20th Anniversary of the German Reunification: Crossing the Border from the West

Now imagine a queue of cars along here ...

Now imagine a queue of cars along here ...

My mother left several close friends behind when she escaped to West Germany, and stayed in touch through letters and frequent visits. There was one couple with whom she and my father were especially close: They became godparents for each other’s children, and we visited regularly once a year. This meant that once a year we had to cross the German/German border, which was part of the Iron Curtain that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. The crossing point we used was Herleshausen near Eisenach, and the crossing proved extremely stressful each and every time. This was partly because the border was especially nasty, as were the immigration and customs officers, but even more so because as a rule we were smuggling something.

In the GDR, many goods were not available at all or only if you had very good connections, so many GDR citizens relied on their relatives from the West to get at least some of these items for them.

We usually brought books – not just books about politics, but also books of all sorts that generated discussions throughout the country. We even smuggled children’s books that were deemed inappropriate by the GDR regime and thus not published there. So we had this bag of books, which we would claim was for our own reading, and filled it with mostly inoffensive stuff so that the guard, glancing at it, would only see some old Enid Blyton or Georgette Heyer novels. The fact that there were actually one or two not quite so innocuous books hidden beneath them escaped the officers’ notice. We did the same with clothes: mussed them up a bit and placed them in our own suitcases.

Of course the officers would have been suspicious had we entered the country empty-handed. So we always chose some boring stuff to import officially, and entered these items religiously on the list provided by the authorities: “Coffee – two packets. Washing powder – two boxes. Chocolate – 20 bars.” It was fun in later years to make these entries as silly, yet as accurate as possible.

One year our friends asked us to try to bring them an apricot tree. It was virtually impossible to buy apricots in the GDR, so planting one’s own tree seemed the obvious solution, but trees weren’t available either. Dutifully we went to a nursery and bought a small tree, then we considered how to get it across the border. Finally we packed it tenderly between two suitcases at the bottom of the boot and put some bags on top. Now a tree, even a young one, is hard to hide, and we could not convincingly claim it was for our own use. So we had to enter it on the list. We wrote thus: “Apricot – one.” It was obfuscation but no outright lie: In German, the word ‘apricot’ can refer to both the fruit and the tree. We were lucky: The officer on duty only glanced at the list and never spotted the odd entry, and this was one crossing where our boot wasn’t searched. Our friends were very proud to serve us with apricot tart a few years later!

In spite of such small victories, the crossings were anything but fun. My mother regularly suffered sick headaches from the stress, and we children were forbidden to speak a single word in the vicinity of a customs officer, more or less on pain of death. Once, when I was still quite small, I had a bag with books lying on my lap, and when the customs officer asked whether we were importing any books, my mother glimpsed from the corner of her eye that I was slowly starting to lift the bag. She said, “No, we don’t,” very loudly and emphatically and held her breath until she saw my hands relax. The scolding I got once we were out of earshot!

The most memorable crossing happened when I was already a teenager. There was a small service area just before the border where we always stopped for a short rest. Then we crossed the West German border, which was completely harmless, and joined the mile-long queue of cars in the no man’s land. As the GDR officers were far more thorough than their Western counterparts, we usually spent an hour or more squatting in our car in this long line of cars, with guard towers, barbwire and stretches of wasteland (which we knew was mined) on our left and right. The year in question, probably due to nerves, my mother suddenly had to go to the toilet very urgently. She tried to endure it for a quarter-hour or so, but finally reached the point where she had to relieve herself or burst. There was absolutely no way she could use any bushes outside – there weren’t any, and she would have been shot had she attempted to leave the road. So in a great burst of desperation, she finally grabbed her passport and visum, yanked open the door, got out of the car and marched up the long line to cars towards the customs buildings in the distance. We stared after her with our hearts in our boots. We were not sure we would see her again in the near future. Fortunately, there were some kind officers on duty that day, who didn’t even rebuke her, but pointed her to the visitors’ toilet.

When the borders were opened in 1989, all my family sat glued to the TV, almost not daring to believe what was happening. In the night of the reunification, we saluted it with genuine Krimsekt (sparkling wine from what was then the USSR) – the irony of which was not lost on us. I’ve never felt anything but blessed that my country has been reunified, and am still extremely grateful to the USA and USSR, Britain and France for their support.

– Rike Horstmann

6 thoughts on “20th Anniversary of the German Reunification: Crossing the Border from the West

  1. Sandy AAR

    Rike, I can’t imagine living through what your family did. We’ve all seen movies here in the west featuring the guards at the border crossing demanding “your papers.” Thank you for sharing this story.

    My own family came to the U.S. very early — before Ellis Island. I sometimes think how brave they were and what kind of resourceful people they must have been to leave a life they knew in Europe and set out on a voyage they knew would take months and one not everyone survived. And who knew what they found find when they got there?

    My mother’s family was in the original group of settlers at Jamestown, Virginia. It is hard to imagine how brave they must have been. Would I have been able to do it? Probably not.

  2. LeeB.

    Rike: Such an amazing recollection. Thanks so much for sharing. I can’t imagine having to live a life like your family endured.

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