Crossing the border, 1990

NEW YORK — We hunched in the tall saw grass, Christian and I, he wielding a Nikon, me clutching a reporter’s notebook. With us was a Romanian smuggler named Iordan, a “sherpa” of sorts making a good living smuggling eastern European migrants into what would soon become the territory of the European Union.

It was May 1990 and the river Oder, which formed the border between East Germany and Poland in the fourth decade after World War II, had been transformed by the events of November 1989 into the line that separated the wealth and freedom of “Europe” from the gray uncertainties of the “East.”

It wasn’t much of a river, and it certainly provided little deterrence to a determined immigrant. Still, reports that someone could just wade across a river from Poland into what would soon be the territory of the reunified Germany seemed far-fetched. So we drove to Gubin, a downtrodden Polish border town swarming with discontented Soviet soldiers, looking to follow a group of aspiring Europeans across the river.

The anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse deserves to be marked as a moment when, for once, history appeared to shift in a positive direction. Yet the wall's disappearance, though widely welcomed, also raised a host of troubling questions. From NATO to the Kremlin, for Poles, Czechs and Germans east and west, the wall’s sudden absence proved deeply disorienting.

Since the end of World War II, the concept of German reunification had faded from a stated goal of both sides (under their own terms, of course) into a rhetorical device. Many, including Germans on both sides and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, thought reunifying Germany a daft idea. But it had been easy to be in favor of reunification when it seemed so unlikely to ever happen.

Berlin Wall anniversary

In the year that followed that sudden transformation, I made half a dozen trips to the limbo-land of East Germany. During those trips, I met East Germans whose feelings ranged from euphoria to insecurity to deep disillusionment.

Daniela, a young music teacher and single mom, lived in Halle, an industrial town south of Berlin. I met her at a party shortly after the wall’s toppling, and we talked about what the future held. Her husband, a violinist for an East German symphony orchestra, had abandoned her and their young son four years before during his orchestra’s performance in the West. He sent no money, answered no mail and, as long as the wall stood, he remained out of reach.

For Daniela, the wall’s collapse opened legal avenues to get child support from her deadbeat husband. But it also meant that the subsidies for people, who, like her, worked in the arts, would be severely curtailed. She minced no words: “Life will be harder.”

Further south and a few months later, I fell in with a group of students from the University of Weimar who seemed determined to prove no American could keep up with them when it came to beer intake. I’m not really sure what happened that evening, suggesting I may have let my nation down. Nonetheless, the next morning, I convinced two of them to come with me on a three-mile trip to the outskirts of town, to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Neither of my student hosts had ever visited the camp, which had been maintained as a museum by the East German Communist Party.

“We East Germans are communists, and so we were against the Nazis,” one of them said by way of explanation as we drove up the hill to the camp. Weimar’s citizens had been forced to climb the hill by the Allied troops who liberated the camp to ensure that none of them could ever deny the horrors within.

Even in the spring of 1990, Buchenwald featured little mention of Jews, instead emphasizing the various nations the camp’s 56,000 dead had been deported from — Belgium, Poland, Greece, Hungary, the Soviet Union, etc. The dominant theme was the suffering of German communists, and a memorial to Ernst Thaelmann, the last chairman of the Weimar Communist Party, had an honor guard.

But the thought police saved the best for last: A film showed for decades to schoolchildren who passed through the camp told of the rising of communist inmates that was carefully timed to coincide with the arrival of liberating Soviet troops. The problem, of course, is that Buchenwald was liberated by Gen. George Patton’s Third U.S. Army.

Further south still, on the East German-Czechoslovak border, the sudden dominance of “the market” created a very special kind of industry in the little Czech border town of Petrovice.

Here, lined up for 10 miles and more, trucks from Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey and points east idled away the days it took to get through the border on the road toward Dresden and ultimately the rich cities of the European Community, as the EU was still known.

All along that river of stalled commerce, barely dressed young women plied their trade, offering their sex for a few Deutsche marks, the lucky ones spending the night in a trucker’s cozy heated cab rather than the rough-and-tumble brothels that seemed to appear overnight in the town center.

This was East Germany’s hospice stage, with the deliverance of reunification already certain, but the realities of dislocation and the failed decades of state socialism all too real. This parallel universe lasted between Nov. 9, 1989, and its reunification with the West exactly one year later.

But my favorite memory of that time occurred in Gubin, on the banks of the Oder, as Christian and I crouched in the weeds.

Our intention, of course, was to cross the river for a story I was writing for a now-defunct newspaper aptly named “The European.” We had driven to Gubin in search of one of the notorious smugglers who was helping the desperate and the ambitious across, and it hadn’t taken long to find Iordan in the local cafe. For a small fee, he agreed to show us a place in the river where he and other smugglers had installed a rope just below the waterline – a kind of aqua banister leading to Gueben, the town on the East German side of the river. Long ago the two sides had been one big Prussian town.

Iordan told us he had led thousands to this spot: Chinese, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Kazakhs, Estonians and even a group of Soviet soldiers determined to see how the other half lived before Moscow ordered them back behind the borders of the motherland.

As we braced ourselves to the ford the river, the smuggler raised his hand to silence the chatter. He pointed south, where a young Polish soldier ambled towards us, poking a Kalashnikov now and then into the tall, punky grass that lined the riverbank. The trooper walked directly at us, until, when he was just 20 yards away, Iordan rose and ran toward the road that led back to Polish village where his next cargo, no doubt, awaited.

I stood up, Christian followed and the soldier stopped in his tracks. We stood facing each other for a moment, and then I offered him a cigarette. He declined. Neither of us spoke Polish but he knew enough German to ask for our papers. Christian rose out of the weeds and began snapping photos. The soldier — young, blond and looking very much as if this were not his chosen profession — leveled his submachine gun at us and told him to stop. We complied and showed our passports.

“Journalist,” I ventured. He looked up and handed back my passport.

“Papieros,” he said back. I tried to hand him my passport again, but he brushed it away.

“Papieros,” he said more forcefully, then lifted his finger to his mouth. Cigarettes, I later learned, are papieros in Poland.

He smiled when he saw the red Marlboro pack — American cigs were still a novelty. I gave him a smoke and lit it for him, and he inhaled, waved and walked off, never looking back, giving Christian a chance to snap a few final shots. Then we got back to business.

I reached into the cold river and walked north along the bank, my hand trailing just below the water I only took about a dozen steps before I found the rope, tied to what seemed to be a pole that had been driven into the riverbed. I looked at Christian and told him to get going. I meant to give him a 5-minute head start so he could get to the car, cross back into East Germany and pull up behind the squat little shops we could see made up the edge of the East German town. (In his car were dry clothes and a flask of schnapps, a rare bit of planning on my part.)

Christian disappeared over a ridge and I waited, expecting the worst. But five minutes passed quickly, and so I waded in, pants rolled up to my knees. Before long, I was chest deep, so I pushed off and swam for the German side. The current, lugubrious and cold, barely impeded my progress.

Within a minute I was up and out again, shaking off like a wet dog, still apparently unnoticed. I crouched near a wall and squeezed water out of my shirt, but nothing warmed me. Then Christian turned up with my backpack full of dry clothes, two beers and two big German kaese bretzen (cheese pretzels).

“Welcome to Europe,” he said with a wry smile.

The story created a stir when it appeared, since technically I had crossed an international border illegally. I half expected a visit from the West German Interior Ministry, but, alas, nothing ever came of it.

If East Germans had a spotty understanding of history and racial sensitivities, they are hardly alone — a lesson driven home when The European hit the streets the next day with my story on Page 1 under a headline inserted by my British editor: “Meet Europe’s New Wetbacks.”