This article was originally published in November 2017.
This week we celebrated the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and we were introduced to a short but poignant story about one person’s experience at the time when the wall and the Berlin’s divide was at its worst, so we thought we’d share it here. We changed the names of the people depicted in the story. Estelle Wolfers is based in Cambridge, and is currently studying for a PhD on the Court of Justice of the EU. Originally from Macclesfield in Cheshire, Estelle has also lived in Germany and Sweden. She gave us this brilliant account of one of the many stories of escape in East Berlin.
Heinz was born in East Berlin. His father had been on the other side of the divide when the border was closed, so he was effectively being raised by a single mother, apart from occasional letters from his father. Because her husband was in the GDR, Heinz’s mother was watched all the time and when Heinz was seven, his mother decided that this was the time that they should get out. In those days the Berlin metro ran through both halves of the city and stopped at all the stations, but people’s identity cards were checked by a pair of guards in each car, so East Berliners couldn’t get out in West Berlin.
His mother told him that they would get on the metro at home time for the local primary schools and she was going to pick out a West German family who had children and tell him to go and stand with them. Then when they got out, he was to try and get out with them and once they were out of the station, he should explain that he was trying to escape and that his mother would try and follow and if she didn’t succeed immediately, she’d keep trying at the same station. She put a letter in his pocket with her name and address and a description of something she would wear to be recognised.
It all happened as she had planned – he got out with a family with several children, bravely introduced himself and handed over the letter. The mother of the family turned out to be a wonderful find – she took him home with her children and contacted his father, and helped look out for our friend’s mother every day. It was three weeks before his mother finally managed to get off the train herself, to be met by her husband and her son’s rescuer. Soon afterwards, the two sides of the metro were uncoupled – trains stopping at stations in West Berlin no longer stopped in East Berlin and vice versa. The two families stayed in touch and I would imagine that the fall of the wall had a special poignancy for them.