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Noel K Fletcher

Best Present Ever

Even before I turn the page of the old photo album, I know that the sight of the little black and white picture with the crinkle-cut edges, pasted on the next page, will bring a lump to my throat. The picture is of my wife Frieda and daughter Hannah, their knees are scuffed and bruised, and their dresses covered in mud; but it is the best picture I have of them. Memories flood back.
  In 1962, a year after the infamous Berlin wall was erected; I was the senior design engineer for a German combined harvester manufacturer based in Dahmsdorf, just east of Berlin. The political officer had called me to his office and told me that I was to represent the company at an international exposition in London. I was not allowed to take my wife or daughter, they must remain in Berlin; this was to ensure that I returned.
  The night before my departure we stayed in Berlin with Anita Möller, my wife’s sister, who gave me a “good luck” card. She drove me to checkpoint Charlie where I waited an hour before the Russian guards would let me enter the western sector. Once in, I caught a taxi to Berlin’s Templehoff airport for my scheduled flight to London.
  A Russian embassy official met me, called a taxi, gave the driver an address saying ‘I will meet you there’, then disappeared to meet another flight. “Stop” I told the driver. ‘Take my bags to the hotel.’ I climbed out and headed straight back to the BEA check-in desk, took my ticket from Anita’s card and boarded the next flight back to Berlin. It took off thirty minutes later. Timing was crucial.
  The two hour trip was fraught with trepidation. If there was a Stazi secret police agent on the flight, I would be arrested on arrival back at Templehoff. I disembarked and headed for the exit, trying hard to act naturally. No-one accosted me.
  I checked the scribbled words on the inside of the envelope: “Bernauer Strasse 7, 11pm”. I looked at my watch, 9.57; just an hour to wait, I ordered a coffee. At 10.30 I paid and left.
  The taxi dropped me in a lay-by in Bernauer Strasse close to the brightly painted, defiant graffiti on the wall. Puddles reflected a kaleidoscope of colours from the wall’s security lights and passing cars. People scurried by with umbrellas; I joined them and, at precisely 11 o’clock, pressed the bell of number 7.
  I was met by Hasso Herschel, Anita’s brother. He motioned me to follow him down steps into the cellar. The smell of old damp concrete assaulted my nostrils, while hope and apprehension plucked at my heart strings.
  At the far end of the cellar, wrapped in blankets, muddy and wet with scraped and bruised knees were Frieda and Hannah.
  “Aunt Anita brought us through the tunnel under the wall,” Hannah cried as we clung together – the plan had worked. It was the best present – ever.

End

Footnote
Hasso Herschel dug his first tunnel in September 1961 to help his sister, Anita Möller, to escape. He was ultimately responsible for aiding the escape of over 300 people from East Germany, through tunnels during the 60s and 70s, many of them going out through a tunnel that ended in the west at No 7 Bernauer Strasse.

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