The Berlin Wall came down exactly 25 years ago today and this is a good day to share in writing my last memory of the system that created and enforced it. In the fall of 1989 I visited a friend in Stockholm, Sweden. On the last leg of my trip back to Budapest, Hungary I got onto the train in Berlin. I did this ride several times before and had mixed feeling about it. On one hand I was young and loved to travel, even under harsh conditions. On the other hand this train was usually very full and I was concerned how uncomfortable the stuffed cabins would be for the long ride. This time it ended up being almost empty, but I was scared and my stomach was in a hard knot.
Before I tell you why I need to give you a bit of a context. Freedom of movement was limited in Eastern Europe. Most people were allowed to travel to other fellow “communist” countries although you still needed a passport and an “exit visa”. The latter referred to the permission/stamp in your passport that the country you were travelling from issued, allowing you to travel to another specific country. It had nothing to do with what one usually meant by visa: another country’s permission to let you in. The East German authorities, bastions of the old rule, didn’t like the political changes the region’s countries were going through that year. So they further limited the countries they allowed their citizens to travel too.
Starting mid-September Hungary, already ahead in breaking down the system, allowed East Germans to leave Hungary towards the west, i.e. Austria and then West Germany. For this reason it became an even more prime “destinations” for those East Germans who wanted to leave for good, than before. The day I got on my train Berlin was the day the East German government announced that their subjects (sorry, at this point can’t really call them citizens) are not allowed to travel to Hungary any more. By then this was the last country they were allowed to have an exit visa for, so it must have felt like a crushing closing gate around them. Nevertheless, or exactly because of this edict, plenty of people tried to get onto my train.
On the East German leg of the ride we accumulated an unscheduled, extra 9 hours. Every single station where the train was supposed to stop felt like being under siege. The train stopped before pulling in to those stations, because they were surrounded by people who tried to sneak on the last train leaving their country to freedom. I saw angry and scared crowds when I looked out the window. And a few kilometers after the train left the station it stopped again and was cleansed from people without proper papers. People in uniform– I have no idea whether they were border patrol, military police, Stasi or who–went through the train with big dogs looking or stowaways and new passengers. When they found someone they removed the unwanted people. Sometimes with force. My strongest memory was seeing a skinny, hippy looking man being pulled by his long hair along the corridor and then down the stairs by men with huge German Sheppard dogs. This picture has been a haunting, vivid memory ever since and I consider it the symbol of that evil system.
Seeing this kind of treatment disgusted me to the core. This was the strongest, physical manifestation that I personally ever saw of the system’s brutality and it made me sick. I knew and read about lots of other incidents and systemic abuse, but never saw it in person to this extent. I feared for myself, although having a Hungarian passport ensured my safety. But I couldn’t be sure, I felt unsafe as one little mistake by one of those armed men and it could have been me, being dragged away. After leaving Germany the rest of the trip was unremarkable. Except, I had a whole cabin, usually full with 8 people, all to myself. My body was as comfortable as it could be on a train, but my soul was trembling.
A week later the Berlin Wall and the system that created it, thinking of itself as strong and unbreakable, crumbled and my trip seemed like an unreal nightmare. But it was real and I will never forget it.