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

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There must be a system to it. But how can you grasp it? What is the answer to the mystery of why so many farmers are currently fleeing the Soviet zone? It can’t be panic. A farmer who doesn’t look like he scares easily is leaning against a front-yard fence on Kuno Fischer Straße. Hook nose, forceful face. He’s wearing a huntsman’s hat and a loden coat; there is a briefcase on the ground next to him. That is how he looked on three successive days, and every time I had a brief conversation with him.

“The system,” he says, “is to ruin the medium-size farmers.” – “You are a medium-size farmer?” – “I have a farm of 100 acres. When I returned from the war, a lot of things were in disrepair, but at first everything went splendidly. The farmers got rich. A centner of rape seed fetched 3,000 marks, a center of wheat 1,000. The people were going hungry, the farmers were doing well. And then, the more talk there was of advancement, the worse off the farmers were. Last year they started the witch hunt against the so-called large farmers. Today, the small farmers, those who work less than ten hectares, have to deliver three to four centners of grain per acre, the larger farms 40 centners per acre. Nobody can manage that.” – “Is it true that the production cooperatives, the collective farms, have a lower quota?” – “A much lower quota, 20 percent!” – “If it is true, then, that a smaller percentage is being demanded from the collective farm, from the large farm that has been thrown together, than from the medium-size farmers – how is that possible? Why, then, this interest in creating collective farms?” – “It’s the principle. And the principle is sacred.”

“What will you do in the West?” – “Become an agricultural worker.” – “Couldn’t you also have done that in the Soviet zone?” – “No, I couldn’t have,” the farmer says and becomes agitated. “What are you thinking? What do you in the West think today? Do you really believe that a farmer would leave his farm, his land, his house, if it were not a matter of necessity, dire necessity? A farmer? I wanted to live as a worker at home, as a dispossessed worker, very much so! But that is not an option. I did not run away from expropriation, but from prison. You see, there is this terrible law: that only people who engaged in ‘sabotage’ can be dispossessed. But people who engaged in ‘sabotage’ are punished with a minimum of five years in prison. Escape or prison – that was the choice for all the farmers you see here on Kuno Fischer Straße.” – “Well, did you, did all these thousands of farmers, engage in sabotage?” – The farmer gives me a stunned look, stunned by so much Western stupidity. “It is always the same litany,” he says. “You in the West are appealing to us to stay and preserve German soil. And you warn us: West Germany is overcrowded. But what do you think our choices are? The Berliners know what is going on, some Americans do, too. You get a real scare when new refugees suddenly arrive in droves and ask, clamor, plead: ‘Help us!’ The West Berliners are different. I would like to stay in Berlin. But what am I supposed to do here? A farmer on asphalt? I am simply waiting here . . .” – “For what?” – “For my wife and daughter. I stand here at the fence from morning until night and wait.” – “Will they still come?” – “I hope so . . .”

Another day. He waits, he buys an orange from a peddler, a sausage from “Sausage-Max;” that’s what he lives on. And he talks about everything in turn. “After the war, the agricultural machines were still running. When they broke down – who was there to repair them? The factories are all in West Germany. The mechanics who still had spare parts were demanding excessive prices. How was one supposed to pay for them? In West Germany they were paying farmers double the pre-war prices; we in the zone are getting the same prices as before the war, but we are paying triple the wages. That’s how the disaster began. The delivery quota was steadily and continuously raised. Machines broken, horses overworked. Finally, I delivered the oats that I should have used to feed the horses. There was this dilemma: if I didn’t hand over the oats, I was a saboteur. If I didn’t feed the horses, I would not be able to work the fields in the spring.

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