One November Night Near the Oberbaumbrücke

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"As far as I know, immediately."

Despite the shaky, nasal sound of the antique Rekord T.V. set in the living room, the sentence had instantly released him from his drowsiness.

Without haste but with determination, he got up and headed toward the closet to extract a beige raincoat, a worn fur hat, and a pair of awful cracked shoes.

"Dad, what are you doing?"

"I'm going out!"

"Are you kidding? Considering all this mess the past few days, it's not a good idea."

"Mind your own business! I was kicking Nazis in the rear when you were nothing but an egg."

Ignoring his son's reproaches, his slammed the front door, murmuring, "Seeing Liselotte again…"

* * *

He and Liselotte had met in 1959 during a flight from Berlin to Leipzig, where he was to inspect production at a machine-tool factory. She was a stewardess with Interflug, the airline of the State, and during the frugal in-flight service, had generously soaked his new shirt with coffee. Seeing her pretty, agonized face, it had been impossible to get angry, but he had managed to get a date with the lovely woman for that same night. The rest of the story wasn't very hard to imagine….

* * *

As he crossed in front of his apartment building, he heard his son calling from the fourth-floor window to a neighbor puffing on a Zvezda and leaning against the cracked and stripped façade.

"Hey, Gunther, can you talk some sense into my father? He's gotten it into his head to go for a walk. With what's going on these days, it's dangerous."

With a silly smile, the smoker came over to him and, in an infantilizing tone, insisted, "Come on, Gramps, this isn't the time for chasing skirts! Go home — your son is worried."

The answer was scathing: "You Brezhnev sidekick, go kiss Honecker’s ass and leave me alone!"

He walked off in the midst of irate insults from the man named Gunther who, according to neighborhood gossip, was a zealous agent of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, otherwise known as the State Security, the dreadful and dreaded Stasi.

"Seeing Liselotte again…"

* * *

He saw Liselotte each time she stopped off in Berlin. As soon as they held each other again, the whole world stopped existing except for them. These ephemeral interludes of happiness took place without a hitch until the dire year of 1961, when Honecker and Ulbricht mutilated Berlin, leaving in their wake a horrible scar of concrete, watchtowers, and barbed wire, a hopeless rocky horizon, a no man's land haunted by the ghosts of those who had dared to defy the law.

* * *

"As far as I know, immediately," Schabowski, still a bit hesitant, had replied to a journalist's question.

He worked his way into the midst of the human tide going down Karl Marx Allee. Bathed in the shadow of typical Stalinist buildings, minimalist and cubist like a landscape of children’s building blocks, the faces were serious, with smiles frozen across apprehensively curled lips and eyes filled with fear. Nevertheless, the crowd walked with a confident step, moving toward a single goal, shared by hundreds of thousands of individuals.

"Seeing Liselotte again…."

* * *

It was a fateful day in October 1961. He had been handed an envelope with his name on it at the Interflug counter at Schönefeld Airport by a colleague of Liselotte's. In her letter, she told him she was leaving for the West, taking advantage of the opportunity of a flight to Rome. She said she still loved him but also revealed a terrible secret. Raped at age sixteen by a Soviet officer when the Red Army took the capital of the Third Reich in 1945, she had given birth to a little girl, Magda, who had immediately been taken away from her and of whom she had lost all trace until now. Recently, an underground contact in West Germany had given her hope again, indicating that he had located her child in Frankfurt. The building of the wall made it urgent for her to cross the Iron Curtain although she was very much in love and it broke her heart to abandon the love of her life.

* * *

When he got near the Oberbaumbrücke, the trouble started. A compact and growing mass of people jammed together in a bottleneck at the checkpoints. The border guards, the notorious Vopos, seemed to be overwhelmed by the events. Many rushed about in all directions, Kalashnikovs in hand, while others could be seen shouting into the phones in the back of the sentry booths. He stared at the bulky silhouette of the Oberbaum bridge with its two distinctive towers, while, oblivious to the surrounding tension, the Spree unrolled its untroubled ribbon of lapping water under the brick arches. Suddenly a sergeant armed with a megaphone climbed onto the roof of a guardhouse and rebuked the crowd: "Go home! No one will go to the other side tonight!"

Then a rumble rising from thousands of mouths echoed as if from a single roaring maw: "ZU SPÄT! ZU SPÄT! TOO LATE! TOO LATE!" repeating the same refrain that was chanted five days earlier at the Alexanderplatz when Markus Wolf had tried to convince half a million demonstrators that East Germany still had a future.

"Seeing Liselotte again…."

* * *

After Liselotte's escape, he had been arrested by the Stasi, held in isolation, interrogated at length, and then released, but under surveillance. The Stasi knew all, and if they didn't know, they invented. As the lover of a traitor to the homeland, he was naturally suspected of contact with the fascist and imperialist enemy. For someone who had risked his life to fight the Nazis in the ranks of the "Red Orchestra" Communist resistance movement, even murdering a former classmate who had become an SS officer, this disgrace had been a terrible trial.

In 1966, he met Martha whom he married one year later and who had given him a son, Hans. He was no fool; he knew that Martha belonged to the Stasi and that her sudden appearance in his life did not happen at all by chance, but he had always persuaded himself that he could have done worse.

* * *

An immense clamor accompanied the opening of the gates. He was suddenly plunged into a surge of honking horns, cheers, and colors; the intoxicating jubilation of a people finally finding themselves again after a quarter century of unspeakable confinement and painful separation.

Despite the burden of the years, he recognized her immediately. In the bright light of a lamp post, she was radiant and had lost none of her grace and charm.

He recalled the postscript of her farewell letter of 1961, which, during a period of almost three decades, had kept him going: "The day this wall of hatred and shame collapses, I will wait for you at the western end of the Oberbaum Bridge. I will be there, even in five, ten, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years. Whatever vicissitudes our lives will have known — our loves, our suffering, our joy — I will be there for you."

With tears in his eyes, his heart pounding, he approached.

"Seeing Liselotte again, one November night near the Oberbaumbrücke."

Translated by Kate Deimling


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