A Most Curious Activity
by James D. Sanderson
Dear Mr. Sanderson,
It is with sincere gratitude that I will relate to you some of the events of my life here in Berlin. Quite by accident, (or was it fate?), my fiancé went shopping in the western sector of our city on Saturday
the 12th of August, in the year 1961. The hour grew late so she decided to spend
the night at her sister’s house. She sometimes did this and I gave it not
May I take a moment to describe my fiancé – my liebchen – to you?
Her hair was dark and short and it smelled vaguely of a peeled green stick. It
was, perhaps, her shampoo. I do not know.
She was quite athletic, having been a gymnast in school, so she was firm to the touch and she vibrated with life like
a wind-up toy of some sort. Her eyes, too, were vibrant; blue in color. Her lips were drawn close together into a permanent pout which in her case was not
an unfortunate look, but one that seemed quite natural for her face. In a group
photograph with her classmates she stands right out. There is no mistaking her
That night, at midnight, there began in the heart of our city a most curious activity.
After the war our country was divided between the Soviets in the east – that which later became known as the
Warsaw Pact – and the other allies in the west. Our city was divided between
the Soviet sector; and the western sector under the British, French, and you Americans.
It lent a sort of schizophrenic aspect to our lives. In those years before
1961 three and a half million people fled from the east to the west. Life under
the communists was not the best. I would have emigrated myself if it had not
been for the fact that my mother was ailing, and in need of care. We lived alone
in our East Berlin flat; my father had been killed in the war.
How is it that on that very night at midnight the authorities decided to divide our city with a wall; not a wall to
keep enemy hoards out, but to keep their own people in? Die Mauer, as it came
to be called. The Wall. Trucks filled
with men and construction material arrived up and down the line. Concrete was
laid. Wooden structures were erected. Barbed
wire was installed. In one night all 77 East/West crossings were blocked and
manned with armed soldiers. In that one night the hole in the ‘Iron Curtain’
as Winston Churchill called it – the hole that was Berlin – was plugged.
I would not be allowed out, and my fiancé Gerta Nagel would not be allowed back in.
The East German authorities called it the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. The
Anti-Fascist Protection Wall. Their intention was to stop the drain of workers
and technicians and professional people moving to the west. After all, what kind
of country would the German Democratic Republic be without any people in it? The
97 mile wall around Berlin was only the last part of what had become a 559 mile border fence with guard towers, obstacles,
dogs, armed patrols, an open strip ‘kill zone’, mine fields., antitank ditches, pillboxes, and bunkers that extended
from the Bay of Lübeck on the north to the Czech border on the south.
I was frantic, Mr. Sanderson, as you can imagine. When I considered my
choices – that of leaving my poor mother behind to suffer alone, or to live without my beautiful fiancé – I was
torn in half just like my city.
My mother told me I should go. “I am an old woman now and my life
is useless. You should go and live the future for me.”
The Wall was not yet solid. People were still making their way across. On the 15th of August a border policeman simply abandoned his post and escaped across
the wire. But I could not conceive of such a plan. Though I missed my Gerta greatly, I absolutely could not bring myself to leave my mother behind. My beloved fiancé, also, would have urged me to stay with my mother, I am certain of it.
In the mean time people kept making their escapes hidden in cars or ramming the barriers with trucks, or slipping through
on foot; and the wall became firmer with each passing day. Houses near the border
were torn down. Sewer lines were walled off.
Every time someone escaped the authorities countered it by filling in the gap behind them. I felt as if there was a constriction round my chest growing tighter and tighter. Some days I felt I could not even breathe.
In October there occurred a stand-off between American tanks and Soviet tanks at the crossing called Checkpoint Charlie. For hours the tanks held their positions on either side of the border while the rest
of us held our collective breath. We all knew that one false move; one accidental
round fired, and we were going to be enmeshed in the third world war. But in
a way it was even worse when the tanks backed away from the border. Now we knew
with all certainty that we were walled in, and that the West could do nothing to liberate us.
Time passed. Christmas came. None
of us were much in the spirit of Christmas but I bought my mother a gift just the same.
I brought it home – a small silver box for her everyday jewelry – on Christmas eve. When I entered the flat I knew right away that something was different.
Everything was so still; so silent, that I knew something was wrong. The
place normally breathed with the life of my mother.
I found her in the bedroom, lying on top of the quilt fully dressed. She
was dressed for her own funeral. There was an empty bottle for pills on the table
beside her bed. There was a glass of water, nearly empty. Wasn’t it just like mother to prepare everything just so. There
was a small yellow note paper with my mother’s handwriting on it. “Live
the future for me,” was all it said.
For the longest time I could not move. I looked down into her face; so
peaceful now. So familiar and yet now, without the usual animation of her smile
and her twinkling eyes or, more increasingly lately, the beleaguered look of pain, I could not say that I knew her. Soon, I knew, she would be confined to the cold earth and the images I had of her in my memory would meld
together to become a single image that would emerge whenever I thought of her in fond recollection.
Of course I knew why she had done it. She was setting me free to go and
make good my escape to once again be with Gerta Nagel. That was becoming more
difficult with each passing day, however. After mother’s funeral I set
my mind in earnest to a plan that would free me at last. Nothing came immediately
to mind. I did not want to involve my friends, even in the knowledge of it. What kind of friend would I be, after all, if I put any of them in a position of danger
because of my own selfish schemes?
We passed into the new year – 1962 – before a plan finally established itself in my mind. I decided upon a tunnel. And so it was that my own life became
also a most curious activity. After all what did I, a lowly government clerk,
understand about digging a tunnel? Nothing whatsoever.
First it was necessary for me to find a viable place to dig. After some
searching I found a wooden shed with a dirt floor that was not far – a few hundred meters – from the wall. I could pile dirt up inside the shed until I had the opportunity to dispose of it
later. I took a shovel and a metal bucket and concealed them there. I was cautious to insure the border guards did not have reason to notice me. My comings and goings were seen to be routine. Still, I could
not start digging until late spring, so my days passed in agonizing slowness.
From time to time I checked on my little shed to be sure it had not been inspected or my spade and bucket trifled with. At last, in May, I decided it was time to begin.
Fortunately the soil under our Berlin is sandy and not solid or hard-packed.
Since I am little used to physical labor, it took some time to get my muscles in shape for such laborings. With the first thrust of the shovel into the dirt of the floor of the shed I felt a sudden exhilaration
such that I knew my freedom was only a month or two away. The hole began to form
in the bottom of the shed. I took bucket-full after bucket-full of dirt out the
door, being careful to keep the structure of the shed between me and anyone who might be patrolling the wall. I took the dirt out to the copse of trees that stood only a few meters behind the shed. There, I dumped the dirt and spread it around so as not to attract any attention. Such pains I took to avoid detection!
I dug down about six feet at an angle so I could access my tunnel. Then
it began to turn more and more toward my destination. Meter by meter I made my
way toward the wall and, beyond that, my freedom.
How can I describe for you how I felt, Mr. Sanderson, as I hauled bucket after bucket of dirt out of my tunnel? My soul seemed to become lighter with each load.
And to know that I was only a few meters under the feet of the border guards – that feeling was truly sublime. I always started digging in the late afternoon after work was finished for the day. On Saturdays I could work off and on all day.
My tunnel got so long that the air began to taste leaden, so foul it was. There
was no way I could penetrate to the surface for a breathing hole. I would just
have to suffer the bad air.
It was on a Saturday at about noon when the unimaginable happened. The
overburden collapsed down upon me while I was stretched out at the far end of my hole.
At first I could not breathe, so tightly packed down was the sand upon my back.
I panicked and began to scream, wasting what little air I had in there with me.
It was dark as the tomb. Instinctively I pushed up against the weight
of the burden and was able to purchase an inch, perhaps. With that move my life
was spared, I am now convinced. My left arm was pinned beside me and my right
was outstretched. In a state of complete terror I flexed the fingers of my right
hand, managing to push a little sand away with that motion.
I don’t know how long I was stuck in that position, barely breathing. Several
hours passed. I screamed myself hoarse, though I don’t know who I thought
was going to hear me. My head was swimming from lack of clean air. I was sure I would die down there in my tunnel.
At long last, and much to my surprise, hands grabbed hold of my boots and others cleared the sand out from around me. Friends had found me. They brushed the
sand away from my face – my eyes and my nose and mouth. I breathed real
“What a fool,” I heard someone say, though his voice was still muffled by the dirt in my ears. “Doesn’t even know enough to shore it up.”
It was true, of course. I was a fool.
When my rescuers finally had me clear of the hole I saw that my relief was to be short-lived. There, on either side of me, were two Volkspolizei armed with automatic rifles. They marched me away for interrogation and imprisonment.
“Border guards have orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to escape, you know,” my interrogator informed
me. I was supposed to be grateful to be alive, I guess. I was given two years in prison to contemplate just how grateful I was.
My Gerta believed I was dead. She knew I was going to attempt an escape. Then… nothing. Her sister tried
to convince her to find a new fiancé. To get on with her life.
Much happened in those two years. A young brick layer, eighteen years
old, tried to escape in August. Peter Fechter was his name. He was shot in that no-man’s land between the wires and was allowed to lay there for hours as he
slowly bled to death. Our border guards did not lift a finger to help him. He died there.
The following year, 1963, in June, the young American president
John F. Kennedy came to speak in Berlin. They say when he saw the wall first
hand he discarded his prepared speech and instead, speaking from the balcony of the Schöneberg Rathaus, told the people, “ich
bin ein Berliner”.
By 1964, I am told, there were seventy tunnels that were used to facilitate the escape of people like me. I didn’t try to find one. The police were keeping me
under close scrutiny and besides, I just didn’t have what it took any more. Spend
some time stuck in the ground like a worm and you will know what I mean. I had
to put my life back together again. I was not allowed to return to government
service even as a clerk, so I got a job at a bottling plant. There I spent the
next twenty five years of my life.
It wasn’t so bad. The economy in the east recovered some, and we
were even able to shop for the things we needed. I did sometimes lament the waste
I had made of my mother’s sacrifice on my behalf, but consoled myself that I had, at least, tried to make good my escape. I heard nothing from Gerta but I remained faithful to the possibility of her. I knew she had probably moved on with her life.
She had probably married. Had children.
But I never accepted the invitations of others girls; even those who were equally as attractive. No, my heart just wasn’t in it.
At this point the story of my life might have ended, sadly, if it had not been for the events of 1989. I don’t know what caused the explosion, but nearly overnight there were protestors in the streets
chanting ‘Wir sind das Volk’ – We are the People – and other such slogans. When Gorbachev came to visit, students shouted, ‘Gorbi! Gorbi!’ like he was a visiting rock
star. The Hungarians opened their border with Austria and East Germans began
to pour through it – some30, 000 by the end of that year.
How could the East German, GDR, authorities hope to keep order? Well,
we know now that they couldn’t.
I will never forget those most curious activities of that year. Hundreds
of thousands came out into the streets to protest. There was talk of a ‘Chinese
Solution’. That is, to treat demonstrators the way the Chinese had treated
their pro-democracy protestors at Tiananmen Square in June. But there were simply
too many of us. They couldn’t possibly shoot everyone.
There was a saying in West Berlin. “If the east-west barriers ever
come down you had better climb a tree, otherwise you will be trampled to death in the rush.” Well, I didn’t climb a tree, but I did witness the mad rush.
On November 9th at a televised press conference Günter Schabowski of the communist Central Committee was asked when
his citizens would be allowed to travel freely. He answered, “They can
go whenever they want, and nobody will stop them.”
His words opened a flood gate of people rushing to the border. Hundreds
of thousands appeared and began to shout, “Tor auf! Tor auf!” which
means, “Open the gate.” Young men from the western sector climbed
up onto the wall and began waving flags and cheering. A side gate was opened
and there was no stopping the people then from pouring through. I was one of
those. I was quite literally swept up and through the gate by the surge of the
crowd. Champagne bottles were opened and passed around. People tore pieces of the wall apart. Flowers were offered
to the border police. Everyone was cheering and hugging. It was total pandemonium.
Candles were lined up along the top of the wall and lit. We all shouted,
“Berlin ist frei!”
Of course I made my way from there to the house of my fiancé’s sister as fast as I could. Gerta herself opened the door. She had heard about the events
at the wall and had wondered if I might not show up. Tears were in her eyes as
she threw open her arms. No, she had never married, she said. She had never given up on ‘us’ any more than I had. We
embraced each other and sobbed until midnight. We could not speak – we
could scarcely breathe.
James D. Sanderson has been interested in great literature since he was young. Even as a boy he carried Tolstoy or Hemingway with him and was sometimes laughed at by his friends for
that. Now, however, he has established a successful blog, 'Literarary Greatness,'
at www.jamesdsanderson.blogspot.com where he explores the literary experience—reading great literature, tales of famous
authors, and his own writing—from within the creative eye. He is currently
working on a series of short stories about nonviolent direct action. His novel,
The Angelic Mysteries, is due out on his birthday, August 18.