The time: Summer of 1951.
The place: A small town a few kilometers from the border inside the Russian sector in East Germany.
That border, the one my father, his parents and three siblings, fled across that night, would become one of the world’s most heavily fortified frontiers, defined by a continuous line of high metal fences and walls, barbed wire, alarms, anti-vehicle ditches, watchtowers, automatic booby traps and minefields. It would be patrolled around the clock by 50,000 armed GDR guards. [source: Wikipedia]
It was very simple: Russia, having lost thousands of men during the war against Germany, needed workers. After the war ended, they began scouting German villages in their sector for able bodied craftsmen. Welders and carpenters, blacksmiths and painters, all were in high demand. Those were the fathers who had just returned from the war, now trying to build their families and lives in peace. Whoever would be taken by the Russian authorities, would disappear and end up in a mine somewhere deep inside Russia, never to return.
My grandfather was one of them. Being a master craftsman, he knew, they all knew, that it was only a matter of time for him. So he left, crossed the yet relatively open border to stay with friends on the other side for a year.
The second, not less terrifying prospect was the imminent closing of the border.
My grandmother, now alone with four children, was friends with the soccer coach who knew one of the border guards. For one year, knowing where the guards were at any given time, she smuggled their belongings on her back at night, through a stretch of forest and to the other side – the free side.
And then, on a Wednesday morning at 2:30 am, when the guards had just passed through their part of the border, they fled. Taking with them only what they could carry on their backs, my grandmother and her four children, ranging from six to fourteen, made their way through the woods. They landed in a small village in West Germany where friends took them in and they reunited with my grandfather. Here, the six of them stayed in one room for a year. My grandfather worked as a painter and my grandmother helped the family who had taken them in.
They began to rebuild their lives and family in peace.
I was born fifteen years later.