Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Early – mid April 1964
I was woken during the night by the windows in my room rattling. My old brain knew that this was caused by Russian Migs breaking the sound barrier over west Berlin – just part of the continuous intimidation against this western enclave in the Soviet empire. I drifted off to sleep wondering what it must be like to live every day with the fear of Soviet forces appearing in your city.
That unease must have worked on my brain as I woke up in a fright. What had I been thinking, bringing Oberstleutnant Schmidt’s photo with me? I feverishly grabbed my duffel bag and pulled out my Maths textbook. The newspaper cutting fluttered to the floor and I picked it up, staring at the face to fix it in my brain. After a couple of minutes, I tore it into shreds and put the pieces in my jacket pocket, dumping them down the toilet after I dressed.
At breakfast, we were told to meet back in the foyer with our luggage at half-past eight. I was about five minutes early but found Ginnie already there.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine, thanks, Will. The walk yesterday afternoon helped me calm down.” She blushed slightly. “You must think I’m awfully silly, being sick on the plane like that.”
I smiled, reassuringly. “New things usually cause some anxiety. How do you think you’ll go on the flight home?”
She swallowed. “I’ll be fine ... but please, sit with me?”
Once everyone was there, Mr Stock collected our passports, explaining that they had to be handed over to the East German authorities at Checkpoint Charlie. They would be returned when we cleared the border. We then put our bags in the back of the minivan and found seats. Once again, Ginnie saved me a seat next to her.
When we passed through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, our minivan was waved into a bay. Mr Stock got out with all our documents and was directed to a window in a building alongside. After about five minutes, a very upright Grenztruppen officer walked up to him. After a few words, they approached the minivan and the officer followed Mr Stock inside, stooping to avoid knocking his cap on the roof. He looked around the bus, moving his head to pick up all our faces.
“So, you are the lucky winners of an essay competition. Welcome to the German Democratic Republic, we have been told to expect you this morning. I am Major Koch. We will need to wait a few minutes for the person who will be your guide throughout your visit. Her name is Fräulein Elsa Hartmann.” His English was accented, but very good. As he knew about the competition, he must know we all spoke German; he must have been taking the opportunity to practice his English, I thought, or perhaps he was showing off to the Grenztruppen guard watching us.
He paused, looking through the window. “Ah, here she comes.” His voice showed both annoyance and condescension.
A moment later a young woman in civilian clothes hurried up to the minivan. “Herr Major.” She nodded in deference.
“Besser spät als nie, Fräulein Hartmann?” I could hear the disapproval in his voice – and so, from her frown and pursed lips, could Fräulein Hartmann. Despite her civilian clothes, was she a junior Grenztruppen officer or perhaps Stasi?
He turned back to look into the minivan. “Travellers from England. Allow me to introduce your guide, Fräulein Elsa Hartmann. She will be accompanying you throughout your visit here.” There was an almost sardonic emphasis on Fräulein. She must be military in some way.
Fräulein Hartmann nodded towards us and Major Koch waved Fräulein Hartmann into the front passenger seat beside our driver and turned back to us.
“Ich wünsche Ihnen einen schönen Besuch in unserem großartigen Land,” he said, rather pompously, stepping out of the minivan.
Fräulein Hartmann leaned across to the driver and said something inaudible. The driver nodded and the minivan set off, presumably to our hotel, where we arrived about fifteen minutes later. Once we were off the minivan, Fräulein Hartmann waved us into a building that did not look much like a hotel. The FDJ logo announced it as student accommodation run by and for the FDJ – the Freie Deutsche Jugend that Col had mentioned. The FDJ was the official youth organisation of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany).
Mr Stock and Miss Turner sorted out room allocations with Fräulein Hartmann and we were told to leave our bags in our rooms and come straight back to the entry. Peter Farquar strolled in about five minutes later than everyone else, causing Fräulein Hartmann to give him a short but sharp lecture on punctuality and its place in a community. There was something quite military about the way she dealt with Peter – as if she were giving a junior rank a dressing down. She then turned to the rest of us.
“This afternoon, we will have a tour of the city ending at six o’clock at Karl Liebknecht Haus, the FDJ headquarters, where you will be welcomed by and meet some of the youth leaders of the DDR and enjoy Abendbrot.”
We took up our previous seats and spent a couple of hours touring East Berlin with appropriate socialist commentary by Fräulein Hartmann. Much was made of the rebuilding effort since the war, from blocky concrete apartment buildings in the suburbs for the workers to reconstructed historical buildings. Indeed, Karl Liebknecht Haus itself was an example of this reconstruction, as was the nearby Volksbühne theatre.
Touring around, the cityscape was different in a way that I could not put my finger on. I was still trying to work this out when Ginnie remarked that there was no advertising but lots of propaganda, which answered my unvoiced question.
We rolled up outside Karl Liebknecht Haus just before six o’clock and were ushered inside to a reception room where about a dozen young people came forward to greet us. In the background were four middle-aged people and I recalled what Mutti Frida had told me about never meeting ordinary people or having free conversations.
After a young woman gave a welcoming speech, there was an awkward pause as they were clearly expecting one of us to respond, something none of had expected.
I sidled up to Ginnie. “You’ll have to say something, Ginnie. You’re the only girl.”
She gave me a horrified look, shaking her head.
“Just thank them for the welcome and tell them how much we are looking forward to exploring their society and culture.”
She hesitated, so I gently pushed her forward. Eyes swivelled towards her and she, with an increasing blush, repeated what I had suggested almost word for word. I could see expressions of relief on the faces of the rest of our party and, interestingly, on the faces of the young FDJ representatives. I also noticed several hard looks from the older East Germans directed towards Fräulein Hartmann. Had she made another mistake by not briefing us properly?
“That was terrifying, Will. Why did you do that?” Ginnie turned and hissed at me.
I smiled. “It might have been terrifying, but you did it beautifully.”
Ginnie’s frown softened slightly.
“Don’t sell yourself so short, Ginnie. You’re very capable.”
Ginnie took a deep breath. “All right, Will.”
Waiters appeared, setting out several tables of finger food and circulating with glasses of wine and beer. Fortunately, there was also some water and glasses on the table as well.
“Come on, let’s get something to eat.”
We filled our plates with the cold meats, cheeses and salads and perched ourselves on the chairs round the edge of the room. One of the FDJ young people walked across and pulled a chair out to sit opposite us, balancing a plate of food on his knees.
“Good evening. I am Axel Meyer.” He smiled at Ginnie. “Thank you for your response.”
Ginnie nodded in acknowledgement and we introduced ourselves.
“You both speak German well,”
At that moment, a waiter appeared with what looked like glasses of Champagne.
Axel looked at the waiter. “Is it Rotkäppchen?” The waiter nodded.
“Ah.” I could hear the pride in his voice. “You must try this – it is not available in the West, I’m afraid, so this trip will be your only opportunity.”
Axel pressed a glass into our hands and raised his. “Prost.”
Ginnie cast a sideways glance at me and I just shrugged. “Prost, “ and I raised the glass to my lips and took a sip. Ginnie followed my example.
I was expecting something quite sweet, but this was a delicious dry sparkling wine. My old brain savoured the flavours – Pinot Chardonnay perhaps?
I smiled at Axel. “This is very nice.”
“You like this?” Ginnie asked. “I don’t think I do.”
“You prefer something a bit sweeter, perhaps?” And Axel retrieved the glass from Ginnie’s hand and accosted a different waiter, returning with a white wine. “Try this Riesling instead.”
Ginnie took a tentative sip and smiled. “Thank you”
Miss Turner appeared behind Axel. “Will, you should not be drinking wine.”
Axel stood and turned smoothly. “I’m sorry, but I insisted they try some of our great wines.”
Miss Turner eyed Axel. “Will is only fourteen. Do children drink wine in East Germany?”
Axel gave Miss Turner an ingenuous smile. “Surely one glass is not dangerous?”
Miss Turner looked at me. “All right, but just the one glass, Will.” She gave Ginnie a stern look. “You be careful – and look after Will.”
Ginnie nodded and Miss Turner walked away. I noticed her pick up a glass of Rotkäppchen and sip it appreciatively.
Axel talked to us about the FDJ and its important place in the DDR society. During this monologue, he acquired more wine for Ginnie and himself from a passing waiter. Eventually, he asked us about the youth organisation we were part of in England.
I shrugged. “I’m not a member of anything. I used to sing in a church choir but not anymore.”
Axel looked surprised and turned to Ginnie. “And you?”
Ginnie was looking a little flushed. “I’m too busy with school and working on the farm.”
“But that is good, Ginnie. Farm work is honest labour for your society.” He gave me a thin smile. “You need to find a way to contribute too, Willi. But it is good you are no longer in the hands of the reactionary church.”
Mr Stock extracted himself from the group of older people and walked across to where we were sitting. “We will be leaving in a few minutes. Ginnie, when I gather everyone together, I would like you to say a few words of thanks for the FDJ’s hospitality.”
“Why me?” Ginnie blurted.
“Because you stepped up so well when we arrived and they will expect it.” He smiled reassuringly at her.
Perhaps the two glasses of wine had given Ginnie some Dutch courage, but her short speech graciously thanked the FDJ for the welcome and introduction to East Germany and earned her some polite applause.
Back in the minivan, Ginnie turned to me. “You’re right, Will. I can do more than I think.”
I wondered how much of this nascent self-confidence was the wine talking.
It turned out that perhaps some was due to the wine, but not all: the following day Ginnie spoke well, thanking the FDJ members who conducted us round the Bode-Museum and Pergamonmuseum. Both were very interesting – but the tractor factory on the following day not so much. We spent half a day there as earnest managers proudly showed us round their rather outdated factory making pre-war style tractors. Afterwards, on the way back to the hotel, Ginnie, who knew her tractors from working on the farm, was fairly caustic about the old-fashioned machinery, which visibly annoyed Fräulein Hartmann.
That evening we were guests at the Staatsoper for a performance of Der fliegende Holländer. My compatriots found the performance boring, unfortunately, but managed to be polite about it. Mr Stock sensed my enthusiasm and asked me to make the speech of thanks to our FDJ hosts.
After breakfast the following morning, we left for Dresden, a trip of some 200 km, that would take nearly five hours. My old brain knew that this city was carpet-bombed by the British and Americans in February 1945, creating a firestorm that killed over 20,000 people and largely destroyed the historic city centre. It would be interesting to see what reconstruction had occurred – and how a group of English people would be received.
As in Berlin, we were staying in student accommodation, this time at the Technische Universität Dresden, outside the city centre. We had a late lunch and then we were joined by a pair of FDJ members who guided us around the city, rather usurping Fräulein Hartmann’s role in the process. There were a few old buildings that showed no sign of any restoration. I was not surprised that the Frauenkirche was still a ruin, given the regime’s antipathy towards religion. In spite of its still very wrecked look, the work occurring on the baroque Semperoper was proudly pointed out to us as were the many new building in the centre of the old city. Our tour ended at the Zwinger – the baroque palace and gardens of the kings of Saxony. Our guides pointed out that this complex had been severely damaged by the bombing in 1945, but that work on restoration was started by the Soviet occupying forces almost immediately and had been continued and finished by the DDR. FDJ volunteers had helped in this work we were advised.
I could see Ginnie looking around at the gorgeously restored interiors with some confusion. “Why is a communist state restoring a king’s palace?”
One of our guides turned to her. “This is now owned by the people. Why would we not restore our own property? Besides, it is also important to learn the lessons of history, how the people of Saxony were oppressed so that an elite could live in luxury.”
I could see Ginnie about to ask another question, but she stopped and just nodded. As we continued following our guides, Ginnie whispered to me, “That interest in restoring history doesn’t extend to a baroque church, though.”
I raised an eyebrow and we walked on as our guide pointed out architectural and artistic highlights of the building and contents with socialist pride.
That evening we were again hosted by the FDJ, on this occasion at the Hochschule für Musik. We were treated to a movement from a piano quartet, which I did not recognise. I was told it was by Carl Maria von Weber, who spent a large part of his career as conductor of the Semperoper. After, the conversation accompanying the buffet was one-sided, with much exposition of the benefits of being a young person in the DDR. Mutti Frida was correct: I would not meet ordinary people and all I would hear was the party line. But I was sensing in the few questions the young people asked of us privately that there was interest in something different – and, thinking back, I had felt this also at the tractor factory: a feeling that they could do better if allowed to do so.
After breakfast the following day we were driven out of the city to the industrial area. We visited a factory making radios – using valves. There were even ‘portable’ versions, weighing several kilograms with their heavy transformers and lead-acid rechargeable batteries. Back in England, Japanese transistor radios had appeared a year or so earlier – tiny radios that would fit in a trouser pocket. After my Premium Bond win, I had contemplated buying one but decided that the lack of FM capability (or VHF as it was then being called) was a huge drawback in terms of listening quality. I wasn’t interested in listening, again, to the pop music of the ‘60s: I wanted to tune in to the Third Program on FM, with its broadcasts of classical music and, increasingly, live concerts.
We had lunch in the factory canteen, joined by some of the workers and the manager who had been our guide. I asked if they had seen the tiny Japanese transistor radios. There was an embarrassed silence and looks went around the table until the manager leaned forward.
“Yes, I have seen such things, but they are difficult and expensive to make. The factory would have to be completely changed.” His voice took on an earnest tone. “We feel it is more important to provide all our people with a usable radio before we spend our resources trying to produce such things. There were murmurs of agreement around the table, but they did not sound heartfelt.
We spent two more days in Dresden, at a forest camp used by the FDJ in summer. It turned out we were part of a work party bringing the camp out of its winter hibernation ready for its summer visitors. Each of us was paired with an FDJ member, removing shutters from windows, piling them on to carts and depositing them at a storeroom where they were stacked to wait for autumn; then we cleaned the winter rubbish from outside the dormitories. Perhaps it was the shared work, but some of the reticence on both sides wore off and, after supper in the evenings, the talk round a glowing fire pit was more relaxed, with some veiled criticism of the way things were done in the DDR. On the second day, we spent a morning putting up posters promoting the FDJ and its activities. I thought one of these would make a great memento of the trip and asked if I could take one back to England. There was a modicum of surprise at this – the posters were definitely propaganda and I had caught some wry remarks about their content from a few of the FDJ youth with us.
“What would you do with such a poster?”
I smiled. “I’d display it in my bedroom to remind me of the friends I made on this trip.”
After some consultation, I was given the nod and chose a poster.
I carefully rolled it up to fit in my suitcase and hopefully not get crushed.
After two days at the forest camp, we drove to Leipzig, where we were once again hosted by members of the FDJ at the University of Leipzig in Augustusplatz – near the Gewandhaus and the almost brand new Opera House, on whose steps Col’s father had been photographed.
This time, our hosts spent much more time with us and I gained the impression that they were a bit dismissive of the central organisation as being a bit stuck in the past – altmodisch – as one of them said. I sensed that things might be about to loosen up in the Warsaw pact, or at least in the DDR. However, I caused a bit of a stir when I asked about a visit to Thomaskirche, where Bach was Kantor. The church in all its forms was officially regarded as a reactionary organisation and not something a proper FDJ member would be associated with and I didn’t receive an answer.
Much to my delight, we were going to be treated to both a concert in the Gewandhaus and an opera – Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. There were rolled eyes by a few of my companions and Ginnie asked me what I saw in classical music. I was a bit stumped how to answer that without revealing too much, but then I thought of the essay I had written.
“I don’t really know – I suppose in part it’s the music in my life, the music that speaks to me most clearly. I’ll lend you the essay I wrote – that might help explain it.”
I dug the copy of my essay out of my duffel bag and gave it to Ginnie at Abendbrot. She smiled and put it in her handbag, promising to return it in the morning.
The concert that evening featured Václav Neumann conducting Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony – The Leningrad Symphony. The program talked at great length about the great suffering during the siege and the symphony’s first performance in besieged Leningrad. I found this interesting, given the German audience, some of whom probably served in the Wehrmacht or had friends or relatives who had done so.
The following morning was a Sunday and I was up early and walked out of the dormitory, looking for Thomaskirche. There were a few people in Augustusplatz and so I asked for directions.
An old woman looked me up and down with a touch of suspicion. Perhaps my youth helped reassure her. “Go north to Grimmaischer Straße and then west. You can’t miss it.”
I set off towards Grimmaischer Straße, only to be pulled up by a voice calling my name in English.
“William Johnstone. William Johnstone. Stop, please.”
I turned round to see Fräulein Hartmann almost running to catch up with me.
I waited for her and she arrived, slightly dishevelled as if she had dressed hurriedly. When she reached me, she took several deep breaths and raked a hand through her hair.
“What are you doing, William?” I could hear the annoyance in her voice.
“I want to visit Johan Sebastian Bach’s church.”
“But you were told that we would go everywhere as a group. You shouldn’t be out by yourself.” There was something in her voice behind the anger I was hearing.
“Why not? Is it dangerous here in Leipzig?” I knew I was twisting her tail, but I couldn’t resist it.
“Of course not. The whole of the DDR is peaceful and safe.”
“So, why cannot I go out by myself.”
Fräulein Hartmann looked a bit stumped. After a moment, she summoned up, “Because you might get lost.”
“I’m only going Thomaskirche – it’s just the other side of the university along Grimmaischer Straße. How could I possibly get lost?”
“How do you know that?” she snapped.
I shrugged. “I asked for directions from someone walking in the square.”
Fräulein Hartmann swallowed and her eyes darted round the square.
“Come. We are going back to the FDJ Wohnheim.” There it was again – but this time it was clearly fear that underlay her anger.
“But I don’t want to go back to the dormitory. I want to visit Thomaskirche.”
Fräulein Hartmann’s head snapped back towards me. “Wilhelm Johnstone. Du mußt mit mir zurückkommen.“ She commanded and without waiting, turned smartly on her heel and started walking back towards the university.
I was tempted to ignore her and carry on to Thomaskirche, but I remembered my mother’s plea that I not cause any trouble. Suppressing a frustrated sigh, I turned and followed her. She must have heard my footfalls as I saw her shoulders relax slightly.
Back at the dormitory, breakfast was underway with a strong aroma of coffee in the room. Still upset at my aborted excursion, decades of buried habit kicked in and I acquired a cup of coffee without thinking and found a seat with Ginnie.
She gave me a worried look. “You caused quite a stir, Will.”
“I just wanted to visit Bach’s church.”
“I must have just missed you leave, but I was sitting in the foyer waiting for breakfast to start when Fräulein Hartmann raced out of the building still adjusting her clothes.” Ginnie smiled. “It was quite a sight.”
I shrugged. “She found me in Augustusplatz. I had to ask directions to the church.”
Mr. Stock came over and sat down with us.
“William, you were at the briefing in London when we made it clear that we must stay together, there was to be no going off alone.”
I looked at him.
He shook his head. “Will, if we go off alone, the government might see us as agents provocateurs or even spies. It’s not safe for you to go off alone. Also, you are causing trouble for Fräulein Hartmann who is responsible for us.”
I said nothing – but I could hear Mutti Frida’s warnings in my ears.
Mr. Stock sighed, softly. “I know it’s very different from how we live, but we are guests here and should abide by our host’s rules.” He leaned further across the table. “You must promise me that you will not go off on your own again. If you want to go somewhere, please speak to me and I will see what I can do.”
I looked him in the eye. “OK,” I said, grudgingly. “But, please, can you see if I can visit Thomaskirche? I was hoping to sit and listen to some of Bach’s music in his church.”
Mr. Stock’s eyes opened in understanding. “That’s right – you used to sing in a church choir, didn’t you. You know much of Bach’s music?”
My old brain knew quite a bit from singing in my local Bach Society Choir, to the annoyance of the choirmaster as I made no secret of my atheism. But I could not tell Mr. Stock that. “Well, I know a bit from listening on the radio, but not from singing it.” I leaned forward. “I want to hear what it’s like in Bach’s church. It’s like the difference between listening to an orchestra on the radio and being there in person in the Albert Hall.”
Mr Stock gave me a penetrating look and then leaned back. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I picked up my coffee and tasted it for the first time. “Ugh.” I spluttered. The coffee was like bitter mud, so different from the sharp, aromatic espresso my old brain was accustomed to.
Ginnie laughed. “I’ve not seen you drink coffee before, Will.”
“And I’m not going to drink this. It’s awful.”
“I don’t like coffee either. I always drink tea at home but that’s been hard to come by here.”
Mr Stock stood up and asked for our attention. “This morning there is a tour of the University, so please gather back in the foyer in fifteen minutes.”
As I left, I could see him talking with Fräulein Hartmann, who glanced across at me as they spoke. After this morning, I didn’t expect my request would fall on fertile ground. Ginnie knocked on my door to return my essay as I was getting organised.
“Thanks for the read, Will. It was interesting. I didn’t think to bring a copy of mine.”
I stashed at the bottom of my duffel bag as I didn’t think I’d need it again and we headed downstairs to meet up with everyone else.
The university tour proved more interesting than I expected. Not only did we tour the Institut für Theoretische Physik, but it turned out that one of the FDJ student guides was studying there and we ended up deep in conversation for most of the rest of the tour. This had its moments as we didn’t share a technical vocabulary. All the same, we managed to garner some very odd looks from others in our party.