Connect to share and comment

Crossing the border, 1990

After the Berlin Wall fell, Michael Moran explored the strange new world on the border of East and West.

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.”