The Day I Invaded East Germany

Gerald Grow
Oct 9, 2020 · 7 min read

At that moment, we both must have been contemplating what it would be like to spend the rest of our lives in an East German prison.

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Photo by Russ Widger on Unsplash

In the winter of 1964, I was waiting alone in the main railroad station of West Berlin to take a “boat train” north to Sweden. The boat train was a Cold War contrivance that allowed you to pass through East Germany without legally entering it. The Bahnhof, the huge central railroad station, straddled the line between East and West Berlin, so part of it was in West Germany, and behind an impenetrable barrier, part of it was in East Germany.

After buying a ticket for the boat train, you were escorted by machine-gun carrying guards into the East Berlin side of the station and locked into a guarded train. As the sealed train travelled through East Germany north to the sea, you were asked for your passport about twice an hour, marched onto a guarded ferry at the end, and set loose on a big ocean-going ferry to a free country.

With several hours to wait, I wandered around the Bahnhof with my backpack and notebook, making sketches, writing in my journal, watching the amazing array of human types that cross this nodal point of the world.

To pass time, I wandered in long loops away from my train’s gate and back to it. The first two loops took me past glittering shops packed with luxury goods and expensive fashions. The third loop took me through an area with few people in it. Empty scaffolds stood against the walls of an older section of the station. Several doors had been stripped for repainting, their signs removed. Curious, I tried a couple of them.

The first was locked. The second opened. Ahead, I could see the edge of a train platform. I stepped through to take a look. After the glitz of the Western side, this side was gray and shabby. Many of the tall, windows were dirty and cracked. In contrast to the lively bustle of West Berlin, there were hardly any people here, and those huddled in distinctly shabby coats. Far up the platform stood an armed guard.

I sauntered up the long railroad platform, looking at the run-down buildings outside. The area looked as if parts of it had never been reconstructed after the bombing of World War II.

The guard suddenly turned and approached me. He was not dressed like the snappy police of West Berlin, with their shiny leather boots and gun belts. He moved at ease in an old, full length overcoat of an indistinct olive color, as if he wanted to conserve motion. His rifle looked longer and older than those on the Western side. He reminded me of pictures I had seen of Russian soldiers at the front.

An educated young man, I could read German literature fairly well, and I knew the lyrics of a number of Bach cantatas. I would have had little trouble if two people had come up and sung a German Bible verse in the form of a fugue. But I couldn’t understand a word he said.

After a few moments of blank confusion, he held out his hand and made a click with his tongue. I understood that he was asking to see my passport.

He looked at it curiously, turned it over several times, slowly, looked at the back for some time, then paged through it thoughtfully, as if he was settling down for a long evening with a book. Gradually, an amused perplexity grew on his face. He turned the pages again and again, and the same words came up again and again.

Whatever he found came to focus in the form of a single question he asked me over and over, pointing each time to the last page in the passport — which was blank. He shook his head, made the click with his tongue, and looked at me as if I were a wayward son.

He stepped to a phone, and a second guard soon appeared out of the shadowy corridor. In a conspiratorial conference, they reviewed my passport and my ticket to the boat train. Again and again, they pondered the blank page in my passport.

They called a third guard, who seemed agitated by my presence. After another round of consultation about the blank page, the first guard stayed behind, while the other two took me up two winding flights of stairs to a small, gray office furnished with a single desk, behind which sat a man they treated as their Chief.

The Chief was a short, dark-haired, muscular man with the classic look of discipline and determination that some people seem to spend so much time rehearsing. As he listened to the guards and looked at my passport and my ticket (they spent a good deal of time pointing to the blank page), the expression on his face seemed to intensify into two directions at once. He simultaneously became more sternly official, and at the same time, more human and perplexed.

One of the guards poured out what sounded like a lengthy explanation of the blank a page in my passport. The Chief regarded me with official sternness. Then, accompanied by restless movements of his hand, the other guard spun some different explanation into the air about a foot up and to the right of his hat, while the Chief took on a look of growing perplexity. I understood a word here and there — door, platform, passport — but not what he was saying.

As the conference went on, the Chief’s face grew more stern — and more worried. Apparently, I was a problem.

After listening to his guards for some minutes, the Chief asked me several questions any beginning German student could answer: What-is-your-name? Where-are-you-going? German is an easy language to pronounce well, and I had not yet learned that my bookishly correct pronunciation gave Germans the mistaken impression that I understood their language better than I actually did. He then spoke to me at length in curt, rapid tones, frowning sternly and pointing again and again to the blank page in my passport, until he realized with frustration that his forceful appraisal of the situation was having no effect upon me — because I couldn’t understand him. I could only see that he was suspicious, displeased — and strangely worried.

Slowly and patiently, he asked me again and again who-I-was, where-I-was-going, and how-I-got-here. I told him my name, said I was a student, that I was traveling from West Berlin by the boat train to Sweden during my vacation, and that I had walked through an unmarked, unlocked door onto the platform where the guard found me.

Patiently, but with increasing worry, he made clear to me in slow, simple words that I had illegally entered East Germany. I had no official permission to be there. And, since I had not officially entered the country, I could not officially leave.

The blank page in my passport was crucial because, for me to leave the country, that page needed a stamp proving that I had entered it.

Since I was on a wandering vacation trip at the time and had no deadlines to meet, I wasn’t bothered by spending a few hours in a guard headquarters in East Germany. I even decided it would be interesting to see a corner of the world none of my friends would ever get to.

But a moment came when the Chief and I leaned back and stared into each other’s faces with what I believe was the same realization. If I was really there without official permission, he would have to arrest me. But if he arrested me, he would have to take the blame for permitting me to penetrate the section of the border under his guard. And why was the door unlocked? Were they smuggling contraband — cigarettes? liquor? What had I walked into?

At that moment, we both must have been contemplating what it would be like to spend the rest of our lives in an East German prison.

Suddenly, he snapped out of it. Confidence flowed back into his features. He called the third guard back in and questioned him. They called the second guard, who was sent to bring in the guard who had found me.

When the first guard arrived — easy-going, friendly, with a rifle nearly as long as he was slung over his shoulder — the Chief spoke to him in a tone I had not heard that day. It was a tone that told me the problem had been resolved. It was a fatherly, friendly tone, the tone of One Who Knew How, speaking to others Who Know How. There was some secrecy among the guards, but it was a confident and knowing secrecy. They suddenly looked upon me as no longer a threat.

The Chief handed back my papers and my ticket and attempted to lecture me in quick, stern tones — but the relief in his voice gave him away.

He finished quickly, sat down, and vanished into some paperwork. The two guards marched out with official finality, leaving me with the easy-going guard who had found me. He looked me in the eye, raised his eyebrows with quiet amusement, clicked his tongue and gave a little jerk of his head.

I followed him down the two flights of stairs, through a maze of corridors, back to the now-deserted train platform where he had found me. He looked far up and down the platform, stealthily unlocked a side door, and escorted me down a gray hallway.

There, he unlocked a second door, and, with the click of his tongue and the little jerk of his head, nudged me through it. I found myself suddenly surrounded by the glitter and bustle of the West Berlin side of the train station.

The last I saw of the guard was his face — amused, kindly, and openly comical — as the door closed between us. His expression told me that I was not a problem, not as far as East Germany was concerned, because they had never seen me — and I had never been there at all.

Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor. More at longleaf.net.

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Gerald Grow

Written by

Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor, cartoonist, and photographer. More at longleaf.net.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Gerald Grow

Written by

Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor, cartoonist, and photographer. More at longleaf.net.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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