Captured in East Germany

     When I was 20, I visited my relatives in the GDR. My father had warned me. There was a police state installed by the Russians in their occupation zone after World War II, he said. So I had better keep my often impertinent mouth shut there. Otherwise I might soon find myself in handcuffs or even in a barred cell. But for me, the time was not yet ripe for captivating steel.

     My first apprenticeship leave was coordinated with the summer holidays of my cousin who was four years younger. The parents were working. My uncle, apparently a government functionary, had organized a one-week stay for us boys at the youth centre in a castle near Belzig, Brandenburg. When we arrived late in the afternoon, I found myself facing about a dozen 14- to 17-year-old boys. Most of them wore short leather pants like me and their blue shirts of the East German youth organization resembled those of the West German Boy Scouts. There I usually wore a khaki shirt or, as on that day, my favourite T-shirt with the imprint All you need is love. Uncle Ernest had advised me to put on a different shirt, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to mix up the socialist monotony a bit. He talked for a while with Rudi, the group leader, a student my age, pointed at me several times and gave the fellow some money. Then he raised his arm in greeting and sped off.

     Rudi gave me a firm handshake, accompanied by the socialist greeting Friendship! He said that after dinner we would have time to talk and in the meantime Hartmut and I could let the boys show us around. But intimidated by the sight of so many military-looking blue shirts with yellow arm badges, I stalked off in confusion, looking for a place to rest.

     I did not get far. Two boys had followed me. They explained to me with a Berlin accent that I had left the castle grounds without permission and had to return. Memories of the Boy Scouts with similar rules bubbled up. I said to myself, run Harry, run!and immediately got a distance on a flat meadow. They ran after me and caught up with me in less than half a minute. Now it took revenge that I had neglected the training of my fast running legs above the deepening of philological knowledge. Twisting my arms, they forced me to the ground. Oh, I had experienced all that several times in the Scouts... What was new was that not only my hands but also my elbows were tied.  

     Rudi was not present again until shortly before dinner. "You were in the West with the Boy Scouts. Could you run away there without telling anyone? Certainly not." The pack stared at me. Some grinned in amusement. My cousin shook his head reproachfully. "I'm sure you couldn't do that without being admonished. We have the same rules for being together. I've called your uncle. If you don't want to stay with us, I'm to take you to the train in the morning. Until then, I am responsible for your welfare." Welfare made me grin, too. Just now my guards untied me what a pity! "That's all right. Of course I'll stay with you." "Oh," said Rudi, "take your time until breakfast. Maybe you'll have a bad dream and then be glad to get out of here again." Now everyone laughed uproariously and I laughed with them, although I didn't realise what they were laughing about.

     After dinner, which I did not expect to be so rich, consisting of potato soup, Thuringian bratwurst and cheese sandwiches, we played cards. Rudi offered me a game of chess. After I had clearly lost it, we compared our backgrounds, the families and our education. Politics, our divided country or even literature only shone through extremely faintly, as if it meant forbidden terrain. Before bedtime, when we sat in a circle and a few songs were sung, I had to confine myself to listening.

Belzig around 1650, copperplate engraving by Matthäus Merian

     Rudi asked if I would rather sleep in the house or in a tent. "Outside, Rudi. Gladly together with Hartmut." "Ah he's already being complained about by his friends. There's room for you with Heiko and Dirk." Ha, the two who had arrested me... My heart leapt with pleasure and in holiday mood. Maybe I could start a scuffle that would be stifled with rope.

     Only two tents were pitched in the warm night. Heiko explained that it had been raining for days and only today was the ground dry enough to sleep outside. Now I saw that he and Dirk were twins. They looked at me thoughtfully. It seemed advisable to apologise for my presence, so to speak: "I hope I'm not disturbing you." The two grinned broadly and Dirk replied that I certainly wouldn't disturb them and that I could sleep between them.

     Three sleeping bags in military camouflage colours lay spread out on the floor. "Take the middle one. They are quite warm," Heiko explained. "You'd better take off all your clothes. Like us." I did. In my long friendship with Hans-Rainer, nudity had never been a problem. As I was about to slip into the middle sack, Heiko knelt beside me and gently clasped my neck.. "I'm sorry, Harry. Rudi has ordered that we tie you up overnight. Because you're not a GDR citizen and you're also a minor in your country, and because of running away, all that." They both laughed and Dirk added: "And besides, you could be a spy."

     As tempting as the offer was to my wishes, there was a difference between working towards it of my own accord and someone ordering it in order to fulfil the duty of supervision. Okay, I was still a minor in the FRG, but probably not in the GDR. The chain of command started with my dad via uncle Ernest and Rudi, who unloaded it on the twins, although he possibly wasn't allowed to. "I give you my word of honour to remain in the tent."

     The twins looked at me as if I was a bit unworldly. "Phew, how pathetic! We are honoured to have you here... Harry, a piece of string will embellish your visit and make it unforgettable for all of us."

     I ignored the irony in his words, for the strong cord in Heiko's hand was exactly to my taste. As if I could still turn it away, I said tonelessly: "If I were to do this with you..."
     "Oh, we've experienced that once in a while too. Being tied up at times is somehow part of our holiday camps."

     Sighing teasingly, I held out my hands to Heiko, who had shifted his arm to my shoulder and waited patiently.

     "On your back, Harry!" he admonished, shaking his head.

     I remember that they first had to agree on how to knot the cord so that I could not free myself under any circumstances, before they pushed me into the sleeping bag with their combined forces. "Good night, sweet dreams" ended the conversation. I suppose I had fallen asleep quickly after the eventful day.

     For years, nightly dreams reminded me like recurring mirror images of my arrest that afternoon. With Heiko, Dirk and me in blue shirts and the leather trousers luxury model in shiny green leather, my East German impressions began. The thin rope around my wrists had been replaced by handcuffs in my mind, as I had by now gained experience with steel cuffs. Instead of FDJ shirts with organisational emblems, the public wearing of which could still be punished as an anti-constitutional act in today's Germany, I prefer to keep non-political blue in mind.

     The next morning I confirmed my wish to stay at the camp and promised to abide by all the rules of undisturbed coexistence. Rudi held out an FDJ shirt to me. "This is part of it, Harry. Our visitor's shirt without the party badge." Obediently, I took off All you need is love and put on a socialist blue cotton shirt, product of Uzbekistan. He hugged me. "Welcome to the workers' and peasants' paradise!" he said.

     Presumably my father was the originator of this lesson in German-German coexistence, Uncle Ernest the organiser, Rudi the executor, and I, as a future bookseller, a subject to be kept an eye on at all costs. I think I had made the best of what could be done with my remaining independence. The twins were delightful boys – we have literally got us together. For 16-year-olds, they were still quite playful, couldn't get past me without giving me a puff or a shove. I was able to defeat each of them individually in front of the other boys, concealing my rank as a judoka in the 5th kyu. They both tied me up in front of everyone as well and constantly consulted how they could make sure I didn't get out on my own. Once they made it so tight in the hogtie that my limbs went numb after a short time."What? You're giving up already?" they asked in amazement. "Exactly. You're cutting off my blood." They realised their wrong rope technique and apologised.

     Hartmut obviously did not appreciate my handling of the twins at all. "Bondage has no value," he judged. "At the very least, it has value in martial arts," I replied. Most days I heard my cousin talking shop with a friend about nautical terms. He wanted to leave school the following year and sign on as a seaman. Apart from our kinship, we had no common ground, and it may be that I didn't make enough of an effort to win him over, or that I had already thrown him under the bus with All you need is love when they picked me up in Halle (Saale) from the interzonal train I had boarded in Hanover. In their flat, I immediately noticed the lack of books. So it was not my cousin's fault that he was devoid of any literary knowledge. His parents let it be known to me that they did not think a bookseller was a desirable profession.

     Heiko and Dirk were a stroke of luck for me. It was quite amazing how they tried to reconcile their daily events with the best possible of all worlds, sixteen-year-olds who had read Leibniz, a philosopher who was fortunately appreciated in the GDR. The twins were definitely critical of the Russian occupiers and their East Berlin henchmen, but they always expressed themselves so cleverly that it could not be interpreted as criticism. Not even from me, about whom they might not have been clear whether I had been sent to this camp to be sounded out. That Uncle Ernest was suspicious to them was evident from their silence when Hartmut, the future sailor, and indirectly his father were talked about.

     The last night in their tent was like the first. The twins decided that I should sleep tied up again. We had also taken off everything on that hot summer evening. There was an outdoor shower at the camp where the boys washed without bathing trunks. Rudi didn't admonish anyone. Nudity seemed more natural in socialism than in the capitalist West. The eroticism crackled mightily between us, but we still didn't touch us. The tents were open, someone could peek in at any moment. Then sexual groping could have led to all kinds of trouble, depending on the observer. At least we exchanged kisses that sealed our friendship.

     "Will it be goodbye forever?" inquired the twins and also Rudi in the morning.
     "No, no. I'll definitely come back." That was my firm wish. I never thought that the next visit to East Germany would take place several decades later in a completely changed Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain.


     "Well, have you had your first contact with handcuffs?" my father joked.
     "Not even seen any. Speaking of which – couldn't you try to get me some? I could imagine that they would be a great addition to my self-defence with judo during night walks."

    "Listen, my son! You may tie yourself up whenever you want. Or in judo, a friend who agrees to do it in a joint game. But you're not allowed to do it with another totally unknown person."      

     In the German six-volume catalogue Wer liefert was (Who supplies what), Dad found two arms companies offering handcuffs. His request for an illustration and the price was answered by return of post: Sale and delivery of handcuffs only to authorities.

     I had asked the twins if they had ever seen handcuffs. They said no, but they knew someone who had been handcuffed during an arrest. While

waiting at the police station, he had perplexedly noticed the word friendship on the connector between the two cuffs. With zero interest in such officially decreed friendship, he took it as a mockery towards his chained hands.

 

© Harald Bergander · 2022

 

 

My bondage  ·   Childhood and youth  ·  Captured in East Germany  ·  Midlife  ·  Retrospection in old age

                                                                                                                            (in progress)