Milestone Magazine

And then, the Wall fell

East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg gate after the opening of the East German border was announced in Berlin, in this file picture taken November 9, 1989. File photo

East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg gate after the opening of the East German border was announced in Berlin, in this file picture taken November 9, 1989. File photo  

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Families were broken, dreams crushed and futures rendered uncertain. But, hope prevailed. Three Germans narrate their survival stories to Anuradha Ananth Huggler.

Today, 25 years ago, the wall that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989 fell. Constructed by the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), it came to symbolise the ‘Iron Curtain’ that divided Western and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Three Germans, whose lives were affected by the wall, talk about what its fall meant to them.

Alexander Latotzky

“It’s hard for people to understand that Germans could also have been victims,” he says, stirring sugar into his coffee. We meet in a Berlin café near his apartment on a chilly autumn afternoon.

“When the Red Star replaced the Swastika, in Germany, nothing much changed in the concentration camps. I was born in one concentration camp and lived in another till I was two. The only difference was that they didn’t use the gas chambers. German prisoners died of cold and hunger. In Sachsenhausen, for example, one of three German prisoners — nearly 12,000 of 60,000 people — died of starvation. What ideology are we talking about here? It is merely an intellectual discussion.”

Latotzky was born in 1948 in Bautzen, a former Nazi concentration camp. When World War II ended, Bautzen was taken over by Soviet forces and was used to house German political prisoners. His mother was sent to Bautzen on trumped-up charges for reporting his grandmother’s rape and murder by two Russian soldiers.

“In Bautzen, my mother fell in love with a Ukrainian camp guard, a forced slave labourer under the Nazis. When the Russian authorities discovered that my mother was pregnant, my father was put on trial and shipped off to a Gulag in Siberia. My mother was told he had been killed. My mother and I were moved to the Sachsenhausen camp when I was barely eight weeks old. There was one bottle of milk for five babies. When the East German authorities took over in 1950, my mother was sent to a prison and I was put in a children’s home. I was two years old.”

From then, Latotzky lived in 10 children’s homes. The KGB used him as a hostage to force his mother to spy for them in West Berlin. He was eventually handed over to her in West Berlin in 1957. Soon after, the KGB discovered that her reports were a lie but it was too late. Latotzky finished his studies, got a job, married and raised a family.

“I heard about the Wall coming down the morning after it happened. Until then, I had locked all memories of my difficult childhood away. My wife and children didn’t know about my past. But the Wall’s fall released the floodgates. I went with them to Sachsenhausen to come to terms with my past and initiated a search for my father. I sent a letter to the mayor of the town where he was born. The mayor located my aunts, who forwarded the letter to my dad. In autumn 1999, I went to Kaliningrad to meet my father who I’d believed was dead.”

It is hard not be moved by Latotzky’s story and the understated manner in which he tells it. There were lots of people waiting at his father’s house to see him. Thereafter, they met several times in Russia and in Germany before his father died in 2004. Unfortunately, his mother had died in 1967, believing that her lover and the father of her son had been killed long ago.

“I don’t want to destroy my life thinking about the brutal and dark past. I have a beautiful family with my wife, children and grandchildren. I share my story with people because it helps to understand the past and prevent future wrongs. I’m happy that it is one Germany today.”

Regina Labahn

For Regina Labahn, the fall of the Wall was a bolt from the blue. “We couldn’t believe the news. Finally my husband and I could see our two sons again.”

In 1980, Regina and her husband Karl Heinz requested exit papers to leave the East for West Berlin.

However, in 1981, Heinz was arrested trying to leave and the State sent their two eldest children to a children’s home. Regina fled with her youngest son, Bert (then just four) to the island of Rügen where she sought shelter at a church. The pastor took them in but informed the Stasi, the East German secret police, leading to Regina’s arrest in 1982. Bert was sent to a children’s home.

“I was taken to Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi detention centre in Berlin. I was kept in solitary confinement for four months to ‘break’ me. The trial was a farce. The Stasi had already decided the verdict.” Regina was transferred to the infamous women’s prison in Hoheneck. Her cell mates were 34 murderers. The cells had three-tiered beds and two toilets with six small washing troughs. Food was boiled pig’s feet or fried blood with rotten potatoes. Her husband was held in other prisons.

“In 1986, we were finally released. My husband and I were told to leave the East in two hours with nothing but our exit papers. We were not allowed to see our children. The next year, we were reunited with our daughter Kati, who was 19. It was horribly painful to be separated from our sons. And then, the Wall fell! The very next day our son Rene came home. He fled at night from the children’s home and a friend brought him home. Not long after we were united with Bert.” Thanks to the kindness and support of the West German authorities and good schools, their family life stabilised quickly.

Hartmut Richter

When 18-year-old Richter tried to flee from Potsdam in East Germany in 1966, he was caught and jailed for three months. Seven months later, on August 26, he swam across the Teltow Canal separating the Potsdam region from West Berlin.

“I call August 27 my new birthday,” says the lively 66-year-old. “I had been working out and always enjoyed swimming. When I slipped into the freezing waters, I knew it was going to be a long haul. The canal was narrow; there were guards and searchlights on the banks. A swan attacked me. I had to swim underwater so that the ripples would not give me away. I reached West Berlin after four long hours.”

Until 1971, Richter worked as a ship’s steward and travelled around the world. When he returned home, a new transit agreement meant West Berliners could travel across East Germany on certain roads without being checked. Richter then helped 33 friends and acquaintances escape the East.

“They all hid in the boot of my car. But my luck ran out on March 4, 1975. I was smuggling my sister out when sniffer dogs led the guards to the boot. Richter and his sister were hauled off to prison. Richter was sentenced to 15 years and beaten and tortured. In 1980, the West German government bought his release for DM 100,000. As a free man, I stoked the unrest in East Berlin by throwing propaganda material over the Wall. When it fell, I ran to Brandenburg Gate and then to the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing. It was an unbelievable sight — masses of people crossing, climbing over the Wall! I remember all of us rushing towards one another and crying.”

Richter echoes Latotzky’s words. “What the Nazis did was evil but it’s also important never to forget the atrocities of the Stasi. So many Germans died and thousands of others suffered because of the Wall.”

To mark the 25th anniversary of the fall, a special light installation will be set up along its former course as a ‘symbol of hope for a world without walls’.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 3:37:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/three-germans-narrate-their-survival-stories/article6577802.ece

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