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Father was in West Berlin the night that they set up the barbed wire. I remember the date clearly- August 13, 1961. We weren’t too worried at the time; we were sure that the barrier would soon come down. But it didn’t. The wires turned to concrete. The guards doubled. Father still couldn’t come home.
No one could come in, and no one could go out.
Or so they thought.
“Lukas? Lukas, what are those soldiers doing?”
“Be quiet! Don’t say anything!”
I clutch my older brother’s arm fiercely, dreading the answer to my question. I don’t mind his snappiness right now – I know that it comes from panic. Last week, the wall was just barbed wire and scattered watchtowers, but now they are building this concrete wall. I didn’t think that it would go so far. Because they built up the barbed wire in the darkness of night, we were unsuspecting and shocked when we first discovered the makeshift barrier. The same night that they built the barbed wire, Father was visiting his brother in West Berlin. He couldn’t come home, and we couldn’t leave here. Mother, Lukas and I soon began to wish that we had followed the thousands of others that had fled East Berlin before the wall was built, but it was too late. We were prisoners.
I watch, mesmerized with growing dread, as the soldiers rip up the roads, cast the pavement aside, and layer slabs of concrete higher and higher up. It’s only a few feet away from our apartment house; much too close for comfort.
“Lukas…” I venture tentatively.
“Let’s get out of here,” Lukas says, his voice unnaturally high with worry.
Lukas takes my wrist and pulls me away from the small crowd of spectators. My school books spill from my arms, and I wrench my wrist free. “Look at what you’ve made me do!” I say harsher than I intend, bending to pick them up.
Lukas swallows audibly and whispers, “Hurry.” I don’t argue because I share his fear.
As soon as my books are safely underneath my arm, Lukas breaks into a sprint. We circle around to the back entrance of our apartment building. It’s hot in late August, and by the time we reach the top of the stairs, we’re both breathing and sweating hard. Lukas fumbles with his key and unlocks the door.
I throw my books violently on the kitchen table. “I want Father to come home!” I demand childishly. “I want things to be the way that they used to be!” I pause to catch my breath. “I want to know why they are building that wall!”
Lukas glares at me. “Stop shouting.”
“Tell me what’s happening, Lukas!” I yell, shoving him a cup of water from our faucet. He gulps it down before responding.
“The wall is meant to separate us from West Berlin and the rest of Germany.”
“I-I don’t know. But as soon as they put up the wires last week, no one could leave here or come back over from West Berlin. That’s why Father can’t come home.”
“I know that,” I say angrily. “But why is this happening? Who’s doing it? What is going on!?”
“They have control of East Berlin. Everyone was leaving here. They didn’t like it, so they’re trapping us inside.”
“Who is they?” I say even more heatedly.
“I don’t know,” Lukas responds unhelpfully.
I decide to ask another question. “Will Father ever be able to come home?”
Lukas doesn’t answer.
“Lukas! Tell me!” I say, growing hysterical.
“He can’t come home.” It’s Mother’s voice, not Lukas’s, that answers me.
“Mother!” we simultaneously exclaim, whirling around to meet her. Her eyes are bloodshot, her face grim, and she looks weary as ever.
“Father cannot come home,” she repeats. As Mother pulls out a chair at our table, silent tears begin to trace down her cheeks. Lukas and I exchange glances; we’ve never seen Mother like this before.
“Ida…” Mother sobs. “Lukas. I’ve got to see Hans. I’ve got to know he’s all right. We’re trapped and he’s on the other side.”
As we walk to school the next morning, Lukas and I can see that the wall is almost finished. We stare gloomily at it, imagining Father on the other side. I want to see his smiling face again, to feel his strong arms around me in his crushing hug.
“Get moving,” a soldier growls at us, and we hastily clutch our books and hurry away. I can see the brick school building looming ahead of Lukas and me when we hear footsteps behind us.
“Hey, Lukas,” my brother’s friend replies. “I’m supposed to help at the enlisting centers for Young Pioneers today after school. Want to help?”
Most kids in East Germany are enlisted in Young Pioneers, but somehow, Lukas and I managed to escape the youth program that indoctrinates its participants with socialist ideologies. Lukas is 16 now, so he is past the age for enlistment and doesn’t have to worry about it anymore. I am 14, still old enough to join. Mother and Father forbade us from enlisting, but it’s only a matter of time before they make me join.
“Ah, well…” Lukas mumbles lamely. “We have to. Um.”
“Mother wanted us to help make pamphlets after school for her book club, so we don’t really have time. I’m awfully sorry, Fredrik,” I say, and Lukas throws me a relieved look.
“All right, maybe next time, okay?” Fredrik says, his eyes slightly narrowed at me. Even though Fredrik is too old to be in the Young Pioneers anymore, he is still faithful to them and helps when he can.
Lukas nods. “Yeah,” he says noncommittally. Fredrik scampers off after throwing a strange glance over his shoulder at us.
“Lukas, you’ve got to stay away from Fredrik,” I whisper. “He’ll try to make me join.”
Lukas frowns. “I know.”
“Just…be careful,” I say, and run off to my classroom. Sitting in History, listening to my teacher drone on about the Fatherland, I can already see where this is going. Friends are splitting up, families are divided. What next? Even school is different. Everyone, even our teachers, is constantly flicking glances out of the window to the wall we can barely see in the distance. It feels like nothing will ever be the same.
Two of the Young Pioneers stare icily at us as Lukas and I hurry out of the school. We don’t say anything, but exchange nervous glances. When we walk past the Berlin Wall, we see that it is finished. Soldiers are unraveling barbed wire on the top of it and around the border. Even more soldiers are patrolling endlessly back and forth. I shudder as we pass by, hurrying into our apartment.
Mother is waiting for us. “I worried about you all day! The Young Pioneers were here. They wanted to know if you had been enlisted.” Mother stares at Lukas and me, tears threatening to well up in her bright hazel eyes. “They tried to make me do it, but I wouldn’t let them. I can’t. Hans wouldn’t have wanted me to.” She says this last comment mostly to herself that to Lukas and I.
I hate the way that Mother speaks about Father as if he were some distant memory, as if he were dead. It makes me think that she has already given up hope of seeing him again. I clench my fists in annoyance.
Oblivious to my hidden irritation, Mother says, “We can’t stay here. Ida, Lukas, we’ve got to leave. I can’t stand being separated from Hans for goodness knows how long. We’ve got to get out of here.”
No words are needed to know that we all agree.
“Mother!” I yell, searching for her in our apartment. It’s Saturday, so we don’t have school, but I can’t find the book that I was reading. “Mother, have you seen my-oh.”
I find Mother in her bedroom. She is standing in front of her window, making signs with her hands and arms. “Quiet, Ida!” she says. Mother happily continues to signal across the street. Father is opposite her in another apartment house, and I am so happy to see him again that I don’t notice him signaling. My book forgotten, I poke my head out of our window and, entranced, stare at the top of the Berlin Wall just a few feet away. I can see the guards’ shiny hats and their guns. I am about to wave to Father, when suddenly someone grabs my shoulders and draws me back in.
“You idiot!” Lukas hisses, shaking me. The blood drains from my face as I realize what could have happened. “What if they saw you? They’d know we are communicating!” Lukas turns away, running his hand through his hair. He starts pacing. Mother ignores us; she is still signaling with Father.
“I- I’m sorry,” I mumble.
Lukas turns to face me, and his expression immediately softens. “Just be careful, okay? We’ve got to watch ourselves. Nothing can seem suspicious or the guards will watch us closely.”
I nod silently, averting my eyes to the window. This time I do wave at Father, but inside the window. He happily waves back. “How did he get a room over there?” I ask.
“He knows where our apartment is, so he rented a room across the wall so we could communicate. Father says that many people have done that,” Lukas answers. I throw him a questioning look, and he shrugs. “I signaled to him earlier today.”
“No,” Mother breathes.
“What?” I demand, tired of being the last to know everything.
“He wants us to escape by using a rope. We would tie it in our rooms and cross over the wall at night.”
“That’s crazy!” I say. “We’d be dangling right above the guards. If we were seen, we’d have nowhere to hide.” Mother nods in agreement.
Lukas shoulders his way into the window. He signals across to Father, who nods, waves, and shuts his blinds. “What did you tell him?” Mother growls, knowing all too well what Lukas told Father. “Why? You know it’s crazy!”
“You told him yes?” I gawk, incredulous.
“Do you want to get out of here?” Lukas says stubbornly.
“Do you have any better ideas?”
My eyes tell him enough. Lukas nods, satisfied. “But how do we get rope?” I say meekly.
Lukas nods. “Leave that to me.”
“Do I want to know where you got all of that rope?” I ask as Lukas comes back at midnight carrying thick coils of rope. He left two hours ago, and Mother and I waited up for him in the dark, leaving our light off so we wouldn’t draw attention. For two hours my stomach twisted itself into a nervous knot. My hands were sweaty and I kept thinking of all the worst possibilities that could happen to my brother. Mother had been pacing back and forth throughout our apartment, wringing her hands and occasionally stopping to check the door.
Lukas flashes me a grim smile. “I found a few clotheslines and swings.”
“Did anyone-” I begin to ask, but it is lost in Mother’s soft cry of relief as she smothers Lukas in a hug. He pats her back awkwardly and hands me the rope. I kneel on the floor and immediately begin to tie the rope segments together.
“We have to leave tonight,” Lukas suddenly says guiltily as he peels Mother off of him.
I stop tying the ropes as icy fear wraps its iron grips around me. My fingers begin to tremble. I swallow shakily and, without looking up, say quietly, “Who saw you?”
The silence that stretches between us makes the tense air thick.
Lukas finally replies softly, hoping that he just imagined it, “Fredrik. He was patrolling.”
Clink. I pick up another one of Mama’s buttons and throw it hard at the window of Father’s apartment. Clink. Clink plink. Plink. Just when I am beginning to worry that the guards below might hear the buttons, Father’s shades open and he pushes open his window. Just seeing his face makes me want to reach him. I wave urgently to get him to notice me. Bleary eyed, he waves back. I do my best to signal to him that we are going to throw the rope over. Finally he understands me even though our lights are out to attract less attention.
I hear Lukas and Mother come into Mother’s bedroom behind me. They have the rope, now knotted, and I move away from the window so that Lukas can throw it over. My heart is thumping so loudly that I can’t hear anything else. Lukas and Father lean as far out of their windows as they dare. Lukas throws the rope with a soft grunt. I hold my breath as it arcs silently across the moonless, dark sky and doesn’t even touch the Berlin Wall. I sigh with relief when Father catches it with a quiet slap and I see Lukas sag, relieving his tension. My brother ties his end to a support beam near our window. I can see Father doing the same.
“I’ll go first,” Mother whispers. I hug her and Lukas smiles encouragingly. Mother closes her eyes and jumps.
“Be careful,” I hear myself barely whisper. I watch as Mother slowly inches her way across the rope, and I see Father pull her inside his window. I release pent up air that I didn’t know I was holding.
Lukas pokes me in the back. I shake my head. “You go,” I whisper. I can’t do it. Not just yet.
“Are you sure?” Lukas asks, and in the shadows I can see his face etched with concern.
I nod wordlessly, unable to speak. Lukas stares at me, visibly uncomfortable with my choice, until Father jerks the rope to get our attention. I watch my brother inch his way across the line, and my stomach flip flops as he almost slips off. I can’t relax until Father pulls him into his window on the other side.
I am about to wrap my hands around the rope when I hear shouting. Crawling out of the window, I turn towards our apartment door. Boots thump up the stairs outside, and I can hear them coming closer and closer. Fredrik has alerted the guards.
Panic wells up within me, consuming my thoughts. They start pounding on our door. Our faithful lock creaks and groans but does not give. I shake my head to clear itself of my frightened instincts. I know what I must do.
My hands are clammy and shaking violently as I reach up to the support beam that our rope is tied around. I can barely control my fingers enough to untie the knot, but eventually I feel it slip loose. My stomach lurches as I hear wood splintering.
They’re breaking down the door.
Lukas sees what I’m doing, and he yells out, “Ida, no!” But I ignore him. If I leave the rope tied, the guards will follow me across and find my family. I have to do this. I stand on the windowsill, holding the end of the rope in my hands. I hear the door finally give, and soldiers come thundering in.
I take a deep breath, tense my muscles, and jump.
“NO!” Mother screams, and I see Father’s face, horrified, watching me. The wind pulls at my face and hair, drawing it back behind me. Utter terror clenches itself around me, but I keep silent as I sail over the Berlin Wall and the oblivious guards below me. In fear, my sweaty hands tighten instinctively around the rope. I hear the c*** of a gun lock into place. Lukas yells my name, but I can’t do anything.
A gun fires. Searing pain burns into my back and worms into my chest. Sharp, stinging agony claws at my mind and I can only hang on.
I’m swinging too fast towards Father’s apartment building wall. It rushes towards me, coming closer and closer. I cringe, waiting for the impact. My body tightens around the rope as I slam against the wall with crushing force. For half of a second, my hands go slack, but I catch myself. My head is throbbing and my shoulder feels split open. My whole left side is on fire.
I scream from the pain in my chest; I can feel the bullet pulling the life out of me.
The rope I am clutching desperately starts to travel upwards in violent yanks, pulling higher and higher. I hear shouts from opposite the Berlin Wall, and I can only feel glad that they cannot reach me. My head is about to explode from the pain inside me. The coarse rope is biting into my hands, rubbing the skin off. I open my eyes long enough to see blood on the rope.
Strong, firm hands wrap themselves around me and pull me into a room. Someone is crying. I can’t see anything; my eyes won’t open. I try to say something, but I can’t move my mouth.
Someone is moving me. I scream, writhing in their grasp; they’re grabbing me so hard that the pressure is unbearable on the bruises. My left side throbs painfully, and the bullet inside of me is so sharp, so penetrating that I can’t bear it anymore. Blackness swarms in my vision. I finally open my eyes, and I see three faces staring down at me. I smile at Mother, Father, and Lukas.
I can only think one thing before I give into the overwhelming agony and blackness.
“Ida. Wake up, Ida.”
“Let her alone.”
“Ida, wake up.”
No, leave me alone. I don’t want to wake up.
“I said let her alone!”
Yes, listen to him. Please just leave me alone…stop shaking me.
I squint my eyes open to see Lukas leaning over me, his hands on my shoulders. The light is too bright and I shut my eyes again. Lukas is persistent, and shakes me again. The next time I open my eyes, it doesn’t seem so blinding.
“Don’t touch her. You’re hurting her,” I hear a deep voice say as I wince. Lukas is clutching my bruised shoulder too hard. He lets go of me and I exhale.
“Ida? Oh, Ida, you’re all right!” I hear a woman crying, and then I see Mother clutching my hand. “It took us so long to find your uncle.”
Lukas opens some shades and sunlight spills into the room. “Ida!” Father says, rushing through the door to me. I realize that we’re in the apartment he rented. A strange man leans over me.
Stop staring. I’m all right. Don’t make so much noise.
“I’m dizzy,” I manage to croak. The strange man laughs heartily.
“That’s natural. What did you expect, leaping out of a window?” Father hands the man a cup of water. My vision clears and I realize that I am lying on a hard bed. There’s blood all over my shirt and some of the sheets.
“You’re a doctor,” I say, regaining some composure. I manage to move a few of my limbs, testing them out. My arms ache a little and my whole left side is throbbing slightly.
“Yes,” the man says. “And your uncle, I believe.” He starts talking in low tones to Father. I glance around the room and see a rope lying underneath window.
Everything comes flooding back to me. The rope, the guards, the gunshot, the fiery pain and the terror that I felt.
“We made it,” I say, and everyone stops to look at me. “We did it.” The doctor throws an amused look at Father, Lukas grins, and Mother smiles. Father looks at me, beaming.
“Some things, a wall can’t separate,” Father says softly. “Some things, you can’t keep apart.”