Sunday, November 10, 2019

The wrong side of the Wall

It’s not really much of a story, but let me set the scene:
It’s the summer of 1966, and I’m a new college graduate turned loose on the world clutching my B.A. in mathematics. I think I’m all grown up and pretty hot stuff. In retrospect, I may have had a college degree, but graduating at eighteen doesn’t prove I’m smart; it just proves I was smart to drop out of high school and head straight to the university. I’m still eighteen, and as one of our past presidents has said, “When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid.”

My parents have just given me the best graduation present ever: a round-trip ticket to Europe with the promise of a subsistence pittance to be doled out if I present myself at an American Express office at selected intervals during the summer to prove that I’m still alive – enough money to eat regularly if I practice obvious economies like staying at youth hostels. The arrangement also encourages some economies like hitchhiking, which my parents didn’t think of and never found out about. But I wasn’t hitchhiking when I found myself on the wrong side of the Wall in Berlin. I got there quite innocently and conventionally via the direct train to Berlin.

A little more background: the Wall has been up for five years and even the most blithely apolitical Americans have heard horror stories aplenty. You know, tanks facing each other at Checkpoint Charlie, Vopos in towers with machine guns, attack dogs, all that. The stories got an extra zotz of realism for me because in college I had been rooming with a girl who went to high school in West Berlin and actually saw the Wall going up. Oh, and by the way, I had a minor in German and had spent two years improving my German conversation skills by chatting with my roomie, who had, no surprise, a Berlin accent.

So I’m pretty nervous about this train ride, but I want to see Berlin, at least the portion of it that’s still open to the free world. Promise all sorts of people that no, I won’t be so stupid as to set foot off the train during its passage through East Germany, I won’t get off until we’re safely in Berlin.

Then, watching the endless vista of potato fields rolling past the windows, I fall asleep.
I wake up hearing some kind of announcement about “Berlin something-or-other.” Panicky glance out the window: we’re stopped, it looks like a railway station in a city, the sign I can read says “Berlin something-or-other.” I hurl myself out of the carriage and find myself in a semi-deserted station late at night. The few other passengers hurry away; well, it’s night, they want to get home. There’s no big friendly information kiosk where I can ask for directions, but there’s a door in front of me. I go through it and find myself on a dark, semi-deserted street.

I may be young and stupid, but I do know that an eighteen-year-old girl has no business wandering around a strange city at night in search of the youth hostel. I don’t even have a map; I’d assumed I could pick one up at the train station when I arrived. Hadn’t figured on the station being so bleak and empty. With great satisfaction at my own intelligent decision, I hail the one taxi outside the station and give the guy the address of the hostel where I’d planned to stay.

That’s when it all falls apart. He gives me an incredulous look and says, “Lady, are you kidding me? That’s in West Berlin!”

After some argument (I keep telling him this is West Berlin, he keeps shaking his head) I get marched back into the railway station. And there are people to talk to now, oh yes indeed there are. They convince me that I am indeed in East Berlin. I complain that I’ve been misled. Where was the checkpoint? What happened to the big warning signs? Where were the officials? What about the VoPos? Nobody ever told me you could simply hop on a train in Frankfurt and ride straight into East Berlin without anybody so much as checking your passport!

But they want to look at my passport now, oh yes, they do. And they tell me I must be lying about how I got onto that street in front of the station, because the door I claim to have gone through is locked. It is always locked.

It’s locked now, that’s for sure.

Around this point I realize I could be in serious trouble, and that I am possibly not helping myself any by complaining in fluent German… and with a Berlin accent. So I make my only intelligent decision of the evening. I shut up and burst into tears.

After that I speak only English, beg for an interpreter, and (in between hysterical wails) listen with deep interest to the conversations going on around me. They paw through my possessions; the fact that my clothes are obviously not of Eastern manufacture is a point in my favor. And my passport, if it is a forgery, is a very good forgery… More in my favor, though, is that the porter they call in to interrogate about that unlocked door is decidedly shifty in his replies. Eventually the interrogators decide that the porter probably had some smuggling sideline that involved letting a buddy slip out of the railway station without passing the official checkpoint; that I really am a stupid Ami girl who doesn’t know that there are several railway stops in a big city like Berlin and that the train had already passed all the West Berlin stops; and, most important, that it won’t do the porter’s supervisor or his supervisor any good at all to draw attention to this little flaw in the security arrangements.

I get taken back through an official checkpoint with very, very little discussion, refrain from falling down to kiss the pavement of West Berlin, find a taxi and, this time, make it to the youth hostel. Which is still open, so it can’t have been as late as the deserted station and streets made me think. (I am told later that East Berlin after dark is essentially shut down; the glories of Communism at work.)

(Image: Scapler [CC BY-SA 3.0 (])


  1. How did they keep people from getting ON the train and escaping from the East that way?

  2. I have no idea! Seriously, though: I can only surmise that they paid more attention to west-bound passengers than to east-bound. I mean, there probably weren't a lot of people trying to sneak INTO East Berlin; that must have been how I fell through the cracks.

  3. Oh my goodness! I felt like I was reading a mystery novel!!! Hmmmmmm Perhaps you could turn this episode into a mystery book!!! Thanks for sharing...I was on pins and needles and couldn't wait to turn the page, I mean scroll down to see how you got home!

  4. Yeah, well, I'd hate to try writing a protagonist who was as stupid as I was back then...


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