Chapter 36


This time the passage to Berlin presented no more than routine difficulties. I moved to the same room as before with Janek. Teresa, whose aunt had relented and was in the process of arranging her marriage to Gruenberg, took one look at me and wept.

As far as my activities in Berlin were concerned I had a completely free hand with only one condition: that the fruits of my labors be reported to the people who had delegated me, not directly to the British. My contacts with the British were to be limited to cases of direct endangerment or conflict with the local occupation authorities. I could also take advantage of the shuttle flight West by British military transport if necessary.

During my absence Janek had greatly enlarged the circle of acquaintances among the Polish refugees living mostly in a small camp located in the American sector. There were about thirty of them of all ages, from a teenage boy to the grey-haired first World War veteran renowned for having walked undisturbed from the Polish border to Berlin carrying in his hand a broken wheel from a baby carriage. Naturally nobody suspected him. Some of the occupants of this camp had been in Berlin since the days of the Blockade and managed as best they could, mostly dealing in the exchange of so called "scrips". Because the use of currencies of the occupying powers was illegal in  Germany, for the purpose of paying their soldiers in money that could be used in their military stores called PX-es, the Americans provided  substitute paper money or "scrip dollars". Printed for military use only, scrips could be exchanged for real greenbacks only in American banks when a soldier was on his way home. But soldiers far from home usually like to visit nightclubs, cabarets, bars and the like, and in that otherwise destitute  city all the pleasures of the flesh were available to those who could afford them.  The American soldiers could afford them, but they had a currency problem: no legitimate establishment in Berlin would accept scrip dollars for fear of being declared off limits to the military personnel.  Not that exchanging the scrip dollars for  West German marks, a local legal currency, presented any difficulty in that town,  except that the average GI* not knowing the language, stood no chance against being cheated or worse by seasoned international currency speculators.  On the other hand  the American garrison consisted entirely of the Military Police and it would be unthinkable to have them involved in illegal activities against their country's Treasury. It was an almost insolvable situation even for the Americans who were known for showing more tolerance towards human weaknesses than others, but, as "even the darkest cloud has a silver lining" this cloud had its silver lining in the person of the Commander of the American garrison, Col. Dobrynin, a naturalized American of aristocratic ("White") Russian origin. He combined  strict military discipline with an appreciation of the needs of the ordinary soldier and on top of this he had a special leaning towards Polish refugees. As a net result of that unique combination of circumstances not only could  Polish refugees make a half decent living exchanging the soldiers' scrips for marks beside the gate of the M.P barracks, but anytime his MP's  or the German police arrested Poles for fighting or other mischief and brought them to headquarters it usually ended with scolding by the "kniaz" **   himself in the colorful Slavic language and a promise of something worse next time. In exchange Col. Dobrynin had the total loyalty of those rogues,  who also served as his ear to the ground in that explosive city and none of his often naive soldiers was ever cheated in the currency exchange.

At the time that I appeared on the Berlin scene again, the boys in this small camp were getting frustrated with a lifestyle which held no future and the constant fear of being kidnapped by the communists, from which even the nearness of the American barracks was no protection. They were better situated than most of the thousands of refugees in Berlin, mainly due to their unofficially tolerated currency trade. Some of them even had female servants to cook and clean for them. These were drawn from the neighboring German camps and, for a little food, were not particular for whom they worked, especially if they had children to feed. Never the less most of the boys  suddenly became almost obsessed with the idea of getting out of there. Possibly my  return to Berlin had made the West more real for them. The fact that  someone like them had been there and returned, in a way proved  that some reality existed outside  this island. Whatever the reasons, almost before I realized it I found myself in the center of a conspiracy to force the Americans to transfer the entire camp to their Zone of West Germany. The main organizer of the movement  was a relatively new arrival, a young Polish fellow by the name of Dubielak.  He had a past not much different from mine, was bright, full of energy and completely fluent in German. He, like many others, was trapped in Berlin and on realizing that I was involved in some underground activity begged me to get him on board.  I promised to do what I could but in the meantime we worked together on plans to move the camp.

One Spring day the newly constituted camp committee notified the American authorities that, because of the constant danger of being kidnapped by Soviet agents, they demanded to be transferred to the American Zone of West Germany. If their demands were not met they were determined to go on a hunger strike. Nobody would have paid much attention to the committee's demand except for the fact that on that same day  the local Western media front page  headlines proclaimed: "POLISH POLITICAL REFUGEES IN BERLIN ABANDONED BY AMERICANS FOR SOVIET PREY". The famous West Berlin "Freedom Radio" RIAS also ran the story.

That galvanized the authorities. An official representing the American Sector Command appeared accompanied by a military doctor (a woman) and a priest, both of whom were in charge of the medical and spiritual well-being of the refugees in that camp.  Negotiations started  accompanied by the blinding camera flashes of reporters from virtually all press agencies accredited in Berlin including the Soviet ones. The Americans kept explaining that they could not transfer them because such is the law, that there was no sponsor for them from the West (the famous Zuzuggenehmigung). In response  the refugees brought all the dishes and other eating utensils from their bunkhouse and announced a hunger-strike despite their poor  physical shape caused by  long deprivation, refusing to quit until their demands were met. They also said that they would allow only the doctor and the priest entrance. That evening the French and Swiss press and radio joined the German media reporting the "desperate" hunger strike of the Polish refugees. The Soviet media had a field day condemning the American "imperialists" for their perfidy in first luring the refugees by their reactionary propaganda and then abandoning them. For the next few days the tension in the media and in front of the bunkhouse rose steadily and when the doctor, terrified by the weakening of a few of the younger boys, ordered their admission to the hospital,  the Americans "blinked" and announced that the refugees would be transferred to West Germany. But it took Col. Dobrynin himself to announce it in front of the media before the refugees terminated their strike. They  were taken to the American hospital for convalescence and within the next two weeks all twenty-four of them were flown to Frankfurt (on Main) in the American Zone of West Germany and enlisted  in one of  Labor Companies there. All it had required, besides the poor fellows having to fast for nearly a week, was a few well placed telephone calls to the sensation hungry media made by Dubielak and his acquaintance a young German freelance reporter.

The camp was empty; a few old-timers well set in the currency trade and not interested in the West moved before the strike to private accommodations. The  few left were those who could not leave with the camp because they were recent refugees and did not have camp privileges. They were my buddy Basik, and Berlin acquaintances  Dubielak, Kowalski and Holtz who was stateless because of his name and origin. They depended on me to get them out.

It was the First of May, the most important day in the communist world, always celebrated with military parades and attended by "enthusiastic" crowds coerced there by the state run trade unions. Most people in Berlin paid little attention to that Marxist extravaganza repeated every year within their borders, but that year there was a whispered rumor spreading that this time the Reds would try to march the assembled masses right into the Western part of the divided city and have them "spontaneously liberate" it from occupation by the "capitalistic imperialists".

The Western Allies did not take any chances and already on the evening of the last day of April there were numerous British armored cars under camouflage nets placed strategically along the expected course of the "spontaneous" demonstration.  That route would lead along the Unter den Linden Boulevard still in the Soviet sector, under the arch of the Brandenburgertor which marked the Soviet sector border and then between the burned-out shell of Reichstag on the right and the monument of the fallen Russian soldiers on the left.  At the plinth of that monument was a Soviet honor guard which was protected for the occasion by a ring of British soldiers and an outer ring of West Berlin police.

Five of us managed to find a good observation spot in the ruins near the Branderburgertor very early in the morning. Behind us on a large plaza a crowd of many thousand of West Berliners was assembling for a counter demonstration. For some time the people  had  been listening to the anti-Communist speeches but when the noise from the Russian side indicated that the expected march had already started the Western crowd moved in front of the  border Arch blocking the wide boulevard by a wall of humanity a city block wide.

The Brandenburger Arch, for centuries the symbol of  the strong united German Reich and its victories, by the irony of  history had become a boundary between the free people and slaves, between those who came there by their own choice, intoxicated by their freedom even while under occupation and these herded by the hated enemy who not long ago had wanted to starve them into submission.

On the Soviet side, visible to us, was a mass of people with a sea of red banners over their heads moving steadily towards the sector border. Here and there on the sides of the boulevard one could spot the gun barrels of the Soviet panzer. A few Soviet officers in full battle gear stepped out on our side of the Brandenburger Arch....  At the sight of them the Western crowd exploded... the outcry of thousands was unearthly; anyone in front who could get hold of rocks, bricks from the ruins, anything,  pelted the hastily retreating Russian officers. There was a moment when it looked as if the maddened West Berliners would tear the hated Russen with their bare hands. There was not a chance of the communist demonstration marching into  free Berlin.

The dangerous situation was quickly dissolved by the great skill of the Western police who, directed by radio from a small plane flying overhead, managed to disperse the massed humanity on both sides of the border to the nearest  S-Bahn and U-Bahn terminals. It was done so fast, without shouting and pushing, almost with a smile, that in less than half an hour there was hardly anyone left at the scene of the confrontation.

*     GI - Government Issue, designation of an listed man in the US armed forces.
**   Kniaz - prince in most Slavuc languages.