TRAVERSING THE CORRIDOR AGAIN
There were four of them to be smuggled to the West. Janek Basik, who had come with me from Poland and already had the permit and money for the flight sent by his cousin, decided to take the risky autobahn route in order to use the money thus saved to pay the passage for Dubielak. I, by surviving on my Berlin refugee rations, managed to save enough to pay for Stasiek Kowalski and "stateless" Heniek Holtz.
At that time I already had a convenient contact in one of Berlin's third-rate restaurants in the Charlottenburg quarter of the city. There, a quite original fellow with a large dose of humor and known around as Herr Doktor, ran what could be called, a documentation department. At a not too clean table, over a mug of beer, he would "fit" the necessary documents to the customers who wanted to travel West and did not posses valid papers of their own. I valued very highly the trust and confidence they bestowed upon me there. The fact that I had my own German documents was duly noted and apparently favorably interpreted.
For the first trip we picked up Janek Basik and Stasiek Dubielak. There was no problem finding the papers which would sufficiently match their features. Janek could speak some German and understood even more and Dubielak was fluent in it. Based on past experience I was not anticipating trouble. I notified Minden by telephone to have them picked up in Hannover and dispatched them with one of the seasoned drivers. Next day I checked to confirm their safe arrival.
At the beginning of the next week I took Kowalski and Holtz to Herr Doktor for the final "fitting". On carefully examining the documents he noticed that the serial number on the Interzonenpass was different to that on the Personalausweis. Both documents were made to the same name and matched Heniek Holtz. Doktor presented the case straight: the main document necessary was the transit permit (Interzonenpass), the other one (Personalausweis) was only an ID which was seldom requested by the border guards, unless they noticed something suspicious or wanted to make difficulties for the travelers. Holtz had the choice to wait in Berlin for a better set of documents or chance it with only the transit pass. He decided to take the risk; as a "stateless" person in Berlin he was in a desperate situation. The final decision was mine and I agreed because he spoke German without any foreign accent. With a few pointers from Herr Doktor Heniek had a full explanation of where and in what circumstances he had lost his ID, just in case he was asked to explain its absence.Early next day we were under way. Our driver this time was the one who had driven me on my first trip to Hannover. Beside the driver sat an older German woman, the three of us occupied the back seat. Kowalski, who did not understand German, sat between Holtz and myself, instructed not to open his mouth under any circumstances and to do what we two were doing.
The trouble started at the first control point in Babelsberg. As if out of spite, the otherwise very polite East German border guard, after checking the transit permits presented by the driver, turned to the passengers with the request: "Personalausweise bitte" * When it was Holtz's turn he quietly explained that he had lost his ID in Berlin. Hearing that the young guard immediately informed him that he would not be permitted to travel any further and must return. However, when Heniek started to get out of the car to walk the few hundred meters back to the British post, the same polite officer stopped him saying that perhaps something could be done to make his passage possible. Then he stepped on the car's running board on the driver's side and directed him out of the autobahn into the nearby pine woods where, in one of the cottages, their office was located. While we were left waiting the accommodating officer took Holtz inside to arrange for a temporary ID. After about half an hour the same guard came back, asked all of us including the driver to disembark and take our personal luggage with us while he proceeded to make a careful search of the car, looking under the hood and under the car. He took with him a small bundle belonging to Holtz. I could not understand the mental process of the guard making such a thorough search of the car while permitting the passengers to take with them what he may be looking for. Obviously the intellectual level of this member of Volkspolizei was not too high, not that I minded since my briefcase contained all the Polish personal papers of Janek. I was only worried that Kowalski, who could only guess what was happening, might lose his cool and do something stupid. The German woman was obviously frightened and near panic. However our driver, a seasoned smuggler with good nerves, must have also realized that so far we were not under suspicion and asked the young officer matter-of-factly what was the problem with the young passenger in the office; was he going to travel on with him or not? "No"- the officer answered - "he is held over for clarifications". " In this case may we go?" inquired the driver. " Yes, you are free to leave" was the polite answer.
When we were back on the autobahn I came to the conclusion that their Russian supervisor must have been temporarily absent otherwise we would have been kept there "just in case". Holtz had probably become confused under questioning regarding his new identity and been arrested, but there was still a problem for us. I was not afraid that Holtz would involve us, but they might realize their mistake and notify the next control point in Magdeburg. Had they taken note of our registration number? Had they notified Magdeburg how many passengers were in the car? Was this their regular procedure to make sure that somebody did not illegally disembark in the Soviet Zone? Kowalski urged me to leave the car before Magdeburg and try to make it on foot. I asked the driver about it not paying much attention to the terrified woman any more. His advice was to stick around. His neck was in it too; if we stayed we may all make it but, if we left, he would be arrested for spying. I decided to risk it and stay aboard. Knowing that before Magdeburg we would be crossing a large river, I asked the driver to stay in the right lane and threw all the Polish documents belonging to Janek over the railing of the bridge into the water. I could not count on the same degree of stupidity in the Red police officers as that shown in Babelsberg. It had not been very prudent of me to carry all the documents in the first place but the villa in Minden did not have a mailing address.
When we arrived at the Magdeburg control point, there was already a long line up of cars waiting for clearance. It was one of those days when the Soviets appeared to want to make life miserable for people traveling across their territory to the world outside their workers paradise. They did everything - deliberate slowing down, checking of all documents, searches of the cars and such - just short of a complete closing of the Corridor. I knew that this happened from time to time and, in a way, hoped that it was just that, not a search for our car. What made things look worse was that the check point was in an open field, far from human habitation with not a tree in sight to give cover in case of trouble.
When finally our turn came we had to get out of the car while it was searched. This time we had to leave our belongings inside the car. It seemed that every vehicle received similar treatment including checking of both sets of documents. The search of the car seemed rather perfunctory, more a harassment than a pursuit of contraband. Never the less it was nerve wracking especially for Stasiek.
When, after nearly an hour wasted in Magdeburg, we finally got under way I felt a little better. I knew that they could still arrest us in Helmstedt but the odds were much smaller, and because of delays on the way and rainy weather it would be dark by the time we reached the border. That and the wooded surroundings of the Helmstedt border post made escape more feasible. I communicated this in a whisper to Kowalski and told him to watch me closely; if I fled he should hit the nearest guard and run for the bushes. It was no more than a hundred meters to the British post along the highway, but the presence of English MP's did not guarantee that the guards would not open fire. I only worried that Stasiek might explode unnecessarily with the build-up of extreme stress caused by having only a partial knowledge of what was happening around him due to his lack of German. People in that situation often have an unconscious tendency to suspect that the person guiding them is withholding information and that they may be abandoned in a critical moment. It is a very human reaction.
As I expected it was getting dark by the time we approached Helmstedt. Again we joined a very long line of cars being processed. Every fifteen minutes or so we moved one car length. The tension inside our car was almost tangible. The woman beside the driver had not uttered a single word since Babelsberg; she was probably as afraid of us as of the border police; I just hoped that she would not faint or become hysterical before crossing.... Finally it was our turn... The same procedure unfolded as in Magdeburg: search of the empty car with a flash light, checking of both documents, an unusual number of guards, huge searchlights overhead. Luckily they did not ask anybody the purpose of their trip as was the case during my first crossing because Stasiek would have been in trouble. I felt his eyes on me. About a dozen feet from the road, outside the glare of lights were the reassuring dark bushes...
The guard with a gesture of his hand indicated that we could board our car... In slow motion the barrier raised... We were on our way, first very slowly as if not yet believing our good luck, and then the driver lost his cool and pressed the accelerator. Only the angry gestures of a British military policeman brought him back to the five miles per hour required on the border strip. In order to compensate the petrified German woman for the many hours of terror, our driver proposed that he would first drive her to her village outside Hannover before taking us into the town. I agreed although I was not sure that the car from Minden would still be waiting.
We arrived in Minden close to midnight.
Janek and Dubielak were still up. They were quite distressed by Holtz's
misfortune, but we all hoped that, with his fluent German , he would somehow
manage to elude communist clutches. Janek Basik already had a ticket
to the American Zone and was to leave next day. Dubielak had decided to
accept the offer of employment made to him by the people in the next
villa. It was almost dawn when we retired.