feel strange at all. Not sure what I’d expected people from “over there” to be like, but she didn’t seem communist at all. Rather just like any German woman traveling abroad by herself.

I ended up writing to Hildegard and we kept in touch via letters. I knew there was a good chance that letters were being opened and read by censors. So didn’t ask things like: “What is it really like to live in a communist dictatorship?” Didn’t bring up history or politics at all. Just talked about everyday things.

To be honest, being a Swedish teenager, I was probably more worried about what things to write about to a German woman with a family. Finding common ground can be a challenge for many reasons, even without censors reading every word.

A year later, I was in West Berlin to visit my friends, the Haumersens, once again. I told them about my East Berlin penpal and that I planned to go over to visit her family. That prompted a serious conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Haumersen. They weren’t going to tell me not to go. They just wanted to impress on me to be very careful.

The movie The Lives of Others describes life in East Germany to a T, including how everyone was watched over. Here’s an exchange between Captain Wiesler with the Stasi (Secret Police) and a boy he encounters walking home to his apartment one evening:

A boy is playing with a ball on the sidewalk. He looks at Captain Wiesler:

“Are you really with the Stasi?”

The captain stops. “Do you even know what the Stasi is?”

“Yes.” The boy looks straight at him. “They’re bad men who put people in prison, says my dad.”

“I see. What is the name of your…” Wiesler catches himself. Old habit.

“My what?” asks the boy. 

Wiesler hesitates for a moment. “Ball. What’s the name of your ball?”

“You’re funny. Balls don’t have names.”

I knew the Haumersens had relatives over in the East, just a few miles away as the crow flies, but since that was on the other side of the Wall, they hadn’t been able to meet in person for the first 9 years after the Wall was built. They told me how excited they were when finally allowed to go over to the East to visit those relatives a few years earlier. 

And that was one of the points they made: Their relatives over there certainly couldn’t travel over to West Berlin to see them. Yet I met Hildegard while she was traveling in Sweden. On vacation. To me, a guy from Sweden, that was perfectly normal. You have vacation, you travel to another country. Easy. 

Except the whole idea for the Wall in the first place was to prevent people from leaving East Germany. Exit permits for vacation in a country in the West were, shall we say, extremely rare.

Made me wonder a bit as to what I’d find when I got over there. Was I walking right into something out of a John Le Carré spy novel?

I prepped carefully before heading to Checkpoint Charlie to cross over into East Berlin, making sure to leave behind anything that I didn’t absolutely need with me. Or that might seem like capitalist propaganda.

Eventually I was through the tedious border check and actually inside East Berlin. Didn’t take long to find the right bus to get to where Hildegard lived. Riding the bus in East Berlin was an adventure in itself. In West Berlin, I rode the buses all the time. And blended in. Over here, I stood out. And I wondered what other passengers thought about me.

“East Germany was so total in its totalitarianism that everything was banned which wasn’t compulsory.”

P. J. O’Rourke

I finally got to the address. A street like so many I’d seen in West Berlin. Apartment houses with 4 or 5 stories dating from around 1900. My penpal’s apartment was a roomy old apartment a few floors up. Tall ceilings, lots of dark woodwork. I’d seen many apartments like that over in the West or in Sweden. The furniture seemed like what I’d expect. Maybe not as spartan as I might have thought. 

We visited for a while. Pleasant conversation. Generalities about life and the neighborhood. Hildegard had 2 daughters who were around 10 or 12. Her husband was at work. She stayed home with the children. Just like so many families I knew from back home. Pretty much just like my friends the Haumersens. Mrs. Haumersen was a full-time housewife and mom to their 2 daughters and her husband worked full-time. Last night, when mentioned that I thought Hildegard was a stay-at-home mom, the Haumersens looked at each other and again cautioned me to be careful. 

Now it began to sink in for me. What they were saying was that for regular workers in East Germany, this was an unlikely situation. Wife that stays at home. Wife that can travel abroad. Large apartment in a nice, old neighborhood. Might it be that the husband was in the Party or Government at a level suitable to enjoy such perks?

“In East Germany it was very normal for a woman to go out and work even if she had children. A few weeks after giving birth women would return to their normal working life. We never had housewives in East Germany.”

Christian Schwochow

If so, what might they be looking for from me? 

The visit at the apartment went well though. It was a pretty enjoyable time. I was a bit careful with what I said, to not sound “capitalist”. Or, heaven forbid, make a wisecrack about the workers’ paradise. Certainly didn’t want to find myself detained and interviewed by the Stasi, instead of going back to my family in the West that evening. Maybe I had watched The Spy Who Came in from the Cold one too many times? And maybe not.

Eventually, Hildegard suggested that her daughters show me around central Berlin (which wasn’t far from where they lived). 

The TV tower at Alexanderplatz rises above the modern apartment buildings along Karl-Marx-Allee, East Berlin’s parade street (actual military parades were held there) and also home of the best shopping in GDR.

I don’t recall all the places we went, except that we did get to the top of the famous TV tower at Alexanderplatz. Up there, high above the city, you also had a perfect view into West Berlin, beyond the Wall. It seemed so totally incongruous.

The girls were very proud of the tower and everything else they showed me and we had a good time. They really seemed just like regular girls. I certainly wasn’t going to ask them what they thought about being able to see freedom over there and not have any much hope of going there.

While I was at Hildegard’s apartment, I realized that I’d done too good of a job of leaving things behind in the West: I didn’t have money for the subway and bus from Checkpoint Charlie back to Haumersens. That would be a very long walk. 

Actually not. Because while the Wall blocked people from crossing, phones worked. (Go figure.) So I was able to call from Hildegard’s place to Haumersens and ask for someone to meet me at Checkpoint Charlie. I felt silly and embarrassed and hoped that my phone call across the border wouldn’t land Hildegard’s family in trouble. They were after all very nice to me. But then again, did this mean that anybody in East Berlin could call anybody in the West anytime, or had I stumbled on a special line? I think they could, but I still wondered about it.

The last thing I did before heading back to West Berlin, was to give the girls all my East German money. On entering, everyone was required to exchange something like 10 or 15 DM for East German Marks. But you couldn’t take any out with you when you left. Just a handy way for East Germany to get hard Western currency.

So I gave it to the girls figuring they could get ice cream or something.

It had been a fun afternoon. A bit perplexing, because I never felt I could really relax. Always a sense of being watched. Certainly anyone could tell that I wasn’t from East Berlin. Especially when I got off the main, downtown areas where tourists usually went.

I got back to the border control point and went through the lengthy process to leave the German Democratic Republic. Then the walk across the no-man’s land to Checkpoint Charlie where an American MP or 2 were lounging around. Near there, Mrs. Haumersen and her daughter waited for me with tickets for subway and bus.

Later the Haumersens were quite curious about my experience in East Berlin that afternoon. And they reminded me of the things I didn’t know about the family I’d just visited over there. While everything about Hildegard’s family seemed so regular middle class in the west (and a lot like the Haumersens), to Mr. and Mrs. Haumersen, there was more than met the eye. They weren’t convinced that Hildegard’s family was just regular middle class working East Germans, but rather had to have connections and be on a more select level.

I kept writing to Hildegard, but never got back over there to see her or her family again. And eventually the letters petered out. Like most penpal relationships do.

The Wall stayed where it was. I didn’t expect it to ever go away.

“The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years.”

GDR head of state Erich Honecker, East Berlin, January 19th 1989. 

The Wall actually came down on November 9, 1989. People were finally free to cross the border in any direction, at will. In 1990, Germany was reunified. GDR no longer existed.

In the summer of 1990, I was back in Berlin. It was now 7 months after the Wall fell. Actually the very day when the currencies of the formerly 2 countries were turned into one. I celebrated by traveling freely across the former border.

While chipping off a piece of the Wall for a keepsake, I wondered how things had gone for Hildegard and her family in all this change. And still wonder if what I saw there was just a regular family, trying their best to be a family and make it in a very different political system, or if there really was more to them than met the eye. 

Who knows, perhaps I’m even in a few entries in some now old Stasi files as the kid who came in from the West and left again.

“One has to keep in mind the countless human tragedies that played out in these days. Through the middle of a city, where several thousand connections existed daily, despite administrative division, the concrete pillars were driven into the border, which was expanded like a Chinese wall.”

Willy Brandt, mayor of West Berlin, in speech before parliament on August 18, 1961, shortly after construction on the wall started.

For more about the Berlin Wall, please read my post Walls and fences — to keep us apart.

Also watch the movie The Lives of Others for a very real portrait of life in East Germany circa 1983.