Those were the last words I heard my father speak. Now, at 53, those two words are etched deeply into my consciousness. Even though it’s been over 40 years and the quality and tone of his voice have faded in my mind, the combination of those two words produce a distinct sensation in my body, able to rattle the depths of my soul.
I have total recall of the weeks leading up to our escape.
Over the years, I have watched the scenes play the over and over in my mind’s eye, have added different melodies creating a soundtrack to my early memories.
Often times the movie-memories play in excruciating slow motion, seemingly my mind’s way to not forget a single detail of my mother and father and a link to my own humanity. And this memory has the power to evoke inside of me, the most intense olfactory sensations, releasing burned memories of wet concrete combined with the smell of fear and blood, from the neighboring slaughterhouse.
I was only eleven years old then, but for all the boys in East Berlin, our childhood did not include laughing or lighthearted playfulness. We were under socialist rule and still hadn’t recovered from World War II. All we knew were the realities of the Cold War.
I was born the year the wall was constructed, whose threaded barbed wire and cold concrete barracks had been designed to keep our city separated in two. It was also the same year of the famous American- Soviet standoff at one of the walls borders, affectionately called Checkpoint Charlie. But in 1951, all I was solely concerned with suckling on my mother’s breast for comfort and warmth.
My dad always said, “This great wall must serve as a symbol for your life, son. You were born the same year and you must live up to it’s greatness.” For many years, I believed I was connected to that wall, but always feared I could never be that strong.
The official purpose of the Berlin Wall was to keep Western “fascists” from entering East Germany and prevent them from undermining our great socialist state. And this rhetoric, the same rhetoric was repeated over and over in our classrooms and for most of my “schoolmate comrades” it was all we knew.
My father was born in East Berlin, not far from where I spent the first 11 years of my life. He served in the Third Reich under the Nazi regime during WWII before he met my mother. Berlin was almost completely destroyed during the last year of the war, under siege by constant bombing. It was there, my father sustained an injury to his right leg, in which shrapnel filled up his side causing him to almost bleed out. Miraculously, he was pulled out of the rubble and brought to the unscathed nurse station, just a few hundred feet from the bomb site. Most of the shrapnel from his leg was successfully removed, however it did not prevent the injuries from shaping the rest of his life. The profound limp was my father’s most defining trait, which unfortunately served as a constant reminder of those wartime years.
I had many years to reflect on my father and dredge up the lost memories of our time together. But never once, do I recall my father speaking of the war.
My mother was from Dresden. She was a small, soft spoken fair haired woman. Her spirt was shattered at 16, when her entire family was killed during an ally bombing. Some say she roamed war torn streets in a psychotic state for months, not able to consolidate the reality of her world. Not knowing how, my mother surfaced in Berlin just as the war ended.
My mother and father met just two months after the war was officially over, and married just a few weeks later. I never knew the reason they married so quickly, but I suspect it was a deep need that each one of them felt, two half people coming together to make a whole person. My mother was just 17 years old then married to a man 11 years her senior.
Six years later I was born.
I can still taste the stale grayness of East Berlin during the Cold War.
Because Berlin was almost completely destroyed during the war, my father’s focus was on the rebuilding of a stronger, more capable Berlin. He was firm in his purpose. A purpose that was provided by the promise of the socialist government knows as German Democratic Republic.
My father worked every night, proudly guarding the border from infiltration of Western fascists into our midst and preventing the shame of East Berlin defectors from escaping. It was an honorable job.
My memory echoes the sounds of rhetoric repeated over the loud speakers anchored to the street corners. Daily messages reminded us of responsibility to the republic, working for the republic, serving the republic. Each day of my childhood, my day started with the same rhetoric repeated at the breakfast table, words mechanically articulated from my Father’s lips. My mother never spoke a word at the table, her eyes often glazed as she attempted to swallow her morning gruel.
The only warmth I recall from my early years were the cold nights spent tightly wrapped in my mothers thin arms. We slept in the same small bed, and I looked forward to her embrace.
Throughout my life, I never saw my mother’s smile and she remained defeated to her own memories until the end of her life. My mother never showed any expression on her face but at night, I could feel her heart beat against my back and that’s how I knew her humanity. I didn’t mind the scratchy wool from the blanket or the musty smell of the house. It is all stored safely in my memories for safe keeping, my connection back to those days.
About a week before our escape, I recall the unusually cold night. I remember my mother holding me tighter than usual. She whisper into my ear, “Glen, don’t speak, just listen to me.” My eyes widened and I felt my mother’s thin body stiffen. “We are leaving here Glen. I have arranged it. We are leaving here in 1 week.”
“Where, Momma?” I asked in a soft whisper.
“Hush boy!” my mother whispered harshly. “You must not speak of this to anyone. You classmates or your father. We are seeking…..” her voice trailed off.
An entire week passed and my mother never spoke of that conversation again. I didn’t dare to bring it up again, in fear that I had dreamt the whole thing. Then, early Friday morning, just before dawn, my mother shook me out of a sound sleep. “It is time, my son,” she spoke quietly. “Get dressed now quickly and don’t say a word.”
I was only eleven years old, but I knew this was to be the most defining moment in my life. We exited our small apartment and walked downstairs to the street below. There was a truck parked out side of our building with the motor running. It was a truck from the slaughterhouse, and from the smell of it, cargo contained freshly slaughtered pigs. The driver cleared the fog from his window and pointed to the back of the truck where the “cargo” was stored. I looked at my mother, but her eyes would not meet mine. Instead, she wrapped the scratchy blanket from our bed around me and told me not to say a word. I remained silent.
The driver got out of the truck and started raising the pig carcases and motioned for us to crawl underneath. We did as we were told, wiggling and writhing to situate ourselves under the dead pigs. We felt the dead weight of the cargo adjust on top of us, it becoming harder to breathe. My mother curled up next to me and managed to pull the blanket over our heads. My heart was racing. Cold tears stained my cheeks. We both knew defectors were shot or jailed, and sometimes both.
The smell of smoky diesel and dead pig was overwhelming. I felt as if I was going to gag, but my mother held me so tight trying to comfort me. This was my only connection to sanity. I swallowed hard every few moments and choked down the urge to vomit.
Finally the grumbling of the truck motor came to a timid roar and the motion stopped. We were at the border. My heart raced so fast I thought for sure the guards would hear the sounds of “thump, thump, thump” played by the deepest drum. I swallowed again.
Guards poked their guns into the pile of dead pigs. We felt the pressure of their bodies adjusting around us. We heard the muffled sound of conversation between our driver and the guards. Then we heard the sound of boots walk to the back of the truck once again. Then the world stopped. All sounds ceased. Just he smell of cigarette smoke filled the air.
After an eternity, we heard the words, “Geh fort.”
Those were the last words I ever heard my father speak.