By Ellen Brogan, Coláiste Muire, Ennis
Senior winner, Clare Champion Short Story competition
IT’S a cold September morning as I stroll through the park with my granddaughter. It’s her birthday and I wanted to do something special for her.
I have brought her back to my home town; to the park I used to play in as a young girl. I want to explain to her what life was like for me growing up under such strict rule, waking up every day with fear in our hearts, how one’s life can be turned upside-down in the space of a day. Everywhere I look, a new painful memory is evoked. As I glance through the trees, I spot the roof of the Hochstadt University where my parents once worked. They were professors of music and engineering. Through the park railings on the left, I see the butcher shop my grandfather owned; so many memories come flooding back to me.
Suddenly I’m 14 again; struggling to fully understand why we could barely make ends meet while just a little way down the road, in West Berlin, life was perfect. I was living on Linden Strasse with my parents and younger brother, Jens. Our lives were happy but in no way easy. My parents put on a brave face for us but every once in a while it would slip, maybe just for a second, but that was when I could see the sadness and worry that consumed their thoughts. The world we lived in was so completely different from West Berlin, there were so many rules, unspoken ones, which meant life was never carefree and you had to always keep your guard up.
Life in East Berlin was like another universe compared to what I imagined it was across the city. Everyone was forced to work excruciatingly long hours and pay was the same no matter what you did. This fact caused a lot of bitterness among adults who had degrees and felt they should be paid for their hard work and knowledge. Everyone around me was so oppressed. There was no such thing as having little extravagancies to brighten our unbelievable basic lives. I had heard rumours about televisions and denim jeans that existed in the west, I had dreamed about owning a pair or even just seeing one. My favourite subject in school was geography and I had always dreamed about travelling the world. Mother said it was not possible but I didn’t understand why my dreams couldn’t come true. I just wished life was the way it was only two kilometres away.
In the summer of 1961 the division of the city became real. The building of the Berlin Wall began. We were completely isolated from the rest of the world. Freedom could no longer be achieved. A few days later I walked in on a very emotional scene between my parents. My mother was crying, hysterically and my father was desperately trying to comfort her but nothing came to his mind. When my mother saw my shocked little face she frantically tried to pull herself together. She calmed down enough to explain to me what was going on. A few of the families in our neighbourhood had formed a plan to leave this horrible place and move to the west in search of a happier life. Now, however that plan was in tatters. The Wall had ruined everything. I was in total shock. Leaving this prison is all I’ve ever wanted.
As the weeks went by, brave souls attempted to escape but all were fatal. Border guards shot them down or landmines blew them to bits. At first I held on to the hope that we would leave but the pile of dead bodies quickly crushed any thought I had of freedom. It has been nicknamed ‘The Wall of Shame’ because people felt it symbolised the failure of communism.
My father came home one day with a huge smile on his face. He called a family meeting in the living room. He sat us down and told us how he had been granted the opportunity to give a lecture in West Berlin. I didn’t know what to think. Was this really a good thing? One mistake and my father was dead, I just knew it. Then he said something I never expected from him, something utterly foolish. He told us how he had come up with an escape plan. That we were leaving. My stomach just hit the floor. The room fell silent.
My mother spoke then, “I… I… I don’t like this. I don’t like this one bit. You’re suggesting putting our whole family in jeopardy for some silly dream?”.
My father looked taken aback. “I know it is risky but we can’t keep living like this. Living here is just as dangerous. I can’t keep going on like this. You need to get on board with this, it’s happening.” My mother just nodded and that was the end of the discussion.
I was trying so hard to stop being excited about our new life in the west because I knew the reality was that it would probably never exist. But I couldn’t help thinking what if, what if our plan worked. We were to leave the next day. We were taking nothing with us as not to arouse suspicion; there was always someone watching.
We woke up early that morning and prepared for our, hopefully, life-changing journey. I was in charge of keeping Jens calm. He was too young to quite grasp the severity of what we were about to do. As the two of us climbed into the boot of our tiny car, a sudden shock of fear hit me. In that moment it all became so real. As we drove down our street for the last time with our bodies shoved together, barely able to breathe under the thick blanket covering us, I started to reminisce about the lives we had on Linden Strasse.
The car suddenly jerked to a stop. We reached Check Point Charlie. I couldn’t breathe. I could hear an officer question my father about why he was here. He ripped the papers from my father. He snorted and mocked my father for being highly educated and said he could never be a real threat. His arrogance and stupidity had worked in our favour. We were through.
Even though 50 years have passed since that fateful morning, it still affects me to this day. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if my father hadn’t been chosen to give that talk. The opportunities I have been granted, the places I have been able to visit, the people I have met. None of it would have been possible if we had stayed. As I look down into the innocent eyes of my granddaughter I can’t help but feel unbelievably grateful for how my life turned out.
More stories to follow.