Nineteen-fifty-seven was a mixed year. We were in the middle of the cold war and it was hotting up. The Soviet Union was sending one satellite after the other up into orbit. One satellite even had a dog, Laika, on board. That is how they celebrated their forty year existence by scaring the shit out of the West. It looked like the West had lost the Space race.
In February Uta’s maternal Grandma, Olga , passed away in an East-Berlin hospital. Uta had visited her on the night before and took some pineapple pieces to her Grandma enjoyed them very much. Not bad as your last meal on earth.
In August of that year our daughter Gaby was born. Despite our happiness having her our life did not look that rosy. For me the year started with having a new job, but I still managed to finish the year without one. At least I had a new job lined up for the beginning of 1958, but not in Berlin.
Towards the end of 1957 we were going to lose our rented room at the flat of Uta’s Aunt Ilse. The aunt was moving to West-Germany, as her husband was to be stationed as a Navel Air Pilot with the new German Navy.
At the end of the year I had an argument with the manager at my job and was consequently sacked. So, we were looking for accommodation and a job. With a baby we had little prospects of finding accommodation in Berlin. We decided to move to Düsseldorf where Uta’s Dad lived. He had offered us a room and job prospects were better there too. I found a job and I was to start on the 2nd of January.
Just before Christmas ’57 we packed our few things, mostly books and stuff for the baby, bought a train ticket and left our beloved Berlin for a better future.
In those days it was not really a simple matter to move from West-Berlin to West-Germany. We had to travel by over-night train through another country, East-Germany or the German Democratic Republic, the workers paradise. On the way we had to pass through two checkpoints. One from Berlin to the GDR and then again from the GDR to West-Germany.
There weren’t many trains each day and we were lucky to get on the night train. It stopped at Zoo Station, the main station in West-Berlin, to pick us up. The train was run by the East-Germans. We had booked seats in a compartment which we shared with an East-German couple. As it turned out.
Our luggage and the pram was booked in and was secure in the luggage van at the end of the train. We carried only what we needed over night, for us and the baby, and that was plenty. Gaby was never the quiet baby. She wanted our attention all the time and was interested in what was going on around her. She was right awake and clung to her Mum as we settled into the compartment. There wasn’t much light. After a while we actually saw that the other couple were young too, but had no children with them. As it turned out they were on a family visit to West-Germany for which they had special permission to leave the country.
In December the sun sets around 4.0o pm and our train journey would be in the dark of night, all the way to Düsseldorf. The curtains were drawn and we did not see anything outside. The train moved slowly through the Western suburbs of Berlin. The first stop was at Wannsee, still in West-Berlin, and from there we would cross the first border. Slowly the train crawled through no-man’s-land. In East-Germany the train stopped again and the border control of the People’s Police joined the train. Outside dogs were barking and all the clichés you have heard about and seen on TV were reality here. Heavy boots went along the corridors and we were reminded of World War II. Voices were heard barking commands.
The door of our compartment flew open and two stern looking policemen were throwing glances at us and demanded our Ids. We, as West-Berliners, were not much of concern to them, but the two East-Germans were. They had to show their travel permits and their Ids. Where are you going? Why are you going? Open your suitcases and on it went.
When they inspected the content of their suitcases they found some food: Salami, Speck and other goodies from the farms of the GDR.
“Don’t you know it is ‘verboten‘ to take saleable food items out of the GDR?” they asked.
“It is all for personal consumption,’ the woman answered, “and by the way, we are not allowed to take anything from the starving people of the BDR. They said so on our state radio the other day.”
The policemen heard the sarcasm but the woman was right, it had been on the news. The police could not say anything any more. They took note of the Ids of the people and left our compartment and even wished us all a pleasant journey.
Our train was a so called “Inter-zonal-train” and belonged to the GDR, but it run according to an agreement of the four occupying powers who still administered Germany. In the adjacent compartment a shop was set up from which snacks, cigarettes and drinks were sold. West-Berliners had to pay the same amount with Deutsche Mark (West) as East-Germans paid in Deutsche Mark(East). This would be a nice little earner for the GDR as the exchange rate on the ‘free market’ was about 4:1. Meaning one received 4 East-Mark for 1 West-Mark. The actual prices in East and West were very similar and you can see from that, that West-Berliners could make a killing if they got away with paying in East Mark!
The most famous example is the beer-bottle exchange. The price for beer and the bottle deposit in the East was less then even the bottle deposit one was able to get in the West and then exchanged 4:1 for East Mark. You had more money in your pocket than the original bottle costs in the first place. That means after you bought the first bottle you had free beer for ever.
But on the train a different “law” applied. A bottle of beer cost one Mark . When ordering a bottle we had to show our ID card. There wasn’t any deposit. The other young man liked his beer as much as I did and we came quickly to an agreement.
I invited him to free beer. I gave him 1 Mark (West) and he bought four bottles of beer with his money; showing his ID. I got two bottles for the price of one and he got his two bottles free, as he could later exchange the West-Mark into 4 East-Mark and therefore getting his money back. Of course he could also use the money for shopping in the West, buying goods that were unobtainable in the East. This way he could even make more money selling those goods in the East on the Black Market. All this were consequences of our divided country.
The train did not pick up much speed. It was an old steam train and the noise from the hard working steam engine was our constant companion. At least it was warm in the compartment. Uta had made a bed for Gaby on the seat and she finally fell asleep, giving us a bit of a rest. A blanket was hanging down from the luggage rack and protected her from any incoming light. We were all talking and joking and consuming the half-price beer, in my case, and the free beer in the other man’s case. The deal was not that outrageous as he took a big risk. What he did was against the currency laws in the GDR and could have earned him a stint in jail.
Around midnight we approached Marienborn, the East-German border town. The train staff announced that all people with luggage in the parcels van should, when the train stopped at the border, come to the van and show their luggage tickets. Any luggage that could not be checked off with a passenger on the train would be taken off and confiscated.
When the train came to a halt on an open field I had to climb off the train and walk a long way to the end of the train in about 30 cm of snow. I stumbled along on the uneven ground, in the dark, beside the railway track. It was bitter cold and a long queue of people was waiting at the van to be processed. We all swore and thought it was outrageous. And indeed it was. When we finally reached the open door of the parcels van the guard of the train gave the luggage ticket a cursory glance. Nothing else – no checking off – nothing. We could go back all the way to our carriage. It was sheer chicanery.
The obnoxious People’s Police left the train and the train proceeded at a snail’s pace through the no-man’s land till it came to a halt at the West-German border town of Helmstedt. We felt free again and celebrated with another bottle of beer.
We all got tired and were even able to sleep a few winks. I have forgotten where the East-German couple got off the train or whether indeed they stayed on after we got off at Düsseldorf . We caught the tram to Derendorf, a suburb of Düsseldorf, to a cheery welcome from my father-in-law. It was the first time he saw his first grandchild. Later, during the afternoon I went back to the station to collect our luggage.
It was just a couple of days before Christmas. We did not do much Christmas shopping in that year. On Christmas Eve Uta’s dad put up the Christmas tree. He did it in the afternoon as is the tradition in Germany. The tree itself was waiting on the balcony for its few glorious days.
In late afternoon we dressed up and took Gaby to her very first Christmas Eve. As we walked across the hall to the living room we noticed that the light from the tree shone through the glass in the door and formed a star like pattern. We took it as a good omen and walked into the living room. Gaby’s eyes lit up when she saw the candles on the Christmas tree.
We hoped for a new and better future for us.