A Spooky Excerpt from
Travel Tales Monthly No. 10 April 2015
[Travels of the ‘Spy’]
East Berlin, East Germany, 1964
by Michael Brein
I’m about to complete a new ebook and audiobook in my Travel Psychologist Travel Tales Series on the best of the best of my collected travel stories so far. It’s interesting as hell! I’m so proud of this ebook. Why not have a looksee or a listenhear? I even have a monthly special this month to help pave the way for you.
Here is a sample travel story from this forthcoming
ebook and audiobook:
Just because you think it’s just too cool to cross through Checkpoint Charlie from West to East Berlin at the peak of the Cold War simply because you are curious, doesn’t necessarily make it either safe or sane.
Suddenly, you find yourself in a bleak, bizarre, and surreal scenario, where you are now the unwanted center of attention, not just in the eyes of the stern East German border guards, but also the Russians.
This can be serious. The would-be ‘Spy’ in you knows there are risks, which are scary but exciting, nevertheless.
You meekly look up at the icy, sinister-looking, scary and DEADLY SERIOUS East German Volkspolizei (policeman), who is leering directly at you and has just shouted to you, in no uncertain terms: “VERBOTEN! DAS IST VERBOTEN!” (This is strictly forbidden!)
This was my first trip to Europe, in the summer of 1964. I was with two college friends, and we planned this remarkable driving trip all around Europe in the style (after the movie), If It’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium.
Incredibly, we packed in so much—in fact, too much—that we were wending our way from France to Italy, with Switzerland, Germany—and East Berlin—in between.
Why we included dark, bleak, and very communist East Berlin, I cannot recall, but I felt uneasy about it. Perhaps I had some sort of premonition of what was to come.
But Let’s Start at the Beginning of the Story.
On we went, through Italy, Switzerland, and then up to Munich, where a childhood friend of mine was working for the summer at Radio Liberty, the ‘Free World’s’ propaganda unit, which broadcasts daily into the Iron Curtain and was certainly a thorn in the side of the communist East Bloc authorities.
Why not drop in for a visit, I suggested to my traveling companions? So off we went, had a brief guided tour, and since I was a student of Russian in my college studies, I grabbed some innocuous-looking news bulletins, which I would read later as an interesting way to practice my Russian.
In the hurry that we were, I did not take the time to peruse the material, simply stuffing it into the trunk of our car.
Then, on we went to fabulous West Berlin by crossing East Germany. We felt a little tense passing through scary East Germany. After all, as Americans, you are subjected to all kinds of frightening stories about the communist East Bloc. So much so, that in your mind’s eye, you are all the more worked up a bit by it all, and are, therefore, psyched up for the excitement and adventure of it all. You really do not expect anything horrible to happen, though.
Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire.
West Berlin was active, happy, joyous, energetic, and maybe a little decadent—all the good things you’d expect from this modern, Western, wealthy, boom-time city.
But the moment you crossed through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, though, all that changed. The border at East Berlin was bleak, dark, dingy, and heavy, and most unfriendly. You could cut the tension with a knife.
You should know, however, that my friends wigged out at the last minute, so I was left with the car to enter East Berlin all by myself. I would catch up with them later. That I was traveling alone to East Berlin was very disconcerting. They wanted to stay in the West; I wanted to experience a little of the East.
I am now in line to drive through the border crossing. When my turn comes, they brusquely summon me to move forward to an inspection area. These foreboding East German police with high pointed hats and immaculate uniforms begin to survey the undercarriage of my rental car with mirrors on long poles. Why on earth would anyone want to be smuggled into East Germany, I wonder? It was, I thought, just the other way around: people would want to be smuggled OUT, not IN!
Next, they order me out of the car and indicate that I should open the trunk, so they can look inside. Maybe I have someone in there that I am smuggling into the East? Or maybe they are just looking for contraband. Who knows?
Suddenly, one of the ‘Gestapo’ scoops up a handful of my Russian language papers that I collected from Radio Liberty on my way up there. Oh my god—I totally forgot about all of that! I had absolutely NO idea of what was contained therein. And Radio Liberty, after all, to their way of thinking, is a PROPAGANDA INSTRUMENT of the decadent West!
Suddenly, a brazen, deadly serious East German Volkspolizei leers at me and shouts, in no uncertain terms, “VERBOTEN! DAS IST VERBOTEN!”
I am terror-struck! This is a solid no-no. And there is absolutely nothing I can say or do that will placate them. I think that my life is now about to be over, and I will never see my traveling companions ever again!
They indicate that I am to park my car and come with them. Since I’d likely be shot dead at the attempt, considering making a run for it simply is not in the equation. So I meekly and obediently park the car and enter a long hall in a nearby building. They then indicate that I should wait on the sidelines.
I am facing a counter and some rooms behind it. Tourists on foot are proceeding through along the counter being processed for their entry into East Berlin.
“Is something wrong?” asks one of the tourists on the way by. As happy as I am that someone seems to notice my discomfort and anxiety, I know full well that there is absolutely nothing that he can say or do to save me from my plight. So I anxiously feign, “Oh, thanks . . . I’m okay,” and I urge him along so as not to have it seem as if I am stepping out of line or stirring things up, so-to-speak.
Aha! It’s the Russians! That’s why I am waiting! They called the Russians to come look over the material I have in my possession from Radio Liberty. After all, they are Germans; so they are more than likely unable to read such a complex and difficult language as Russian. So I am being detained for the Russians. I expect, therefore, that at any moment, a short, fat, bald Russian will enter the scene and take it from there.
At least, these are my thoughts. But one’s imagination can run wild. It’s best to remain stolid and calm in midst of adversity. Be calm, cool, and collected
Behind Closed Doors
It seems like quite a wait. Time passes by as tourists move through the line. Suddenly, I hear a commotion and loud banging on one of the doors from inside one of the rooms opposite me behind the counter.
The door flies open, and a man emerges with a bloody bandage around his head. They then grab him and pull him back into the room. The door then slams shut. Silence.
The tourists stop short and are motionless for a brief second, and then life goes on as if nothing has just happened.
Then, my imagined reason for my wait vanishes as quickly as it occurred to me in the first place. OF COURSE! It is all very suddenly clear: They are waiting for the room to empty so that they can bring ME in there next. I AM NEXT!
This is now far more disconcerting to me than my treatment by the border police. When the room empties, I am to be the next to go in. Boy oh boy, am I going to be in for it! Thoughts of my friends cavorting around a free, decadent, partying West Berlin enter my head. I am both fearful and despondent. Why, oh why am I such a fool to be doing such a dumb thing?
From Russia with Love?
Enter a short, fat, bald man—THE RUSSIAN—no doubt! I am correct. They were waiting for the Russian! I am next brought into a different room (that’s a relief), with the Russian sitting behind the desk opposite me.
I visually give the room a quick once-over. I think I see trays with needles along a windowsill, but am I mistaken? Do they torture people in here? I am crestfallen, and I am scared; I don’t know what will happen next. I await my fate.
The Russian smiles and asks me my name and what I am doing. “Seeing the sights,” I curtly reply. “Do you know what is in these papers?” (He waves them at me.) “It is all lies, you know.” I said I had visited the radio station, and because I was a student of Russian, I simply scooped up the papers to look at them later. Reasonable, I presume (and hope) he is thinking.
We discuss simple things. Suddenly, he asks, smiling, “How would you like a personal tour of the Opera House?” I am totally caught off guard by this.
With thoughts of the door banging and the injured guy trying to get out, and thoughts of the ‘needles in trays,’ I am in desperate disbelief and truly want out of there any way I can and as fast as I can.
“That’s truly a wonderful offer, and I’d LOVE to take you up on it, but I’m traveling with two friends who are waiting for me, and I’m very late now. Maybe some other time?” I reply meekly. I’m sure he is only half-convinced by my half-hearted enthusiasm.
“Okay, well maybe another time, then. You are free to go.” I am so relieved on hearing this, and so I leave and get out of there and back into West Berlin as quickly as I can. After all, I can’t be quite sure if “they” are finished with me or not, and if, in fact, they will grab me again for whatever their sinister purposes.
In leaving West Berlin for West Germany, I thought it best to alert the U.S. Military authorities in order to let them know that I was departing for West Germany, and that I wanted them to be sure to check on us to make sure that we got out OK.
I related the story to them, about the beating going on, the bloodied forehead, the ‘needles’ in a tray, and so on. They said that it was all a tactic to get me to ‘talk’ and tell them everything I knew. “Nothing like scaring the bejeezus out of you to get you to spill the beans,” he said.
We arrived in West Germany without incident. What a relief I can tell you. Maybe a week or two later, I was on a train somewhere in Germany, having a conversation with some travelers. “Did you hear about the Dutch guy who was detained by the East Germans?” someone asked. (Not only had I heard about it; I WITNESSED IT!) I asked, “What happened? What did he do?” They replied, “Oh, they forced him to count his money. He refused and punched a guard out!”
It’s the aftermath that I witnessed. He punched a guy out. Sort of got a little of what he deserved, after all is said and done. That is simply something you just don’t do! Apparently, he was not seriously hurt and let go after a short while.
Well, I worked myself up into a frenzy. Most of what I imagined that was going on was a plausible reality of what could have happened to me in the communist East Bloc. But, it wasn’t the actual reality. Nor was the opinion of the U.S. Military accurate in this case.
Nevertheless, it might have all turned out differently if the Radio Liberty Russian papers had been more significant than simply just weather reports, news briefs, sports results, and the like.
And, by the way, the Russian and the East Germans never did return the Radio Liberty material to me.
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