This is all 27 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 35,000 words.
Inge was crying again. I knew she was hungry, so I tried to make her forget, by pulling a funny face. It wasn’t working this time, so I just hugged her instead. I didn’t know if it made her feel better, but it muffled the sound at least. I wondered how long it would be before Mummy got home. And I was hoping she would have managed to find something to eat. When my sister finally stopped sobbing, she looked up at me expectantly.
“Manfred, will Mummy be home soon? I’m starving”.
The Russians had got to our street two days after my tenth birthday. There had been no cake of course, but Mummy had given me a scarf, wrapped in newspaper, and she had found a tiny candle to put into the large potato she had baked in the wood oven owned by Frau Winter.
The day after that, Mummy came home and told us that the war was over.
We already knew we had lost.
People put white sheets out of the windows, so they wouldn’t fire their guns into the apartment blocks. But by then we were living in the basement room, and our only window looked over the yard. Besides, it had been a long time since we had any white sheets.
Father had died so long ago, Inge didn’t remember him at all. Mummy would show her the photo of him in uniform, so she knew who he was.
I remembered him well of course, or so I imagined.
A tall man with dark hair, always smiling. He had died in a place called Tobruk, Mummy had said. But we didn’t know where that was.
Before the war, life had been good. We lived in a three bedroom apartment in a nice avenue near the Tierpark. Daddy was a floor manager in a department store, and Mummy worked as a waitress before I was born. Then came the bombing, and when news of Daddy being killed in action arrived, we had to move into two rooms with Aunt Ilse, in the eastern suburbs.
But none of that was so bad, until Auntie’s house was destroyed when we were in the shelter. She had refused to come down with us, and Mummy told us she was dead. Frau Winter let us stay in her basement room across the street, and Mummy worried it was bad for little Inge. The damp would affect her chest, she was sure.
And we were hungry, always hungry. Mummy got work when she could, any job going. I had to stop attending school to look after my sister, and questions were asked. She told them I was ill, and hoped that would be the end of it. We had to keep as quiet as we could, and not draw any attention to ourselves. When Mummy was at home, I went out to look for wood. I walked for miles, searching out broken boxes, wrecked fences, parts of damaged carts. Anything that would burn.
When my shoes were worn out, we cut up old rugs and stuffed them inside. Frau Winter let us use her kitchen, so we could cook what we had, and wash clothes. I never complained, but as Inge got older, she didn’t understand. We slept together every night, on the one old bed. Wearing our clothes in the winter, and covered in anything we could pile on top of us. Most days, Mummy would be out from first light, queuing at shops for anything she could find, or working some job to get one day’s pay to spend on us.
She became thin, and lost her looks. We never mentioned it.
Inge had one old rag doll, and a leather toy camel that Daddy had sent her from Africa. I tried my best to make games up for her, but there was only so much I could do. She cried so much, all the time. A real Mummy’s girl. Most nights, we had only a thin soup to eat, and small squares of bread that tasted like wood shavings. Mummy would give most of it to us, and say she had already eaten upstairs with Frau Winter. I knew she was lying, but I was so hungry, I ate it anyway.
We knew things were getting worse when they came for the local boys. All of them over the age of twelve were taken for training. I was tall for my age, and it took a lot of screaming from Mummy to convince the soldiers that I was only nine. Klaus and Heinrich were both taken away. Heinrich cried a bit, but Klaus was almost fourteen, and declared he would kill some of the Ivans for me.
I never saw them again.
Inge had finally gone to sleep, so I reached under the bed to find my comics and magazines. I had read them so many times that I knew them off by heart. But anything was better than sitting staring into space.
I had dropped off when I was roused by the noise of Mummy returning. I was shocked to see her accompanied by a large man. Not just any man, a Russian soldier. I wondered what had happened. Were we to be arrested? Mummy smiled at me, and spoke formally. “Manfred, this is Gregory. He carried my shopping home for me, and he has brought us some wood too. He is an under-officer, and speaks little German. Stand up, and say hello”. I stood reluctantly, wary of the huge man. He grinned, and dropped the bundle of wood. Pointing at his chest, he spoke in a loud voice. “Me, Grigiry”. Before he could shake my hand, Inge woke up. Delighted to see Mummy, she didn’t even question the presence of the soldier.
Opening his coat, Grigiry produced a large loaf of black bread, and two fat sausages that reeked of garlic. As Inge cuddled Mummy, we watched with our mouths watering as he sliced chunks of sausage onto the pieces of bread. He passed them round, and I tried not to appear greedy as I started to eat. But it was all I could do not to cram the whole thing into my mouth at once. He ate his noisily, his mouth half-open, showing big yellow teeth. When he saw me looking at the huge pistol in a holster on his hip, he took it out and pointed it at me.
“Bang-Bang!” Then he roared with laughter, crumbs of bread falling from his mouth.
The sausages and black bread were all gone, and Mummy opened her bag to show us something. “Look what else he has given you, children”. It was a small tin of jam, and Inge squealed excitedly at the sight of it, jumping up and down, clapping her hands. Grigiry opened the tin with a small pocket-knife, and handed it back to Mummy, jerking his head to one side as he did so.
“Now you two, take this jam outside, and eat it sitting on the steps while I have a talk with Gregory, alright?”
I did as she asked, as I always did. But as I watched my sister sucking the jam from her sticky fingers, I was certain of one thing.
They were not talking.
I had spent most of the morning taking my life in my hands by trying to rip out some old floorboards from the shell of a bombed house. Every time I got one free, it felt as if the walls were trembling, and might well collapse in on me at any moment. Further down the street, a working party was loading rubble and bricks into carts, trying to clear the street. I had seen all sorts there, from elderly ladies, to small children. They were covered in dust, passing the individual bricks to each other in long lines. People said you got paid in food for such work, but I didn’t trust the Russians to give you enough for a whole day of labouring.
Around the back of the building, I snapped the four floorboards in half, propping them on what was left of a garden wall, then jumping on them to break them. When I had the eight fairly large pieces of wood balanced on my shoulder, I set off for home.
As I turned into our street, I saw a Russian Armoured Car parked outside the house. Frau Winter was standing at the top of the front steps, arms folded. She was glaring at the driver. When I got close, I could see he was one of those Mongolian-looking men. He gave me a big smile, and saluted me as if I was a soldier.
Frau Winter called them ‘Siberian Devils’. Her oldest son had been captured at Stalingrad, and taken to a prison camp. She had heard nothing of him since, so blamed every Russian for what had happened. She hated the Americans too, as her youngest son had been killed last year, fighting with the Hitler Jugend, in the 12th SS Panzer Division. She blamed the Americans, though he might just have well been against British or Canadian troops in Normandy. She called them ‘Yankee Child Killers’.
I guessed that meant Grigiry was in our room, and I was right. I dropped the wood onto the floor, and Mummy started to tell me off about the state of my clothes. There was a terrible smell in the room, and I asked her, “Mummy, what’s that stink?”. She looked embarrassed, and said, “Don’t be rude now, Manfred”. The soldier was sitting on our bed, and he had removed his jacket and boots. The smell was coming from his feet, and was bad enough to make me catch my breath. His long collarless shirt was filthy too, with dark yellow sweat stains under the arms. He spoke to me in his usual too-loud voice, and it seemed he had been practicing his German.
“Boy. Here. For you. From Grigiry”. He reached into his trouser pocket and removed a flick-knife, pushing the catch to make the blade spring open smoothly. It did look wonderful, with a smart wooden handle. It appeared to be brand new too. But I hesitated. “Good knife. Boy take. For you. Knife for Manfred”. I hated to hear him say my name, but then I spotted Mummy nodding at something on a cloth on the floor behind her. It was two loaves of bread, the black kind. On top of them was a big half-round of cheese, and next to them a jar of pickles. Then I followed her eyes to Inge. who was sitting on the floor playing with a toy horse.
I reached forward and took the knife, recoiling from being even closer to the smell of his feet. I stood up formally, and nodded. “Thank you, sir”. Clapping his hands against his thighs, he nodded in the direction of the food. “Now eat. We eat”. In case we didn’t understand his German, he raised a hand to his mouth and mimicked eating, then rubbed his belly. “Food. Good.”
I didn’t wait to be told to sit on the steps this time. With the tangy flavour of the pickles still on my taste-buds, I picked up Inge’s horse. “Come on, Inge, let’s go outside. I will make some jumps for your horse to jump over, with my new knife. How about that?”
In the alley by the side of the house, I placed flat stones in a circle, then cut tiny slivers of wood from a piece of floorboard with the flick knife. I laid them across each pair of stones, and turned to Inge. “Your horse has to jump each one, but must not knock the wooden bar off. Got that? Let’s see how you do”. As my sister began to make the toy horse jump, a shadow appeared from behind. Frau Winter, arms still folded, looming over me as I sat on the ground.
“So you have a new Papa now, a filthy Russian? What is your Mother thinking of, to take such a pig into her bed? Wait until my Mikkel comes home from Stalingrad. Then there will be trouble, I tell you. He will throw you out of my house, and give that Russian a good thrashing too, I have no doubt boy”. I didn’t know much at that age, but I knew enough to know that her son was unlikely to ever return from captivity in Russia. I chose to ignore her nasty remarks, and turned to Inge, encouraging her to play. But she carried on talking. “Your poor father would turn in his grave, I bet. I didn’t know him, but he was a brave man I’m sure, killed fighting with the boys of The Afrika Corps. What would he think of this? I ask you, what would he say, boy?”
When I still refused to answer, she turned and walked back to the steps, still muttering. As she drew level with the Armoured Car, the driver smiled at her, and saluted. It seemed that was all he knew how to do. She stopped and turned on him. “As for you, you yellow monkey, you Siberian hound. Get back to the shit-hole you crawled out of, you slant-eyed excuse for a human being.” He must have known she was insulting him, even though he didn’t understand a word of it. But he just carried on smiling at her, and she gave up, with a final “Bah!”
Inge had knocked off all the wooden slivers in her excitement, but when she triumphantly cried out, “All done, I jumped them all, Manfred”, I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.
I picked up her horse, and took her hand. “Let’s go to the end of the street by the main road, see if anything is happening”. I would have walked anywhere to get away from the shame of what was happening in our room. For a change, something was happening. A big convoy of Russian trucks was slowly moving down the street, the back of each one covered in hooped canvas.
I asked Inge what she thought was inside them. She pondered for a moment.
“Christmas Cakes, and new dolls for me”. I smiled. “Exactly right, dear Inge”.
When we got back, the Armoured Car was gone.
At least Grigiry had been quick this time.
Mummy sat me down one night when Inge was already asleep. “Do you remember Great Uncle Otto, Manfred?” In my mind, I saw an elderly man with a lidded pipe always in his mouth. He lived in a house, not an apartment, and had lots of books. And he wore colourful braces that held up his too-loose trousers. I nodded. “Yes, Mummy, I remember him”. She smiled, pleased at my recollection of an old man I hadn’t seen in years.
“Well, Manfred, he lived in Kreuzberg, and that was hit hard by the bombing. I haven’t been able to find out if he is alright. But if he is, I have an idea that he would let us go and live with him, if we can find a way. That area is in the American sector now, and we are not officially allowed to go there. But I am sure you could slip through, and try to find him. Do you think you could?”
I was a little confused. “Why don’t we just pack up and go to see him, Mummy?” She stroked my face. “We are in the Russian Sector, and the city is divided. People are not allowed to cross between sectors without authorisation, and the Russians will not allow us to just go and live there. Besides, I don’t even know if old Otto is alive.”
She took out some crumpled paper, and the stub of an old eyebrow pencil. It was part of a street map, torn from a bigger book. “I have written down his name and address, and I will mark on here where the street should be, if it is still standing. Most of the tram lines have been destroyed, so you will have to walk. I think it will take you more than an hour, perhaps two, with all the road closures. You will have to find a way through the guards too, and not allow yourself to be stopped by either the Russians or the Americans. Do you think you can do this for us? You are the man of the house now”.
I had never had occasion to use a map, but Mummy saying I was the man of the house overcame my fears, and imbued me with a new sense of responsibility. As well as that, I wanted to get my family out of the clutches of the Russian, Grigiry. Mummy still insisted on calling him Gregory, giving him the respect of using his name properly. But me and little Inge liked to say his name as he pronounced it, ‘Gri-gear-ree’. It was our small way of letting Mummy know we didn’t really want him around.
“I will go and find Uncle Otto, Mummy. I will leave tomorrow, at first light”.
She kissed my cheek. “You are a good boy”.
It was still dark when I got up and got dressed. I put the map page into my jacket pocket with my new knife, and started out in a south-easterly direction, toward an area I didn’t now at all. Some patrols were still around, and I hid from the soldiers behind the stacked rubble that was waiting to be removed by the work parties later. Once the sun was up, I became more confident, and was soon approaching the boundary of the district where we lived. I heard my name called from behind, and turned to see who it was.
I knew the two boys standing across the street. Rolf and Dieter were brothers, close in age, and both older than me. Rolf was rather slow. Backward, Mummy called him. Their mother had hidden them away during the last two years of the war, as she was afraid they would be taken into the army, despite their youth. I guessed that she had let them out of hiding, now it was all over. They sauntered over to talk to me. Well at least Dieter did, Rolf rarely said anything.
“Where you off to at this time of day, Kraus?” I could see no reason to lie. “I have to go through to the American sector, to visit my uncle”. Dieter looked at his brother, who shrugged. “Well then, we will come with you. Those Americans have chocolate, and cigarettes too. They might give us some”. I turned and continued walking, feeling rather glad to have the company. They were both well-built lads, and having them along made me feel protected. I took my hand away from the flick knife in my pocket, and let it swing at my side. If they knew I had such a nice knife on me, they would surely take it.
I was hot and bothered by the time we got to the sector border. Signs in many languages warned us not to leave the Russian sector. The main road was guarded by some soldiers standing around inside a wall of sandbags, but other than that we could see no physical barriers. Dieter asked to see my map again. Pointing to a road on the left, he said, “Down there, then turn right. Those Russkies won’t see us”.
Inside the American sector it seemed no different to where we had been before. If anything, the damage and desolation here was worse than where we had come from, and most of Kreuzberg appeared to have been flattened completely. Dieter spotted an old woman walking out of a shattered, roofless building. She had a bent back, and a thick scarf around her head, despite the sunshine. He ran across and spoke to her, showing her the paper.
“She couldn’t read it, bad eyes. But she told me where the street is. Follow me”.
They were on the lookout for American soldiers, bitterly disappointed that they hadn’t seen any. We almost missed the junction we needed, but the sight that greeted us was far from encouraging. I tried to remember the house I had been to when I was younger. To picture it standing on that street, next to rows of other identical well-kept houses leading to a factory at the end. But there was nothing there at all. Just an empty city block, the rubble cleared away already. And not a soul in sight to ask about Uncle Otto.
I decided to turn for home, but the brothers were not about to abandon their mission of searching for chocolate and cigarettes. They headed west, and waved as they walked off. Dieter called out to me through cupped hands. “Thanks for the wild goose-chase, Manfred”.
I retraced my steps, and all I could think about was how thirsty I was. But there were no people around to ask for a drink of water, and no house that looked as if anyone was living in it. I went through a broken door into the room beyond, nervously calling out “Hello, is anyone there? I just want a drink please”. At the back of the house, I found the remains of the kitchen, the heavy stone sink broken in pieces on the floor. Despite turning on the single tap to its full extent. all I could get was a slow drip.
I held my hands under it for a long time until I had enough to wet my mouth.
Tired and hungry when I got back to our room, I was upset to see the expectant smile on Mummy’s face. “Well, did you find him? Is the house still standing? Did you speak to him?” Inge was holding onto my leg. My little sister was also waiting to hear encouraging news. I shook my head, and mummy’s face fell.
“It was all gone, Mummy. Nothing there. Not a brick”.
Wood was getting harder to find, and I had to keep avoiding the work gangs too, as a strong young man like me would almost certainly find himself conscripted into one. At least the weather was still mild, so we only needed the fuel for cooking. But winter would be here soon, and there was little left to burn in the grate.
When I got home that afternoon, I was surprised to see a woman leaving our room. She was wearing a green overall, and it had a large badge on the front, not unlike one I had seen on Grigiry’s uniform. She ignored me as I walked past, slipping a large notebook into a leather satchel as she headed for the stairs to the first floor.
I could see Mummy had a bemused expression on her face, and wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Why was that woman here, Mummy? Are we in trouble of some kind?” She shook her head. “Far from it. She brought some good news. I had to register our names, and she told me we will get a food allocation, and a voucher to go and have a bath. School will start again soon, and she will let me know where you both have to go. I will have to work when you are at school, but that’s good”. Inge pulled at her dress. “Tell him the rest, Mummy, tell him”.
“She said that the three of us should not be crowded together in this room. We are to be given Frau Winter’s apartment upstairs, and she has to move down here today. I don’t know what she will make of that, I’m sure”. I grinned. “Now she will have to ask us to heat her water, or to use the wood oven to cook food. And we will have three rooms instead of one”. From the noise of the shouting coming from above, I guessed that the woman had just given Frau Winter the news.
Mummy was right, she wasn’t happy. “This is because of you whoring yourself out to that Russian, I know it!” She screamed at Mummy as we packed our few belongings. “The filthy pig got that Communist bitch to give you my lovely apartment, and after I had been so kind to you too. Mark my words, things will change when my Mikkel comes home. You wait and see”.
Nobody replied to her, and we walked slowly upstairs, hiding our smiles.
Now I had my own room again, and Inge could sleep with Mummy in a dry room, on a comfortable bed. I spent most of the evening sitting by the window. Although there was little to see, being able to look out onto the street felt like an unimaginable luxury.
On Sunday, Grigiry arrived early. He brought me a pair of new army boots, with single laces. They were at least two sizes too big, but Mummy stuffed some rags into the toes until they were comfortable. For Inge, he had found a small stuffed bear. It looked as if it had been washed one too many times, but she adored it, and said she would call it ‘Nikki’. Mummy had gifts too. He gave her a cardboard box containing some lip rouge, a pair of warm woolen stockings, and two tins of sardines.
He looked sad, despite our polite thanks for his gifts. Sitting on a wooden chair around the living-room table, he explained as best as he could, in as much German as he could manage.
“Me go. Grigiry go Leipzig. Go with soldiers. Have to go. Not want, have to”.
On his third attempt, we managed to work out that he was saying his unit was being transferred to the city of Leipzig, and we would not see him again.
Reaching into a pocket, he produced a folded, cracked photo. It showed a woman smiling in the sunshine, her arm around a girl aged seven or eight. They were surrounded by sunflowers in fields, more sunflowers than I had ever seen.
Mummy picked up the photo. “They look beautiful, Gregory. Your family?” Even though she knew that he barely understood her, she never made any allowances for that when talking to him. Pointing at the faces, he replied in a voice heavy with emotion. “Wife. Grigiry wife. Girl, my girl. Our girl. Wife, girl, both kaput. Nazis. Ukraine”. He started to cry openly, tears rolling down his cheeks. Mummy handed back the photo, and he kissed it before placing it carefully back in the pocket.
With that he stood up. “Now I go. Go Leipzig. I have say goodbye”. Mummy kissed him once on the cheek, and Inge started crying. I stood up and extended my hand. He ignored that, and wrapped his arms around me, hugging as strong as a bear. “Be good. Good children. Mummy very good lady. Best Mummy. Be good for her”. He turned quickly and left the room, almost running down the stairs. I watched him from the window as he walked away without looking back.
It was hard to admit it to myself, but we were all going to miss him.
Life started to get a little better after that. Mummy could go and queue for our food ration, and we all got something, even Inge. One day, we all walked to the old local Party Offices, where a mobile bath station had been set up. Mummy showed a lady our voucher, and she took us to a big room where lots of baths were full of steaming water, each one screened off from the next by canvas stretched over poles. She handed Mummy one large towel, and said that she should keep the voucher to use once a week. We all had to use the same water of course, and a big bar of greasy yellow soap. Inge was bathed first, then Mummy avoided her eyes when I got undressed and got in. She agreed that I was getting too old now, for her to see me naked. Then when it was her turn, I got dressed, and waited for her and Inge in the hallway.
The next Monday, we started school. It wasn’t in a school building, but in a temporary building like a warehouse. We were no longer separated between boys and girls, but divided into age groups. My class was introduced to a young woman who would be our teacher. She said her name was Fraulein Weiss, and that she had been in prison for objecting to the Nazis. I thought she was absolutely beautiful, and fell in love with her immediately. One of the boys whispered that she was a Communist, and should have been shot.
So I stamped on his foot to shut him up.
She told us that there were good Germans and bad ones too. All the good Germans now lived in the Russian Sector, so that included us. The bad Germans had stayed in the west, and we wanted nothing to do with them, as they were American lackeys. The Russian soldiers had saved us from the Nazis, and now the good Germans and their Russian friends would save us from the Americans too. When she finished talking, she ran her hands over the thick plait of hair resting on her shoulder, and smiled. I looked at her adoringly, and decided she was right.
I liked being a good German.
Christmas had been very quiet. Mummy explained that there would be no toys, as there was nothing to buy in the shops. She managed to get us both some knitted hats and mittens, which I suspected someone had knitted from old wool. Dinner on Christmas Eve was some roasted horse-meat and potatoes. It seemed like a banquet to us, even though there was nothing sweet later. We had started to get a coal allowance too, so we were warm at least.
Some of the soldiers had started to return. Mostly, they were the ones who had surrendered to the British and Americans. In many cases, they discovered that their wives and children had been killed, or that their former homes were no longer standing. There was little work for them to come home to, and most began to hang around on street corners. But not for long, as they were soon conscripted into labour gangs, or in some cases, allowed to join the police. On our street, many wives were upset when their men didn’t come home. Those who had been very keen Party members or had served in SS units had been detained longer, for questioning, or had already been jailed awaiting trial.
Mummy found out all this from working in her new job with the housing office. She had to help allocate accommodation to resettled families, once the availability of habitable homes had been checked by the workers in the green overalls. She would often come home very upset, because of all the arguments she had to have with people. Those who had once had some sort of power under the Nazis were now at the bottom of the pile. They could no longer continue as teachers, or government employees. Their homes were divided into rooms, and others allowed to go and live in them. There was a new scheme for training teachers who had never had experience before the war. Inge said Mummy should ask to become a teacher. “You could be my class teacher one day, Mummy, and be kind to me”.
I never knew whether or not she had thought about what Inge said, but she stayed with her job at the Housing Authority, and not long after was promoted to section manager. One day, I saw a new badge on her coat, and asked her what it meant. “I have joined the Socialist Unity Party, Manfred. They are going to be running things here now, and it will be good to get involved. It will also help with my job, and hopefully mean good things for us later as a family”.
Germany had already seen enough of what happened when political parties were running things, I thought. But I just nodded.
With the return of the soldiers, crime began to start up once more. During the war, the Black Market men had been arrested and executed, and once the Russians were patrolling, there was hardly ever any mention of crime. But now people were complaining of burglaries, theft of food, even women being grabbed on the street, and their shopping stolen. The Black Market gangs started up worse than before, with them controlling the supply of some medicines, and selling luxuries smuggled in from the American Sector. Mummy said that if I saw any of them, I was to tell her where they were, and she would inform the authorities. “When you are older, you should join the Police, Manfred. A good boy like you would make a fine policeman”.
I started to think about that a lot.
It had never occurred to me that anyone would not like Mummy because of her job, or because she hated the Black Market men. But they did. At school, older boys tried to bully me, saying that Mummy was a Communist, and working for the Russians. I got in so many fights that spring, Fraulein Weiss kept me behind one afternoon to tell me to be better behaved. “I expect more of you, Manfred. Your mother is such a good example. You should be more like her, stick to your studies, and ignore the ignorant boys”. I wanted her to like me. “I am going to join the Police, miss. As soon as I am old enough”. She nodded. “That’s an excellent idea. I will hold you to that, and remind you”.
Not long after my eleventh birthday, an idea started to grow in my head. I could keep an eye on those Black Market men. I knew where they operated, in the back alleys and ruins that I walked past on my way home from school with Inge. If I went there at the weekend, I could see what they were selling, and who was buying. Perhaps write down the names of those I knew from the neighbourhood. Mummy could pass on the information, and she would surely be pleased with me. And Fraulein Weiss would be happy too, that I was starting my job as a police detective already.
That Sunday morning, I got up early, and headed for a place where I had seen the gangsters hanging around. Many still wore their Army greatcoats, the only decent overcoats they had. But the bosses were in smart suits, and wearing wide-brimmed hats, looking like Americans. They had old suitcases open in front of them, and a long row of people stood examining the contents, often trying to exchange things for what they wanted. Money was almost useless now, and the old wartime money had no value at all. People used the Nazi notes to start fires in their houses. I sauntered past the rows of suitcases, trying to appear interested. One of them was full of chocolate bars, and in another there were bottles of spirit, maybe whisky.
“What you after, young man?” I turned to see who was talking to me. He looked almost foreign, with swarthy skin, and oily black hair. But his German was perfect, though there was a slight accent that I couldn’t place. I shrugged. “Got no money, or nothing to exchange”. He put his arm around me and I moved back, as I didn’t like that he smelled of perfume. He waved the hat he was holding, indicating the goods on display. “Why don’t you choose what you want, then I will tell you how you can work for me to pay for it? How about that? A good deal, yes?” I shrugged again, but he saw me eyeing the chocolate.
Grabbing a cardboard box, he put six bars into it, then threw in a packet I didn’t recognise. He gave me a wink. “Good quality Yankee chocolate, the best. Hershey. And a pair of the finest nylon stockings for your sister. You got a sister?” I grinned. “She’s not even seven years old yet”. He stroked the packet as if it was made of velvet. “Well, a sweetheart maybe? Or a mother? Have you still got a mother boy?” I had never seen Mummy wearing such stockings, but nodded. He reached behind and threw another pair on top. “Okay then, because I like you. Two pairs”.
Folding the flaps closed so nobody could see what was in the box, he touched the side of his nose. “Not a word about where they came from now. Come back this afternoon, same place. I will tell you what you have to do, what the work is. Others will show you. Alright?” I nodded solemnly. “And don’t think about cheating me either. I can easy find out where you live. You wouldn’t want me coming to your house to visit your mum and little sister now, would you?”
As I set off for home clutching the box, I was feeling exited, and had a tingling in my belly.
Now, I was a gangster.
It wasn’t easy to get the box in the house without Mummy seeing it, but I managed to do that, and hid it in my room under some books and magazines. I couldn’t let on about what I was up to until I had more information, and I guessed Mummy would be annoyed if she knew I had taken smuggled goods. I said I was going out to meet some school-friends to play football later, and I was told to be back in time for dinner.
There were two men waiting when I got back. One was young, maybe in his late teens, and the other older, certainly older than Mummy. “You the new kid?” He had an accent that was not from around there. I nodded. “Pablo says you should come with us, and we will teach you the ropes”. He turned and started walking. “I have to be back for dinner, how long will it take?” The younger one stopped and grinned. “Back with Mummy for din-dins? Ahh”. He waved his arm indicating I should follow, and we walked through some alleys clear of rubble, and clambered over piles of the stuff still blocking some streets.
Emerging into an open square, the older man walked up to a small truck parked there and opened the canvas screen covering the back. “In you go, boy”. I climbed in, followed by the young man, and we sat on piles of suitcases of all shapes and sizes. The older man got in the front, where someone else was waiting to start the engine, and drive off.
The young one told me his name was Spider, and the older man was called Leo. “What about you, what do you go by?” I didn’t think, and said my real name. “Manfred Kraus”. He rubbed his chin, then smiled. “You shall now be known as Curly. Never tell anyone your real name, got that?” I was not so happy with my new name. “But my hair is straight”. He shook his head. “That’s the point. A thin guy gets called Tubby, a fat guy is known as Slim, and a tall bloke is called Shorty. That’s why we have nicknames, to confuse people. Okay?”
We hadn’t been driving for long, when the truck stopped. I heard voices speaking in Russian, then laughter. One of the Russians was talking in German, and he spoke it well. “What you got for me, Leo? Something good in the back?” The canvas was pulled open, and I could see we were at a Russian road-block. Three soldiers with Tommy-guns were standing at the back. I didn’t know whether to put up my hands, or leap out and try to run for it. Spider just chuckled at them, and rummaged around in some of the suitcases. He produced three bottles of something, likely whisky, and a long box of American cigarettes. When he handed them over, one of the soldiers closed the canvas, and slapped his hand on the side of the truck.
So that was how they got through the patrols and checkpoints. It was as simple as bribery.
Less than ten minutes later, we pulled into a courtyard inside what would have once been a very nice apartment block complex. Most of the buildings were destroyed, but the truck reversed into a corner, and Spider jumped out. “Come on, Curly. Wait until you see this”. Leo walked around from the front, and approached a large trapdoor that looked like the entrance to a cellar. He banged on it with his foot, and moments later it opened a little, before flapping open with a loud bang. The head of the man I had spoken to earlier appeared. “So you turned up? Good lad”. Spider smiled at him. “His name is Curly now”.
I was told to help unload the truck. Leo didn’t seem to do anything except stand around and watch as Spider passed me the suitcases. They had to be stacked by the opening, and some were so heavy, I had to drag them. When they were all in a pile, we had to carry them down a wide wooden ladder into the basement. The place left me wide-eyed. It was huge down there, and well lit too. Metal racks were bulging with all sorts of goods and luxuries, and we stacked the suitcases at the bottom of the racks. It was tedious work, one case at a time, passed down the big ladder. Leo didn’t come down, and when the truck was empty, I heard it driving away.
Spider led me through the narrow gap between all the shelves, and the basement opened out into a huge bright cellar room. It resembled a luxury hotel room. Not that I had ever been in one, but I had seen pictures of them in magazines. The man called Pablo was sitting in a big old armchair next to a massive bed. He was smoking a cigarette in a fancy holder, and drinking some dark fluid from a tiny glass. “Did your mother like her stockings, Curly?” I wasn’t about to tell him I had hidden them, so just smiled. “Yes, she did, thank you”. He chuckled, and nodded at Spider. “It will be nice to have a well-spoken polite young man around, don’t you think?” Looking back at me, Pablo indicated that I should sit on a small side-table near his armchair.
“Very well, this is how it works. Every Saturday morning, you come here early, and help the guys load the truck. Then we go somewhere, somewhere different each week. While we are shifting the merchandise, you keep an eye out for the cops. Not the Russians, don’t worry about them. I mean the German cops. If you see any, you whistle. You can whistle, I take it?” He didn’t wait for my reply. “Later on. you help load the truck, come back here, and unload again. Same thing on Sundays, okay? Spider will be with you, but Leo is your boss now, so you do what he says. You will have to tell your mother that you got yourself a weekend job, but don’t mention anything about us, or any names. Clear?”
Pablo turned in the armchair and reached down low to his left. As his jacket fell open, I could see the grip of an automatic pistol that was tucked into his trousers. He dropped a canvas bag onto his lap, and rummaged through it. Taking some things out and putting them on the floor, he passed the bag over to me. “These are for you, your pay for today”. I pulled out a Leica camera, and two rolls of film. Pablo spoke in a cheery tone. “I know someone who will develop the photos for you, just bring me the rolls of film when you have used them”. The next item was a watch. It was working, and showing the proper time. Pablo leaned forward and tapped the watch. “That’s a great watch. It was owned by a brave Luftwaffe pilot of my acquaintance. Just wind it every night before you go to sleep, and it will not let you down. Then you won’t be late for work, or late home for dinner.”
Resting back in the chair, Pablo seemed to have lost interest. “Off you go now, you can take the bag. Spider will lead you back as far as a road you recognise”.
On the way back, I was told something about Pablo. Spider seemed to think he was wonderful, and was keen to tell me the story. “Pablo’s a great bloke, so many connections. He used to work at the Spanish Embassy you know. He still has a Diplomatic Passport, so can do whatever he likes. Speaks great German, doesn’t he? During the Spanish Civil War he was an interpreter for the Condor Legion. When they came home, he came to Berlin to work as a military adviser at the Embassy. I don’t think there is any bigwig he didn’t know. He still has a lot of powerful friends, believe me. You couldn’t have found a better guy to work for, Curly”.
He left me somewhere I knew, a good thirty minute walk from home. When he had disappeared back the way we came, I pulled out the watch and fastened the strap around my wrist, checking the time.
I would be home for dinner.
Lying to Mummy didn’t come naturally to me. I had always been a good boy, and now I was the man of the house too. I made up a story about the father of one of my school friends needing help with his deliveries, and he had asked me to help at weekends. I tried hard to think up a trade he might have, as Mummy pondered whether or not to give me permission. “You would have to do your school studies before any work, Manfred, so that will mean more effort on Fridays after school. But overall, I think it is good that you want to work. What does he do, this father?”
I thought it sounded lame at best, but she seemed to believe it. “Scrap metal, Mummy. He has returned from the war, and managed to rent a truck at weekends from an old comrade. He tours the streets looking for any metal scrap, and I suppose he gets paid for it at a metal works”. She examined her fingers. “And what will he pay you?”
I lifted my sleeve, and showed her the watch. “Not money, but things. He has given me his old Air Force watch, and a camera too, both for working today, and for next week. We could sell them, or exchange them for what we need”. I lifted the camera from the bag, and showed it to her with the rolls of film. She knew nothing about cameras, I was sure, but she appraised it is as if she was an expert. “A nice camera, and valuable too. I think you should keep the watch, but the camera should be donated to the school. They can take class photos with it, and sell copies to parents perhaps”. I nodded my agreement, thinking how pleased Fraulein Weiss would be with my gift.
After dinner, I went to my room, and made copious notes. I wrote down all the names I had heard, listing physical descriptions next to each one. Then I drew a rough map of where Pablo’s cellar was, and a list of most of the things I had seen stored down there. I had forgotten to get the number on the truck’s plate, and made a mental note to memorise that next weekend. When I had enough information, I would reveal my detective work to Mummy, and she could hand it all over to the Police. I wasn’t scared of Pablo’s threats, as they would all be in prison.
Fraulein Weiss was not as pleased about the camera as I had hoped. She eyed it suspiciously, turning it around in her hands. “So your mother suggested you donate this, Manfred? Tell me, how did you come by it?” I had no option but to lie again. After all, she knew the boy I was supposed to be working with had lost his father many years ago. He had been killed in Crete, serving with the paratroops.
“It was my father’s camera, miss. We have no developing equipment, and no money for more film, so we thought the school could make use of it”. I was trying to sound as casual as I could, but was never sure if she was convinced. She opened a drawer with a key, and placed the camera inside. As she locked it, she looked me in the eyes. “Very well. Thank your mother for me. I will give this over to the school headmaster, and he will decide how it is used”.
That afternoon as I walked home, I realised I had learned a lesson, and not one about the capital cities of Europe, or the Franco-Prussian War. I had a feeling inside, and one that proved to be right. The camera was never mentioned again, and never seen after that afternoon either. Fraulein Weiss had certainly not given it to the headmaster, I knew that in my gut. But she did come to school three days later wearing a new red overcoat.
After that, I was no longer in love with her, and started to notice someone else instead. A girl in my class, Helga. She was slightly older than most of us, but too young for the next class up. I liked her blonde hair, tied in bunches. And she blushed when I looked at her.
That night in bed, I started to wonder if Helga liked chocolate.
And how her legs might look in nylon stockings.
On Saturday morning, Spider and Leo were nowhere to be seen. I stamped on the trapdoor with my foot a few times, but it didn’t open. I then tried to lever it up with my fingers, but it didn’t budge. It was undoubtedly locked from the inside. I hung around for ages, wondering what I would tell Mummy. I concocted a story that my friend’s father could no longer get access to the truck, so my job was no more.
I had more or less decided to give up and go home, when Pablo appeared at the entrance to the courtyard. He was walking strangely, and kept stopping, as if to catch his breath. When he saw me standing by the trapdoor he seemed pleased, and beckoned me over. “Ah, Curly. I had all but forgotten you boy. Good lad for showing up. Now, help me get over to that door”. He placed his arm around my shoulders, and felt very heavy as he let me take his weight. I walked slowly over to the doorway he had shown me, barely able to stand myself.
Inside, he leaned against what was left of a wall, and fished in his pocket for a key. Pointing along the roofless hallway, he indicated a door at the end. “There. Open that padlock”. I ran down to the door, and slipped the key into the big black lock. It turned easily. Pablo was already behind me. “Now lock this behind me, and then go back to the trapdoor. I will open it from inside soon”. I did as he asked, watching him wince with pain as he descended some stone steps inside. It was a full five minutes before the trapdoor opened just enough for me to squeeze through the gap. Pablo stood at the bottom of the ladder. “The bolts, boy. Close both bolts”.
By the time I had shifted the stiff bolts into place and got back down the ladder, Pablo had taken off his overcoat, and was leaning on his side across the large bed. There was a hole in his jacket, near the pocket, and blood all over his shirt. He pointed across at a metal shelf. “The red box, the one there. And get some Vodka from the corridor. A big bottle, with a blue label, clear fluid inside”. I went to get the Vodka first. The writing was in Russian script, but I found the blue label and clear fluid. I picked up the red box, and took it over to him. “What happened, Pablo? How did you get hurt?” He waved me away, striking the neck of the bottle against the bed frame, to break off the top. “In a minute. You have to help me now”.
Pulling up his shirt, he poured some of the Vodka over his side, yelling loudly in pain as he did so. I could see a small hole at the front, and a larger one at the back. They were neat, and circular. When he had calmed down, he opened the box, and handed me a large packet. “It’s a field dressing, young Curly. Open it carefully, you have to put it on me”. He slowly removed his jacket, then his shirt. He wasn’t wearing a vest, and his chest was covered in dark hair. Around his neck he wore a gold cross on a chain. Leaning to one side, he nodded. “Wrap it round. Nice and tight now, not sloppy”. I did as he asked, and he watched carefully as I tied off the tapes. “Good job. Now pass me the Vodka”. I gave him the bottle, and he poured a lot into his mouth, taking care not to touch the jagged neck with his lips.
Smiling at my wide-eyed stare and bloodstained hands, he told me to sit on the side table. “It was another gang, Curly. That’s the problem with this job, always someone else trying to muscle in. Luckily, the bullet went straight through. I should be alright as long as it doesn’t get infected. I haven’t got a clue what happened to Leo and Spider though. I think Spider might have got off worse than me, as I saw him fall, and he didn’t get up. Reaching under his pillow, he produced a large revolver. “Here, take this. It is easy to use, just pull the trigger all the way back, and it fires. Keep it low mind, it has a tendency to lift. Now sit there and keep watch, in case they come. I have been up all night, and need rest”.
It wasn’t long before he was asleep on his back, snoring loudly. I sat looking at the heavy revolver in my lap, wondering what to do if anyone came.
It occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a gangster.
Watching Pablo sleep was so boring, I had a wander around his cellar to see what sort of things he had stashed away there. Every small sound from above made me jump in alarm, and I had visions of vicious gangsters about to smash their way in through the trapdoor. After what seemed like an eternity, I checked my watch for the hundredth time. I had been there for almost six hours, and would soon have to think about heading home. But that would mean leaving the trapdoor unlocked, and Pablo vulnerable on the bed.
I decided that I would have to wake him up.
No amount of shouting made him stir. I took to shaking his shoulder instead. He felt very hot, and though he was quite obviously still breathing, I could get no sense out of him, and his eyes remained closed. I went over to the wash-stand, and rinsed the blood off my hands with water from the jug. Then I took the revolver, and placed it in his hand, wrapping his fingers around it. At least he would have it to hand if anyone broke in. In case he could still hear me, I spoke to him, adopting a casual tone. “I have to go now. I hope you feel better soon. Sleep is obviously the best thing for you. I have left your pistol in your hand, and you have my word that I haven’t taken any of your things while you have been sleeping”.
At the top of the ladder, I opened the bolts, and peered through the trapdoor, open just enough for me to see out. There was nobody around, so I raised it higher, and slipped out. I left the courtyard hurriedly, relieved to be away from any further trouble. I also decided that I would stick with my earlier story, and tell Mummy that the job had gone because there was no truck.
No doubt about it, I was too young for a life of crime.
For the next few weeks, I was nervous. I expected Pablo or Leo to show up at our house, angry that I had left him, and annoyed that I hadn’t turned up on any other weekend. But my growing fondness for Helga took my mind off those worries. It turned out that she liked chocolate a great deal. But she refused my gift of the nylons. “Oh, Manfred, I am too young to wear those. My mother would think it scandalous”. But she blushed at the idea that I would like to see her in them. After the third bar of chocolate, she let me kiss her. Not on the lips, but on the side of her face, close to the edge of her mouth. And she held my hand as far as the corner of the street where she lived, letting go hurriedly as a neighbour passed by on the other side of the road.
There was no reason for me to go back to Pablo’s cellar, and I never heard from him or Leo again.
That was a good summer. Parts of the city began to return to normal, and there was news of new apartment blocks being built on the outskirts. People started to get regular work, and the Black Market gangs were not so evident on the streets. During the school holidays, I had to look after Inge while Mummy was at work. So I walked around with her, rather than be stuck in the apartment all day. I soon noticed that quite a lot of local people were no longer around. Familiar faces had gone, and this continued as the weather warmed up. One evening, I mentioned this to mummy, when Inge was asleep.
“Ah, you noticed, Manfred? Yes, talk is that many have left for the American and British sectors. Anyone who has relatives there has mostly gone. I think it’s a good thing. We don’t need those people in our new country. If they think life will be so much better there, let them go. They will soon find out that it is no easier over there”. I had a lot more questions, but I got the feeling that was the end of the conversation. At the end of the holidays, Mummy told us she had good news. “I am to be promoted again. I will become the head of my department. And we will soon have a better place to live. Next year, I will be eligible for one of the new apartments being built. Good news, eh children?” I smiled and nodded, but inside I knew I would miss our street, and knowing the local people.
In December, Mummy received a letter, and she waved it excitedly. “My sister is coming to visit for Christmas. Your auntie Greta is coming to stay. How about that?” Inge smiled. “I have never seen her, Mummy”. I could hardly remember her at all. I had seen photographs, and Mummy told me that she had seen me as a little boy. But she lived in Prague, married to a rich German businessman who had interests in that country. When we had taken over Czechoslovakia, he had done well, and soon became an important man. Mummy filled in more details. “Uncle Theodore has died, and as they had no children, Greta is at a loose end. The factory has been taken over by a committee, so she is thinking of coming back here to live. I will try to find her somewhere in the new year, but for now she will stay with us”.
Aunt Greta was a revelation. Although four years older than Mummy, she was so glamorous, like a film actress. She arrived in our small apartment like a perfume-scented whirlwind. Lifting Inge up, she showered her with kisses, leaving lipstick marks all over her face. Then she hugged me so tight, I could feel every curve of her body, and the soft lips planting kisses everywhere. I could tell from her expression that she was unimpressed with our accommodation, but she was too polite to say anything nasty. “Oh, little Inge, such a beauty. And Manfred, what a handsome young man you turned out to be, a real heart-breaker”. I confess that Inge and I had been expecting that she might bring us gifts. But nothing appeared. However, she did produce a lot of large sausages from her suitcase, as well as a jar of mustard, and two large tins of sauerkraut.
We ate very well that evening.
At times, it seemed to me that Mummy resented her sister. When she showed us jewels and brooches that she had kept, Mummy sniffed at her. “Nowhere to go dressed up like that, Greta. You would do better to exchange them for some sturdy shoes, and more food”. My auntie ignored her, and winked at me instead. She slept on the two armchairs, pushing them together at night. I offered her my bed, but she was adamant that she didn’t want to disturb us. Her free spirit fascinated me, and her habit of wandering around the apartment in her underwear made my eyes bulge at the sight of her.
Mummy didn’t seem to care. Maybe she was unaware that I was growing up, and noticing such things.
On Christmas Eve, we got small gifts. I received a fountain pen from Mummy, and for Inge there were new knitted gloves with small rabbits woven onto the backs. It seemed that we had nothing to give Aunt Greta, so I went into the bedroom and got the nylons. I knew Mummy would have something to say, but I resolved to present them to Greta anyway. She shrieked when I handed them over to her, quickly unwrapping one packet. Mummy gave me a quizzical look, and I hurriedly made up a story. “I found an old suitcase lying in an alley off the main square, auntie. All that was in it were those two pairs of nylons. I think a Black Market man must have run away from the police, and left them there. Mummy doesn’t wear such things, so I thought you would like them”.
Mummy walked over to the fireplace to put some more coal onto the fire. I sensed that she didn’t believe me, but wasn’t about to spoil the evening with an argument. Greta removed the wool stockings she had been wearing, and rolled the nylons up each leg in turn. When she had attached them, she lifted her dress and paraded around in circles, with Inge clapping delightedly. As I watched her, I started to feel uncomfortably hot.
And when she walked over and kissed me full on the lips, I thought I might pass out.
Aunt Greta stayed for a lot longer than Christmas. Mummy got her a job through one of her connections, and she became a book-keeper at the Office of Pensions. She went to work every day, and when she got back in the evenings, things cheered up a lot. She had stopped sleeping on the armchairs, when a work colleague had found her a small folding bed that she slept on in the living room. Every morning it was tidied up, and stored in my room until bed time. Other things started to appear too. A small radio came first, and then a reading lamp, given to me for my room. I suspected she was selling off her jewellery, but it was never mentioned.
My attraction to her grew out of all proportion, soon becoming an obsession.
I sat close to her whenever I could, and took every opportunity to gaze at her when I thought she wasn’t looking. I delighted in seeing her dancing around the apartment, or watching her wash at the sink. One day, she called me “My handsome shadow”, and kissed me on the lips. After that, Mummy must have said something, because she never appeared in her underwear again, and stopped lifting her dress when she was dancing. I was confused by Mummy’s attitude, and her seriousness sometimes put a damper on the evenings.
It wasn’t unknown for me to go into my room and have a sulk.
On one of those occasions, Mummy came in and sat on the edge of my bed. “Manfred, I am aware that you are growing up now. I think it is time that you stopped calling me Mummy. Mama would be better now, don’t you think? And you should call auntie Greta by her name, not just ‘dear auntie’. When she is washing, you should stay in here. You are too old to be looking at ladies in their underwear, son. Besides, I am sure we will be moving out soon, into our new place. So you will have to get used to her not being around”. I didn’t know what to say, so just nodded.
Because of the attention I had been giving Greta, I had all but forgotten about Helga. There was only one bar of chocolate left in my hiding place anyway, as I had been saving it to try to bribe her for a kiss. Then one afternoon after school, I saw her walking home with a boy called Rudi. He was fourteen, and had a bicycle. I was shocked to see him place an arm around her shoulders, and had to face the fact that I had lost her. Then later that week, Greta arrived home with a man. His name was Ernst, and he was the brother of one of her work colleagues. He was introduced to us all as her new ‘friend’, but I knew what that meant. I shook his hand, and then went into my room, fighting back tears.
It felt like my world had ended.
To ease my heavy heart, I threw myself into my studies. I continued to learn Russian, and started English classes too, staying on late after school finished. After Easter, we got a new teacher, Herr Obermann. He had a false leg that dragged when he walked, and a nasty scar down one side of his face. But he turned out to be a kind teacher, and very encouraging. When I told him of my intention to become a policeman, he agreed it was a worthwhile job. “But complete your studies first, Kraus. Then when you go into the police, you will be able to get promotion, and not just walk the streets in uniform”.
I thought about what he said, and decided it made sense.
That September, Greta moved out to live with Ernst. I was shocked to discover that they were not to get married, but nobody else seemed to care. Mama said that they would live in the northern suburbs, where Ernst had rooms. She could see that the news made me sad. “We can go and see them sometimes, and she will visit occasionally. She has to live her own life, Manfred. Ernst is a good man. He is a member of the Socialist Party, and has a good job. He will look after her”. She put her arm around me, and squeezed hard. It felt like the old days again.
Inge was growing up fast. I was surprised how tall she had become, and she excelled at sports. One afternoon, we went to see her in a gymnastics display at the school, and she got the second prize. Mama was very proud, and I felt good for my sister too. Not long after that, she stopped playing with dolls and toys, and spent most of her spare time with the sports coaches. As the year ended, it felt as if we were both putting our childhoods behind us. Inge also started to use the folding bed left behind by Greta, and no longer slept in bed with Mama. She walked to school with a group of her friends, and I was not asked to look after her anymore. I thought she was still very young to be so independent, but nobody asked my opinion.
The news really excited Mama. The allocation of our new apartment had come through. It was further east, but still within walking distance of school, though a long walk. We went to see it on that Saturday morning, when Mama was to be handed the key. A man from the newspaper was there, and he took photos of the first families to get the keys, as we lined up outside the building. It was on the top floor, the fourth floor. Lots of concrete steps led up to it, and it felt strange to be in a place that was so empty. It seemed huge inside. We each had a bedroom, though they were very small. There was an inside lavatory, with a shower fixed over it, and a wash-basin to one side. This was unimaginable luxury to me, after so long living at Frau Winter’s.
The living room and kitchen was combined, but it was big enough for a table and chairs, as well as our armchairs. It was heated by electricity, so we would no longer need wood or coal. Outside, there was a small communal grassed area, with swings and space to play football. It had a funny smell in the apartment though, and some of the doors didn’t seem to close properly.
The next weekend, a man came to our old apartment with a flat-back truck. He and his teenage son carried all our furniture down as Mama packed our clothes into two big suitcases. I was going to ask why we were allowed to take Frau Winter’s things, but thought better of it. Mama got in front with the man and I sat on the edge of the back of the truck with Inge and the teenager, as we drove to the new place.
Sadness overwhelmed me as we turned at the end of the street.
I was going to miss my neighbourhood.
For Christmas that year, Mama gave me six large journals, and some more ink for my pen. She said I could use them to take notes for my homework, but I decided to write down the story of my life so far instead.
That is how what you are now reading came to pass. If anyone should ever read it, of course. I have no way of knowing if that will happen.
Long hours in my room, or at the dining table, remembering the events at the end of the war, and what happened after that.
We got big news too. In the new year, Inge would depart for Russia, where she was to receive a scholarship to continue her schooling whilst perfecting her gymnastic skills with the best teachers in the world. Her new home would be in Moscow, where she would live with other students from around eastern Europe, all selected for their academic or sporting prowess. I felt sad to hear this, and was sure Mama would object. But she thought it was a wonderful thing, and so did Inge.
I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want my sister to go.
There was to be a small farewell party, before the chaperone arrived to escort Inge on the long train journey. Mama managed to get some tasty treats, and Greta arrived with Ernst. She brought Inge a vanity case, which seemed a silly present for such a young girl. I also received a gift. A metal ruler, and a set of hard pencils. Perhaps she thought I was studying Technical Drawing instead of Languages, I wasn’t sure. Ernst announced that they were moving to Dresden. The city was being slowly rebuilt after the wartime devastation, and they needed skilled draughtsmen like him. Greta would transfer with her job at the Office of Pensions. When I heard what he did for a living, I realised why I had been given such an inappropriate gift.
It was dark by the time the car arrived to take Inge. I expected tearful farewells, and her to change her mind at the last minute.
But I was the only one who cried. Alone in my room.
The apartment seemed very quiet without Inge, and I took to spending a lot of time alone in my room. One evening, Mama arrived home from work in a state of excitement, flinging open the door to my room. “Come outside and hear the news, Manfred. Quickly”. When I was sitting at the table, she reached over and grasped both my hands. “We are to be new country, officially. The German Democratic Republic will come into being this October. What do you think about that? No more Russian control, and our own country, governed by a German political party. The others will have their American puppet state in the west, controlled by the allies”. I thought for a moment. After all, Berlin would be deep inside this new territory, more than one hundred and fifty kilometres from what was to become the Federal Republic of Germany in the west.
“And what of Berlin, Mama. Will it be part of this new country?” She beamed. “Of course, it will be the capital city”. Her smile faded slightly. “But they have to let the British and Americans remain, the French too. So it will still be divided. That can’t last for long though, so let’s be positive. And to celebrate, the Socialist Party are arranging a summer camp for their loyal members. I am invited of course, so are you. We will have a holiday, Manfred. our first since you were a toddler”. I didn’t really remember that last holiday. I had only been three years old, so my only memory of it was of my father carrying me on his shoulders, on a hot day. Mama had told me the details, relishing every moment as if it had been the most fantastic holiday any family had ever taken.
Mama’s official job got her heavily involved in the preparations for the birth of our new Germany. She was on more committees than I could take in, everything from the flag-design committee, to the relocation of orphans organisation. That meant she was always home late, and sometimes stayed out overnight. I would be fourteen soon, so was expected to take care of myself. I heated up stew for my dinner, or ate bread and cheese when I couldn’t be bothered to cook. The radio broadcasts were more boring than ever, with constant interviews about how we would soon have our own powerful country, and take our rightful place on the world stage. That meant more time spent studying, and I became something of a swot.
Despite Mama’s enthusiasm, and all the excitement, I could see with my own eyes. The Russians were still everywhere, and at school we constantly learned about how they had saved us, even though we had been told this one hundred times before. By the time my birthday arrived, Mama looked exhausted with all the extra work. But she made sure to be home for dinner that night, and presented me with a book. “For your studies, darling Manfred”. My excitement at unwrapping it fell flat when I saw the title. It was a copy of ‘Das Kapital’, by Karl Marx, an edition printed in English. She looked so pleased, I tried to be enthusiastic, but I’m not at all sure I carried it off.
She had more news of the holiday to come. “It will be a camp near Altendorf, so not far. The Party has arranged coaches to take us, and we will stay in tents. It will be such fun, with organised events for both adults and children. Food is provided, and we will cook and eat communally. Open fires, singing, sports, and games. Even swimming in the lake. Perhaps you could learn to swim this year, son?” I did like the sound of getting away after so long stuck in the city. But I would have preferred to go back to the seaside; just me and Mama, with Inge too. I managed to look a little excited. “Sounds great, Mama”.
The reality of the holiday was very different from the picture painted by Mama’s words. It turned out to be full of children, most much younger than me. The adults like Mama were mainly there to supervise, and to do jobs like cooking, or organising sports. I had to share a big tent with five other boys, and I was the oldest. Washing was done in a communal tent, with boys and girls separated, naturally. The toilet facilities were horrible, just planks stretched across a big ditch inside a huge tent. All the boys had to use one, and the girls another at the other end of camp. But there was one thing that kept me from wanting to run screaming into the woods.
And her name was Hannelore.
On the second morning she came looking for me early, calling my name from the entrance to the tent. I pulled on my shorts and went through the flap, wondering who it was. It was a young woman, and I hadn’t noticed her the day before. The first day had been spent getting used to the place, and we had eaten late. I had to tell the young ones sharing my tent to stop giggling, so I could get to sleep. By the time I heard her calling my name, I wasn’t in the best of moods. But the sight of her wiped all that annoyance from my mind.
Perhaps four inches taller than me, with light brown hair tied in a pony-tail, I guessed she must be at least eighteen, maybe even twenty. She was wearing a tight white vest and equally tight shorts, both leaving little to the imagination. Her tone was businesslike. “I need you to help me organise some things for the little ones. I was supposed to have another helper, but she didn’t show up. You’re the oldest boy around, so you will have to do. You can forget messing around with the others, as you will be helping me every day, from breakfast to bedtime. Okay? My name is Hannelore. Get your shirt on and follow me”.
I would have followed her over the edge of a cliff.
Hannelore was not that enthusiastic about her job at the camp. She got me to do a lot of the boring stuff, like rounding up the kids, and making them line up for the games. Whatever chance she got, she would sneak off into some trees to smoke cigarettes, something not approved of in a young woman. I was given a list of activities that the kids had to do in her absence, like passing a ball back down the line and then the last one running to the front. I had to decide which line had won, but I was constantly looking over my shoulder to see when she was coming back. That resulted in a lot of shouting from the actual winners, when I made the wrong decision.
When she was really bored, she would make them do things like frog-racing, where they had to run in a crouched position that made the majority of them fall over. That always made her laugh, and I concluded early on that she didn’t like the kids that much at all.
But she looked so lovely when she laughed.
One afternoon, a small girl fell down into the toilet ditch, slipping off the plank as she did her business. Hannelore was summoned by one of the adults, and told to deal with the screaming child. She took one look at the shit-covered kid, and smiled at me. “Your job, handsome”. I took the girl over to the female washing tent, and scrubbed her clean. Hannelore had called me ‘handsome’.
I would have shaved a tiger if she had asked me to.
When the young ones went in early to eat, we got some free time. I followed Hannelore into the woods, and watched her as she sat smoking. Her body fascinated me, but of even more fascination was the fact that she was so unashamedly hairy. She had as much hair on her legs as any adult man in the camp, and when she raised her arms, the hair in her armpits looked like two rabbits were living in them. I considered the fact that she was deliciously feminine, yet in some ways more masculine than me.
One light evening, we were sitting in the woods. I was being bothered by some sort of biting insects, as she was casually lying back on the grass blowing smoke up at the treetops. I couldn’t stop looking at her large breasts under the tight vest, unencumbered by a brassiere of any description. She caught me looking, and I quickly averted my eyes. Too late. “Like what you see, handsome? How old are you anyway?” I wasn’t about to state my real age, so gambled. “You tell me. How old do you think I am?” She ran her eyes up and down me for an uncomfortably long time. “Seventeen? No, sixteen. Sixteen I reckon”.
I smiled, wasting time as I decided what to say. “Almost sixteen”, I lied. She sat up and dug a small hole in the grass with her fingers, burying the cigarette end. The next look she gave me was one I had never seen before, but instinct told me it was a good look. “Old enough then. Come on, let’s go and eat”. On the way back through the woods, she suddenly stopped. “Hang on, I need to piss”. Before I could move, she pulled down her shorts and white panties and squatted just three feet in front of me, letting out a huge stream of urine that ran into the grass. I was transfixed by the sight of her naked behind, and not even remotely uncomfortable about this rather startling display of intimacy.
Still mesmerised, I hadn’t even noticed that she had pulled up her clothes and was standing again. “Come on, dreamer, I’m hungry. Haven’t you ever seen a girl piss before?”
The next day, there was to be a film show in the evening. Everyone was eating earlier so that the kids would be supervised as they watched it, sat in rows on the ground, shortest at the front. The Socialist Party had a film truck, and it had driven out from Berlin to set up for the camp. Some people erected a large screen in front of the truck, little more than a big white sheet supported on long poles. Then a lady stood at the front and announced that the sound was broken, but they would show the cartoons and a silent film anyway. The film about the forthcoming statehood celebrations was cancelled though.
Nobody minded that.
I saw Mama sitting at the end of the front row, her arm around a small girl. I thought she might be missing Inge, and guessed she had volunteered to sit with the young ones. Hannelore told me to sit with her, right at the back, away from the audience. After less than five minutes of the first ancient cartoon, she pushed my shoulder. “This is so lame. Come on, Freddie, I need a smoke”. I followed her into the woods, not minding that she called me Freddie, a shortening of my name I usually didn’t care for at all.
It was the start of sunset, and still quite light. Through the trees, we could see the flickering of the film projector, and hear the squealing of the children.
I was lying on my back watching her smoke, enjoying the fantasy that it was just us two, and she was my girlfriend. When she stubbed out the cigarette, the last thing I expected was for her to roll over and start to kiss me. But that’s exactly what she did. I felt her hand between my legs, and my tongue went suddenly dry. She spoke with her mouth so close to me, I could feel her lips touching mine, and the smell of tobacco on her breath. “Feels like you’re ready”. She stood up, and pulled her vest over her head, then started to unbutton her shorts. It seemed like a dream to me, and I was sure I would wake up. I watched as she slid her shorts and underwear down to her ankles, then pulled them off along with her canvas shoes. “Come on Freddie, you’ve still got your shorts on, get them off now”.
I couldn’t move, let alone manage buttons. Hannelore knelt down and undid them herself, dragging them and my underpants off over my leather sandals. Then she moved her left leg over me, straddling me with her arms supporting her on either side of my head, the heavy breasts bouncing close to my nose. As she lowered her body onto me I felt an amazing sensation, like nothing I had ever imagined. It seemed as if fireworks were going off behind my eyes, and I thought my heart would stop beating.
Ten seconds later, her voice brought me back to reality.
“Finished already? For God’s sake, was that your first time?” I was past lying now, and slowly nodded my head. When I replied, it sounded like the croak of a frog. “Sorry”. She seemed strangely pleased, not angry at all. Stroking my face fondly, she smiled sweetly too. “Doesn’t matter. We will just have to wait until you are ready again, won’t we?”
She didn’t have to wait long.
By the time we got back, the film show was coming to a close, and we managed to resume our places with nobody noticing we had been gone. I now considered myself to be an accomplished lover, and very much a man. She had been very kind, and as we got dressed, had complimented me. “Well, what you lack in technique, you make up for in enthusiasm. I hadn’t expected that third time”. I went to help her round up the kids, and get them to their tents. I gazed at her adoringly as she shouted at the children. I was totally besotted with her, and wondered if she would become my wife in time.
As things were packed away for the end of camp, I took the opportunity to talk to her alone. “Will we meet up back in Berlin, Hannelore? I can tell my mother that we are together as soon as I am old enough”. She grinned, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. “You’re a sweet boy, Freddie, but I start my training next month. I have applied to be a border guard. Got to be more exciting than working in a kindergarten”.
On the way home in the coach, Mama was chatting non-stop about how well the camp had gone. When she noticed me staring wistfully out of the window, she stroked my head. “Are you alright, Manfred? Did you have a nice time?” I nodded, and smiled at her.
“The best time ever, Mama”.
And I never did learn to swim.
It was all over. We now had a country that was no longer just Germany. Mama was ecstatic, and attended numerous celebrations. I found it all a bit much, and cited having to study as my reason for not accompanying her. No matter how many times she told me I would regret missing the parades and speeches, I remained unconvinced. Life was not that much easier than it had been last year, and shortages of everything was still the norm. We had issues with the new apartment too. Electrical problems, frequent power cuts, and those doors that I had suspected were hung wrong never did close properly. Mama said I shouldn’t complain. “Remember what it was like after forty-two, Manfred”.
She had a point. The last three years of the war had been horrible. At least there was no bombing, nobody was being killed, and the city was slowly returning to something like its old self. So what if some countries hated us?
We had our own allies now, and the strong backing of the Soviet Union. Mama was sure life would get much better, and I had to agree with her.
After my woodland liaison with Hannelore I calmed down a great deal, and stuck to my studies. I would be taking preliminary examinations next year, and hoped to do well enough to go to a good high school when I was sixteen. Inge was doing fine in Moscow, according to her letters, and she hoped to be able to visit us next year, when her gymnastics team was coming to do a big display. Mama was now home most evenings, and we settled down into an after-dinner routine where she would discuss things with me as an equal.
“When you are older, you should join the Party, Manfred. It will help you a lot in whatever career you decide to embark on. Of course, I have my contacts, but they only have so much influence”.
I supposed that the trauma of the war, losing her husband, and having to be used by a Russian soldier had all made her determined that such things should never happen again. She was putting her faith in this new order of things, and her trust in the Party to make life fair for all.
I wasn’t so sure. But I made the right noises, to keep her happy.
The year after I got back from summer camp passed by without too much change in our lives. Inge hadn’t been able to come home with the team, as she had some sort of contagious fever. Mama worried a lot of course, but one of her contacts spoke to one of his contacts, and assured her that Inge was just unwell, and receiving good treatment. He also made a vague promise about getting Mama a trip to Moscow some time soon.
Nothing came of that.
What nobody could fail to notice was that thousands of people had gone. Migration to the west was depleting the population rapidly. And the Socialist Party was losing face too, with some of the most important members expelled. Mama of course took the side of the hard-liners, and thought it had been good to inject some new blood into the membership. She was also very critical of those leaving, and one evening made a comment that I later had cause to remember very well. “They should be ashamed, Manfred. How are we to build a successful new country if so many want to go and live in the west? They should build a wall, or a high fence perhaps. Some sort of barrier. It will keep people safe here, and stop spies and suchlike”.
For someone who had spent her youth as a waitress, Mama had come on a long way indeed.
When my examination results were announced, I was very pleased. I had come in the top ten percent for English and Russian, and in History and German too. Only the science subjects let me down, but I had no intention of pursuing a career in that field. I put in my application to study languages at High School, and waited to hear if I was successful.
One afternoon when I got back from the library, there was a note pinned on the door. Mama had been taken ill at work, and was in hospital. I didn’t even delay to put my books inside, and left for the long walk to the clinic mentioned on the note. They made me wait on a chair outside the ward for almost two hours. When I was finally allowed in to see her, I was very shocked. Her face was as white as chalk, and her arm was connected by a tube to a big glass bottle containing what looked like blood. I kissed her cheek, and held her hand. “What is it, Mama? What has happened?”
She told me to sit on the small chair by the bed. “It is just a woman’s problems, Manfred. Don’t ask me too much now, as it is embarrassing to talk to you about it. Don’t fret now, I will be well very soon”. Ten minutes later, a stern-looking nurse arrived and told me I would have to leave. “They are all ladies here young man, and they don’t need you sitting here looking at them”. I wanted to say I hadn’t looked at anyone, but Mama patted my knee. “Go home now, son. There is a potato salad under a cover, and still some ham left on that joint. Come back tomorrow”. I kissed her cheek again, and left. I was already well-used to looking after myself.
She was in there for six days. When she came home, in a car provided by the Party, it took her a very long time to walk up all the stairs, even with me helping her. When I got her settled in bed, she was still reluctant to answer my questions, making what sounded like a short speech instead. “Now Manfred, you must be brave. I am still quite ill, and they cannot tell me if I will get better anytime soon. I am going to need your help more, and Marianne from downstairs has agreed to help out when she can. Leave me to rest now. By the way, I won’t be going back into work for a while, so don’t worry if I am not up early. And you must write a letter to Inge, tell her not to worry”.
With Mama almost an invalid, and in bed most of the time, life did change quite a lot. I had to ask Marianne for lots of favours, including buying our shopping, and doing some laundry. She was a good-hearted woman, but had her own life to worry about too. Mama gave her some money occasionally, and also arranged for her teenage son to get a job as a clerk in her department.
We muddled through, but she didn’t get better.
My mother died three weeks after my eighteenth birthday. She never heard about my final examination results, or that I had been accepted into university. She was only forty-two. Inge couldn’t get back for the funeral, which was arranged by Mama’s colleagues in the Party. I sent my sister a letter, pretending Mama had died in her sleep. I didn’t let on what the doctor had finally told me, which was that her cause of death was a tumour in her womb, and had been inoperable. I knew that she had been in terrible pain.
Less than ten days after her funeral, an official-looking lady came to the apartment. She informed me in a matter-of-fact way that I would have to move out, to make way for a family. “Your sister is resident in Moscow, I understand? A clever young man like you could easily find work, and a nice room with a good family. Or perhaps a bachelors’ hostel? And you are going to university soon are you not? Good. Then you can arrange accommodation there”.
That evening, I made up my mind.
I would abandon plans to continue my education, and join the Police instead.
I passed the physical and the compulsory written test, then got called in for a formal interview. I expected questions like “Why do you want to be a police officer?” But sat in the large room facing four very official-looking men, one in full uniform, it seemed that they mainly wanted to talk about my family.
“Your mother is a loyal Party member. Your sister is part of the gymnastics team. Your father was killed serving with the Afrika Corps, and neither of your parents ever joined the Nazi Party. Is that correct, Kraus?” I sat up straight as I replied. “All correct, sir”. The man tapped the paperwork containing my application form.”And you speak English and Russian, as well as being able to write in both too, yes?” I was glad that they had actually read it. “Yes, sir. Correct again”. He exchanged a look with the man in uniform, and they both nodded. “Thank you, please take a seat outside. We will be calling you back soon”.
All that build up, and just those few questions. I was sure they were going to reject me.
Almost one hour later, the door opened, and I was asked to go back in. Other than the man who had asked the questions, the people inside had changed. A stern-looking woman sat at one side of the desk, and a heavily-scarred man was in the central chair. As I sat down, he spoke to me without looking up from the paperwork in front of him. “Tell me, are you prepared to become a Party member?” I answered quickly, remembering what my mother had told me. “Yes sir, I am happy to do that”. He looked across at the woman, and she turned sideways, staring me straight in the eyes. “Tell us what you know of the State Security Service”.
I had heard talk of the Stasi, which had been founded a few years earlier. Mother spoke about them in glowing terms. “They will safeguard us against western spies, Manfred. Help root out the undesirables, and those who seek to undermine our new republic. They will also deal with those ex-Nazis who hope to take back power”. I repeated what she had told me, word-for-word, making it sound like my own conclusions. The woman nodded, and wrote down a lot of words in a large book on her lap. Then the man finally looked up at me. “How would you feel about being offered a job with us, instead of becoming a policeman?” It only took me seconds to realise that him and the woman were something to do with the Stasi, and only one more second to reply.
“I would be honoured to accept, sir”.
The woman nodded to the man, and he smiled. It was a rather scary smile, given that his face was covered in scars. “You are prepared to undertake investigations into people from all walks of life, some of whom you might know? To listen to taped recordings of conversations and telephone calls, and to translate them from other languages if necessary? You would agree to become part of an interrogation team, and participate in arrests of individuals when ordered to do so?” I gathered he had stopped talking, and was awaiting a reply.
“Of course, sir. Whatever duties were required of me”.
The woman closed the book on her lap. “Welcome to the State Security Service, Herr Kraus”.
The training was a lot more basic than I had expected. Based in an old army barracks outside of the city, it involved being taught to use a pistol and assault rifle. There was a bit of physical exercise too, but no marching or drilling. Most of the time was spent in a classroom, with the eleven others in my induction group. They ranged in age from eighteen to almost forty, and there was only one woman. Lots of lectures about borders, foreign spies and agitators, and working alongside the Russian military and MGB. We were told that this would soon be known as the KGB, and already had a vast network of agents and informers. It was going to be the model that the Stasi would base itself on.
I was surprised to hear how much information they already had about so many people still living in East Germany. They referred to them as ‘dissidents’, ‘trouble-makers’, sometimes even ‘Nazi-lovers’. I also learned about the everyday dilemma for ordinary people who had chosen to remain in our new country. If they had done that, why had they done that? They could have emigrated to the west, but chose to continue living in the east. That very loyalty made them suspect, and their motives questioned. Unless they were long-standing Socialist Party members, served in the current armed forces, or had joined the Stasi like me, it seemed everyone was to be considered ‘dubious’.
Early on, I realised that this was going to be a very busy job.
The suspicious nature that was the culture there extended to our colleagues, the other recruits. We ate together in large groups, up to sixty at a time. I found myself scanning the rows of diners, wondering ‘what’s her story?’ or ‘he doesn’t look the type for this job’. I shared a two-bunk room with three others. Other than our names and places of origin, we didn’t have a lot to say about our lives before joining up. After a relatively short time, paranoia had well and truly set in.
Upon completion of some practical assessments and written tests, I was interviewed to be told that I had passed the course, and was now a Stasi officer. In another part of the barracks, they kitted out those of us who had been successful. We got two suits, not new, but clean and serviceable. Two pairs of shoes, and shirts and ties too. Some also got uniforms, but I wasn’t told to go to that queue. The final issue was a lined raincoat, and a wide-brimmed trilby hat that made me feel very grown up when I put it on. There was also a suitcase to put the spare clothes in, but nobody got socks, or underwear. They were up to us to supply.
I was sent to wait outside an office with around a dozen others. One by one, we went in to sign a document that we would not divulge anything about our training or our job, and I was given a Walther PP .32 pistol in a small holster that fitted in the waistband of my trousers. I was told it was loaded, and more ammunition would be available wherever I was going. Then I got my identity documents and badge in a leather holder, and was advised to guard them with my life. Everyone had to go back to their rooms to wait for the postings notice to be put up in the canteen.
The rest would all be learned ‘on the job’.
I was left hanging around in the training school for the few weeks before the new year. Along with a few others, I did a bit more training on using radio receivers and tape recorders, and they kept us apart from other groups of trainees that arrived. Then my posting came through, and I was told to report to the office.
My destination was to the west, Stendal. That was much closer to the new border, and there was a lot of American activity less than sixty kilometres from there. The Russians had stationed almost a complete army group in the area, with a large presence at the old Stendal barracks. At the time, things were increasingly tense between the Soviets and the Allies, with the other side building up a large number of troops based around Hanover. My job was to work at one of the listening stations, and hope to pick up information from the Allies’ radio transmissions. I was to be taken there by coach with others being dropped off at their postings on the way.
Any excitement I was feeling at being let out to do my job was soon diminished when I arrived. We had a small Stasi office at the barracks, and I was told I would be sharing a room with another surveillance operative. The place was packed with Russian soldiers, many of whom were reminiscent of those I had seen around my old district in forty-five. Quite a few of their senior officers were openly drunk at all times of the day and night, and most were also convinced that the next war would be starting very soon.
That evening, I met Walter. He was to be my room-mate and mentor, the one I would sit next to, as he showed me the ropes. A serious man, perhaps forty years old or slightly less, he quickly told me a little of his background. A member of the Communist Party before the war, he had been arrested on trumped-up charges, and sent to a labour camp. He survived the rough treatment there, but when he returned home after liberation, there was no trace of his family. As he was fluent in English, he had applied to join the Security Service at the earliest opportunity, and applied himself to the job like a man with a mission.
After two shifts with Walter watching me, and pointing out small errors, I was incredibly bored. The equipment we were using was just not up to the job, and most of our time was spent listening to the stronger signals of the various Allies’ entertainment stations. When they interviewed soldiers sending messages home to loved ones, I diligently wrote down the names and ranks of those mentioned, which might at least give some idea of the troop deployments over the border. But if I had been expecting the frisson of discovering some great secret, I soon realised that nothing like that was going to happen.
After more than a month of this, I was seriously considering my future, and contemplating applying for a transfer. We were stuck on the Russian base with no time off, and the routine was mind-numbing. I hardly saw daylight, except when I sometimes wandered around the camp grounds, being eyed suspiciously by the Russian troops on guard duty.
Then something happened.
We were called in before our shift, and the whole group was crowded into a small meeting room. Major Becker looked flushed and excited as he addressed us.
“We have picked up a local signal, just outside Stendal. It appears that someone nearby is using a radio to communicate with some ex-Nazis in the west. This seems to be connected to the Werewolf guerrilla group that operated at the end of the war. Our best guess is that an ex-SS man is living under an assumed identity, and attempting to pass information about Soviet troop movements to his conspirators over the border. We have tracked the signal to an exact location, and will be mounting a raid tomorrow at first light”.
He went on to show us maps, and tell us how some of us would be in an arrest team, backed up by some Russian soldiers who would seal off the area. Then he read a list of the names of those who would be going. When I heard him say “Kraus”, I took a deep breath. Walter was not on the list, and when we talked about it later in the room, he seemed relieved. “My health is not so good, Manfred. I doubt I would have been accepted if not for my knowledge of English. Be careful tomorrow, and make sure the Russians don’t shoot you by mistake”. I hardly slept that night, and when someone banged on the door to tell me it was time, I was heavy-headed and sleepy-eyed.
Four of us were going in a car, with twelve Russian soldiers following in one of their trucks. Major Becker was in the front passenger seat. He turned to look at me. “I know it’s your first time, Kraus. Just stick behind me with your pistol ready, and whatever you do, don’t shoot me in the back”. The driver laughed, as it was supposed to be funny. But I wasn’t laughing.
The house stood on its own up a short driveway. The Russians deployed into the woodland area on both sides, with two remaining at the front. I followed the Major to the front door, and he nodded to the other two to check around the back. I was imagining that we would force the door, or perhaps even have some kind of device to use on the lock. So when the Major simply walked up and hammered on the door with his fist, it made me jump. “Open up! State Security Police! Open up!” A light showed inside, but nobody came to the door. Becker kicked it repeatedly. “Don’t make me have to break the door down, or it will be the worse for you!”
After that outburst, the door opened a crack, and the Major pushed on it, walking inside. A middle-aged woman stood there, wearing a nightgown with a shawl around her shoulders. She looked absolutely terrified. “Who else is in the house, lady? Come on, speak up!” Becker’s voice was loud and intimidating, and she seemed transfixed by him. “Kraus, check upstairs. Quickly now”. I pushed past them and went up the wide wooden stairs, pistol in hand, and safety catch off. The light on the landing showed four doors, all closed. I was shaking as I tried the first door handle, but it opened to an empty bathroom. I could hear the Major still shouting at the woman as he searched downstairs. As I tried the second door, there was the sound of a shot from outside, and some yelling in Russian.
The man had climbed out of a window, and made a run for it through the woods before my two colleagues had got around the back. He hadn’t counted on the soldiers being there, and was soon spotted. They had fired the warning shot, so they said, and he had stopped. I thought it more likely that they had been trying to hit him, and missed. But I kept that to myself. The Stasi officers appeared in the hallway with a tall man held tight between them. He was barefoot, and wearing only pyjamas. Despite his circumstances, the man looked remarkably calm. He stood erect, and his manner struck me as imperious. The Major smiled, and gave the woman a small push toward the door. “Take these two to the Russian truck and tell them to guard them while we search”.
When they came back, the four of us began a methodical search. Nothing was obvious of course, but a lot of stamping on the floor soon revealed a hollow sound, and a trapdoor concealed under a heavy sideboard. I was sent down to investigate, using my hand torch. In the small space below, I easily found a radio in an old suitcase, along with annotated maps, and some radio code books. A long wire aerial was concealed behind some pipes, and that led all the way up into the roof space. I passed everything up to the others, and emerged to find a delighted Becker with a beaming smile across his face.
“Good job, boys. Now, let’s get them back for questioning”.
On the way back to the base in the car, the Major turned to me.
“You did well, Kraus. It will not go unnoticed”.
Despite a glowing report from Major Becker, and his recommendation that I be transferred to a plain clothes active unit, the wheels turned slowly. I was stuck at Stendal for the rest of the year, still listening to poor quality radio messages, and watching Walter get excited about nothing. During that time, it became glaringly obvious that we were little more than a branch of the Russian KGB, and that they were ultimately in charge of most of our operations.
My only diversion came from being allowed to go on trips into Stendal with Erich, the car driver. I was rather taken with the daughter of one of the town’s bakers, but with no decent transport, it was pointless asking her out on a date. Erich took pity on me, and put my name forward for an official driving course. That took place on the base, and was an intensive course for six days. I was pleased to pass it, but by the time my licence and permission to drive our allocated car came through, my transfer had also arrived.
Back to Berlin, to work at Stasi headquarters. I wasn’t complaining.
I was no longer stuck on surveillance. They put me on one of the arrest teams, led by Captain Teller. He was the golden boy of the Stasi at the time, and he had served in the Wehrmacht, as an infantry officer. But he embraced the new regime immediately, and had an uncanny knack of sniffing out Black Market operations, and dissidents. My sergeant was called Gunther, and when he found out I could drive, he made me one of the team drivers.
This was more like it. I felt like a policeman, going out on raids and arrests, threatening bad guys with my pistol, and slapping on handcuffs. We were usually accompanied by some others in uniform, which made it seem very official. I heard about interrogations lasting days, and some of the team talked about being involved in beatings too. But for some reason, I wasn’t asked to do that. My job seemed to end once they were handed over, and taken to the cells.
Back in the capital, the benefits of my new job became very apparent. I was allocated a small apartment within walking distance of headquarters, and I didn’t have to share it. There was access to extra food, and decent clothes too.
I also earned enough to pay a woman to clean my place and do my washing and ironing. She always seemed afraid of me, despite my youth, and was almost reluctant to accept her small salary when I paid her. My identity card and badge could open any door without the slightest argument, and for the first time in years, I felt relaxed. Perhaps I had found my niche, after all.
When I turned up for work one morning, the sergeant told me we were off to arrest a woman for ‘seditious utterances’. A female uniformed officer would accompany us, and it should be an easy job, as the accused was quite elderly. He showed me the name and address on the paperwork. It was Frau Winter, still living at our old place. I thought it best to tell him I knew her, and suggested it might be better if he took someone else to drive him. He shook his head. “Less trouble if you know the old cow. You can get her out without too much drama”.
On the way, he told me that Frau Winter had been reported for complaining about the government. She repeatedly said that life had been better under the Nazis, and didn’t mind who heard her. I mentioned that she had lost both sons in the war, and had been forced to move into her own basement room. Gunther shrugged. “Not so bad. She should have tried surviving time in a labour camp for being a Communist”.
I was sent in, accompanied by the sour-faced woman in uniform. I showed Frau Winter my badge and the arrest warrant, and realised she didn’t recognise me. “It’s me, Manfred. I used to live here”. She shrugged. “I had to move down here because of you three, and when you went they put a rough family into my nice apartment. Now you are working for them. What would your mother think of you arresting a woman who was kind to you”. She shocked me by suddenly spitting at my feet. “My mother is dead, Frau Winter”. She shrugged again. “And so are my sons”. My uniformed colleague grabbed her arm, and led her to the door. There was no need for handcuffs. She stayed silent all the way back to headquarters, but as she was led off to the cells, she stopped and turned, snarling at me.
“Think you’re a big man now, Manfred Kraus. You are no better than the Gestapo, boy. Your time will come, mark my words”.
Later that evening, I thought about what she had said. She had a point.
Fortunately, life wasn’t only about work. I caught the eye of an attractive barmaid one night when I stopped for beer and sausage on the way home. I stayed for an extra beer, and asked her name. It was Mona. I remembered my training, and asked more questions. Her surname, age, and where she lived. I didn’t just rattle off a list, but slowly worked them into the conversation. As I left, I casually said, “Might see you again soon”. She smiled rather coyly. “That would be nice”.
The next day, I checked her out. Mona Friedrich. We had nothing on her, and she wasn’t on any of our lists. A general check showed that she had told me her correct age and address, where she was shown renting a room in a large old house. Next chance I got, I popped into the bar again, and there she was behind the counter. I chatted normally at first, steering the conversation round to her working hours. But before I could suggest a date, she asked me a question. “So what do you do for a living, Manfred?” It wasn’t so much that we were not allowed to tell people what we did, more that it was often the kiss of death when it came to dating and romance. I saw no point trying to deceive her, so showed her my badge. “I’m with the SSD”. She smiled. “That’s a good job to have these days”.
And that was how I got myself a girlfriend.
More good news arrived. Inge was coming home for a holiday, after all this time. I said she could stay at my place, and I would sleep on the floor. Captain Teller approved my request for time off, allowing me five full days to spend with my sister. On my first date with Mona, I told her about my Inge, and how she was a leading gymnast in the national team.
I was looking forward to them meeting.
On the day Inge arrived, I was at the main station before her train got in. I expected her to be tired after a long journey, but I had managed to get hold of some nice chocolates and a small bunch of flowers, as a welcome home gift. Surprisingly, not that many got off the train. Most were Russian of course, and many were in uniform. When there was no sign of my sister, I walked further along the platform, looking into the compartments. Almost at the last carriage, I suddenly heard a voice behind me. “Manfred”.
As I turned with a growing smile, it stopped dead on my face. I was unable to hide my shock. There was little Inge, now sixteen years old but not much bigger than when I had last seen her. Dark circles ran around both her eyes, and her skin was pasty-looking. Walking forward, I wrapped my arms around her, and kissed both her cheeks. I was alarmed to feel how tiny and frail she was, with her ribs obvious, even through her coat. I forced a happy face. “Shall we go and have some hot chocolate and cake, Inge? I know a good place that will have the best”. She shook her head, her expression joyless. “I am not hungry, Manfred. Can we just go back to your place, so I can rest?” I reached down and took her small suitcase. It was the same one she had left with, all those years ago.
The walk to my apartment wasn’t far, but Inge stopped numerous times on the way. After the fourth time, when she leaned on a lamp-post for support, I could hold my tongue no longer. “What’s going on, dear sister? Are you ill? You must tell me”. Taking a deep breath, she tried to smile, but failed. “It’s okay, Manfred. Let’s get to your place. We can talk later, when I am rested. It was such a long journey”. Inside my apartment, I took her coat, and caught my breath when I saw how thin she was. The small dress was so loose on her, it twisted around her body as she walked over to sit on my one armchair. Her wool stockings had fallen down around her shins, and she made no effort to pull them up. Her legs were so skinny, I could make out the bones of her knee joints quite clearly. She was far from being a healthy gymnast, that was for sure.
There was so much I wanted to ask, but I respected the fact that she was no longer a child. I had to give her the chance to speak when she was ready. As I made some coffee, she removed her shoes. “Can I go to bed, Manfred? I will feel better after a sleep”. I waited until she was settled in my bed, and quickly checked on her. But she was already asleep, still wearing her dress.
The plan for that evening had been to take her to the bar, to meet Mona. I thought we could have beer and sausages, and chat to my new girlfriend when she got a break between customers. But by the time it was dark, Inge was still asleep. I decided to wake her, and took a cup of coffee through. “Inge, wake up darling. I have brought you coffee. It even has sugar in it. Sit up, and drink it while it’s hot”. She was reluctant to stir, but eventually sat up. Trying to sound very cheerful, I stroked her lank hair. “How about we go and get some food? We can meet Mona at the bar, she is so looking forward to seeing you”. After one small sip of the coffee, she shook her head. “I’m not hungry, Manfred. You go, go and meet her. I will be alright here”.
Now I was losing my patience. “Nonsense. I haven’t seen you in all these years, and I am not about to just go out and leave you sleeping. Come on, get out of bed. You must eat something”. She swung her legs out of the covers so slowly, it reminded me of when my mother was desperately ill. “I will drink the coffee, Manfred, but I really don’t want to eat”. I decided to try to tempt her. “We don’t have to go out, Inge. I have your favourites, right here. Fresh bread, smoked cheese, even some delicious plum jam. You know how much you love plum jam”. There was no lightness in her voice. “Like the jam Grigiry used to bring? The Russian jam?”. I nodded. “That’s the one, the very same”. She shook her head. “Not for me, thank you”.
As she sat back in the armchair staring at her coffee, I made myself a snack with the cheese and bread. I was hungry, and it looked like the planned trip to the bar was not going to happen. Inge wasn’t saying anything. The visit I had anticipated with such delight was already turning into something that gave me grave concern. After almost an hour of silence, I just had to say something. “You are not well, I can see that. You are too thin, even for a gymnast. I am worried about you, have you seen a doctor? Don’t just sit silent, you have to talk to me. We only have each other, and I am not going to sit here like this for five days, until you go back to Moscow.”
When she replied, her voice sounded much older, as if there was something heavy in her throat. Still holding the cup with both hands, she turned her head to talk to me, and I saw something dark behind her eyes.
“I am no longer a gymnast, Manfred. I wasn’t good enough, never stayed in the top three. They said I was too tall, then I was too heavy. For the past year I have been helping the coaches, mainly arranging the kit for the travelling to events.
I don’t even get to share the dormitory with the young girls anymore. I sleep in a store-room at the training school, surrounded by floor mats and drying washing. They say I am too old now anyway. So that’s it. My so-called career is over. I am not on holiday, I have come home. I will need to find work, and I didn’t even finish my studies”.
The tears were forming in my eyes as I walked over and knelt on the floor in front of her. I took the cold coffee away, and wrapped my arms around her, kissing her head. She was trembling, but had no tears. I suspected she had cried them all out, long ago. After a long time sitting like that, she pulled away. “Manfred, there is more. I don’t know how to tell you, and I am ashamed to talk about it. But with Mummy gone, I have nobody else to tell. Auntie Greta is too far away, and I have no friends”. I stood up, and stroked her face. “You can tell me anything, Inge. You must know that”.
She swallowed hard, and began to talk.
The story that Inge related to me made me angry and desperately sad at the same time. At least when it was over, I was able to get her to eat something, and to drink some warm milk. But when she went back to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep, and sat for most of the night at the table, writing a report.
She told me that at first, the abuse had been verbal. Constantly being told she would never be good enough. Coaches screaming at her when she was still just a child, telling her she was too fat, and was eating too much. When she cried, they sat her facing the corner, leaving her there until she apologised. It wasn’t long before the physical abuse began. Slaps, pushes, being left in uncomfortable positions for long periods, and having her wrists twisted, or hair pulled. And it wasn’t the Russians doing this, but the East German coaches, and the chaperones that were supposed to be caring for her.
Eventually, lack of good food, nights without sleep, and constant humiliation broke her spirit. When they told Mama that she was too ill to come home for the contest, that was a lie. They left her there to punish her for her supposed lack of effort. Then when she was just eleven years old, the sexual abuse began. I was appalled at her revelations. The first to latch onto her was a woman, someone who was tasked with making her take extra practice in the evenings. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the woman used her for her own pleasure, and poor Inge was too depressed to care or complain. “Who would I have complained to, Manfred? It was common knowledge that many of the girls, and even some of the boys, were being targeted like me”. She tried to smuggle out a letter home, outlining what was happening, but it was discovered, and she was cruelly punished for that.
Later on, she was ‘noticed’ by the deputy head coach, and he decided to give her ‘special lessons’ to improve her skills. But most of those supposed lessons took place in his room. At first, he had to put his hand over her mouth, to suppress her cries and screams. But as time went on, she went to him willingly rather than face any other punishments, like being passed around to some of the Team Officials. But at the start of last year, he had got her pregnant, and an abortion had been arranged in Moscow. When she got back from the hospital, she was taken off the team, and told she was now helping with the kit and routine jobs around the gym. She slept in the store room, and nobody spoke to her unless they had to.
Three weeks ago, she was called into the team office, told she was being sent home to Berlin, and had been officially ‘retired’ from the team.
Of course, as well as the rage I was feeling, I felt I had let my little sister down, even though I had known nothing about what had been happening. I resolved to expose those criminals who were supposed to be nurturing sporting talent, and taking care of our child athletes. My poor sister was only sixteen, and her life had already been ruined.
I got into work early, despite officially being on leave. When Captain Teller arrived, I asked to see him. My handwritten report was perused for a while, and then he looked across his desk at me. “Just tell me, Kraus, I don’t have time to wade through all this”. I quickly summarised everything Inge had told me, adding the names of the people most responsible. When I had finished, I sat up and looked him in the eye. “I want them arrested, and brought back to face trial, Captain. As soon as it can be arranged”.
The Captain gave me a weary look. “Think about this as if it was not your sister. Take a step back, and consider it as a criminal case. Where is the evidence? It is just your sister’s accusations against people who will undoubtedly have solid alibis. Witnesses? Will any of the other supposed victims come forward to corroborate her story? Will they make statements, or appear in court? And this abortion business. Do you think there will be any record of that happening? You are young, but sensible. You know that will be denied. And what if there was evidence of the hospital treatment? Who’s to say who the father of the child was? They will probably say that your sister was promiscuous, and may even manage to get some young men to come forward, admitting they had sex with her. But if you think that any of the officials or team coaches will ever be implicated, then I am sorry to say you are deluded”.
Before I could say a word, he carried on.
“And you must think about your career. Not only that, but your sister’s future too. If you go ahead with this official complaint, nothing will come of it, but both of your lives will be ruined. You will be filing papers in the basement for the rest of your working life, and she will be lucky to get a job cleaning the toilets in a hotel. Believe me, Kraus, you are going to have to put this down to experience, and you will both just have to let it go. It is the way of things, like it or not. Perhaps your mother should not have been so keen to send her daughter away to Russia at such a young age? Either way, all you will do is stir up a hornets’ nest that will come back to sting you both”.
I stopped myself shouting, but my reply was bitter. “So is there to be no justice in our new Germany, Captain? Is life for victims of crime to be no better than it was before the war? If so, then what are we doing here? What is the Stasi for, if not to ensure equal treatment for all, and the rooting out of undesirable elements? What am I to tell Inge when I go home?” I was close to tears, but fought them back.
Interlacing his fingers, he considered his reply.
“You tell her that you will look after her. We will get her a decent job, somewhere to live, and access to good medical care if she needs it. Your position will guarantee her safety here in Germany, and I swear that nobody will ever touch her again, you have my word. You are a good officer, with a bright future. Throw that away, and you throw away Inge’s future too. In a short time, all that will be just a bad memory, I promise you. Now trust me, and forget this report, okay?”
I waited too long to reply, obviously. He put my file into a drawer, and looked away as he spoke to me.
“You are dismissed. Make the most of your time off”.
Captain Teller had been as good as his word. Inge was employed as a trainee teacher, without having to sit any tests or attend an interview. Mona had come up with a plan too. She would move in with me, and Inge could take over her room in the nice shared house. I was quite surprised at Mona’s modern attitude. When she said she would move into my apartment, I said, “Are we to marry then?” She had laughed. “Why? There is no need. We don’t have to be married, and it’s not as if we are intending on having children. We are both too young still”.
I went to see the man who owned the bar where Mona worked, and suggested that he might like to change her to a day shift, where she could serve breakfast and lunch. She would then be home in the evenings. He must have known who I was, as he agreed immediately.
I hadn’t mentioned my report or the conversation with Captain Teller to Inge. We never spoke about what she told me again. She started to get back to something of a normal life, and enjoyed the idea of teaching the small children. She also settled in well in Mona’s old room, and liked being able to close the door when she got home, to shut out the world.
That Spring, I celebrated my 21st birthday with Mona and Inge, enjoying a meal and drinks at the bar where Mona worked. Her boss waived the bill, telling me he was pleased to offer his hospitality. Another perk of the job.
But we soon had other things to worry about.
There was trouble in Hungary. Armed insurrection against the government had escalated into an all-out war on the streets. The Soviets had become involved, and had sent in troops to put down the uprising. Nothing was reported publicly here, but we knew that people would get to hear about it.
Work became incredibly busy. We started to round up everyone who had any connection to or communication with Hungarians, as well as some of the well-known trouble makers who we believed would try to jump on the bandwagon. When I returned with two suspects one afternoon, the Sergeant in charge of custody told me that the cells were full, and we had to take them to a small police station in the suburbs.
That was a tense time indeed, and carried on until order was restored in Hungary in late November.
Not long after new year’s day, Mona surprised me by announcing she was going to visit a cousin. She had never mentioned her before, but suddenly this cousin was a great friend, as well as a relative. She would travel by train to Freiberg, not far from the Czech border, and be gone for a week. My job made me suspicious of everything now, so I immediately checked Mona’s file at headquarters. I noted with some amusement that she was now shown as living at my address, which left me wondering who was keeping tabs on me. Page two of her unremarkable file did indeed show a cousin living in Freiberg. Surprisingly though, there was no name or address for that cousin, just a one-line entry.
While she was away, I was summoned to Captain Teller’s office. “Good news, Kraus. You are to be promoted to sergeant, and I am going to make you my driver. How do you feel about that then?” I guessed this was a reward for keeping quiet about the report I had written about Inge. But it was a good job to have, and the promotion would do me no harm. I smiled at the Captain. “I feel very pleased. Thank you, Captain Teller”.
The new job was so much better. I was finally included in lots of things that I hadn’t previously been allowed to know. I went to meetings with the Captain, and overheard top-secret conversations in the back of the car. Whenever anyone was hesitant, the Captain would say, “It’s alright, Sergeant Kraus is my driver, and you can say anything in front of him”. Whatever his motives, Teller had drawn me into an inner circle that I hadn’t known existed. Mona had been delighted at the news of my promotion. But I could get little or nothing out of her about her trip to see the cousin. “Oh, she has been unwell, she just wanted to see a familiar face, and chat about old times. I was bored, to be honest”.
It said a lot about the new me that I didn’t believe a word of it.
Being the Captain’s driver was such an easy job, I soon became bored. The action of the arrest teams faded into memory, as I spent my time driving to meetings at various buildings around the city, then sometimes having to wait in the car for hours. I was also at Teller’s beck and call, never knowing what time I might finish for the day, or if I would even get home at all, when meetings ran on long into the night. One thing I did learn from that job was that everyone still residing in the new East Germany had a file on them. And almost all of them were suspected of something or another. Stasi recruitment kept on increasing, and yet we never seemed to have enough officers to deal with the workload.
Outside on the streets, life went on much as normal. The rebuilding of the war-damaged areas continued, as well as the construction of new apartment blocks and public buildings. People did their jobs, ate their food, and acted much as they had before. But the sense of fear and dread was palpable at times. Say the wrong thing, listen to the wrong radio station or pass on some rumour or gossip, and you could be sure someone would denounce you.
One evening as I drove him home, Captain Teller informed me that we had stopped recruiting anyone else to serve in the SSD. He laughed as he told me the reason. “We just realised that we don’t need them, Manfred. The people are prepared to work for us for free, by informing on their neighbours, colleagues, even members of their own family. All we have to do is sit back, take the reports, and decide which ones we want to follow up on”.
When he got out of the car, I realised the implication of what he had told me. From a policeman’s point of view, we had achieved utopia.
An entire nation, policing itself.
Mona announced another trip to see her cousin. It was coming up at the weekend, and she would only be gone until Monday. “She’s still poorly, Manfred. I said I would go and help her, get her shopping, clean her house, that sort of thing”. I nodded. “That’s fine, give her my regards”.
When Mona was asleep that night, I did something I had never done before.
I crept into the living room, and picked up her handbag. Taking it into the bathroom so I could switch on the light, I searched through it carefully, making sure to leave everything in the same place. There was nothing remarkable, and I was just about to close it when I noticed a bulge in the leather at the back. I found a small zip along the side seam, and slid it open. Inside the small pouch was a flat leather holder of some sort, and I managed to slide it out, despite the very tight fit.
When I opened it, I almost dropped the bag.
In front of my eyes was a Stasi identity card, and a smaller version of the same badge I had. The name on the card was Lieutenant Hannah Ziegler.
It took a while until I had calmed down enough to carefully replace it in the zipped compartment. Then I switched out the light, and returned the bag to where I had found it. I went back to bed, but didn’t even try to sleep.
Something was very wrong.
She had left for work before I got up, and as soon as I was at headquarters, I hung around to see if Captain Teller needed me. He saw me hovering. “What’s up, Kraus? You waiting for me? I will be at least an hour, so you can go and get some breakfast if that’s what you want”. I waved my thanks, then headed straight down to the records office downstairs. The records clerks didn’t bother about me. They had seen me there plenty of times, and knew very well that I worked on the arrest squad with Teller, so my presence didn’t raise an eyebrow.
I checked out some old names I knew well, then turned to the staff records, casually sliding open the drawer marked ‘Z’. It didn’t contain many files, so I easily found one with the heading ‘Ziegler, H’. My suspicions were confirmed when I opened it to find a head shot photo of Mona, wearing the uniform of a Stasi lieutenant. Reading down the form, I was shocked to discover that she was shown as being married to a Heinrich Ziegler, who resided in Freiberg. Everything started to make sense, and I replaced the file slowly, showing little sign of being interested in it. As I hadn’t asked to remove it, I didn’t have to sign anything, and I nodded to the clerks as I left.
Sitting in the canteen with my hands wrapped around a coffee cup, I faced the truth.
It had all been a setup, right from the first time I noticed Mona in the bar. I had been there a few times before and never noticed her, but that night she had been right at the front, and very friendly and approachable. They had arranged for us to meet. Sure of my attraction to a pretty waitress, who would be amenable to being chatted up, asked out, and becoming my girlfriend. Then she could watch me, report on me, remember anything I said about my job, or something I might say that wasn’t in keeping with my position. Then there was my sudden and surprising promotion. In the know, as Captain Teller’s driver. What might I talk about? What secrets about the Captain might I divulge?
It had all been so easy. Mona had agreed very quickly to becoming my girlfriend, and she had been the one who suggested moving in too. Then the trips to Freiberg, no doubt to visit her husband. What sort of man lets his wife live with another man, just so she can spy on him? My problem was how to deal with what I knew. I would have to give that some thought. Meanwhile, I would have to go home to Mona that evening, and act as if all was normal. It didn’t surprise me that they would be watching me, even though I had done nothing wrong. It was just the lengths they had gone to that seemed excessive.
Early the next morning, I arrived outside the Captain’s apartment as usual. I had no end of trouble starting the car that morning, so left the engine running. The twenty year-old Mercedes was past its best, and the mechanics kept it running as well as they could, often having to make parts from scratch. When Teller didn’t appear, I went to the row of bells, and buzzed his name. A few moments later, his wife appeared. Her make-up from last night was still on her face, and smeared from where she had obviously been crying. With her lip quivering, she spoke quietly, almost as if she couldn’t breathe. “He isn’t here, sergeant. He went out late last night, and hasn’t returned. I am worried sick, as I am sure he wasn’t at work”. I replied politely. “Don’t worry, Frau Teller. I am sure there is nothing to concern yourself with. I will head into headquarters and check on him. Someone will telephone you”.
When I got into the office, I was very surprised to see Colonel Nagel siting in Teller’s chair. When he saw me, he beckoned me in. He looked intimidating in full uniform, with his rimless glasses, and slicked-back hair.
I stood to attention as he spoke.
“Ah, Sergeant Kraus, isn’t it? You can leave the car keys on the desk. It seems that Captain Teller no longer has any need of a driver. You speak fluent English, I understand? Good. Report to the translation office on the fourth floor. You are reassigned”. He waved his hand at me as if I was no more than an annoying fly.
I spent the rest of the day translating letters and documents from English into German. Sat next to me was a bored-looking woman in her fifties who typed on an old heavy machine as I spoke. Most of the papers I had to translate were personal. Insurance documents, old family letters from relatives, and recently intercepted letters, or those that had been found on detained suspects. It was dry stuff indeed, and I was left thinking how I would cope with years of doing this as a job.
When I got home that night, Mona was gone. Her things had all gone, and her side of the wardrobe was empty. The spare key was nowhere to be seen, and it was as if she had never been there. I sat down heavily in the armchair. First Teller, now Mona, and my crappy new job into the bargain. I wondered what the hell was going on, and if the day could possibly get any worse.
Then there was a knock at the door.
I answered the door with my heart in my mouth, and was relieved to find it was Inge. But the news she brought was far from welcome.
“Manfred, Aunt Greta and Ernst have left. They have gone to the west. I wrote to her recently, and when I got no reply, I telephoned her work. They tell me she has gone to Stuttgart, where Ernst has a new job. Now there is only us, no more family”. She didn’t cry, but was obviously upset. I didn’t know what to say. The day had been bad enough, and now my relative had apparently left for West Germany. I couldn’t imagine how they got permission, but I wasn’t about to go into work and ask any questions.
I calmed my sister down, and later walked her back to her room. I knew full well that my superiors would know all about Greta, and feared it would not go down very well at all.
Sure enough, when I arrived at the translation office the next morning, there was a note on my desk telling me to report to the office of Captain Graf, an officer in Internal Affairs. I walked up the stairs with a sense of dread. Many people summoned to see Graf had never been seen back at work. A heavy-set, cheerful man, his appearance belied his fierce reputation. In an organisation that worked in an atmosphere of suspicion, he was probably the most suspicious of all.
His secretary showed me in, and he indicated that I should sit opposite him as he continued to read through some papers in a file. Slapping it down with a loud crack he spoke in a friendly tone, his voice unnecessarily loud. “What are we to do with you, Sergeant? It seems you have been in some bad company. Captain Teller has fled to Austria, and I suspect he may have been working for the Americans all this time. Now your aunt and her husband have decided to live in the West. Your sister couldn’t manage to stay on the gymnastics team, and your former girlfriend and her husband vanished last night, location unknown. Do you have anything to tell me, Kraus?”
My mind was working overtime. So Mona had been working for Teller, keeping an eye on me. Or had she? Maybe she was working on surveillance of Teller, and he had arranged for her mysterious disappearance to cover his escape? In such a short time, my world had turned upside-down, and I had no idea what was going on. Mainly, I felt foolish, for not being aware of anything.
Graf tapped his fingers on the desk, and I quickly answered. “I only found out about my aunt and her husband last night, Captain. As for Captain Teller, I had no idea that he was anything other than the officer in charge of my arrest team. When I got home last night, my girlfriend had left, but I presumed she was visiting her cousin in Freiberg”.
I hadn’t even convinced myself, so though it unlikely that Graf would believe a word of it.
But to my relief, it seemed that he had. “I’m sorry to say that your aunt and her man are no loss to this country, Kraus. We are better off without the likes of them. And don’t be worrying too much about not knowing about Teller.
To be honest, he surprised us all. But I would be interested to know why your girlfriend disappeared. Did you know she was married? You must have suspected she was a Stasi officer, surely?” I wanted to act as surprised and outraged as I could, without overdoing it. But I went for a sad realisation instead.
“A Stasi officer, Captain? Mona? Of course I had no idea, I met her in the bar where she worked as a waitress. And as for her being married, I would never have lived with her had I known that”.
Because he was so affable, I was wary of being lured in to saying something I would regret. So I left it at that.
Graf threw me completely, by changing the subject. “You got sent to a new job, I understand. What do you think of working in document translation? Be truthful now”. I shrugged, and decided to be honest. “Well, it’s rather dull, Captain, but I suppose it has to be done, and I am able to translate from English quite well”. He leaned back in his chair, and lit a cigarette.
“Don’t look so worried, young man. If I suspected you were involved in anything, you would be in a cell, not sitting in my office. I count myself a good judge of people, and I judge that you were just used by others without your knowledge. My belief is that your ‘Mona’ has gone to wherever Teller has, and they were in it together all along. Can you believe he has left his poor wife behind to face interrogation? Not to mention his teenage son at university.
He was arrested in Leipzig, and will be brought here for questioning”.
Thinking it best to say nothing, that was precisely what I did.
In a very short time, everything I knew had changed. Teller was probably a spy, my Aunt had left the country, and I had no idea whether Mona had been spying on me, or on Captain Teller. I had fallen from grace, in every way possible. The bright future I had imagined had vanished as quickly as morning mist burned off by the sun.
Halfway through his cigarette, Graf leaned across the desk. “So, now you are supposedly guilty by association, and likely to spend your career pushing paper around on the lower floors. Well, I don’t think that’s right, and I am sure it is not what you want. How would you like to come and work for me instead? You wouldn’t credit how many Stasi officers are bad apples, and as for the paid informers, most are the scum of the Earth. You could help me to root out those who are supposed to be rooting out others, and not doing that. What do you say?”
What was I going to say? “No” was hardly an option.
“Thank you very much, Captain Graf, I would be very happy to accept”. He seemed inordinately pleased. “Good, very good. You will be my driver. Forget the translation office, and take the rest of the day off”. He slid a piece of paper across the desk. “Take this to the motor transport office, and they will give you the keys to a car. Pick me up at seven tomorrow at the address written there”.
As I was walking to arrange the car, I had a worrying sense of deja-vu.
But at least I wasn’t in a cell.
I had just joined the ranks of the most unpopular people in East Germany. It had been bad enough being just Stasi, but now I was one of the most hated and feared, the Stasi who policed the Stasi.
For some reason, it was strangely comforting.
Working for Graf had been a real eye-opener. I learned that more than three million people had already left East Germany, simply by crossing to the Allied Sector, then disappearing into western countries, or applying for official papers to emigrate. Unsurprisingly, that figure included many Stasi officers, eager to get away in case the border was closed for good. There had been lots of gossip about tougher restrictions, and the rumours were spreading like wildfire.
We rounded up their friends and families, and made life difficult for relatives left behind. They were watched, monitored, and their chances of getting better jobs or promotion were non-existent. One thing that did come as a shock was that Graf was remarkably agreeable, even to officers arrested on suspicion of planning to leave the country. My image of beatings and fierce interrogations was not happening at all. My boss was a man who valued information above all things. Any prisoner happy to give such information was treated fairly, though others simply disappeared into prison somewhere.
The new job made me feel as if I was walking on water. Our arrival at a Stasi office was treated like a Papal visit, with even very senior officers deferential to Graf and myself. Nobody wanted to fall foul of Internal Affairs, and they were happy to co-operate with any of Graf’s demands. Operating like a separate force with the organisation, we could more or less do what we wanted. Arrests were frequent, and never challenged. We could request to see any documents or files too, nothing was beyond our remit.
More good news came for me, in the Spring of 1960. I was to be promoted to Lieutenant, not long after my twenty-fifth birthday. Inge was teaching full time in a junior school, and now had her own studio flat in the eastern suburbs. She was still painfully thin, and reclusive socially, but she was as settled as she was going to be. I managed to see her at least once a month, though irregular hours in the new job meant I never knew what my working hours would be.
Despite my new rank, I stayed as Graf’s driver. Though he now treated me more as a colleague, than a subordinate. I was happy to stay in my apartment, as I only ever seemed to get back to sleep there. Something else changed though. I started to feel very grown up. I had made career choices that tied me to the administration, and realised there was no going back. That summer, everyone was told to attend an important meeting. Graf had drafted in a lot of help, as we were going to detain a large number of suspect officers, as well as many members of the civilian police too. After the briefing, I was called in for a talk with him.
“I trust you to keep this to yourself, Manfred. The government is about to start construction of a wall, a physical barrier that will divide Berlin. Once it is built, nobody will be allowed to leave the country anymore. It is obviously going to cause a lot of consternation, and we expect hundreds to try to get across before it is finished, if not thousands. No doubt many of those will be Stasi and police, as they will be the first to know. So we are embarking on a series of preventative arrests, the detention of anyone we suspect of planning to leave. We will round them up before construction starts, and they will be one less problem to worry about”.
As we walked to the car, I took in the enormity of what he had just told me. We were building a wall to keep the people in.
I doubted that was going to be very popular. And I was right.
It hadn’t been thought through, that was obvious from the start. Many East Germans had relatives in the western sector, often just a few streets away. Some still worked in the west, and they would no longer be able to go to work. As soon as it became obvious what was happening, scores of people tried to get through before the city was sealed off. That included some police officers, soldiers, and the occasional Stasi operative too. Those caught and brought in for questioning could count on a rather bleak future, that was for sure.
Any thoughts I had that the new wall would make my job easier were soon banished by a noticeable increase in our workload. Once physically trapped inside the old Russian Sector, underground groups formed almost overnight, planning escapes, and organising opposition to the government. Although we were supposed to only be dealing with internal Stasi matters, we were soon roped in to help deal with the sheer volume of increased surveillance, and higher numbers of arrests. Some days, I fell asleep at my desk, and hardly ever seemed to get home. Captain Graf appeared to thrive on the pressure, and I watched him, intent on learning the secrets of how he did his job so well.
When I had worked for Teller, I heard a lot about ‘instinct’, and having a ‘nose for the job’. Graf was the complete opposite. He favoured detail. Meticulous records, thorough investigations, and covering every angle. He was not influenced by gossip, or tale-telling. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that he had been a police inspector before the war, and had determined to stick to his old methods.
Nonetheless, we lived in what I started to think of as the ‘Stasi Bubble’. Life outside went on for ordinary people, and dramatic world events made the news in western countries. But we never concerned ourselves with the world scene, or wider issues. For us, it was all about keeping it together, and not going backwards. To make that happen, we happily cracked down on any dissent, and freedom of speech was non-existent. That was nothing unusual to me, as I had been born into a country ruled by the Nazis and the Gestapo.
I was brought up in the same repressive atmosphere, and didn’t know any different.
The politics, and even the name of the country had changed.
The uniforms and flags were different too.
But for me, it was all perfectly normal.
As I approached my thirtieth birthday, I was wondering where the last years had gone. Inge would soon be twenty-six, and was firmly established as a teacher. But she had never had a boyfriend, and when I spoke to her of loneliness and marriage, she told me that she could never trust a man as long as she lived. I felt sad for her, but she assured me that her life was good. I used my position to get her a few luxuries, but she would often refuse them, telling me to pass them on to someone more deserving.
My own love-life was non-existent too. The situation with Mona had made me too wary, too paranoid to embark on a relationship with another woman. I had to sadly reflect that the job I had chosen had made me distrust everyone I met. Other than Inge, I didn’t really have a friend in the world. Of course, I did have access to women, when I wanted or needed that. We had records on every prostitute working in the city, as well as the scores of women who were working for us by informing on their clients.
I found myself a decent widow, Maria. Short of money, she had attempted to work from her apartment, but had been informed on before she had managed to bring home a single client. It was a coincidence that her younger brother happened to be a policeman, so she was referred to our office for questioning.
I was supposed to talk about setting her up as an informer, someone who would chat to her clients, and report back to us if they said anything that could get them arrested.
Although she was considerably older than me, I took to her, and even felt sorry for her. So I made her a good offer. I would set her up in a different flat, pay the bills, and supply her with what she needed to get by. In return, I could go and see her anytime I wanted to, and my job would protect her from any prying neighbours. I expected her to hesitate, maybe ask for time to consider. But she accepted immediately. We couldn’t become a conventional couple of course, but she was happy with my infrequent visits to her, and liked the fact that we often just talked.
But I only ever spoke to her about the past, never about what I did, or what was going on. And I didn’t allow myself to become overly fond of her.
Just in case.
During those years, the new wall had caused a lot of work. It had become condemned internationally of course, and even those who had willingly stayed in the old Russian Sector were not convinced by the official explanation that it was an ‘Anti-Fascist Wall’, to keep our people safe from infiltrators or spies. Many would-be escapees were killed by soldiers or border guards trying to cross over. We had discovered elaborate tunnels that had been constructed to facilitate escapes, and had an increasing number of defectors in our own ranks, as well as from the Army and Police. Graf relished the challenge, seeing each new discovery as an opportunity to round up scores of people, and get more information about their networks.
Some days, I still felt as if I was drowning in paperwork and files.
At work, I spent more and more time with my boss. I had come to really like Graf, and to consider him a friend. He didn’t consciously use his position to intimidate anyone for no reason, and working alongside him made me feel more like a police detective, than a Secret Service Officer. And after all this time, I was also becoming well-known in our circles. Many considered me to be an important figure, an experienced Lieutenant in the company of those who wielded power. I didn’t see that at all. To me, I was just Manfred, a victim of circumstance who had gone along for the ride, with no realistic option to do otherwise.
But I was happy enough to use this new influence in my favour.
One decision I made was to get Inge somewhere better to live. Her tiny studio was depressing, at least to me. I got her name down for a one-bedroom flat only five minutes from where she was living, and she no longer had to share a bathroom. And for Maria I managed to obtain some decent lingerie and nylons, as well as some excellent make-up and hair products. All of this stuff had been confiscated from smugglers who had been arrested, and it was supposed to be destroyed. But I knew where to go, and who to talk to, and I could wander around the storeroom where it was kept, choosing my goods free of charge as if in a department store. Cigarettes, chocolate, wine and liquor, I could just turn up and select anything I wanted, no questions asked.
The one thing I didn’t do was to change my own apartment. I liked how central it was, and that it was in an old building, not one of the fast-appearing high rise blocks. I got to use the car too, if I wanted, but I generally left that at headquarters, and walked home. I would walk in the next morning, and collect it to go and pick up the boss. For me, the walking around gave a connection to the city, and also enabled me to keep an eye on the district. It didn’t hurt that local people knew full well who I was, and where I worked.
There was to be an important meeting, and Graf asked me to drive him there. “You should come in too, Manfred, listen to what is going on”. As we walked down the stairs, he stopped and rubbed his arm. “I feel sick, Manfred. Too much cognac last night, I suspect”. He started to smile, then suddenly sat down heavily, slipping down four of the stairs on his back. I was shocked. “What’s wrong boss? Shall I get help?” He didn’t respond, and his mouth was opening and closing like a fish taken out of water. I ran down to reception, and told them to call a doctor. By the time I got back, Graf’s face had turned blue, and I knew he was dead.
Two days later, I was told that I was now the Acting Captain, in charge of Graf’s department.
As I walked home, I felt cold.
I was going to have to step up, no mistake.
The new job as Captain was confirmed after less than a month. I took my cue from Graf, and adopted his style. I had more people under surveillance than during his time, and listening to the secret microphones and phone taps was bringing in lots of names that were new to us. Rather than keep rounding everyone up, I advocated the use of informers and infiltrators. Remembering my own experience with Mona, we made good use of attractive women, often using them to have affairs with married officers we suspected of being disloyal. In a few cases, some of our agents even married the suspects, finding that once they were trusted as a wife, the real secrets began to be divulged.
Very soon, we were able to have a good idea just who was involved in any suspicious activity, as well as knowing all their contacts. This led to quite a few shocks. Very senior officers, important local government officials, even senior Party organisers. Some evenings I would sit alone in my office wondering if anyone was actually who we thought they were. There were occasional high-profile defectors too. Sports stars, famous writers or actors, all seemed to be taking any opportunity of travelling abroad to suddenly disappear.
After a high-profile meeting, we changed our policy. Rather than wait for these individuals to appear on western television celebrating supposed escapes, we started to expel them from East Germany. They were labelled undesirables, and it wasn’t unknown for some trumped-up charges to precede their expulsion. For most of them, life in the West was far from what they had expected. The fame or reputation they had enjoyed in their home country rarely followed them into their new life, and some became disillusioned very rapidly.
Some of those expelled were our own agents, who went to the West with a cover story, but were actually going to spy for us voluntarily. This proved very useful, resulting in the downfall of some senior West German politicians, and many other officials being implicated in scandals and disgraced.
Yet even after all those years, and all that work, escapes were still commonplace, and every so often someone would still be killed by the guards as they tried to cross the border. So we tightened the screws more than ever, letting people know just how closely they were monitored. At one meeting, it was proposed to put an informant into every apartment block and shared house, and the cost of paying these people was approved. It wasn’t long before I read the staggering statistic that we had one agent or paid informant for every six people in the republic. We had exceeded the control exerted by the Nazis, and made them look like amateurs.
Naturally, my bosses were very proud of this fact, and news that dissent was on the rise in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary was scoffed at. It was never once imagined that we could have such problems. Despite the popular uprising in Prague in 1968, there was nothing remotely similar here, and life went on much as normal. But unknown to us in our Stasi bubble, the economy of the country was collapsing; crippled by debts, bad management, and lack of exports earning foreign currency. Finance was never on our minds. We did our job, and it cost what it cost. No request for resources was ever denied, and we continued to grow our numbers of double agents and other operatives with never a question asked.
Home life for me had not changed at all. The same apartment, regular visits to Maria, and checking in on Inge when I could. It never even occurred to me that I had no social life to speak of, as work took up too much of my time to worry about that. I was thirty-seven years old, relatively secure in my job, as much as any of us could be, and the war seemed like a memory. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I was lonely.
I was also feared.
I guessed that my position would come with that, but I wasn’t really ready for the daily implications of it, once I became in charge of the department. I now had a driver, one I had chosen myself, after much investigation. Sergeant Bauer had served in the Army in 1946, and entered the Stasi after five years as a soldier. He was a little older than me, and was married to a woman who worked for the youth programme, the Free German Youth. Their credentials were impeccable, but I never opened up to him.
After all this time, I still trusted nobody except Inge.
It was obvious that he was afraid of me. He rarely spoke unless to reply, and jumped whenever I entered a room. He didn’t speak about his wife, or her job, and never mentioned doing anything outside of work. I was rather torn. Like most people, I wanted to be liked. After all, I had never tortured anyone, had only ever shot anyone in the line of duty, and I didn’t even participate in any of the tougher interrogations that went on. That was covered by another department. In many ways, I couldn’t understand why anyone could be afraid of Manfred, who had once been a schoolboy who looked after his mother and sister.
The other side of me rather relished that fear. It came with the job, and had to be maintained. Weakness was not allowed, and with any show of weakness came suspicion. Once a suspect, however small the suspicion, life could change in a heartbeat. I worked for the Stasi who policed the Stasi. But it was well-known in our circles that there was another department whose job was to police us. And probably yet another that policed them. Our organised paranoia was on an industrial scale, unheard of in the history of mankind.
I wasn’t about to let myself get entangled by doing anything that could be construed as weak or ineffective, that was for sure.
Just when I thought things had calmed down into a manageable routine, I was ordered to report to Colonel Nagel’s office.
Although I was now a Captain, and a relatively important figure, Nagel still treated me as if I was Teller’s driver. I would dearly have loved to have got something on him, but he had resisted all my attempts to plant an informer into his social life, and the secret recordings in his office and of telephone conversations had yielded nothing of interest. It seemed the man was whiter than white. He sat with his arms folded, and nodded at a file on his desk.
“Have a look at that, Kraus, and tell me what you have to say about it”.
I flipped open the file, and the colour drained from my face. It contained photos of Inge, with another woman. Nothing explicit, but they were holding hands in the park, then sitting on a bench, with Inge’s head on the older woman’s shoulder. More photos showed her walking into her apartment with the woman, then leaving the next morning together. It could all have been so innocent, if it wasn’t for the look on both their faces. I wasn’t about to let Nagel see I was bothered.
“So my sister has a friend. So what? She’s allowed to have a friend, isn’t she? Nagel grinned, and I knew he had something up his sleeve.
“Her name is Anna Pressler. She is the senior teacher at your sister’s school. Last month, she left her husband and moved into your sister’s apartment. She is forty-four years old, Kraus, and her husband has made a complaint that your sister has seduced his wife into an unnatural relationship. It doesn’t look good”. I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “No doubt she was unhappy with her husband, Colonel. My sister is a kind girl, she probably offered to let her stay while she sorts out her problems”. Nagel bit his lip, and I realised that was all he had. I closed the file.
“Leave it with me, Colonel. I will go and speak to her”.
I left it until the following weekend to go and see Inge. No point visiting her and Anna when they were both at work, and I certainly didn’t want to set tongues wagging by turning up in my car with Bauer.
To her credit, Inge made no attempt to conceal what was going on. She sat on the tiny sofa with Anna standing next to her, holding her hand. They were both still in their dressing gowns, and from the look on Anna’s face when I arrived, I guessed that I had interrupted something. I didn’t mince my words.
“They have a file on you, Inge. Photos, a complaint from Herr Pressler, and for all I know there could well be a microphone hidden in this flat. Even me coming here to discuss it with you will probably be monitored, so you have to tell me what you want to do”. I hadn’t seen Inge for a few weeks. She had filled out, and had some colour in her face. She looked something like the little girl I once knew. There was no mistaking that Anna was good for her. I put a finger to my lips to silence her as she started to speak. Adopting a cheerful tone, I spoke with a smile.
“Why don’t we go out for coffee and cake? That would be nice”. I nodded as I spoke, leaving her in no doubt that we had to get out of her apartment.
They went into the bedroom and dressed hurriedly, not bothering with any make-up or smart clothes. I walked between them not saying a word until we got to the small park nearby. I knew that the Stasi used lip readers, and often filmed conversations. I chose an outside table away from the counter, and at the side of the building. Anyone watching us would have had to show themselves to see our faces. When I had finished looking around, I nodded to my sister that it was safe to speak.
“Manfred, Anna and I are in love. It just happened over time, at work. Neither of us planned it, or even realised it was happening. She is not happy with her husband. He drinks too much, and is mean to her. She won’t go back to him, no matter how many times he complains. We are going to be together, whatever anyone says or does”. I looked across at Anna. She looked terrified, but her plain features softened when I spoke.
“You can stay living together, but you must try not to be so obvious. No hand-holding, or public affection. If anyone asks, you are giving Anna a place to stay. She should be registered at your address, and you must get a separate bed in the living room, so there can be no allegation that you share the same one in your bedroom. If you are interviewed by anyone else, you stick to the story that you are just friendly work colleagues. I will go and see Anna’s husband and warn him off. But you must promise me not to give anyone cause for gossip or suspicion in public. Can you do that?” Inge nodded, obviously unhappy about it, but with little choice in the matter. I carried on, looking at Anna this time.
“You do realise that your career is over, Anna? You will be lucky to keep the job you have now, and promotion will never happen. The same applies to Inge. You have both made a decision from which there is no going back. Are you certain? I need to know, because my sister’s happiness is important to me. Without sounding harsh, I don’t care what happens to you, but now you have involved my sister, and that has involved me. So you cannot suddenly change your mind. That is no longer a luxury”. She kept my gaze, and straightened up. “I love your sister, Herr Kraus. As long as we can be together, I don’t care what happens with my job. I am sorry if this has got you in trouble, I really am”.
I took a small notebook and pen from my coat pocket, and slid it across the table. “Too late for sorry, I’m afraid. My job now is to try to salvage something, and hope that you stop being of interest to the authorities. Write down your previous address, your husband’s full name and place of work. I will do my best to get him to withdraw the complaint, but I cannot promise to be successful. I put some money on the table and stood up. Inge jumped up and hugged me, whispering in my ear. “Thank you, darling Manfred”.
My decision was to tackle Wilhelm Pressler at his place of work, so I waited until Monday. Before leaving the office, I went down to check on the microphone authorisations in the records office, and was relieved to find that Inge’s name and address were not listed. Then I checked on Wilhelm Pressler. He was a Party member, and had never been in trouble. But he was noted by survelliance for frequently visiting prostitutes, many of whom were in our employ. That was something, but I would have liked more.
Bauer drove East across the city, to an industrial area in the suburbs. Pressler worked as an office manager for a small company making metal objects like buckets and pans. It was very noisy inside, and as I walked along the production line followed by Bauer, the people working on the machines eyed us nervously. In his small office, I flashed my badge quickly, not wanting him to see my name. He seemed happy to see me, and offered me a chair. I casually turned to Bauer. “You can wait in the car, Sergeant. I will deal with this”,
Once Bauer was out of earshot, I sat down and took a look at this man. I often wondered how some couples got together, and when I saw them on the street, I found it hard to believe that they had settled for each other. Pressler was no exception. Slim, smart, with thick hair slicked back, he looked nothing at all like the husband of someone so plain and dowdy like Anna. I knew he was the same age as his wife, but he looked at least ten years younger. He offered me a cigarette, and I shook my head. “So, I presume you have come about my complaint? The lesbian bitch who has stolen my wife.” He was beyond confident, even cocky.
I disliked him immediately, and let him know from my tone.
“Your wife has been interviewed. She tells us you have been unfaithful, and that you drink too much. You are also unkind to her. If this is the case, then may I ask why you are so concerned that she has left you?” He leaned across the desk, lowering his voice in a conspiratorial tone. “You know how it is, I’m sure. I couldn’t care less about the dumpy cow. I only married her because she was pregnant, then she lost the baby. But I’ll be damned if I will let myself be humiliated by her going off with a woman, and a younger one at that. If she wants to go, she can go with my blessing. But not to go and cuddle up to another woman. I’m not having that”.
When he leaned back, I opened my notebook. The page was blank, but he couldn’t see that. “Our report states that the young colleague is merely giving her a place to stay. They are good friends perhaps, but we have no evidence of anything inappropriate. Your wife has a bed in the living room, and they live together as friends until your marital situation is resolved one way or the other. It seems straightforward to me”. He was shaking his head before I finished speaking. “No, that’s not it. They are lovers. I have seen them walking hand in hand in the park, staring into each other’s eyes. believe me sir, I know what’s going on”. I looked blankly at him. “Your suspicions are one thing, but evidence is another matter. And we have none”. I flicked onto the second blank page in the notebook, and shook my head slowly.
“However, we do have evidence that you regularly visit prostitutes. Some of those women are believed to be agents of the West, or associated with conspirators here. What do you have to say about that?” His cockiness vanished in a heartbeat. “Sir, a man has needs. Have you seen my wife? I can tell you she doesn’t satisfy me. I can’t even get excited by looking at her, let alone the thought of doing anything with her. The girls I visit are not spies, I assure you. I’m a Party member, I would know”.
I closed the notebook. “I assure you you wouldn’t know which girls were doing what. If you continue with this complaint, then the evidence of your associations will have to be considered, and further investigations will be forthcoming. Why don’t you just accept that your wife has left you, and move on? You can get divorced in time, and start a new life with no black mark against your character. I can arrange for your records to disappear. As a loyal Party member, that’s the least I can do for you”.
He lit another cigarette, and I was trying to look unconcerned, though I was worried that my bluff might be called. He suddenly stood up, and extended his hand. “You’re a good man for doing that, put it there”. As I shook his hand, he smiled. “Let’s forget the complaint. Tell them I withdraw it. Tear it up. Anna can do what she wants, for all I care”. I wasn’t gloating as I left his office and walked back to the car.
I had managed to save my sister for now, but I knew it wouldn’t go away.
For the next five years, I became obsessed with getting my sister and Anna out of the country. As I suspected, life was made increasingly difficult for them. First of all, Anna was transferred to another school some distance away. That involved her taking various buses and trams to get to and from work, arriving home to Inge tired, stressed, and exhausted. Then Anna applied for promotion, and was turned down flat. Even worse, she was advised not to apply in future, though no reason was given.
Nagel had not been amused when I had gone to see him and told him that Pressler had withdrawn the complaint. I knew full well he would keep it on file, in the same way as I had no intention of disposing of the man’s record of visiting prostitutes. We didn’t ever do things like that in the Stasi. Once it went down on paper, it stayed there forever. Wilhelm Pressler didn’t escape Nagel’s revenge either. I found out later that he had been demoted at work, and was now making the buckets, instead of supervising others. His Party membership had counted for nothing once he had crossed Nagel.
Inge never wavered though. If anything, the problems made her all the more determined to stay with Anna. And she never once asked for my help, but I knew I had to do something.
My position was no longer so secure. I had a determined enemy in my own organisation, and I was already forty-two years old. And my domestic situation took a downward turn when Maria was diagnosed with breast cancer. I also found out that she was fifty-eight years old. I had always known she was older, perhaps fifty, but I was rather shocked to learn her real age. She had to go into hospital and have a breast removed. I did what I could for her afterwards, but I went to see her less. Even now, I am ashamed of myself for that, but not only did the surgery make me feel uncomfortable, I was consumed with plotting to help my sister.
By the autumn, I concluded that I had little to lose. Inge had to come first.
The meeting was arranged in a cinema. The three of us entered separately, and left through a side exit not long after the film started. I stood in the alley behind, outlining my plan to them. They both agreed immediately, even Anna, who was normally so fearful. I warned them to be ready to move at a moment’s notice, and left to start work on what needed to be done.
One good thing about my job was that I knew every possible way to get out of the country, and into the West. I was actually tasked with placing agents in foreign countries, and had access to forgers, photographers, and both suspects and collaborators in the underground networks. I could look at any file, no matter how secret, and interview anyone with no questions asked.
At work that Monday, I began to set up a new network of infiltrators. Taking some from a list we already had, I added the photos of Inge and Anna from their files, and gave them both false names. They would be part of the new team to be planted in the West, and it would all appear to be completely official. Naturally, I knew that once they both disappeared, it would all come down on my head, but I was past caring as long as Inge had some sort of future.
I went to see one of the forgers on our payroll, and got him to make identity cards and new passports for the seven names I gave him. Included in that seven were Inge and Anna of course. To avoid suspicion, I set up a new file for the group, and assigned Bauer various tasks supposedly connected to it. I could keep it away from Nagel, as he had no remit for operations outside of East Germany. And I tried to put the potential repercussions out of my mind, so I was able to concentrate.
Making a simple mistake wasn’t an option.
Two weeks later, I met my sister in the park, supposedly having an innocent coffee together. I slipped her the documents, and warned her to have small suitcases ready. I would only be able to get them one hundred West German marks each, and once away, they would have to throw themselves on the mercy of their new country. I told Inge to readily claim to be a defector, and Anna too. I also told her to use the fact that her brother was a Captain in the Stasi. “They will like that, Inge. It should help you. But it will also mean some suspicion. Better to tell them straight away, rather than have them find out later”.
She was tearful, and squeezed my hand. “But Manfred, when will we ever see each other again?” I told her not to worry about that, and made her promise not to change her mind. “I have already set the wheels in motion, Inge. You cannot back out now, you know that”. She nodded, and as I walked her home, we said no more.
One good thing about my decision was that it made me feel calm, for the first time in years. I called in some suspects, and offered them a deal. if they would get my women out through their network, I would turn a blind eye to any others who escaped at the same time. I might also conveniently forget a few names I had heard. They were remarkably unimpressed, and reluctant to cooperate at first. I knew they suspected a trap, and had to make the irrevocable choice of telling them the truth. “Two of those women are my relatives. This is personal, so I can assure you that this is not a trap”. I was still not sure they believed me, but they agreed. After all, I could just as easily have thrown them in jail to rot, with no evidence of what they were up to save for being denounced by someone I had invented.
The whole thing gave me the shivers. If any of them were caught before Inge got out, I would be named, and everything would fall apart.
On a freezing cold evening close to the end of the year, some of my operatives took a van containing the seven women to the agreed place. I had arranged to be somewhere else, with some witnesses. I had invited myself to Bauer’s house, to have dinner with him and his wife. They would be able to vouch for my whereabouts the whole evening. But my heart was heavy. I had no chance to bid farewell to my beloved sister, and I knew that by tomorrow morning, she would be in a place where I would never be able to contact her again, let alone see her.
I got home before midnight, but I was unable to sleep.
The short school holiday meant that Inge and Anna were not missed until the first week of the new year, when they should have both reported for work. The school authorities at both locations followed the usual procedure after they did not turn up the second day. Someone went to Inge’s apartment and could get no answer, so reported her missing. Entry was forced, and when nobody was discovered inside, Anna was reported missing too. The civilian police submitted a report, which was flagged up for the attention of the Stasi. Anna was on their radar for the allegation made by her husband, and Inge because she was my sister. Very soon, the report landed on the desk of Colonel Nagel.
When I was called to see him, I still didn’t know for sure that they had both got away safely. I had checked the arrest reports regularly, and saw no sign of either their real names, or the ones on the fake papers I had supplied. As I sat outside Nagel’s office, I was calm and collected. He either had something on me, or he didn’t. I was ready for whatever happened.
He didn’t beat around the bush. “I take it you know your sister and her girlfriend have disappeared, Kraus? Tell me, what do you have to say about that?” I raised an eyebrow. “Disappeared, Colonel? I had no idea. Just lately, I have been too busy with work to contact Inge. I spent a lot of time at the end of last year setting up a new circle of agents to infiltrate the West, and there was no time for any family meetings”. He sat back and sighed. “Just tell me where they have gone. It will help you, I promise”. As I didn’t have a clue where they had gone, I didn’t have to lie. Perhaps that made my reply convincing. “I have no idea where she is, Colonel. My sister is a grown woman, and doesn’t account to me for her actions, or her whereabouts”.
Nagel looked as if he was about to bite through his lip, he was so furious. But he kept his temper. After all, he could hardly have me arrested because my adult sister had fled the country, no matter how much he would have liked to. I had never feared arrest. He would get his revenge by other means, I knew that. And he wouldn’t wait too long before doing so. “Very well, Captain. I suspected you would play dumb. To be honest, I don’t blame you. But however your sister managed to travel, and whoever helped her do that, you are still here. You are the one who must face the repercussions of her actions. I am sure you know that all too well. You do, don’t you?” I shrugged. “You have to do whatever you have to do, Colonel. It’s beyond my control”.
The waiting was the worst thing. I carried on with my job, wondering when the hammer would fall. Still unable to hear anything about Inge and Anna, or to make any contact with them, or those who had organised the escape, I went through the motions. It seemed unbelievable that I was just allowed to carry on regardless, and when it ran into months, I began to really wonder what was going on.
Then one day, Inge appeared on television in the West. She was being interviewed in Hamburg, and asked questions about her defection. She stuck to what we had discussed. Her brother was a Stasi Captain, and she was being persecuted in her job. We had access to the Western broadcasts, and I was soon told about it. I was happy. At least she was safe, though there was no sign of Anna, and no mention of her name. But I also knew that I was finished now, and waited for the call that would come any day.
It came the same day.
As I was leaving work, I was approached by a man I didn’t know. “You have to come with me, Captain. I have to take you to see Colonel Meyer. Are you going to come voluntarily?” I smiled at the man. “Of course, I have always wanted to meet him”. Colonel Meyer was almost a mythical figure. His name was mentioned in the same way that children are told about monsters under the bed, or the bogeyman. I had never met anyone who had seen him, though everyone seemed to fear him. In theory, he was the head of a department that nobody knew existed. The secret police who went beyond the remit of the Stasi. They really were secret. So much so, that I didn’t know anyone who had ever met one. For most of my career, I had considered that they might not exist, a mere invention to make sure we did our jobs.
It seemed that now I was about to find out I had been wrong.
He drove me in silence, a short distance across the city. When the car stopped outside a modest-looking house, he left the engine running. Turning to me in the back, he nodded at the door. “They’re waiting for you inside”. I walked the few steps from the car wondering if this would be the last walk I might ever take, and the door opened before I could knock on it. A bored-looking man in plain clothes pointed to a door at the end of the short hallway, and jerked his head. From the attitude of both of them, I had already gathered that they had no concern for my own rank or reputation.
Inside the door was a normal family kitchen. Colonel Meyer was a surprisingly old man, sitting at the dining table like a well-dressed grandpa. I guessed he was at least seventy, probably older. But when he spoke, it was with the voice of someone much younger; forceful, polite, and with perfect diction. “Please sit down, Captain. And don’t look so worried. There is no firing squad in the back yard”. He chuckled softly at his own remark as I slid out a chair, then he reached down and removed a thick file from a briefcase resting against the table leg. I saw my name on the front of it. Tapping the file with the arm of his spectacles, he shook his head. “I have to say I’m surprised. I read your file carefully. You have done exceedingly well, never put a foot wrong. You had a great career ahead, and would easily have made the rank of Colonel within the next few years”. I sat still, and said nothing.
“No doubt you are going to say that you had no idea your sister intended to leave our wonderful country. You didn’t see that much of her, and she was not about to tell you about her escape plans. She must have been a resourceful woman indeed. My information is that her and her friend were smuggled out posing as agents. Agents arranged by you, and your department. But you are going to say you know nothing about that, aren’t you?” I kept silent, and stared into his small blue eyes. I wanted him to keep talking, to find out what he knew before I made any reply. He was right about one thing though, I wasn’t about to confess.
The next thing he said made me want to fall out of the chair, but I kept quiet.
“I am sure that your mother must have told you about me. You can thank my fondness for her that you are not sitting in an interrogation room now, with a couple of heavies rolling up their sleeves about to beat the truth out of you”.
I swallowed hard, and tried to think fast. Of course, my mother had never mentioned his name. She had never mentioned any man’s name in that sense. But now those late meetings and overnight visits were beginning to make sense. I played the only hand I was holding, and secretly thanked him for dealing it.
“My mother may have mentioned someone, Colonel Meyer. But I could easily forget the name of that person. It was a long time ago, after all”. I sat back, considering his reaction. No wonder Mama had done so well. She had risen up the ranks in the Party, and appeared on more organising committees than you could shake a stick at. She had jumped the queue to get our new apartment, and Inge had been chosen to train in Russia. It was all falling into place.
She had been looking out for us, all that time ago, and Meyer had been the man who had made it all happen.
He placed the file back in the briefcase, and turned to me with a smile. “This is what is going to happen, Manfred. You are finished in Internal Affairs, I can do nothing about that. Nagel is after you, so I would be wary of him. I can let you keep your rank, but you can have no influence, no active role, and certainly no access to any important decisions, including foreign agents, or who to arrest. Your reputation has been tarnished by your sister’s actions, and it can never recover. Do you see that? I sincerely hope you do”. I nodded.
“So I have had to intervene, and find you a job. It is going to be a very boring job, I warn you now. But if I were you, I would just go and do it, say nothing, and keep your head down. You will be the Captain in charge of closed files. The staff will deal with the filing, all you have to do is sign the file to confirm that it is closed, and just turn up for work from Monday to Friday, between eight and four. And this is the last thing I will ever be able to do for you, is that clear”.
He closed his briefcase, and put his spectacles back on. I guessed the meeting was over, so I stood up. “Thank you, Colonel Meyer”.
Outside, the car had gone.
I didn’t mind the long walk home. I was still alive.
For eight years, I sat in the basement office of Closed Files. I was reminded about the warning that I would end up pushing papers around in a basement, and that was what I was doing. I settled for knowing that Inge was alive and well in Hamburg, although we could never get in touch. I was fifty-two years old, and tired.
To my credit, I did help Maria during her last year before the cancer came back and took her. I helped where I could and even though my influence had diminished beyond recognition, I was still able to get access to good food and some luxuries for her. I felt older than my years, lonely, and depressed. The evenings in my apartment seemed too long, and I was going to bed earlier and earlier, trying to forget as much as I could.
As advised, I kept my head down and mouth shut, and never heard from Colonel Meyer again.
And then I heard that Nagel was dead.
It was one of those things that you couldn’t imagine. He had been hit by a truck as he left his own car and ran across to his house. Apparently, his wife had been standing in the doorway and had seen him knocked down. The driver involved was terrified, but it was judged to be an accident. Colonel Nagel, the man so feared in the Stasi, had been a victim of his own impatience to get home for his dinner.
As you might imagine, I saw that as very good news indeed.
I didn’t wait long before I tried to get out of Closed Files, and back to something that might be remotely stimulating. But my disappointment was immediate, when I was advised to apply for nothing, and to continue to sit quietly in the basement. Inge’s defection had not been forgotten, and my age was also against me. I went to a bar after work that night, and had far too much vodka to drink. At least six years to go until retirement, no prospect of transfer or promotion, and having to spend my days sitting with a bunch of prune-faced middle-aged women who had no conversation about anything.
I was beginning to wish I had left with Inge that night.
By the time of my fifty-fourth birthday, I was so bored, I thought I might go insane.
But things were changing.
Poland had changed. Hungary had changed. The Soviets had lost their hold over the Eastern Bloc allies, and events were spiralling out of control. By the autumn, there had been so many demonstrations in Berlin, that the government tried to calm things down by allowing people to visit the West once again. Naturally, I was no longer involved in policing or investigating any of this unrest. By the end of November, we had already received instructions to begin shredding the Closed Files. That was a huge task, and one that I suspected would take many years.
Walking home from work, I was amazed to see people on The Wall. Some were painting slogans on it, others chipping away pieces as souvenirs. The guards did nothing to intervene, and there was a strange party atmosphere on many streets. By the end of the year, it was obvious that the change was coming. I carried on going to work, and watched as my staff shredded files. As there were so many, trucks arrived to take them away for incineration too.
Familiar faces began to disappear. As the spread of peaceful protest widened, those who had seen the writing on the wall began to bail out. Like rats leaving a sinking ship, they did what they could to get out of the country during the time that restrictions were relaxed.
The mood in the city was different too. I wandered around warily, expecting to be recognised and denounced at any moment. The balance of power had shifted, and ordinary people were no longer afraid. Being a Stasi officer was soon going to put me at a distinct disadvantage, after all these years of privilege. The circle had undoubtedly turned. I knew instinctively that I would not be able to count on my colleagues. Many uniformed officers had already started to wear plain clothes, and the tension was visible in the faces of everyone at headquarters.
When I turned up for work that morning, there were crowds of civilians outside. Many were scattering our secret files around, and congratulating themselves on having gained access to the building the previous night. I stopped short of going in, and realised that it was all over. I no longer had a job to go to, or others to work alongside. I had spent my working life in an institution that to all intents and purposes no longer existed.
I walked back to my apartment, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
In the bedroom, I had a few hundred West German marks, acquired from my previous job. There was very little that I had any attraction to in my apartment, save for some clothes, and my journals. Maria was gone, and I had no connection to anyone left in the East. I hadn’t turned up for work, but nobody seemed to care anymore. Time to face facts. My pension was gone. All those years counted for nothing. I had thousands of potential enemies, and not a friend in the world.
The Wall was as good as gone, and the Brandenburg Gate open to anyone who wanted to drive or walk through it. The German Democratic Republic was no more.
I thought of Mama. Her hard struggle to make things work. Her legacy that had eventually saved both Inge and myself. Memories of Grigiry, and the surprising news that Colonel Meyer had been her secret lover. She had worked so hard to secure a future for us in the DDR, and I imagined that she would be turning in her grave to see how readily the population had embraced the opportunity to become part of the West again.
I feared for our people, imagining that they would be marginalised in the West, and find life far more difficult than they might imagine. But it was too late. History had caught up with us, and our system was no more. I accepted that, and faced the change with a sense of foreboding.
I have enough western money to get to Hamburg, and find Inge. I am hoping that she will still be happy with Anna, and have a good life.
I will soon find out.
So, I leave these journals on the table in my apartment. I hope that someone will read them one day.
And I hope that they will understand how things were.