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How the wall still divides one family

While the Schmidts were able to escape East Germany, it had a profound impact on their lives.

Ursula Schmidt (in white) and daughter Sabine Masing talk at their home in eastern Berlin. Ursula organized for Sabine to be smuggled out of East Germany in 1973. (Penny Bradfield)

BERLIN, Germany — One cold day in November 1973, Sabine Masing climbed into the trunk of a car with her father and sister along a lonely stretch of autobahn in communist East Germany.
Her mother had arranged the escape attempt while on a week-long travel permit to West Berlin, where she was now waiting anxiously.

“We were so tense,” Masing, then 13, recalls. “We couldn’t move for fear of making a bump or a sound. I was just waiting for that trunk to open and look up into the face of a guard and it would all be over.”

But the trunk stayed shut while the car passed through three checkpoints. When the driver — a professional people smuggler — opened it, they were in West Germany.

Berlin Wall anniversary

Masing was reunited with her mother. It was cause for celebration save for one thing: The family had four more children in the East. They had left behind three sons aged in their late teens and a 20-year-old daughter with children.

“We could only bring our youngest,” their mother, Ursula Schmidt, now 80, said. “It was very hard. Very hard.”

The following year, two of the sons tried to escape but, overconfident, they hosted a farewell party. A friend reported them, and when they tried to cross the border in the trunk of a car, the dreaded East German secret police, the Stasi, were waiting.

It was the beginning of a chain of events that would tear the family apart.

Of the many ways that the division of Germany continues to affect this country nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, few are as poignant as the breakdown of families such as the Schmidts.

Many families were divided by the Wall — either by its construction or by escapes. In the 28 years the Wall stood, at least 100,000 people escaped to West Germany from the East.

But the communist regime divided people in other ways too. The Stasi were skillful at manipulating individuals, destroying trust and breaking down relationships, particularly among the 300,000 prisoners who served time in Stasi jails for political crimes.

For families such as the Schmidts, who suffered both separation and persecution, the impact was doubly profound.

“It was one of the state security’s ‘successes,’ producing broken souls and broken families,” said Karl-Heinz Bomberg, a psychoanalyst who was himself jailed in East Berlin as a dissident. “The family is the strongest bond a person has, but even this is often not strong enough to survive dislocation and the extreme force the state security applied. I know similar examples where families were destroyed this way. It’s what the state security excelled at.”

A recent symposium in Leipzig pondered the continuing damage to families caused by the communist era. Psychiatrist Markus Bassler, who hosted the symposium, said the regime created such a climate of paranoia that trust, the cornerstone of relationships, often became impossible.