When we first conceived the idea for The German Riveter we wanted to bring you snapshots of 1989 from the point of view of those who’d lived through it. The writer, translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire has collected and translated for us a selection of memories of the Wende (‘the changes, the turning point’) from eight of Germany’s best-known writers.
The plane looped around East Berlin, the lines of cars visible at the border crossings. Then it landed in Tegel. I had kept hold of my blue GDR passport, not least for financial reasons. As a West German visiting East Berlin, I was meant to exchange the obligatory twenty-five marks at a rate of one to one, the worst of all possible exchange rates.
But the city was so crowded I’d gone straight to the border crossing at Moritzplatz, which was called Heinrich-Heine-Strasse on the East Berlin side. The crowd was packed tighter and tighter, and I was still uncertain. What if they searched me and found my West German passport? The hassle I’d have to go through as a West German: get a visa issued, the obligatory money exchange, the stupid questions…
I held up my blue passport; no one checked it, no one was even interested. The border guards had given in to the masses and simply waved us through, and I was back in East Berlin.
It was an amazing atmosphere. The wall had grown so normal over the decades that it seemed insane for it to be open now; it was like waking from a death-like sleep. I tried to get hold of a few friends from the old days, but they were all gone. I could imagine where to.
Eventually I did come across a fellow student from my evening classes and his girlfriend: Peter and Simone. We crossed back and forth, to the West and the East. You could use East German money in West Berlin bars, and we celebrated our reunion and the fall of the wall. We took a taxi.
‘Oranienburger Strasse!’ Peter said, having scouted out West Berlin all day. The driver put his foot down; the streets started looking wooded.
‘Are you really taking us to Oranienburger Strasse in Kreuzberg?’ Peter asked.
‘You mean Oranienstrasse?’ the taxi driver responded.
‘Yeah, right, that was the name.’
The driver switched off the meter, did a U turn, pulled overabruptly outside a pub and said: ‘Last stop! Time to get off!’ We got out of the cab, taken aback to find ourselves in a completely unknown part of town. The taxi driver gave Peter a twenty-mark note with the words: ‘Here! You guys take a taxi!’ And with that, he vanished into the pub.
West Germany put on a show of generosity for the GDR citizens: each of them was given 100 West German marks. Long queues formed at the West Berlin banks that handed out the cash. Inside the banks, they stamped passports to try to make sure each GDR citizen got the cash only once. It wasn’t all that much money, but it was easy enough to get hold of. After queuing for half an hour, I was 100 marks richer and had that same stamp in my East German passport.
My friends in East Berlin knew all the tricks. They reported their passports as stolen to get new ones issued. That cost twenty East marks and earned then 100 West marks at the first bank they came across after the border. They ripped out the pages with the bank stamps. If the bank teller didn’t check the passport number that was another easy 100 West marks. Some of them worked with various different passports, swapping pages from one to the next.
East Berlin, West Berlin, we went to and fro; underground stations we’d never known existed were opened up on the East Berlin side and transformed into border crossings. And there, at Jannowitzbrücke U-Bahn station, was where it happened, on my way to West Berlin to catch my plane back to Cologne. A border guard held up my blue GDR passport and told me to empty my pockets.
There it was, impossible to overlook, a brand-new red West German passport. The border guard picked it up from the little table and compared it to the blue one; it was definitely the same person.
‘You can only have one,’ he said. ‘You have to decide!’
I weighed it up; on the one hand the nice blue passport, but on the other hand I wanted to go toHolland,Norway, all over the place. I’d be bound to have trouble with a GDR passport. And I’d already picked up my welcome payment.
‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’ll take the red one.’
By Falko Hennig
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Falko Hennig is a typesetter, author, tour guide, journalist, workshop leader and rickshaw driver based in Berlin. He has been a member of the German national football team of authors since 2005.
Katy Derbyshire is a London-born, award-winning translator who has lived in Berlin for over twenty years. She is now also publisher at V & Q Books, and in 2020 will be the London Book Fair’s Literary Translator of the Fair.