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Saturday, November 8, 2014

escape from east germany - 4 friends and a trabi, October 1989

A true story, as told to me by my friend Gerry, who escaped East Germany 25 years ago.

This story starts on a fall October day, much like the days we’ve been having recently. But it’s another time, and place. Gerry is a blond, bright-eyed, 21-year-old nurse living with her boyfriend, Knut, in a small apartment in Weimar, East Germany. It is 1989.

On Saturday evening, Gerry and Knut and their 2 friends, with son Roger, decided they were finally going to do it. Everyone had been talking about it in hushed huddles, in bars and living rooms for weeks now. Friends of theirs had already left - we should really do it too they thought. What do we have to lose? They had some furniture in their rented apartment, had a car and jobs, but they had no freedom. No freedom to move. No freedom to be individuals. No freedom to live the way they wanted to. But, they had to be very careful. This was dangerous talk. They could be imprisoned; could disappear just like that if the wrong ears even overheard them talking, let alone catch them in the actual act. 

They decided to leave on Tuesday morning. It would give them Monday to still buy some supplies and make final arrangements. Pack the car: a glacier-blue, 1969 Trabi combi. As if they were just going camping for a few days with their close friends, across the border to Czechoslovakia. Gerry told her mother what they were doing in a difficult conversation. She didn’t know if she would ever see her mother again. But, her mother was cool and she understood why the young people needed to take this step. She, herself, was resigned to the fact that things wouldn’t change.

Knut, on the other hand, didn’t tell his parents. One had to make sure that only people who could keep the secret were told, and that those people were able to handle the information without becoming too obviously emotional. Neighbours might get suspicious that something was going on. Nobody knew who was loyal to whom. The Stasi had eyes and ears everywhere.

Gerry called in sick to work at the hospital where she was a nurse. Later her colleagues would tell her that they had seen her and Knut get on the train in Prague, the Train to Freedom, as images of the thousands being moved to West Germany were broadcast on televisions around the world, including East Germany.

They had packed the car carefully, as not to draw any unwarranted suspicion at the Czech border. Knut had made sure that all addresses of distant relatives or people they knew on the other side who might help them were memorized. He had reiterated time and time again not to take any address books, old letters, or even photos from home. Have nothing in the car that looks like you’re not coming back again. But Gerry had made a mistake. She had been so full of anxiety she couldn’t memorize anything in the days leading up to their escape. She wanted to make sure that if they got split up at some point she would be able to contact people for help. So, without telling the others, she wrote the numbers and addresses of relatives in the West on tiny little pieces of paper and hid them throughout her bag and the clothes she was wearing.

The indestructible, yet unreliable blue Trabi arrived with its courageous cargo at the border crossing at precisely 3pm. Twenty-five years later, Gerry still knows the exact time. She was beyond nervous. In fact, she was terrified. The border guards came to the car, asked everyone to get out, and then proceeded to search the car in every nook and cranny. The search lasted well over half an hour. Gerry could not keep still, but she tried hard to look as relaxed as though they were just heading to the grocery store.

All of sudden, the search was over! They were allowed to go through. The group piled back into the car, not too excitedly, and continued on their road to freedom. At exactly 4pm they heard on the radio that Czechoslovakia had closed its border due to the growing situation happening in Prague. Already thousands of East Germans had filled the West German embassy there refusing to leave. Soon there would be five more East Germans trying to get in.

Tuesday evening. The centre of Prague looks like a Mensa candidate’s maze of blocked-off streets, closed alleys and barricaded sidewalks. Couples, groups, families - people are everywhere and they all seem to have the same purpose. Gerry and the gang decide to just park the Trabi wherever they can find a spot and then continue on foot in the dark. Fortuitously they parked their loyal blue friend in front of some army barracks, thereby unknowingly cementing its fate. Like a trustee boomerang, the ice-blue Trabi was later able to make its way back to Weimar, unscathed with only one or two parts missing. Nobody had dared steal it from that location. In the days and weeks after the freedom trains left Prague the citizens had not only the remnants of thousands to clean up, but also all of their abandoned vehicles. Sad, lonely cars (many of them Trabis – the East German car) lined the streets of Prague, still filled with belongings (but not for long), as if all drivers had been suddenly raptured.

The warm glow of streetlights guided the group through the streets. They could tell they were getting closer to the embassy due to the increasing number of people. There was electricity in the air as real as if a droning power line was emitting a constant spray of sparks. Finally they recognized the embassy in the distance by the hive of thousands of people trying to get in. The atmosphere was tense. It was chaos. The embassy was beyond full and the doors were now locked. Rumours were flying around like hornets causing excitement, anger or frustration depending on where and how they stung. Some people had radios, others said they had overheard diplomats talking, but nobody really knew what was coming or when. Lines to the outdoor toilets were over three hours long.

Gerry’s group walked into the crowd and sat down under a big clock. Now, as I sit across from her in a café along the Rhine, she recalls this part of the story with a disbelieving smile. Shaking her head at the absurdity of it, she tells me that when the clock struck 9pm the two girlfriends looked at each other and said, ‘Denver Clan (Dallas) is starting.’ Sitting in the cold, dark night on the cement among thousands of people the two young women discussed the current plot line between J.R. and Sue Ellen.

I ask Gerry, wasn’t she scared? She says that they hadn’t thought about the consequences, at least she hadn’t really. They had left all of their belongings, their apartment and their families, but the certainty that life would be better on the other side was what drove them.

Source: ARTE Documentary "Zug in die Freiheit"
24 hours passed. Evening again. Throughout the day Czech citizens had gone through the crowds and handed out apples and water. Mothers had found fleeing daughters and had said tearful goodbyes through the embassy gates. Gerry and her friend had stood in line for the toilets. They were so tired, uncomfortable and hungry, but they were not going back.

All at once something started to happen. Fear, who had been slithering in and out of the crowds, finally wrapped itself around Gerry. The crowd was being moved. Like herding cattle, guards with long batons started yelling unrecognizable orders and hitting the air or maybe flesh if you weren’t fast enough. The rolling mass of mostly young people was pushed down through funnel-shaped gates, squeezing the group into a line. Along the streets and barricades, people staying behind waved and cheered. They knew what was happening more than Gerry did. She just went with the flow, staying as close to Knut as possible, and having no other choice at this point but to move forward. The belief that good was happening was all she had, and she held on to it as tight as her bag.

Gerry captured on the evening news just before entering the bus.
The people were loaded into a steady stream of buses that took them all to the Prague main station. Estimates are that over 5000 people boarded the freedom trains that West Germany organized that night, and who Honecker allowed passage through the East. Gerry and her friends had no idea where they were going.

This blind faith amazed me as I listened to Gerry talking, and even more now as I write this story down. Considering that 70 years before, people were loaded on to trains and never seen or heard from again. I find this courage incredible. I’m pretty sure I would have been petrified.

News that the trains have to first travel through East Germany before crossing into the West greet the masses like a sledgehammer smashing a piñata. Some people refuse to board. Mistrust is flying around like shit hitting a fan. Embassy attendants, who are escorting the group, struggle to assure everyone that the trains have been given permission to travel through East Germany. Gerry and Knut get on the second train.

The fear slowly turns to excitement as the group finds some empty seats. People are hanging out of the windows, shouting jubilantly and throwing out their last East German Ostmarks on to the platform; along with car keys and anything else they won’t be needing in the West. Nobody thinks they will ever be returning to the East.

The trains start rolling. It is tar-black outside and inside the train it’s freezing cold. Sleep stays away from most, except for the kids. Roger sleeps. The attendants walk through the train cars giving the instruction that at some point members of the Stasi (State Security) will board the trains and demand the return of East German ID cars. Do not draw attention. Do not be rude. Do not cause any problems. A tense quiet fills the train as it rolls through dark empty stations in the middle of the night.

Unbeknownst to Gerry and her group, the first train encounters major problems as it rolls through the Dresdener train station. News that these trains to freedom are coming through create a wave of young people hoping to jump on, literally. Chaos and danger ensue as young people do everything possible to get to the train platform…and on to a train.

So, Gerry and Knut’s train becomes the first train in the parade of freedom trains. In the darkness, nothing is recognizable. They don’t know where they are or when they will finally enter their Schlaraffenland (paradise). Along the way, people stand in fields or in lit windows and watch the trains pass. A father, holding an umbrella stands beside his car, waiting for the train that holds his daughter. He knows only that she’s on one of them. The daughter sees him as she realizes the train is nearing her village. She thinks it’s the last time she’ll ever see him.

Source: ARTE Documentary "Zug in die Freiheit"
A waitress comes and places a piece of cheesecake on the table between us as Gerry continues her story, and I frantically try and write everything down. At times tears fill my eyes and I cannot write clearly.
The train finally stops at what looks like a ghost town and the Stasi officers come walking through the cars. It is quiet as if everyone is holding their breath. In Gerry’s car nothing eventful happens, and after what feels like hours, the train begins to move. They can breathe again.

It is 5am and still dark, but for the faintest hope of light. The train has been rolling again for hours; weariness has won out over the cold. And then the train begins to slow down. It stops. There is nothing outside, no lights. Gerry and her friends press their faces against the window trying to make out where they are. Have they crossed the border? Slowly they begin to notice people coming closer to the train. Lots and lots of people are outside and they start to wave and shout, ‘Wilkommen! Wilkommen!’

Gerry and her friends throw open the window, the chilled air greeting their exultant faces like being hit with teddy bears. They wave and yell ‘Hallo! Hallo! Tears stream down a face or two. Baskets filled with bread, fruit and water are lifted high up to the windows. ‘Empty the basket and hand it back down so we can fill it again for the next train,’ comes the order. They do as they’re told and relief holds them like a warm blanket. They have made it.

Soon after, the train rolled into Hof, their first official West German stop. Tired and unsure, Gerry and her group exited the train and again were greeted with hundreds of people cheering and waving. They were hugged and kissed – who says Germans don’t show emotion? Tables had been set up on the platform and filled with food and drink, cakes and coffee for the weary East Germans. People filled Roger’s hands with candy and a woman stuffed 20 Deutschmarks in Gerry’s hand, squeezing it tightly.

Gerry’s trip was far from over at this point, and the uncertainty about her future was only beginning. But they were free! And strangers were willing to help them stand on their own two feet. Four days went by, spent sleeping in large gymnasiums, with donations of food and clothing given to them by West German volunteers, before they landed in what would become their permanent home. They had been asked where they wanted to live – rural, urban, which province. They chose Bingen. Forty people made the trip to Bingen along with Gerry and Knut. “It smelled like soap, laundry powder and candy,” she told me. This is what the West smells like.

A few weeks later the wall fell and the border opened. On New Year’s Eve, Gerry and Knut were able to return to Weimar to visit their family…and their trusted Trabi. But only for a visit.

Note: Over the years Gerry has volunteered to be a part of short-term medical teams travelling to developing countries. The teams perform hundreds of surgeries in a matter of a couple of weeks, in the barest of conditions, providing life-altering care to people who wouldn’t otherwise receive it. The freedom to do this is something she wouldn’t have had 25 years ago.

Second note: My apologies to Gerry and Knut (and anyone else) if my memory or my handwriting have provided any inaccurate or false information.


My friend.
“Zug in die Freiheit” ARTE Documentary.



  1. Hi Nina,
    wonderful story, great writing, thank you so much for this piece.
    Take Care

    1. Thanks Hanno! It was a wonderful experience meeting with Gerry and learning about her story...and those of so many others. Thanks for reading!


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