Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The Wall Evokes Flight Memories

East Germans in US recount tense escapes. EXPATRIATES' VIEWS

AS the Berlin Wall has come tumbling down, Rose-Mary Kemper has been flooded with memories of a different life and her own struggle for freedom. ``My mother and I had heard about a woman who for money would walk people across the border at night because she knew when the Russian border guards would be changing,'' Ms. Kemper recalls.

Today, she is a full-time real estate agent living comfortably in Newton, Mass. But in 1954, when she was 28 years old, Kemper and her 53-year-old mother decided to escape together from East Germany. That was seven years before the infamous wall was built and escape became a crime punishable by being shot. But escape, even in the 1950s, could be harrowing.

About these ads

``We got off the train and walked with our suitcases about 20 miles through the woods in pitch dark in early spring. It was still cold. There was snow on the ground and it was a little icy. There were times when we had to sit down and not move because the guards were in the vicinity.''

Kemper and her mother got away without a hitch. They traveled to Hamburg, a city then still recovering from World War II. Later, the two women left for the United States.

Traveling ``fourth or fifth class,'' she remembers seeing the Statue of Liberty as her ship entered New York Harbor.

``It was early morning and foggy, and the statue was very, very - well, it just touched us very much even though we didn't know where we would sleep that night.'' Part of the flow west

Kemper was one among a tidal surge of more than 700,000 Germans (most of them from the West, but a small percentage from the East), who arrived in the US between 1945 and 1961, according to the US Census Bureau and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In the wake of the recent exodus from East Germany, INS spokesman Richard Kenney says he expects an increase in visa applications from Germans, noting that when Moscow eased travel restrictions, the INS ``was inundated'' with applicants.

The West German Embassy in Washington reports numerous calls from Americans offering help to newly arriving East Germans. None have yet arrived, the embassy says.

About these ads

But some observers say they believe that only a few newly liberated East Germans may finally settle in the US; the vast majority will stay home or settle in West Germany for social and economic reasons.

As a whole, German immigration to the US slowed in the 1960s, becoming a trickle in the '70s and '80s as the West German economy grew faster than the US economy and East Germany remained cut off.

East German emigration to the US all but stopped because escape had become a ``suicide mission'' with about a 10 percent chance of success, Kemper says. The human rights group Amnesty International reports 188 people known to have been killed trying to escape from East Germany since 1961. Many to stay in Germany

``I really would doubt that a lot would come,'' says Dr. Peter Werres, a professor of German studies at George Washington University. ``The people leaving East Germany are used to a well-functioning social support system. They can get that and 10 times more in West Germany. It is very dangerous to leave behind those things.''

Kemper, who visited her cousin in East Germany last July, tells of a similar reluctance.

``I had a chance to speak, not only with a generation 40 and 50 but also those in their early 20s,'' she says. ``They said they didn't want to leave. What they wanted was a free political society. They wanted the Wall to be removed or at least opened for their free travel to the West whenever they chose. They wanted the economy changed to where they could develop themeselves.''

The powerful West German economy is expected to soak up many of the several hundred thousand refugees, though the government is worried about assimilating them. Making a run for it

Through it all the US has been a bystander, and President Bush has remained unruffled, according to news reports. But for some, these are deeply moving days.

``Last weekend was an experience I've never had before,'' says Rolf Engler, an administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who lives in Woburn, Mass. ``When I saw those people marching across I was almost in tears.''

Mr. Engler remembers vividly his own escape 34 years ago. He recalls a 30-mile hike through the darkness of a forest in the Harz Mountains - then sprinting 200 yards across a clearing at the East German frontier as Russian guards were relaxing a hundred meters away. He was 17 years old at the time.

``It was memorable in that the moon was extremely bright,'' Engler says. ``Once out of the safety of the forest, one had to cross an open field. When I came out of the forest I made a run for it.''

Bruno Schulz, a machine tool and die designer, who lives in Waltham, Mass., escaped from East Germany in 1954.

``I have been back several times,'' he says. ``I deserted East Germany for the purpose of finding a better life. The difference between East and West Germany was like day and night ... and compared with the US it was like day and night again.''

Mr. Schulz left three sisters and his parents behind when he escaped simply by boarding the Berlin subway and stepping off at a then-accessible West Berlin stop. When the Wall was opened recently he called one of his sisters - the only one with a telephone.

``I said, What is going on?'' Schulz says. ``She said she went over to West Berlin and took a stroll in the business district. On the way back she bought herself some oranges. She was thrilled because fruit is a luxury there.''

Will she be moving west? ``She happens to be in her mid-40s,'' Schulz says. ``She has what she wants. She is satisfied as long as she has a little more freedom to go and come as she wants.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.