An incident at Friedrichstrasse Station

The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 have caught the world by surprise. Another momentous event that caught everyone on the hop was the construction of the Berlin Wall. It happened quite unexpectedly on 13th August 1962. During the early hours of that morning the East German army closed the border into West Berlin by putting up barbed wire. The infamous concrete wall began to go up in 1965. The wall was built to stop an exodus of East Germans fleeing to the West. It was there for nearly 30 years and during that time hundreds of East Germans were killed while attempting to go over, under or through the Berlin Wall. The last person to be shot dead while trying to cross the border was Chris Gueffroy in February 1989. In November 1989 the Wall started to be dismantled.

The Berlin Wall was a legacy of World War Two. After the war the victorious allies carved-up Berlin into four sectors. The Russian sector became known as East Berlin. The French, British and American sectors became known as West Berlin. Berlin was inside communist East Germany (110 miles on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain). Thus, West Berlin was a small island of capitalism in a communist sea, an island surrounded by a wall, to prevent people from reaching it’s shores.

During my late teens and early 20s I visited Berlin many times. Berlin has always been a vibrant city, and West Berlin during the Cold War years was a wild place. By ‘wild’ I don’t mean it was lawless –for a large city it was relatively safe – more, it had an ‘edge’ to it. The city was at the sharp end of the Cold War and the large military presence – enemies standing nose to nose – was a constant reminder that World War Three could kick off at any moment. ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die’.

My travelling companion was nearly always my friend Mark, and we always went by train. The huge departures board at London’s Victoria Station has a small international section, so as well as mundane destinations such as Norbury, Hackbridge and Caterham there was also exciting and mysterious destinations such as Warzawa, Moskva and of course Berlin. It was an 18 hour journey, consisting of a short hop down to Dover, a ferry across to Oostende, and then the long haul across northern Europe on the old Ost-West Express. This journey was part of the Berlin experience, because the train crossed the Iron Curtain as it passed from West Germany to East Germany. There were no border controls on the western side, but on the eastern side you got the full works. For the uninitiated it could be quite a frightening experience: the long, tedious business of customs and immigration conducted by stone-faced border guards; the search of the entire train from top to bottom, even behind roof and wall panels; barbed wire, search lights, fierce dogs and abusive, unfriendly soldiers waving around machine guns. The bleak, unrelenting, granite-like atmosphere of the east crushed the spirit, and when they did finally let you into the worker’s paradise you knew they could do anything they wanted with you. In a funny sort of way, providing you had the necessary paperwork and obeyed the rules, it was a bit like being in a Disney theme park, but this one was called Totalitarian Land.

After crossing the Iron Curtain the Ost-West Express used to travel for more than a 100 miles, and then you’d get another dose of Totalitarian Land, on the border crossing from East Germany to West Berlin. During those periods when the Cold War grew hotter, these border crossings could take many hours. Travellers going beyond Berlin, on to Warsaw and Moscow, got a third dose of it as the Ost-West Express left West Berlin and entered the Russian sector of the city.

Of all the trips to Berlin one still stands out in my mind. It was Christmas 1982. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. US president Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “The Evil Empire”. The Soviets targeted Pioneer ballistic missiles at western Europe. Reagan deployed nuclear cruise missiles to US bases in Europe. Relations between the USA and USSR were at their lowest ebb since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963. Yup, during the early 80s those border crossings sure took a long, long time.

At the time Mark and I were both eighteen-years-old. Our main mission in Berlin was drinking and whoring, most of which took place in the western sector of the city. East Berlin was Totalitarian Land, worth a look only for curiosity’s sake. We’d already done that on a previous trip. However, in a bar on the Martin Luther Strasse we got talking to a guy who said he was a deserter from the Lebanese Army (Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and a vicious war was raging there). He also said he knew of a brilliant whorehouse in East Berlin: “the girls are cheap and they’re animals”. We obtained the address and decided upon a night time foray into the Russian sector.

Non-German westerners could only cross the Berlin Wall at two places: the rail crossing at Friedrichstrasse Station, and the road crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. If you were lucky, after going through the usual rigmarole, the East German border guards would give you a 24 hour visa. We got our visas at Checkpoint Charlie and after passing through reams of barbed wire we were in East Berlin. The next problem was to find the whorehouse, so we decided to take a taxi and show the driver the address. We eventually managed to find a taxi (they were a rare breed in East Berlin) but the driver didn’t seem to recognise the address. We spent some time driving around the drab streets, with Mark making an O shape with his thumb and forefinger, while thrusting another finger in and out of it, in an attempt to make the taxi driver understand where we wanted to go. But the driver was a die-hard communist and wasn’t very happy about two young westerners drinking and whoring in his city. The old, beat-up Wartburg screeched to a halt and we were told to get out.

Ok, no whoring, so we concentrated on the drinking and spent the rest of the evening going round the international hotels in East Berlin (where we knew we’d find a bar open). The Russian sector was very dimly lit at night and the streets were quiet. West Berlin, in complete contrast, was a blaze of light and colour and movement. Best of all, at very top of the Europa Center there was a disco and you could clearly see the flashing lights from East Berlin. It was all a bit like capitalism giving two fingers to communism.

We decided to head back to West Berlin, and since we were now only a few streets away from Friedrichstrasse station I suggested that we use the crossing there. Mark reminded me that with a 24 hour visa you have to leave East Berlin at the same crossing where you entered, and this rule was strictly enforced. If there’d been any damn taxis around, one of which could have taken us back to Checkpoint Charlie, I wouldn’t have made my next suggestion: let’s go to Friedrichstrasse and pretend we’ve lost our visas. Mark nodded in agreement, and for reasons that now escape me I hid both of our visas down one of my socks. By that time it was about 1am, and it was now Christmas Eve.

If you were crossing the Wall back to West Berlin you didn’t use the Friedrichstrasse Station building, which was mainly for trains to Poland and the USSR. Instead there was a customs hall to the right of the station. We showed our passports to two bored guards and were admitted inside. The hall was a large space with a high ceiling. It was cut in half by a line of fourteen very solid steel doors. The doors led into small booths with mirror walls, where you stood in bright light as the door locked behind you. You then placed your passport on a high counter, where it would be taken by a shadowy figure behind dark glass. The shadowy figure examines your passport very closely, and then stares at you very intently, comparing you to your passport photo. Then, depending on your business, either the door at the other end of the booth unlocks, and you go through to the railway platform and a train to the West, or you are arrested.

Only one booth was in operation that night. “Where is your visa?!” my shadowy figure asked me. I gave him the spiel about losing the visa and tried to act drunk, which wasn’t difficult. I told him my friend was outside and in a similar situation. The automatic lock buzzed and I opened the door and called Mark into the booth. We both stood there, grinning stupidly, while the shadowy figure asked us stupid questions. After a few minutes the automatic lock buzzed again. We were dragged out of the booth by four soldiers and made to sit in the customs hall. The soldiers guarded us, guns at the ready. I went to light a cigarette and had it slapped out of my mouth. When Mark and I tried to talk to each other we were told to be silent.

We sat there for about an hour, dozing, with guns pointed at us. Then, without warning, we were yanked up out of the chairs by our hair and pushed and shoved through a side door and down a long corridor. I think the rough treatment was because the soldiers were pissed-off at having to guard two drunken Englishman in the early hours of the morning. Or maybe they thought that MI6 or the CIA or whoever would be dumb enough to try and cross the Berlin Wall without the necessary paperwork. Me and Mark are both quite tall, and had short haircuts and during our travels together we were often mistaken for military types. Incidentally, as part of the Yalta Agreement military personel from both sides could travel freely in Berlin without visas, as long as they were wearing a uniform.

At the end of the long corridor we came to an unmarked door. One of the soldiers knocked and a muffled ‘herein’ could be heard. We were pushed through the doorway and found ourselves in a darkened room. A bright lamp on a desk was the only light, and it was shining straight in our eyes. Two of the soldiers left the room. The remaining two stood with their guns at the ready. “Who do you work for?” said a voice in the darkness behind the desk. Because it was all so theatrical I had to suppress a giggle. “Take that smirk off your face!” The room lights came on. After being dazzled by the lamp my eyes took a few moments to adjust. I noticed that Mark’s mouth was bleeding. The room had nothing in it except a desk and a filing cabinet in one corner. Seated behind the desk was a man who looked to be in his fifties. He had a balding head with silvery grey hair on the sides. I half expected him to be stroking a cat. I’m no expert on military uniforms, but I think he was a Captain.

“Empty your pockets”. We obliged, and then were made to stand with both hands on the desk and our bodies at an angle, so that all our weight was on our arms. The Captain took forever to minutely examine the junk we had disgorged from our pockets. My arms were beginning to hurt. I also started to feel fear. I was sobering up.

“Strip!” We pretended not to understand, even though it was said in perfect English. “I said take your clothes off!” The two soldiers pointed their machine guns at us and we began to undress. Oh gawd, we appeared to be at the mercy of a pervy Stasi Captain. However, the nudy stuff appeared to be an attempt to humiliate us, and to allow the Captain to minutely examine our clothes, which he took forever to do. We stood there shivering with cold. Being British I kept my socks on, and was allowed to do so.

Once he had finished with our clothes the Captain threw them to the floor in front of us; and again: “Who do you work for?” We were being confronted with classic Cold War paranoia, to which there was no easy answer. The Captain nodded to the soldiers, who drew back the bolts on their machine guns. Scare tactics, but it was too much for Mark, who blurted out everything to the Captain. I was told to take my socks off. The Captain held the Checkpoint Charlie visas in his hand and gave us a headmasterly telling off. Then: “Here are your passports, now get out of my sight”.

No longer rough handled, but still naked and clutching our clothes, we were taken down more echoing corridors, and, thrown into a cell. Hmm, this didn’t seem to be over quite yet. As we got dressed we debated the point: Friedrichstrasse was a 24 hour border crossing and international trains passed through all night. If they were letting us go they would have put us on a platform to the West, not in a dark, dingy cell.

We were not pondering this for long before the cell door opened and someone else was shoved in to join us. A man with black shaggy hair and a beard and built like a brick shit house – he must have weighed at least 20 stone. The rough wooden bench in the cell groaned as he sat down and surveyed us with piggish eyes. Under one huge arm he had a crate of beer; under the other arm a bundle wrapped-up in newspaper. He wore a grubby white t-shirt, cheap flared jeans and steel shod boots.

“I hate the Communists. They are pigs”, he said in not-so-bad English.

He spat on the floor and offered us a beer, which we readily accepted. His name was Boris and there was an instant camaraderie between us, the sort you get when, well, when you’re locked up together in a cell. Boris took the cap off the bottle with his teeth and downed the beer in one go. He then produced a packet of East German cigarettes. He didn’t take one for himself. Another bottle cap was bitten off and he told us that he was from Katowice, in Poland, and was on his way to visit relatives in France. Lucky relatives.

“It will be good to get out of this stinking place” he said with a loud belch.

I asked Boris what was in the newspaper parcel. He unwrapped it to reveal three wet fish. A boyish grin spread across his face. “For my mother, in France.” We all laughed, Mark and I with the thought of what Boris’ mother must look like.

“Are you a communist?” Boris pointed to the red tie I was wearing. “I work in a factory making their shitty cars that fall apart after a year.”

I told him I was left leaning, although at that moment in time I was leaning more from the effects of the beer. Boris was particularly interested in what Mark and I were doing in East Berlin, and kept asking lots of questions; and so the hours and the beer disapeared thus.

At around 6am our cosy little world was disrupted as the cell door clanged open. Boris was taken away by a guard. The Pole had been a bit of a distraction, and he had brought beer and cigarettes with him. Now Mark and I were left with the fact that we were incarcerated, in East Berlin. Our mood was lifted some 30 minutes later when we heard the sound of footsteps, and then keys jangling in the lock. “Out!” We didn’t need encouraging and followed the guard down more corridors, until we came to a dead end with a steel door. Our monosyllabic guard unlocked the door and swung it open. “Go!” Once again we didn’t need encouraging and stepped through the doorway. After the dimly lit cell and corridors the bright morning light blinded us. It was also freezing cold, which revived us somewhat.

We were on a platform of the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn station. The S-Bahn is Berlin’s elevated railway. It was boycotted by West Berliners (the trains in the western half of the city were amost always empty) because it was owned and operated by the East Berlin authorities. West Berliners used the U-Bahn subway system instead.

There was no chance of Mark and I boycotting the S-Bahn, because the next train that came along would take us to the West. Cold War paranoia started to grip us when we realised that although we had got through the border controls, we were still in East Berlin. Supposing the Captain changed his mind, and decided to have another little chat with us? Where was that bloody train?!

The bloody train arrived ten minutes later. The S-Bahn system is old, dating back to pre-war, and our ‘train to freedom’ took its time gathering up speed as it pulled out of Friedrichstrasse Station. And then at high level across the Berlin Wall, a blur of barbed wire, watch-towers, fierce dogs and concrete. We pulled into Lehrter station, first stop in the West. Mark and I looked at each other. It had been a long night.

Due to that incident at Friedrichstrasse Station, I suppose I could say that I’m one of a small number of people who crossed the Berlin Wall without the necessary paperwork. Alas I cannot say I’m one of a small number who were detained at the pleasure of the East German authorities. I had my suspicions about ‘Boris’ almost right from the start. One thing I could never figure out though was those wet fish.

From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwordsnote: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.

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