Story by Joseph Cusumano / Illustration by John Waltrip
The old man welcomed his son’s family of four into his small apartment and began preparing hot chocolate for them, the building manager providing no heat until the first big snow. The family had been invited to watch the wedding of his oldest granddaughter from the living room window on a cool and overcast Saturday morning. The western wall of the residential high-rise where he lived precisely coincided with the demarcation between East and West Berlin, and the first, primitive version of the Berlin wall had been built only months before. Following the practice of many families divided by the wall, the wedding ceremony would be celebrated outdoors, fifty meters and an ideological ocean away, in West Berlin. With everyone wearing their jackets, they fully opened the large window to see and hear as much as possible, placing the children in front.
Also observing the wedding, but not a part of it, was a middle-aged woman looking out of a West Berlin apartment with binoculars. Minna shifted her gaze to a tall concrete apartment building on the east side of the border and focused on an open window where children were waving to the wedding party. The feet and legs of the children were in East Berlin, but their arms and heads extended into West Berlin air space. Minna counted four closed windows to the right, five to the left, and two below the family of five, picked up her hand set, and radioed her report. Several minutes later, a small group of men on the west side of the border took up a position at ground level directly below the opened window and began calling up to the family. Seeing them, Minna became more alarmed, having been instructed to watch for this precise development, and she radioed a second, urgent message.
Her patience was rewarded. The family was pulled away from the window and a uniformed member of the Vopo –the East Berlin People’s Police – closed the window. Minna noted with satisfaction that the men on the ground began to roll up the fireman’s net that had safely welcomed others to West Berlin. Then Minna saw someone open the window again, and an old man began climbing out. The men below either heard him or saw him and quickly began unrolling the net again. They held the net at waist level and waited for the old man to jump. He straddled the window sill, then swung his other leg over so that he was seated on it, facing out. Minna quickly picked up her radio set to warn the Vopo again, and kept her eyes on the unfolding events. The old man looked down to make sure the men he had seen before were still there. Just as he confirmed this, an arm encircled his neck in a choke hold and he was dragged back inside.
To some extent, Minna could empathize with this family, whose members would now face some form of exclusion and punishment. But many East Berliners had already fled to the West, and the GDR — German Democratic Republic, a Soviet satellite country — couldn’t tolerate any more population loss and its implicit rejection of socialism. Minna’s current assignment would end next week when the building she had scrutinized and others at the border would be evacuated, boarded-up, and demolished to make room for a more effective and complex “Anti-Fascist Barrier.” However, she would soon be boarding a train for Moscow to receive additional training and indoctrination. It was a special program reserved for those who were held in the highest confidence by the East German security apparatus.
— ♦♦♦ —
Markus brought a jar of iced tea and some food to the watchtower as he began his shift each day. Later he would urinate in the jar and replace the lid tightly. Not everyone was as intent as he in following regulations, and the stench of urine sometimes wafted up from the bottom of the tall concrete structure. It reminded him of latrine duty during World War II. Fortunately, it could be largely masked with cigarette smoke, and Marcus was never tempted early in his shift to eat the food he had brought.
He and Helmut, his new young partner in the watchtower, kept their backs to each other as they began their shift. During their training, the need for 360 degrees of surveillance had been emphasized, but Markus, one of the hidden members of the Stasi – the East German cousins of the KGB –knew there was a second reason they had been trained to do this. By minimizing face to face contact, there was less chance of a fellow soldier becoming a close friend. The leadership of the border patrol had learned early that defections across the Berlin wall by its own members could be minimized if the guards were paired up and instructed to shoot and kill their fellow guard if he attempted to defect. To make sure this was enforced, members of the Stasi had been quietly placed into the border patrol, most commonly paired up with a new recruit whose ideological reliability was unproven.
“How is Minna?” Helmut asked.
“She … we had a rough weekend,” Markus replied to his young partner.
“The doctor says that the fractured vertebra in her back probably means the cancer has spread to her bones. She’s bedridden now. In pain, even with the narcotics. She’s also started coughing.”
“But they removed her breast.”
“Apparently not in time. Minna showed me the lump almost a year ago, but by the time they got around to taking her to surgery, it had grown considerably and ulcerated the skin,” Markus said. “It was oozing and I’m sure it was infected. I saw a lot of infected wounds when I was fighting in France during the last year of the war and I know what infection smells like.”
“What are you going to do?” Helmut asked.
“I don’t know. Her doctor says almost nothing, and the surgeon won’t see her anymore. He says he’s done all he can.” After a prolonged silence, Helmut said something Markus had not heard in over a decade.
“I’m very sorry, Markus. I’ll pray for her and I’ll pray for you.” Normally, this type of remark could get a border guard in trouble in this atheistic state, but Markus actually felt grateful and made no admonishment. Besides, he could feel his throat tightening and wasn’t sure he could keep his surging emotion out of his voice. He could have lied to Helmut when asked about Minna, but knew he had to deal with the situation somehow.
It helped a little to talk about it with Helmut. Even if the worst happened, Markus somehow had to muddle through. During the war, he had lost many friends, including Hans, who had been Helmut’s age when he was killed by an artillery shell during the invasion of France. Hans, who had grown up with him in Dresden, had saved Markus’ skin more than once, and Markus had been forced to fight on without his closest friend. When Markus first met Helmut, he could see Hans in his new partner’s face and mannerisms. It was startling at first but also reassuring that life went on in spite of everything that had happened during the war.
“Markus, as border guards, aren’t we entitled to prompt medical care, more so than the civilian population? Minna shouldn’t have had to wait so long.”
“You’re right. I don’t know what happened; maybe she did get quicker care than civilians do. But I’m not going to ask.”
“It would be interpreted as a challenge to authority?”
“Yes. And if she dies, I’ll be single and removed from the border guard. They could assign me to a factory with less pay and even worse medical care. If I challenge them now, I’ll pay for it when it comes time for reassignment.”
“Why do they insist that we marry and stay married? Is it that we’ll have people here to anchor us? People who would suffer repercussions if we defected?”
“Well, yes, but all of our struggles are for the greater good that socialism will bring to everyone. All the people living under capitalism must someday be given their freedom. Until then, we will all make sacrifices. And that includes me.”
Markus had long suspected that he wouldn’t have been accepted into the Stasi if it hadn’t been for Minna, but he couldn’t share that with Helmut. And he didn’t want to. Riding on a family member’s success and reputation for loyalty to the state was nothing to be proud of; it was like cronyism in the corrupt West. Wasn’t equal treatment of all citizens one of socialism’s highest ideals?
“How old is she?” Helmut asked.
“Fifty, same as me. I think that if….”
“Markus, come take a look at this!” Helmut was facing east when he called out to his partner. Markus turned around and followed his partner’s outstretched arm. An older model Soviet-made armored truck had broken through a checkpoint on their side of the wall and was heading west toward the first barrier. Sirens blared suddenly as it approached the concrete wall at speed.
“Get on top!” Markus ordered Helmut. Helmut instantly climbed a ladder through a hatch in the ceiling and took up a position on the roof of the observation tower. Although there was a waist-high iron railing at the edge of the small roof, Helmut lay on his stomach and quickly found the vehicle in his rifle sights. Below, Markus opened a hatch just under the large window in front of him and also assumed a prone position, bringing his rifle to bear on the vehicle. When the armored vehicle smashed into the concrete barrier, both men began firing in short automatic bursts. Though obsolete, the vehicle’s amour could withstand all but fifty caliber slugs.
The armored truck, now stationary and silent with its front half protruding through the western side of the barrier, had created a breach in the concrete wall wide enough for a man to slip through. The soldier inside the vehicle had planned his escape well enough so that Marcus and Helmut were firing into the passenger side of the vehicle, giving him a moment of relative safety to exit from the driver’s side. From there he would make for the second barrier, a chain link wire fence twenty yards away. Those last twenty yards constituted a sandy and barren killing zone, heavily treated with herbicide to prevent any cover from growing. The soldier, knowing that within moments guards on the ground would have him surrounded, tossed a smoke grenade toward the wire fence. It burst, and dense white smoke covered his escape route. Aware that the wind would clear the smoke all too quickly, he sprinted west in a diagonal direction, hoping the two men in the watchtower would fire into the shorter perpendicular route to the final barrier. He reached the chain link fence, pulled a wire cutter off his belt, and used both hands to make his first cut. When he started on the second, a slug slammed into the right side of his back, spinning him onto the ground, and a dark stain blossomed on the front and back of his uniform. He could hear soldiers on the West Berlin side yelling and instructing him to stay down on the ground, as if he could still rise. As the West Berlin soldiers approached him, the gun fire from the east subsided, then stopped. The East Berlin border guards were afraid that they might hit a West Berlin soldier and trigger a shooting war. They were allowed to fire at a West Berlin soldier only if fired upon first or if one or more soldiers breached the barrier from the West. The men on the west side knew they couldn’t cross the wire barrier to rescue the downed soldier, so both sides eyed each other in a silent standoff. When the sirens were finally shut off, the soldier on the ground could be heard crying out for help. But as the minutes ticked away, his cries became weaker and then inaudible.
After nightfall, several East Berlin guards retrieved the body and carried it back. Both Markus and Helmut would receive commendations for their action that day, but Helmut had made certain that none of his bullets had hit the soldier.
— ♦♦♦ —
In spring, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. Fortunately for young men, this observation of Lord Tennyson also applied to young women. It was true even in the financial depression and violent social unrest that gripped Dresden and all of Germany in 1930.
Street brawls between the German Communists and the Nazi Brownshirts were becoming more common and more violent. The two groups frequently disrupted each other’s meetings and marches, so each side had created its own militia. The battle between these two ideologies was fought on many fronts, and it was not unusual for innocent bystanders to be caught in the crossfire. The Communists would not be completely defeated until Hitler took power three years later and sent captured detainees to one of the first German concentration camps near the town of Dachau. Communist Party members who managed to escape the Brownshirts and the Gestapo would go underground in Germany or flee eastward to Poland or the Soviet Union.
Nineteen year old Minna had noticed a newcomer at the May meeting of the Dresden branch of the Communist Party, and she was intrigued by the tall, sturdy young man. Although not particularly handsome, he seemed to radiate a confidence and optimism that were very appealing to her in this contentious and unpredictable period.
“Who’s that?” Minna asked, still looking at the young stranger.
“Tall guy in the white sweater?” said Hans.
“A friend of mine. Markus. He’s a good guy. The kind you can count on.”
“Known him long?” Minna queried.
“Only since kindergarten. Do you want me to introduce you?”
“Sure. After the meeting. I’d like that.”
Later, when refreshments were served, Hans kept his promise, not knowing it would change Markus’ life forever. Markus couldn’t take his eyes off Minna, and although not often the object of near adoration, Minna was willing to get used to it.
A week later, Minna and Markus went to the Dresden zoo on a beautiful clear afternoon, each needing only a light jacket. When Minna had suggested the zoo, Markus first hesitated, then smiled and agreed. She wondered if he, like herself, had been there so many times that it held little interest for him. For her, it was a great place to stroll and get acquainted.
Approaching a high chain link fence meant to keep visitors from getting too close to a large concrete pit, each of them peered through at the Kamchatka bears, the largest subspecies of bear in Eurasia.
“Imported from the Soviet Union,” Minna read from a plaque.
“Just like communism,” Markus answered.
“Wasn’t Karl Marx born in Germany?” she challenged.
“You’re right. In Prussia. So he’s one of us. I guess we can take some pride in that.”
Minna paused and said “What are you most proud of?”
“You mean about Germany or myself?”
“Yourself,” she answered. Minna had actually meant Germany, but decided to go with something more personal when she heard his response.
“Well, I’m proud that I didn’t say something stupid and make a complete fool of myself when we met.”
She grinned and said, “Your turn. You can ask me a question, and I have to tell the truth.”
“Okay, tell me something unique or unusual about yourself. I know you’re fun to be with, so you can’t use that.”
“You can write on me,” she said without hesitation. She expected the puzzled expression on his face, and said, “I have dermatographia.”
“Watch.” Markus watched her hair cascade down to her shoulders as she removed her barrette. She then held the metal clasp in her right hand and began drawing on the inner surface of her left forearm. As Markus watched, Minna wrote his name, the letters standing up from the rest of the skin on her forearm.
“That’s amazing. I’ve never seen or heard of that before.”
“It only lasts about ten minutes,” she said.
“It doesn’t hurt?”
“No, it itches a little. It’s supposed to be a type of allergic response, so I don’t do it very often. Now it’s your turn. Go ahead and write something.”
“Close your eyes and tell me if you can figure out what I’m writing,” he said. He gently supported her left forearm and began writing with the metal clasp of the barrette, being careful to apply only the minimum pressure needed for the letters to become visible. “I’m done. What did I write?” he asked.
“Sorry, I have no idea.”
“OK, open your eyes and take a look.” When she looked at her forearm, it now said Markus & Minna. She gave him a big smile. When he handed the barrette back to her, she began pulling up her hair on each side, but he said, “You’re even prettier with your hair down.” She put the barrette in her purse. It would be the last time she wore it.
A few days later, when Minna saw Hans coming out of a pastry shop, she caught up to him so she could describe her afternoon with Markus.
“Markus went to the zoo?” Hans asked incredulously.
“It was my idea. It was a beautiful day. Why shouldn’t we go?”
“He hates going to the zoo,” Hans replied.
“He doesn’t want to see the animals caged up. If it were up to him, they’d all be released back to where they came from.”
— ♦♦♦ —
On his fifty-first birthday, Markus rose from bed after fighting his demons during what had passed for sleep. Circling to Minna’s side of the bed, he gently rolled her onto her right side to keep her bed sores from getting worse. She no longer grimaced, her coma now blocking all pain and fear. Markus wondered if this would be her last day.
Frau Muller was to arrive in thirty minutes to stay with Minna, move her into a different position every two hours, and give her a sponge bath in the afternoon while Markus was on duty at the barrier. With Minna no longer taking food or drink, Frau Muller’s duties had lessened considerably. And because Minna could no longer be fed or be given fluids, there was little need to change the bed sheets so frequently.
When Markus arrived for duty, he and Helmut signed in at the command bunker, and then climbed the three story ladder to the top of the watchtower, unaware that what had begun as a minor diplomatic dispute at the border was beginning to spin out of control.
In West Berlin, just before noon, newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Mike Sperry and his three enlisted crewmen were scrambling into their M48 Patton tank. Their captain had just shouted over the loudspeaker system to the entire company, “Russian tanks at Charlie!” and forty men had run from lunch tables, duty stations, or whatever part of the facility they occupied to start engines, check radios, and confirm that they had a full supply of fuel and ammunition. In minutes, ten American main battle tanks were spewing clouds of diesel exhaust as they thundered toward Checkpoint Charlie.
As he followed the other tanks roaring down Freidrichstrasse, Sperry ordered Sargent Jones to load an armor-piercing shell into the breech of the 90 mm cannon. Although Hutchins, the driver, and McNeil, the gunner, appeared eager to put their training and skill into practice for the first time, Sperry saw that Jones, who had survived tank combat in the Korean War, was less enthusiastic.
“Number 1, take aim at the Russian tank on the far right. Number 2, take the second tank from the right…,” the company leader’s voice crackled over Sperry’s radio headset. Soon, the ten American tanks were practically muzzle to muzzle with their equally massive T-55 Soviet counterparts, the seventy five yards separating them constituting a tiny fraction of the distances at which these steel behemoths had been designed to engage opponents.
“Lieutenant, I can’t accurately target the T-55 that we’re assigned to. We’re too close!” McNeil said.
“Take the shell out, and bore-sight the target,” Sargent Jones said. This was an old technique, dating back to WW I, in which the gunner peered into the empty barrel of the cannon and made the adjustments needed for direct line of sight with the target. It made no allowance for the amount of descent the shell would make after leaving the barrel, but none would be needed in this situation. Lieutenant Sperry gave McNeil confirmation for this suggestion and felt thankful to have Jones on board. All four men knew that just one soldier on either side with an itchy trigger finger might well initiate WW III because, in tank combat at close quarters, the crew that fired first usually gained an advantage.
After twenty minutes with the engine idling, Sperry ordered Hutchins to shut the diesel off. His immediate reason was to give his crew some respite from the noise, but he also had another and more compelling reason. No one could predict how long the standoff would last or, if a full-scale tank battle began, how deep into East Germany he might be ordered to go. Should it come to that, every drop of fuel would be precious, assuming they were lucky enough to survive the initial exchange. For the moment, both sides chose not to place more armored fighting vehicles into the confrontation, hoping that a peaceful resolution might still ensue. But Sperry could imagine the frantic efforts being made to prepare reinforcements should the worst happen.
Staring down at the tank confrontation from their watchtower, Markus and Helmut stood side by side, wondering how bad it would get. Command Center had contacted them to confirm their readiness, but had given no specific instructions, and there had been no subsequent contact. Markus suspected that the silence meant his commanders were grappling with a situation they had never encountered and hoped would never develop, at least not while they were on active duty. Most likely, they were waiting for instructions from their own commanders. In fact, General Secretary Ulbricht had immediately contacted Nikita Khrushchev, the General Secretary of the USSR. During the course of their conversation, more Soviet-made armored fighting vehicles were readied in case the crazy reckless Americans broke through the border.
“Stay here, Markus,” Helmut said in a voice that bordered on an order to his senior partner.
“What are you doing?” Markus demanded. Helmut made no reply, and with his rifle slung over his shoulder, began descending the tower. Markus didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He shouldn’t leave the tower unmanned, but he had been trained to never separate from his partner. He simply stared as Helmut exited the tower at ground level and began walking calmly toward the concrete wall. When Helmut walked up to one of the steel doors placed every thirty yards along the length of the concrete wall, removed his key chain from his pocket and began unlocking the door, Markus bolted for the ladder.
“Lieutenant Sperry, take a look at the area between the concrete wall and the chain link fence about forty yards to our left,” Hutchins said. With his periscope set on the lowest magnification, Sperry saw a young East Berlin border guard in the killing zone who was calmly walking west toward the chain link fence. The slender man’s rifle was slung over his shoulder, and when he reached the fence, a second guard burst through the open steel door, running toward the first. Sperry couldn’t hear anything, but the second guard, older and powerfully built, must have called to his fellow guard, who turned to face him.
“Lieutenant, can you see what’s happening?” Sargent Jones asked.
“There are two soldiers in the killing zone. I’d say they’re about ten yards apart, facing each other. I think they’re having an argument.” Then Sperry saw the smaller soldier unsling his rifle and drop it in the sand at the edge of the fence.
“I think one of ‘em may be about to defect, but the other one hasn’t touched his gun. It’s still slung on his shoulder,” Sperry said. As if the tank standoff wasn’t enough, Sperry thought. Reminding himself that these two soldiers were not the reason he and his crew had been sent here, Sperry swept his periscope to both sides and saw other East German border guards entering the killing zone through the open steel door. Their rifles were at the ready, but they stayed back near the concrete barrier. Swinging the periscope back to the two man confrontation, Sperry watched with fascination as the smaller soldier began climbing the chain link fence.
“One of ‘em is climbing the fence!” Sperry relayed to his crew.
“He’s not trying to cut through?” Jones asked.
“No. I get the feeling this wasn’t planned at all,” Sperry answered.
“You think he just decided to try and take advantage of the standoff?”
“Yeah. He probably figures that nobody will risk taking the first shot and trigger something that will spin out of control,” Sperry guessed.
“He’ll never make it over the barbed wire on top,” Jones said. A moment later, the crack of a sniper rifle shattered the silence into shards of echoes. The slug ripped into the back of the young soldier’s chest and sprayed blood through the fence. It was the only part of him that would make it into West Berlin.
“They shot him!” Sperry shouted angrily. Sperry kept his face pressed hard against the rubber edge of the periscope and watched as the large guard ran to his fallen comrade, knelt alongside him, and tried to rouse him. The fallen man didn’t stir. After several more moments, the large guard slowly rose, and even with the crosshairs on the periscope, Sperry could see the tearless agony carved into his face. The large man turned and stared at his fellow guards, the watchtowers, the steel doors, the concrete barrier, and finally, the massive Soviet tanks. It was totally silent, and for a few moments, nothing happened. Then he slowly unslung the rifle from his left shoulder, braced its butt against his right shoulder, and began firing.
— ♦♦♦ —
Frau Muller brushed a lock of hair off Minna’s face, then glanced at the clock on the bedside table. It was dark outside, and Markus was several hours overdue. He had never been this late before and Frau Muller began to worry. She would stay with Minna all night if necessary. She lived alone now, and Minna was the only soul who needed her. She left the bedroom and entered the kitchen, opening the small state-issued ice box. There was nothing inside except for two bottles of beer. Markus had promised to bring some groceries on his way home, but that could account for only a slight delay. She returned to the bedroom, turned on the radio, and listened to some music for a few minutes until the news began at the top of the hour.
Today our soldiers and border guards stood firm in the face of a fascist provocation from West Berlin. Tanks from each side faced off at the border, and with no cause or warning, the reactionary forces of capitalism shot and killed two of our brave border guards. The tanks remain in place, and General Secretary Ulbricht is demanding that the United Nations Security Council take every—. Frau Muller shut the radio off. She had heard enough news like that during the war. A war that had torn her county in half.
“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” by Sherman
Illustration by Toe Ken