Paralyzed by Fear
On my way back to the youth hostel I sat apprehensively in the city train that used to run unimpededly across the border, but now would stop at a new terminal a short distance from the nearest checkpoint. I had hoped to immerse myself into the anonymity of a large commuter crowd. But there were only a few passengers and at each stop more and more people stepped off the train, until I was almost by myself. I looked at my watch. In less than half an hour I would be at the border checkpoint. I was just beginning to relax a little, when a young man stepped into my compartment. He sat down on the bench opposite mine, and recognizing me by my clothes as a Westerner immediately addressed me and compelled me to listen to his story. In a torrent of words he seemed to have broken the dam of pain, anger and frustration deep within his troubled mind. He apparently was totally oblivious to the fact that a spy might be listening in and denounce him to the authorities. The more boldly he spoke, the more fearfully I listened. Enthralled by his tale and unable to move from my seat, I felt like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
“He holds him with his glittering eye –
The wedding guest stood still,
And listened like a three-years’ child.
The mariner hath his will.”
“Last year,” the young began his story, “I was just finishing my apprenticeship program. Many friends and family members had already fled to the West. There were rumors that the inner city border would be closed soon. Every week many people, first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, escaped to start a new life in freedom. Then my girlfriend also left with her entire family just one week before they built this horrible wall.” The young man was now sobbing and screaming.
“To get a good start with a completed journeyman ticket, I promised her that I would follow her as soon as I had passed my exam. How stupid I was in trying to be responsible. Over a better job I lost my love. I will never see her again. Like all the others her family is on the black list. She would be arrested and thrown into prison, if she tried to see me.” He was venting his anger and frustration so loudly that everyone left on the train could hear, but pretended not to.
“We live in one giant prison here! No, we live like animals in a zoo. Westerners may come and gawk. I feel like a monkey behind bars, when I look from my apartment window over the wall into West Berlin, where people are free to move about as they please. My girlfriend is out there somewhere. She cannot even write a letter for fear to land me in prison as someone befriending a traitor of socialism. Oh, how I loathe that ugly word!”
Suddenly the apprentice grew very quiet. He had unburdened himself by boldly telling his story. I knew that there was nothing I could do for him. How to give hope, when there is no hope, or how to offer a comforting word, when you cannot find it within yourself? A comment no matter how carefully chosen would have added insult to injury. It was good that I remained silent and listened to what he had to say. But to find the right words to show compassion to my fellow human beings had never been my forte and remains a problem to this very day. Without saying another word, the young man got off the train on the second last station. Five more minutes and I would be at the terminal.
I sat there on my bench all alone. Indeed the entire train car was empty now. The emptiness began to oppress me. I felt ashamed of having been so afraid. The apprentice from East Berlin was not. I began to realize that there was another kind of freedom that came from within independent of where one happens to live. But the realization of the converse hit me even harder. One could live in the best society – if there ever was one – with all the rights and privileges enshrined in its constitution and still be a slave to fear.
Gathering Strength Through Inner Calm
Within the next thirty minutes I had to deal with fear all over again. The guard on duty at the border checkpoint carefully examined my passport and was just about ready to check off my name from the list, when he asked for my camera, which I had left behind at my relatives. Under normal circumstances this would not have been a big deal. I could have given the camera as a gift to my aunt, lost it on the train, or gotten rid of it in myriads of other ways. But this was not considered normal. The guard asked me to follow him into the drab border building, where he made me enter a small office room, and then quickly left closing the door behind him. Sitting on a chair opposite a giant empty desk I felt trapped. I had the feeling, as if I was being watched for my reaction through hidden cameras. But to my surprise, a great calm pervaded my inner being. I had done nothing wrong, I had simply visited my relatives with official permission, had left a camera behind, which was not a crime, but a trivial oversight. After a five-minute wait a security officer neither friendly nor unfriendly entered the room and said without making any reference to the missing camera that he was going to ask me a few questions. Even though he made me feel that the whole process was a mere formality, it appeared to me like a full-fledged interrogation. There was nothing to hide. To all his questions about myself, my family, relatives in East and West Germany I gave prompt answers without showing any signs of nervousness. After being convinced that I was not a spy, he finally turned his attention to the camera. If it had not been recorded on the inventory list, there would not have been any problems. But since it was, I would have to go back, pick up the camera at my aunt’s place and show it to him, before his shift would end be at midnight. I said that this would be quite impossible for me to do considering that the youth hostel closes its gate at 11 o’clock, that I would be locked out, and that the teacher would report me as a missing person. To make a long story short, the officer showed some human understanding for my case behind the mask of his stern face and let me go under the condition that I would have to return during his shift on the very next day. If I did not comply and did not show him the camera, my relatives would be in serious trouble. Whether there was a bit of humanity shining through or whether it was even the fear for having broken some rules, I could not say. Perhaps it was a mixture of both.