Escape to the Golden West


Thousand mile fence separating East Germany from West Germany


While my parents increasingly suffered under the oppressive political system,  my brother and I experienced a happy childhood. We were oblivious to the hardships my parents had to endure.  My mother had to struggle every day to provide food and other necessities for us.

Even basic food items such as butter, flour, sugar, meat and cheese were scarce  and there were long line ups at the grocery stores every day for the limited supplies.  Luxury items such as coffee, cocoa, chocolate, citrus fruit  and cigarettes were hardly ever available.  Ironically, the most coveted items for many people  were cigarettes and coffee.

Not only food was scarce but basically everything from clothing to building materials was in short supply or unavailable. Even electric power was rationed by regular planned outages.   While West Germany had a rapid economic boom after the war,  East Germany had an economic decline.

People in the East were angry and upset  that they had to struggle for survival under a totalitarian system while their brothers and sisters in the West were enjoying freedom and prosperity.  If people complained or criticized the system, they could be “denounced” to the authorities and severely punished.  People could no longer trust each other.

For many demoralized  people in the East, West Germany became the “Promised Land” and they  started calling it the Golden West.  Great numbers of  desperate people escaped to the West risking their lives and giving up all their material possessions in the pursuit of freedom and happiness.

There wasn’t much that West German people could do to help their friends and relatives across the border.  On occasion, West Germans were granted permission to visit their relatives, if their application was approved by the GDR officials.  People from the West often feared that they would  arbitrarily be detained and would not be able to return home after a visit. For a while the only way  to stay in contact was by mail.

To share some of their newly acquired wealth, West German people would send parcels with precious items to relatives and friends  At Christmas time we received big gift packages from my mother’s relatives.  There were delicious sweets. chocolates,  beautiful toys, well made  stylish clothes and shoes for us.    Fragrant  “real”  coffee  beans for my mom and aromatic cigars for my father were some of the desired luxury  items, which you could not get in the East.   My brother and I were fortunate that we always had comfortable and well made shoes, because of my mother’s relatives who owned big footwear companies in the West.

Books and other printed materials were forbidden, because they could contain “propaganda” against the political system.  Letters and parcels often were confiscated if they looked “suspicious”.   My mom tried to keep up a good relationship with the mail man so her letters and parcels would not get “lost”.

In my imagination,  the Golden West was a fairy tale kind of land where all the houses had golden roofs like  the castles and palaces I had seen in the movie theater. My father’s friend owned the “White Wall” movie theater close to our home.   On many a Sunday my dad took us there to watch Russian fairytale cartoons and  other movies.  Since I had no concept of the “Golden West” I thought it was a beautiful place in fairyland where you lived  “happily ever after.”

My parents protected and shielded us from their increasing  hardships and sorrows    We had lots of friends and were allowed to play in our quiet neighborhood without many restrictions.  After the war, only few people could afford cars. There was hardly any traffic. Most people traveled by bike, street car, train or horse buggy.  Special forest trams would take us out into the beautiful surroundings for hiking or other outdoor activities.  On weekends my mom prepared a simple picnic lunch and we would either go by tram or on the back seat of my parents’ bikes out into the forests.

It’s amazing how far we could hike at an early age.  My dad would goad us on by promising a pop like beverage if we made it to the next village or any other destination he wanted to reach. Picking berries or mushrooms would supplement our diet.  However,  at that time I fiercely hated mushrooms.

Located in close walking distance to our home was a public outdoor swimming pool in a beautiful forest setting. My  father was a passionate swimmer and he taught us to swim before we even entered school. I inherited my dad’s passion and went  to the pool every day during the  open season  no matter how cold the water was.  Even before I was six years old i was allowed to go there on my own without adult supervision,

In the winter, we would get lots of snow.  Every day we would spend hours tobogganing with friends down a steep street in our neighborhood.  At suppertime we would trudge home tired  but  with glowing cheeks  looking forward to our big warm  tile stove and my dad’s nightly stories about the great explorers and inventor of the world.

Gotha in the SnowIt was on such a day in January 1953 that our life changed forever.  It had been clear and cold.  Our tobogganing hill was slick and fast.  Many of our friends were out and we raced down the steep street again and again.  One of my friends wore a new fur trimmed hat which I liked very much.  It was so much prettier than my hand knit wool tuque.  She had just received it it in a belated Christmas parcel from her aunt in the West. She also shared some chewing gum with us, which we  never had before  and enjoyed tremendously for the first time in our life.  What a wonderful place the West must be, I thought to myself, when I looked at my  friend with the pretty hat trying to blow bubbles with her bubble gum.

It started to snow softly when suddenly  I saw my mom approaching us. She never called us home before supper. Puzzled we ran to her. Taking hold of my brother with one hand and of me with the other, she told us that we had to go quickly to town with her before an important office closed.  In spite of our protests demanding to stay with our friends she pulled us hurriedly along.  I started whining, demanding that she at least buy me a new hat as pretty as the one my friend had received from the West.  Without responding to my increasingly vocal demands my mother pulled us relentlessly along.

Eventually  we reached the office.  She signed and received some papers.  It was pitch dark when we headed home.  i was very tired and hungry by then and had given up whining.    Suddenly i heard my mom whisper to me that i would soon get a new hat in the West.  I was too drowsy to understand what her words meant.

Finally at home, we hastily ate some hot cabbage soup.  After supper, instead of getting us ready for bed time,  my mother made us change into some warm good clothes.  Without explanation she made us kiss our dad good-bye and then grabbing a big suitcase from a closet  in the hallway whisked us out of the front door.  When we stepped out on the snow-covered sidewalk faintly illuminated by occasional street lights my mother whispered to us that we would have to go on a long walk but there would be a surprise in the end.  We walked silently like in a dream world enveloped by the thickly falling snow.  Tired and dazed we walked for a long time until we finally reached the railway station.Bahnhof

Once we were settled in an empty train compartment my mother told us that she had received permission to visit her sick guardian aunt in the West.  My dad had  to stay back as a guarantor for our return.  If we did not come back, he would be severely punished.

My brother immediately fell asleep in my mother’s arm when the train started rolling.  I, however, had my face pressed against the cold dark window.  I did not want to miss the first glimpse of the “Golden West” once we crossed the border.alte-eisenbahn



Surviving in a Totalitarian State

After their failed attempt to flee to the West my freedom loving parents had to survive in a totalitarian state.  Many of their freedoms were curtailed and they were cut off from friends and relatives on the other side of Germany and the rest of the world.

Before the war my dad had been transferred to the police force in Gotha.   Now,  under the communist rule he could no longer keep his position as police officer.

Miraculously,  one of my Dad’s old friends who was a dentist remembered that my father had worked as a dental technician in the past.   He offered him a job to work in his dental laboratory.

Food supplies were very short for several years after the war especially in the East.  I remember my Dad taking us to small villages in the surrounding area.  He would try to trade in his high quality police boots, belts, leather gloves and other valuable clothing in exchange for precious food like flour, butter  eggs and cheese.

I never forget the tasty delight of a freshly baked  heart shaped waffle a kind farmer’s wife handed me on a cool fall day.   It was still warm and tasted heavenly!!  I never had one before.

Our diet consisted  mostly of porridge, root vegetables,  bread, molasses and some butter or other fat.  There were strict government food rations.  Since I was underweight and slightly anemic, a  concerned doctor prescribed extra rations for me.

But I was also a picky eater.  It upset my dad tremendously, when I refused to eat or left something on the plate.   He had experienced extreme hunger as a POW.   My mother ended up feeding us children  separately  to keep him calm.

When we turned four years old, my father started teaching us on weekends.   He had a large world map, which covered a wall in his study.  There he taught us geography,  We had to point to and name all the continents, major countries, capitals, rivers, mountain ranges and oceans.

We had to draw maps and were rewarded with pennies if they were accurate.

He explained the solar system to us and allowed us to color his beautiful pen drawings for his ballads.

At bed time he would read to us books of the great explorers and inventors of the past or other historical events.   I loved cuddling close to my father on the bench of the big tile stove and listen to the great stories of mankind.

I learned to read before I even went to school and from then on have always been a voracious reader.

I was six years old when I read my first novel.  My mom had the book sitting on her night table.   It was a gift from my father who loved historical novels.   Whenever I had the opportunity. I secretly read in this big book which intrigued me.  It introduced me to an exciting  world  far beyond  my years.  To this day it is my favorite novel.  The author is Hervey Allen and the title is “Anthony Adverse”.   It was translated into German.   Many years later, Peter found the original American edition for me at eBay.

Although religious practices were tolerated under the new regime, they were not being encouraged.

My mother had been strictly brought up in the catholic faith by her guardians.   However, my father was protestant.   Shortly after our birth, even before my dad had a chance to meet us, she had us baptized in the protestant faith out of respect for my father.

My mother was always a strong believer in the Christian faith and instilled this faith in me.  For her the differences among the various religious denominations were not of great importance.  She believed in a personal relationship with God and salvation through Jesus Christ.

She would always encourage us to pray, and believe in the power of God’s love.

We were introduced to the word of God by an interdenominational Christian group who read bible stories to preschool children.  They must have sown strong seeds falling on fertile ground.  To this day I have never lost my faith in the goodness and truth of God’s word and the miracle of Christ’s promise of salvation.








Early Childhood in The Green Heart of Germany


Gotha is a picturesque city located in Thuringia,  one of the most beautiful regions of Germany.  It is called the Green Heart of Germany because of its vast pine and mixed  forests stretching over rolling hills. There are many romantic towns and villages which attracted great poets, composers and other famous artists and philosophers throughout history.

Gotha House

We lived on the main floor of a spacious villa not far from the castle and its amazing park.   It is the biggest landscape park in Germany and contains  many rare and exotic trees.

This wonderful park became our playground.  Every weekend,  through the changing seasons, my father would take us on long walks to this charming place.

Before we even went to school,  he had taught us to identify and name trees, flowers, plants and animals, more than I can name and identify now.  My brother and I  would collect colorful leaves, tasty pine and hazelnuts,  shiny chestnuts, acorns, pine cones, rose hips, and other seeds and berries.  These treasures would delight us more than toys.  We loved to watch the birds, chipmunks, insects, butterflies, frogs, toads, snakes, salamanders and other small animals living in this enchanting realm.  Two big ponds were another exciting attraction to explore.

One day,  my dad came home to report that he had jumped into the main pond in full gear to save a little boy from drowning.

Some of my earliest  memories are holding my dad’s hand and walking in this peaceful and magical place.

After his first few visits home to meet us, my Dad was taken prisoner by the Americans and spent a year in several prison camps.

My mom and my sister had to cope on their own surviving the hard times after the war with two small infants to care for. Food and other resources like fuel, and power were in short supply.

For the entire year of 1945 Gotha was occupied by American troops until the Russians took over the military command in the spring of the following year.

One day when my mom was preparing a meager meal of watery porridge in the kitchen, she noticed a black soldier walking around the back door of our house placing something under the landing of the staircase.

When my terrified mother had summoned up the courage to step outside to question him, he greeted her with a warm smile and pointed under the deck saying in a broad drawl,  “Milk for babies.”

Every day, until the Americans left, my mother and sister would find precious care packages under the landing deposited by this warmhearted  man.  Miraculously  help had come from a most unlikely source, from the enemy!!!

I wish I could still thank this generous soldier who showed us love instead of hatred and helped us survive.

When my dad was finally released from the Americans his ordeals were not over.  As former officer of the German army my dad was no longer allowed under the new Soviet regime to work for the police force in Gotha.

For many weeks after he came home, he was interrogated at odd hours at night about his Nazi past.  My dad had always resisted the Hitler regime and had never joined the infamous SS, even though all higher ranking officers were put under great pressure to do so.  Eventually these torturous investigations were abandoned because no evidence against him was found.

First Attempt to Escape to the West

My brother and I were three years old when my mom made the first attempt to escape with us to the West.

At that time the newly established borders between the divided Germany  were not yet fortified by  fences, ditches and surveillance towers.  There were heavily armed border guards who patrolled the unmarked dividing line between the East and the West.

My mom’s plan was to cross the densely forested border at a remote village with my sister and us two,

Once safely across my sister would take us by train to relatives in the West while my mother would return home to escape with my Dad via Berlin to the West to rejoin us later.  At that time the wall had not yet been built and it was still possible to escape from the eastern part of the city to the West by the subway system which still joined the two parts of Berlin.

The memories of that night are etched in my memory forever.  My mom and my sister were struggling to push our twin stroller over a rugged forest path at the approach of night.  When the going was getting too rough my mother allowed us to walk a short distance ahead of them.  Tired of being cooped up in the stroller for too long my brother and I started to run and chase each other around a bend of the narrow path when a gigantic figure with a gun stepped out of the dense bush and blocked our way.

Biene and Walter

We all stood motionless for a long moment until my mother and sister came around the path.   My sister started to scream with fright but my mother stayed calm.  She tried to explain that we lost our way but the guard was not fooled.

He told my mother that he would walk the other way pretending he never met us, on condition that she immediately returned to the village.  If she refused to comply, he would have to shoot as were his strict orders.  If he showed mercy, his own life was at stake.

He did show some pity though by giving my mother directions to a house where the porch door was unlocked so we could spend the night under cover.   “There will be shooting tonight”, were his last words.  Once again we experienced the  unexpected mercy of an enemy soldier.

We spent the night huddled in the corner of a spacious porch.  My sister broke down crying hysterically,  We had never heard her cry before and it scared us more than the sounds of shots fired in the distance.

Part of the reason for my sister’s breakdown was that still unknown to her she experienced the first stages of pregnancy.

A few months later, she married her long time boyfriend and soon after our first nephew was born.  Thus, my brother and I became uncle and aunt at he tender age of four.

1948 Wedding Elsbeth Paul