THE TASTE OF FREEDOM: DIFFERENT,
It was a profound feeling to cross over the threshold of the railroad terminus and, as by a touch of a magic wand, step into a different world. Outwardly little changed; the same gray December sky, the same poorly dressed people preoccupied with their own human affairs. But these people did not look scared, they were not moving furtively, silently, to avoid attracting attention to themselves. Some of them conversed loudly, many had smiles on their faces. It was like leaving a place oppressed by a suffocating foul stench and stepping into fresh clean air. Even a police officer in the dreaded Schupo uniform had a pleasant smile as he explained where we should register as refugees. Well, I would have to get used to it - all my previous encounters with Schupo had been far less friendly.
Berlin was quite an unusual city at that time. Not so long ago it had been the seat of Hitler's destructive power, the ghosts of which still stared at the passerby from the burned out eye-sockets of Reichstag and Brandenburgertor 134 still standing among the ruins. During the Soviet blockade of the city, for many months everything from food to the coal for electric plants had had to be air lifted in by the Western Allies marking the very first time the West refused to allow Russia to have her own way. Now, the blockade over, Berlin was an island of freedom.
Our guide took us to an inexpensive boarding house frequented by him. Jadwiga, who could afford it, decided to stay there for a while. Janek and I thanks to her generosity spent the rest of the day and the following night there. With Walter's help I managed to send the coded telegram to my friend Marian to let him know that we had reached free Berlin.
The next morning we found the office maintained by the administration of West Berlin where all the refugees seeking assistance had to register. 135 As we soon found out the city hall of West Berlin was responsible for the housing and feeding of all refugees on their territory. There were apparently over three hundred thousand refugees in Berlin at that time, most of them Germans from the Russian occupied part of the country. It was our first of many visits to the then famous Kuno Fisher Street office. We received our food ration cards for a week and were allocated to a huge shelter, once an anti-aircraft bunker, which was now housing hundreds of male refugees. It was located in the working class part of town called Wedding. Ours was a tiny windowless cement cubicle with two cots for sleeping and some blankets. It was very simple but everything was spotlessly clean. We could come and go as we pleased. Once a day a watery soup was served in the nearby soup-kitchen and every five days we were given a loaf of bread, a few spoons of sugar and a tiny bit of margarine. It was not much but we soon realized that most people in Berlin ate no better. Every bit of food and other supplies had to be brought to that city from West Germany hundreds of miles distant, itself devastated by war and still far from recovery. 136
Our principal difficulty was to move about in that huge city divided between four occupying powers. Being a refugee one had to be careful not to step inadvertently into the Soviet Zone and get caught after all our trouble escaping their grasp in the first place. At that period of Berlin's modern history there were no walls or barbed wire fences between the Western and Russian sectors; usually one side of a street was "Western" and the other Russian. Here and there were huge billboards warning in western languages that "You are leaving the American (British or French) Sector" but usually one could almost instantly recognize the Soviet side by that lifeless look, the lack of stores, the hopelessness of boarded windows and here and there the presence of peddlers of illegal cigarettes. There were no regular border patrols but occasionally there would be a western or eastern policeman walking a beat. In such cases the street vendors simply crossed to the opposite side of the street to avoid confrontation. In rare cases when there happened to be a policeman on each side the vendors would have their wares confiscated. The locals moved between the sectors without much risk. Many Berliners having their domicile on the Russian side worked in the western part of the city where the legal currency was a West German Deutche mark with a large "B" stamped on it (for circulation in Berlin), its value seven times greater than a corresponding ostmark, currency of the Soviet zone. This often created paradoxical situations; for instance the price of a haircut in all of Berlin was 50 pfennigs * but when paying the East Zone barber with western money one would spend only seven pfennigs. Eastern foodstuffs were equally cheap after exchange, however the state run stores called "H.O" hardly ever had anything for sale without ration cards except vodka. There were also those who lived in the western side and worked in the eastern zone and despite being paid nominally the same they were in fact getting seven times less in real value. That uncanny mess was the result of the fact that the responsibility for running utilities common to the entire city was divided between the Western Allies on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. For instance, the standard gauge electric train system called "S-Bahn" circling the downtown and branching star-wise in all directions was in Russian hands, The huge underground network "U-Bahn" was under Western administration, and so on.
In the next few days we managed to absorb most of the knowledge necessary for survival in that truly international city. Most of the information, plans of the city and communication network, warnings about places and offices which should be avoided and so on came from fellow Polish or German refugees living in the same bunker, some from the administration of the place and some from a German catholic priest with a Polish name who could speak a little Polish. It was amazing how little animosity remained among people who not so long ago were at each others' throats.
It was not so easy paying for the transportation necessary to reach the offices we had to attend. Actually the term "paying" could not apply when one had no money at all. Our German mates from the bunker would rise at two in the morning to reach Kuno Fisher Street by opening time. It was not a very appealing solution to say the least and some of us tried a little subterfuge. Noticing that military and civilian allied personnel did not pay for public transportation upon showing their various ID's we decided to use our refugee ID's also printed in English to the same end. It worked very well except at our nearest station of the S-Bahn where they soon realized that these poorly dressed individuals could not have anything in common with their Anglo-Saxon conquerors. There we were forced to use another tactic: a few of us would wait at the top of the stairs leading down to the train platform and in the precise moment when the train was about to leave we would descend like an avalanche and the poor conductor at the entrance, after a few unsuccessful attempts gave up trying to stop us.
Besides visiting the office responsible for our food and housing, we had to report to the IRO (International Refugee Organization) an agency of the United Nations Organization. It was essential to obtain something which was not a passport but the next best thing under the circumstances, an ID issued in the name of the United Nations requesting that the bearer be given "Legal and Political Protection". In practice it meant very little now but it was more than the German refugees were getting. As German citizens they were considered wards of the local administration without any rights to emigration which our certificates at least nominally granted. IRO was not really an institution interested in refugees like us. It was created for the purpose of resettling thousands of people who found themselves on the territory of defeated Germany in 1945 and decided not to return to the countries of their origin which were now behind the Iron Curtain. They were to be resettled in the interested Western countries at the expense of the United Nations. We were a fresh brand of refugee from the newly emerging "People's Democracies" and so far there was no clear policy towards this troublesome phenomena.
Compared to some others we were very lucky to be recognized as political refugees. I met a Pole who had a German sounding name and was born in Polish Gdansk (Danzig) the town which Germans claimed as theirs. That refugee was refused recognition by the IRO who claimed that he must be German being born in Danzig and having a German sounding name. The German refugee authorities also rejected his claim arguing that being born in Polish Gdansk qualified him as a Pole despite his Germanic sounding name which was nothing unusual. During my stay in Berlin I met a few more men in similar very difficult situations. They were for all practical purposes "non persons" without any hope of official help, means of support or opportunities for gainful employment.
IRO offices were housed in an undamaged two storied building located in a once elegant quarter of the American sector of Berlin. called Zehlendorf at the Albrecht Street address. It was a peculiar place, in a way mirroring the uniqueness of that city. On the ground floor were the IRO offices staffed by a strange breed of people, each capable of speaking several languages but who seemed to have no nationality that they would call their own. On the second floor there was an office occupied by the Polish Red Cross - an obvious cover for spying on refugees. They may have had some access to the IRO files but most newcomers were forewarned of the Red Cross ruse. The only other tenant on the second floor was the Jewish organization with the initials HIAS (or something like that) but it was legitimate and looked after the welfare of Jewish refugees.
Strange how one could recognize his own kind among hundreds of passers-by. Once, after leaving the IRO building Janek and I were walking towards a S-Bahn station. From the opposite direction in the midst of many other people, a young man walked briskly. He was wearing a gray herring-bone patterned overcoat like thousands of European men at that time, courtesy of UNRA. 137 Nothing distinguished him from the other passers-by except perhaps the weary eyes constantly on the move. When he drew close I called out in Polish, "Hey buddy where you running from?"... He stopped and a smile of relief appeared on his face." From Poland". He spoke as if it was a regular daily walk around the block to improve the blood circulation. His name was Stasiek Kowalski 138 and his walk from Poland was not routine at all. He had crossed the Polish border swimming across the river Odra in the vicinity of the German town Frankfurt an der Oder and was immediately caught by East German border guards. Escorted by a single Volkspolizei officer to the headquarters, Stasiek, who could not speak a word in German, knocked down the guard with a single blow of his large fist because, as he half jokingly remarked, he was afraid to be misunderstood at the interrogation. He escaped into a nearby park and spent hours in the water under a small bridge to foil the scent of the dogs used in the resulting chase. He walked the remaining hundred kilometers mostly at night and hungry, until he entered the Russian sector of Berlin and, sensing that there may be a curfew and not knowing where to go, decided to spend the night inside an S-Bahn terminal. Other homeless persons and travelers were there also and when the police started checking the personal papers of the people seated on the benches Stasiek managed inconspicuously to switch seats joining those already inspected. He sat down on the laps of two men reading newspapers who immediately moved to accommodate him and one of them gave him a part of his paper to read. After a while he noticed that he was holding his newspaper upside down but this did not diminish his future enthusiasm for the printed word. Having survived that incident he resumed his westerly walk until he met us. When a few months later I was smuggling Stasiek from Berlin to West Germany we had some nervous moments and it was comforting to have his strong fists available just in case.
Our days in Berlin passed in traveling from one office to the other to obtain all kinds of papers, trying to procure something extra to eat and so on. The morning hours were usually utilized collecting cigarette butts mostly in the American sector; only American soldiers could afford to discard a half smoked cigarette in that half starved city. Once, Janek and I almost parted over an exceptionally large fag for which we both reached simultaneously.
During those first weeks in Berlin I met Jadviga on several occasions. She was housed in a camp for women and children in which conditions were quite acceptable. She was already in contact with her husband who was then in charge of an IRO Displaced Persons 139 camp near Hamburg in West Germany's British Zone. Thanks to his intervention the British authorities promised Jadwiga an early permit for her flight to Hamburg. In the meantime Mrs. Raciborski was getting bored and, afraid to go out alone in a town which was far from being safe, she would invite me to keep her company whenever she wanted to go to the movies or to have some dollars changed for local money on the black market. Not having anything better to do in the evenings I usually went along especially as occasionally she would invite me to a café for a cup of good coffee and some pastry.
Before I knew it, it was Christmas.
Everyone in our bunker received from the city of Berlin one orange and
a package of cigarettes confiscated on the black market. On the evening
of Christmas Eve in our cell we had a spruce branch for a "Tree". A few
Polish and German refugees joined us. We broke bread and wished
each other a better future and sang some carols. The priest dropped in
for a few minutes with good words. Afterwards I roamed the almost
empty streets for hours. Most people here as in Poland were at home having
their Christmas Eve family supper, even the very poorest . Only the homeless
were on the street which was becoming slowly whitened from falling snow...
Like at home...
134 Reichstag - the parliament of the German empire. Brandenburgertor - a monument to the German victories in a form of an arch (gate) over one of the principal avenues of that city.
135 West Berlin comprising of US, British and French Zones had its own civilian administration under the authority of the occupying powers.
136 West Germany's so called Economic Miracle happened years later. As far as Berlin was concerned there was hardly any industrial activity at that time and little hope of gainful employment.
137 UNRA - United Nations Relief Agency, run by New York Mayor La Guardia, supplied war ravaged Europe with, among other necessities, huge amounts of similar patterned cloth for overcoats. United Nations sponsored American contribution.
138 The name Kowalski is no less popular in Poland than the name Smith in Anglo-Saxon countries; kowal in Polish means a blacksmith.
139 The Displaced Person
or DP's designation encompassed all the people who were forcibly removed
from the countries of their origin and brought to Germany not later than
1945 and who, if so accepted, had the right to emigrate outside of Europe
at the expense of the IRO. Meanwhile they were housed in a number of camps
in American, British and French Zones of what was called West Germany -
later, Federal German Republic.