It was, I think, the only time Konrad, my boss, had phoned me at home. Early, too – before seven in the morning.
“Could you be ready to fly to Berlin? Yes, this morning. I’ll go in now and get your ticket booked. Grab a recording machine before you go.”
And that very afternoon, late, I stood amidst an excited crowd of Berliners. They were shouting at men hastily building a wall. We were separated from them by a roughly thrown-up barbed wire entanglement. Workmen were throwing concrete breeze blocks up to bricklayers who caught them, slapped on mortar roughly and piled one on top of another. They made no attempt to keep to German standards of workmanship.
Behind the builders, high on a lorry, stood Vopos – men of the uniformed East German peoples’ police – clutching tommy-guns at the ready.
The Berliners around me, on the western side, shouted up at them: “Schweinehunde”…..Moscow stooges! …You’d sell your grandmother, wouldn’t you? “Scheisskerl, schaemst du dich nicht?”
Abuse is difficult to translate. I’ll try: “Shithole, have you no shame?”
All this in folksy Berlin dialect…. no doubt the same dialect that the men on the other side spoke – both the gun-wielding Vopos and the bricklayers. Silent, grim-faced, they piled breeze-block upon breeze-block.
Some of the calls from our side were angry, but more were teasing, jocular – typical of the Berliner Schnauze – the cockney-like wit of the true Berliner.
“Double pay for dirty work?”
“Make sure the bastards pay cash!”
“Twenty pieces of silver?”
With us, on our side, stood Western policemen. They had turned their backs to the Vopos and were facing us, hands stretched out as if to stop a traffic flow. “Don’t provoke them! Shame them with silence!”
I walked along the barbed wire for almost a mile, pointing my recorder’s microphone. I turned a corner and suddenly the catcalls were overwhelmed, blasted out. Loudspeaker vans had been brought up amidst us – the first of many to come.
“Hier ist der Lautsprecher am Stacheldraht” This is the loudspeaker at the barbed wire. This is the loudspeaker at the barbed wire! Berliners! Germans! Don’t do Moscow’s dirty work! Don’t fire at Germans. Don’t become criminals…”
The din was becoming unbearable. I looked around for an entrance to the U-bahn – the underground railway system. There was an errand I had almost forgotten. The BBC office had insisted that I register with the Berlin police and I had not done so: “They can provide some protection”, they had told me. “You may need it. You’ll be facing thugs.”
How could they separate one part of a town from another? What about the trains connecting them?
As I waited on the underground platform a train rushed in but, to my surprise, it neither slowed down nor did it stop. Not long after a second rushed through, again without stopping. A railway official, near us, called out “Eastern train…. not stopping.”
I rushed to the BBC’s Berlin studio and phoned Konrad, my boss, in London. “To make sense of all this I need to interview someone who’s got over the barricade. A trickle are still getting across.”
“Stay and get an interview,” he said.
Checking in at the BBC’s Berlin studio I found they had already arranged a police escort for me for next morning and a car with a driver. Together we drove from danger spot to danger spot. I demanded to be taken to the interrogation centre where new arrivals were debriefed. Only a handful had made it that day, some in a state of shock… too shocked to be interviewed. The man in charge grasped immediately what I was hoping to find and promised to phone me as soon as a suitable case arrived. He did, the following day.
A tall blond girl, her arms bleeding, her jacket torn. They brought her some new garments as I was about to start the interview and she withdrew to change.
It turned out to be my best interview in a long career. I never got beyond “Tell me…” when it poured out of her – years of repressed anguish. In over half an hour I only interrupted her a few times, mainly to ask what certain initials stood for – the initials of Eastern organisations she had mentioned. She’d been a youth leader in the FDJ– the Communist youth organisation – and a convinced believer in Marxist ideals. However as she rose into the leadership cadres, she had found these filled with cynical careerists, enjoying privileges denied to the masses. Was this the socialism she had dreamt of building? Despite growing doubts she had to continue – day after day – with “Agitprop” – preaching the party line to the young – until she could face it no longer. But there were now walls and barbed wire entanglements to keep her in place. Now the paramilitary training she had received proved useful. She had been taught how to get through barbed wire entanglements. You had to throw yourself boldly on the wires and roll over them fast. If you tackled them timidly you would wound yourself more seriously.
As she explained this she was still bleeding from many wounds. A nurse had just finished disinfecting her gouges and applied some bandages but she made light of her pains. She was free now … free.
She gave me a detailed account of the training she had received. I just listened and hardly said a word.
At the end I said, somewhat lamely, I feared she might have too rosy a picture of our West. I hoped she would not be too disappointed. She shrugged: “I’m not naïve. I have long experience of disappointment.”
I would have liked to keep in contact and speak to her again some months later but that was impossible. I had had to promise not to ask her real name. This was to protect the family members she had had to abandon in the East.