The doorbell ring that changed everything came late last night, around half past ten. It was Caro, a friend of Kerstin’s, who had married a Hungarian the summer previously. This was a common way out of East Germany, almost as popular as marrying a West German tough easier, because the authorities could hardly hassle you for marrying a citizen from another Warsaw-Pact membership state. Hungarians, unlike East Germans, were free to travel to the West provided they had the means. The lab in Szeged where Martin had worked was run by a scientist, Laci, who together with his biochemist wife and two children had worked and lived in Texas, Canada and Paris for years at a stretch. It was a lifestyle so exotic, so far removed from anything Kerstin had ever heard of, they might as well have lived on Mars.
When Caro rang, Kerstin opened the door wearing the face of someone expecting somebody else. A policeman perhaps, or more likely one of the anoraks in beige trousers, spineless people making up some feeble excuse to ask questions the answers to which were none of their business. Instead there was her friend from Hungary, one of the very few she could trust, greeting her with the words: “It’s looking good, for you too. Let’s go for a drink.“
And in that precise moment Kerstin realised that some part of her brain had made the decision a while ago. Forget the exams: what she needed to do was to get out of here.
Ten minutes later they sat in the bistro of the House of Soviet Culture, a 1980s slab of concrete and glass on the corner of Otto-Nuschke- and Friedrichstrasse. It was the very best place to discuss escape routes, Martin and Kerstin had found, here, right under the nose of the regime. It was far better than the trendy bars in Prenzlauer Berg or Auguststraße which the arty set and a fair amount of Stasi informers frequented.
“Have they bothered you yet?“, asked Caro, lighting a cigarette.
“No, but I was kind of expecting them when you came.“
“I noticed. If you were trying to play it cool you weren’t making a good job of it“, said Caro, blowing the smoke past Kerstin’s face. “Getting to you a bit, is it?“
“It’s been getting to me for a year now“, replied Kerstin in a low voice, “and I don’t think I can take much more of it. So what’s the news?“
Martin had abandoned the plan of crossing the green border to Austria since it was still too well guarded. And, despite the Hungarian government’s newly issued order not to shoot at anyone found trying to cross, there were still stories of soldiers who had fired at people. Instead Caro’s husband Nandi had put him in touch with a human rights lawyer who specialised in cases of Hungarian Romanians, illegal refugees from Transylvania. There were many of them in Hungary, people who had crossed the green border between the two states and, once in Hungary. applied for political asylum there. With his help, many of them had got indefinite leave to stay in Hungary, something that had happened for many years and so discreetly that not even the Western media had picked up on it.
The logic behind giving these permits was, of course, entirely absurd: A communist country, and a member state of the Warsaw Pact to boot, could hardly grant political asylum for people fleeing another Warsaw Pact state. Yet these applications had been successful, because ethnic and nationalistic feuds had been bubbling under the surface ever since the hated Russians turned these countries into their bona-fide territory in the late 1940s. The crude re-shaping of the borders in the Balkans had inflicted deep wounds that had never been given a chance to heal, and the bile seeping from them poisoned any bilateral relations. In 1989 about two Million Hungarians and some 20,000 ethnic Germans lived in Dracula’s homeland. Then there were the regions near the Yugoslaw borders, towns such as Temesvar/Timisoara, a town shared by German, Hungarian and Serb minorities and ruled over with an iron fist and plenty of Russian support by Nicolae Ceaucescu.
“The lawyer thinks that you should apply for political asylum too“, said Caro, stubbing out her cigarette. “In Hungary of course. He thinks you have a good chance of getting it, in the current climate. He’s pretty confident the Romanian precedence is strong enough.“
“And you seriously believe that?“, asked Kerstin, her heart sinking. “Why should the courts in Hungary care about precedences or justice anymore than they would in East Germany?“
Was that it, she thought. Was that the big idea, to apply for political asylum in a communist country? Oh for god’s sake. How could Martin, the most rational man she had ever known, be so impossibly naïve?
“Who said anything about courts? This guy knows people way beyond any legal system. The kind of people who tell the courts what to do.“
“And he’s supposed to be – “
“You mean safe? Well, you can never be absolutely sure, but we think he is“, said Caro. “Nandi knows a few of the people he’d helped, and they say he’s the best. Anyway, what choice do you have?“
“I could just stay here.“
“And then what? Be taken in for questioning once the Stasi gets wind of what the great scientist is about to do? Or do you really think they will leave you alone? If I were you I’d take the Hungary option anytime. It’s a bit of a gamble, I know. But at least you have a chance of coming out of it as a free person.“
Very true, thought Kerstin, downing her glass of wine almost in one. She was a nervous wreck now, and that was just in anticipation of what might happen. She had never been a good lier, and you’d have to be, the way the Stasi interrogators tended to take people apart during ‚interviews’. And – this only occurred to her at that moment – she would not be able to finish her degree course, whether she left or stayed behind. They simply wouldn’t let her, the newly-wedded wife of an absconded leading light in clinical biochemical research. Getting her degree had been one of the chief reasons, or so she’d convinced herself until now, not to join Martin.
How had she got into this mess? She’d always told herself that she had some sort of future here in East Germany. She had friends here, and no matter how much this country limited your life choices, trying to leave it carried with it the risk of being arrested, interrogated and locked up in one of their notorious prisons like Bautzen or Hohenschönhausen. The official line had always been that there was no such thing as a political prisoner in the GDR, which meant anyone, whether caught organising underground meetings whith regime critics or trying to flee using a fake passport, was classed as a criminal. With cruel calculation they were put into cells with proper criminals, the kind who had a record for grievous bodily harm and were often deliberately set up by the wardens to bully the political inmates.
What else did she have to lose? She wouldn’t see her friends or her family for a very long time. She didn’t mind about her father, but her mother was a different story. Just thinking of her now gave her a pang of massive guilt and sorrow.
Kerstin had known about Martin’s plan to leave for nearly a year, but telling her parents about it had been out of the question. Her father, never shy to rant against the regime in his own four walls, would have disowned her in his worry about what the neighbours or his superiors at work might say. She wouldn’t even have put it past him to march her to the nearest police station to confess in order to keep his own name clean.
Mother on the other hand would be less judgemental, but she never had the nerve to keep a secret of this magnitude. She’d probably have told someone who would most likely be exactly the wrong person. Mum had so little intuition as to whom to trust, plus she was easily intimidated. God only knew how she had managed to get through life in East Germany without being picked out for her non-conformist views. Kerstin had long stopped needing her parents, but her mother probably needed her. She was near retirement age though, and since the elderly, sick and infirm were the only people East Germany didn’t mind getting rid of, they were allowed to travel to the West. So Mother and her would be able to meet somewhere in West Germany, given a year or two.