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

The vast majority of GDR refugees in the 1950s fled via the easily crossable border between the Soviet sector and the Western sectors in Berlin. After a temporary stay in provisional camps, they were typically flown to the Federal Republic. This March 1953 article from the weekly newspaper Die Zeit explains the motives of the farmers who were fleeing the GDR in especially large numbers at the time. The article also explains, however, that there were limits to West Germans’ solidarity and their willingness to help – that is, there were voices opposed to the unrestricted admission of GDR refugees.

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“That Was When I Knew: I Had to Become a Refugee”

In Berlin, one always has a bad conscience after making a quick trip from the West to the old Reich capital where one used to live! A word of advice to all those who feel the same way: Make sure not to praise Berlin! True, Kurfürstendamm is even more resplendent with light than before, and what Leipziger Straße [Street], which ended up in the Eastern sector, has lost has been replaced by Schloßstraße in Steglitz. But beware! If, upon your return [to the city], you start praising Berlin and Berliners out of sheer joy that your longing for home is finally being satisfied, you will see a smile appear on the face of a friend or former comrade from Berlin, a mixture of pride, irony, superiority, and melancholy. “When is your flight back?,” the Berliner responds, and then you fall silent.

Well, and then the plane takes off, and of the 50 passengers 46 are refugees: for days, weeks they stood around in Berlin; now they have to stand around in the West outside barracks and offices, in front of desks and registration-card files. But at least in Berlin they experienced something that was also quite strongly present in the West before 1948, before the currency reform, but then disappeared, little by little: solidarity, helpfulness, altruism . . . call it what you will; the words sound hackneyed, because they have rolled all too often off the tongues of hypocrites, but also of organizers and propagandists; but he who wants to can still understand what these words mean . . .

I noticed: in Berlin, the restaurants – even the expensive ones – are cheaper than in West Germany. The explanation: there is a general lack of money. I noticed: when a radio broadcasting corporation presented events – splendidly successful, incidentally – for the benefit of refugees, the Berliners, proportionally speaking, donated the most, despite the shortage of money; I noticed that. And then: the small vendors with their fruit and Coca-Cola stands who had set themselves up in front of the official residence of the Senator for Social Affairs on Kuno Fischer Straße, they let many a dubious coin, many an East mark – this, too, I noticed – pass for a West mark.

Even the “peddlers” with their “trays” are so generous toward the refugees that arrive here. They know: many come without a penny. Oh, how nice it would be if Walter von Cube, the editor-in-chief of the Bayerischer Rundfunk [Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation], possessed the “suicidal humanity” to stand for a little while on Kuno Fischer Straße. Not to worry! You won’t get dirty there. The idyllic Lietzensee [Lietzen Lake] is there and looks cheerful, clean, and friendly under the first sun of spring, and most of the refugees who line up to register are wearing their best suits, their Sunday best: this imparts a well-groomed feel to the refugee misery.

Nor do the people complain when the wait gets to be too long. They don’t open their mouths. They are silent, either because they are not used to opening their mouths, or because – even here, still – they are afraid of traitors. But if Walter von Cube stood here on Kuno Fischer Straße, the sight of refugees would surely move his heart. Surely then he would be willing to examine what is true and what is false in his theory – disseminated by the Bayerischer Rundfunk – that the East is deliberately sending refugees to West Germany to disrupt our economic recovery, and that we in the West should defend ourselves against this by closing the borders.

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