Escape to the West
By Evelyn Selig
I was 10 years old and living with my parents in East Berlin, when on the morning of August 13, 1961 we received news that the border between East and West Berlin was closed. At that time my father was working in West Berlin, in the French Section. (The Berlin we were living in after the war was actually divided into 4 sections – the American, French and British in the West and the Russian Section in the East).
Our lives were changed completely on that day. My father wasn’t able to go to work anymore. We couldn’t travel to West Berlin anymore to visit relatives, go to the movie theatres or go shopping. We felt like prisoners.
My father was a very active member of the Social Democratic Party. Shortly after the Wall was built the party was forbidden in the East and therefore had to go underground. My Father, of course, was very unhappy with the new situation and tried to find a way to get us to West Berlin. At some point he considered perhaps escaping through the sewage system to West Berlin – but my mother refused. It was too scary and unpredictable.
Living in East Berlin as a 4th and 5th grader, I felt like my family was different and that we had a secret life. Most of the kids in my class were members of the communist youth organization ‘Junge Pioniere’, but my father wouldn’t allow me to be a member. It would have become a problem getting older, but not so much at my age.
My father’s party friends in West Berlin arranged for us to get false passports with new identities. On November 27, 1962, we were picked up by a stranger in East Berlin in a VW Beetle car with a CD (Diplomatic Corp) license plate. At this point Diplomats only had to show their passports when crossing over the border. Later, the boarder guards kept track of how many people traveled by the car and how many of them returned.
It was hard for me not being able to say goodbye to my best girlfriend. We said farewell to some close relatives who kept some of our belongings, as we were not able to take anything with us – only double layers of clothing.
As a 10-year-old girl, I didn’t fully understand the danger and the risk we took as a family to escape. I remember sitting in the car while the boarder guard was looking at our passport. I tried to give off the impression of what I thought would be a girl from the West – confident, not afraid and a little bit arrogant. The driver got us safely through Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse. It was a very happy moment as you can imagine. I always felt very grateful for our relatively easy and successful escape, especially thinking about all the other people who got caught or killed when trying to cross the border.
Some of our friends in East Berlin had to crawl into a very narrow space between the car’s built-in second floor. A mother with her child tried to escape the same way, but got caught when the child was moving and making noises. From that point on, the border guards used dogs and started to measure the height of a car to catch escaping people.
In 2006, I visited the ‘Museum at Checkpoint Charlie’ in Berlin – a museum about the Wall’s history. My mother and I were very emotional while remembering and feeling the suffering of all the people who tried to escape East Germany, but we also saw the good fortune of many people who made it like our family.
Our new life in West Berlin began, and my Father was able to work at the same company he worked for before the Wall was built. I appreciated that in the West, I could say whatever I wanted. In East Berlin my parents told me what things I should not tell anybody, like our political opinions, the fact that we were reading West Newspapers and watching West TV. In other words, all things that people in East Germany were not allowed to do.
It wasn’t until the amnesty in 1968 for all people who escaped that we were finally allowed to travel through East Germany and visit our relatives. After 1968, we were able to get a day visa and visit East Berlin. The border crossing was always a very unpleasant and uncomfortable experience. There was always the feeling that suddenly everything could change and we would be taken away. East Berlin always felt very grey and joyless to me, and people were very reserved and didn’t look healthy.
My father couldn’t imagine that the Wall might fall one day, but it happened overnight on November 9, 1989 – just like it was built, overnight.
At that point I lived in West Berlin and getting the news of the open border and people simply walking into the West, it blew my mind. It was a miracle! Soon after I felt there must be God. (I was an atheist up to this point in my life). I felt this change was not man-made!
Later I understood that if people are clear about what’s wrong, they are able to do the right thing. People have to know that they are not powerless. Everybody-all-at-once walked to the West and nobody could keep them back!