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"That Was When I Knew: I Had to Become a Refugee" (March 19, 1953)

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In the hallway of a building on Kuno Fischer Straße one is able to help a few old people decipher some signs. “Refugees, do not take the city trains.” – As is generally known, the city trains in all of Berlin belong to the East Berliners. You already see this from the fact that these days, especially, the flags are flying at half-mast in honor of the death of the Czech dictator [Klement] Gottwald – even at the Western train stations.

At these stations, it can happen that officials with the East Berlin authorities “collect” refugees – as the crude expression has it – in the middle of West Berlin. – “Beware of informants!” Well, this sign doesn’t keep the old people from openly recounting why they fled. “Our village is nearly empty. Hardly anyone is still living there.” – “My sons left three weeks ago. I don’t get a pension. I want to go to the West because the old people there get a pension.” They were allowed to leave without impediment. Was Cube right after all when he said on the Munich radio that the Soviets are deliberately sending people to the West?

Young people are also there, eighteen and twenty year-olds, standing in rank and file as though they wanted to form a column. – “You’re all together, aren’t you?” – “Yes sir, yesterday, at the factory, they were sorting people out. Two hundred boys had to line up, right from the machines. And then they said that we should immediately volunteer [for the GDR army]. Uniform . . . barracks . . . Just as we were standing there together, the ten of us, we bolted.” – “How do you imagine life in the West?” – “Well, it’s possible that we should become soldiers there, too – what do you think? No matter. Better there than in the East.” – “Could you have stayed?” – “In barracks, yes.” – They picture the West as golden, these boys. Anyone who joined Cube in warning against taking them in might be right, if he didn’t know: now they are here, now they can’t go back.

Many of those standing on Kuno Fischer Straße – and newcomers arrive continuously from the nearby city train station of Witzleben – are farmers. Quiet folk; you cannot read anything on their faces. They remain mute, they don’t trust strangers. But do they at least trust each other? – A one-legged man is sitting in the sun on a piece of wall that is jutting out. A couple walks by; she, the wife, is carrying a child; he, the husband, is pushing a baby carriage with a suitcase in it. A surprised-sounding greeting. The couple and the one-legged man are from the same village. “You have to go in there,” says the one-legged man, and he points his crutch at a door and offers to watch the baby carriage. How they stick together! But then the one-legged man fumbles with his wrist. “Take my watch as security for the baby carriage,” he says, “I wouldn’t want you to think I’ll make off with your suitcase. . .” And the farmer folk take the security deposit, only a tiny bit embarrassed. In the Soviet zone, they have learned to mistrust one another!

This farmer demands to see some identification before he answers. Then he explains that he is from the Uckermark. He has a medium-sized farm. Ten hectares. He doesn’t speak with the Uckermark accent; he is a Romanian-German from Bukovina. He came with his parents to a village in the Uckermark and married a local girl. “My parents were given a plot of land. Three hectares. The parents can still manage.” – “Why are the parents able to manage?” – “Because the small settlers aren’t affected as much by the quota.” – “And you?” – “Well, at first everything was going well. In the first years I only had to deliver two centners of meat [100 kilograms]; last year, it was supposed to be 22 centners, and that was impossible. The day before yesterday I was summoned to appear before the authorities. ‘Sabotage,’ they said to me, ‘The people’s assets poorly managed.’ The other farmers joined the ‘Production Cooperative’ [Produktionsgenossenschaft] recently, the collective farm. I quickly said: ‘I want to do that, too.’ They said: ‘Too late.’ That was when I knew that I had to become a refugee. Last night we discussed it, my wife and I. We told my mother-in-law that we were going to Jüterbog for a wedding; we took our child, the baby carriage, and packed a suitcase for three days, and now we are here.” – “And the mother-in-law doesn’t know?” – “No, we wanted to write to her. If she can prove with a letter that she didn’t know anything – then maybe she’ll be allowed to continue living in the house . . .”

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