Today marks the publication of the third of our top five stories in the 8th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, and our third place finalist, Thomas Smith’s “Das Grenztrupper.” The theme of this year’s contest was “The Night Before,” and Thomas’s story about the fall of the Berlin Wall, according to our judge, “looks closely at the way cultural and political ties can shift at the drop of a hat. Particularly, how the definition of a human can shift so quickly because of shifting allegiances or laws. In one instant, someone is considered “illegal” and then the next those definitions no longer matter.” We hope you enjoy it!
“Denied!” I holler at a couple of East German girls trying to get into West Germany to go to the movies to watch “Honey, I shrunk the kids.” They were wearing colorful, voluminous outfits designed out of ordinary household items. One was wearing a black bag around her torso. Another sported a white skirt with white lines printed onto it. The skirt hung loosely to her waist, tied on with a narrow strip of leather. The third had vibrant red lipstick and sunglasses on her face. She wore very dark colors with loads of leather attaching her outfit to her body.
“Stupid girls” I murmur to myself. “The punks are making women into freak shows. No German wears anything classy anymore.”
“Next!… NEXT!” I practically break the speakers. An old couple comes in and gives me their passports. I check the stamps, ages, weights, heights, and serial numbers on their passports and as I am about to give them my green stamp of approval, I check the dates of their passports. “8-11-1989.”
“This is an outdated passport” I tell them. By one day, unluckily for them.
“Excuse me, I thought older men and women could cross if they paid the pension. I had a buddy who came in that way no problem just a few months ago.”
“You must submit an application to my superiors if you wish to cross in that manner. Besides, you will need to renew your passport if you wish to apply.”
“Oh, I see. Have a good day.”
As I prepare to call in the next group, I notice the old man acting tense. His eyes dart from me to the Grenzer standing near the gate.
“Comrade, you must go home, your passport is outdated” I remind the old man.
“Home. home…” the old man daydreams. Growing impatient, I prepare to detain him when suddenly, he darts towards the Western side!
The Grenztruppen run into my office, seemingly aware of his escape attempt before I was. They rip their rifle off of their green outfits and aim down their sights. I turn my head back, close my eyes and wait for the sound of the bullet leaving the barrel of the Grenztruppens rifle.
“BOOM!” Reopening my eyes, a pool of blood begins to form near his thigh, spilling onto the concrete floor. Security drags the man and his wife to the detention zone.
“Why is it so hard et the right papers to cross Bornholmer Straße? ” I snort. It is not every day someone makes a run for it, but after 20 years on the job, I have grown insensitive to such escape attempts.
“Next!” I speak into my microphone. A single man looking to be in his twenties walks in. He is wearing a traditional plaid shirt covered by a black sweater with leather buttons, along with a pair of blue jeans.
“Papers Please,” I tell the man. He gives me a brown Diplomat’s passport with the symbol of East Germany printed onto it- a hammer and a compass, surrounded by a ring of rye. The top reads the words ‘Deutsche Demokratische Republik Diplomatenpass’ meaning ‘German Democratic Republic Diplomatspass.’ The information about him is displayed on the left while his picture and signature cover the right page.
“Soo.. how are you doing?” The man tries to start up a conversation.
“Yeah, good” I hastily respond while still checking his passport for authenticity. His name is Jorji Costava, aged 29. He was born on January 14, 1963. He has two stamps, showing he has been in and out of the country. I check the weight, height, and date of expiration before deciding he can come in. I print my green stamp of approval on his passport and hand it back to him.
“Go through” I respond.
“Thank you.” He heads towards the door, only to be stopped by the blood stain on the floor. He gives a worried look but casually walks over the stain. I get the image of the blood out of my head, rearrange my desk and prepare to allow the next civilian in.
“3..2..1..” I whisper to myself. “Next!” In the seconds before the civilian comes in, I take a quick glance at my watch. It reads 4:58. Scheiße! I say to myself. Now, I must return home, knowing today I did not make a gottverdammt cent! Ever since the government went bankrupt, I have gotten nothing for doing my duty as a border patrol officer. I am reminded of an old joke once told by a fellow Grenzer.
“A man’s waiting in a bread line in the Soviet Union. He’s been waiting for hours, but just as he reaches the front of the line, the woman inside says, ‘sorry, out for today,’ and slams the door shut. Naturally, he’s apoplectic. He starts shouting- ‘So this is communism, eh?! I fought in the war against fascism, I’ve worked for the state my whole life, and I can’t even get a loaf of bread?!’ An official-looking man pulls him aside. ‘Comrade, you have to be careful talking like that, you could get in trouble. Why, even just a few years ago…’, he mimics a gunshot to the head. The man goes home despondent. As he walks inside, he says to his wife, ‘Things are getting very bad out there.’ “What’s that? Were they out of bread again?’ She asks. ‘Worse, they were out of bullets!’”
I hardly even care about the attractive young woman that walks into my gate. A quick glance at her appearance tells me that, like the other man that came in earlier, she is unaffected by the clothing that the punks have spawned upon the German people. She is wearing a blue jean sweatshirt over a purple shirt and pink jeans.
“Papers, Please” I sigh at the woman. She hands over her passport. Without hesitation, I open her passport, check her name-Svenja. I find an open space on her passport and give her a green stamp of approval.
“Take this. Have a good night” I tell Svenja.
“Oh Thank you!” She says flirty. “Give any cooks this sheet of paper and tell them to contact me in West Berlin!”
“Yes, I’ll do that,” I tell the girl. I gather my black cylinder bag, which houses daily materials such as my clothes, food, water, and 200 marks. I head out with my head in my shoulders, looking down at my green outfit and my badge I earned after serving my 18 months in the Nationale Volksarmee, which is a hammer and sickle atop a layer of golden leaves.
dumm communism, stealing my money and starving my children. I rip off my badge and throw it into the bottom of my bag, muttering a curse about General Secretary Krenz. I notice the same man who reads the same paper on that bench everyday glance in my direction. Another informant of the Stasi. Out of instinct, I glance up like an antelope suddenly aware it is being stalked. My head turns to the left. I’m safe. My head turns to the right. No one is there. I feel safe as I turn my head behind me, only to see a green policeman with a rifle approach me!
I hastily look at him, plotting my next actions, but as he approaches I realize it’s just Bruno, a Grenztruppen at my gate. He is 18 and has been recently assigned to Bornholmer Straße for his 18 months of service under the Nationale Volksarmee.
“My boy, how are you doing!” I holler at Bruno. He turns around, and I see him holding hands and walking with his crush Elouise. She has dirty brown hair, green-blue eyes, and a grinning smile. Her skin is golden brown and she is wearing a purple dress with blue stitches surrounding the torso. The dress also has puffy sleeves and a folded collar. Bruno looks at me, winks, and walks over.
“Hey, Albert! Am I working with you in the morning shift tomorrow?”
“Come on in by 7:30” I reply.
“Great! You wanna play a round of Skat? We can play for a slice of Baumkuchen.”
“Hey! Weren’t we going to eat that together?” Elouise says feisty.
“Ok, Ok. We’ll play for a hundred marks, but without bidding to make it go faster.”
I consider it and decide that I could use the extra cash to buy food for my family.
“Deal” I respond. Elouise deals us each ten cards and two skat cards to the side face down. Aces are worth 11 points. Tens are worth 10 points. Kings have four points and Queens have three points. Jacks are two points, but 7, 8, and 9s are worth zero points.
I study my cards, and I figure out that I have a good hand. However, my years of playing skat have taught me how to show no expression on my face.
Bruno is different; he seems almost disgusted by his hand.
I draw out the king of diamonds, one of my worst cards, to see what he has.
Bruno draws out a seven of diamonds.
Since it was diamonds, we keep going around the circle, and its Eloise’s turn.
She draws out a jack of diamonds.
“Haha,” I think in my head. It is clear she hasn’t played before, or she wouldn’t have done such a rookie mistake.
I draw out a nine of spades and let Elouise take the cards.
“YESS!” She shrieks out loud and happily pulls the cards along the table and into a pile.
Eloise plays the ten of clubs, starting a clubs suit.
I think “I could just let Bruno take the cards, who could surely beat me and Eloise. Or, I could change the tables with a risky trick…” I decide to play out my Queen of hearts and change the suit to hearts. As long as Bruno doesn’t have a better card, I could be Triumphant.
I look straight into Bruno’s eyes. They look fearful, afraid of what is to come. Regret washes upon his face as he puts down a seven of hearts.
“NOO!” Elouise yells out loud as she slams her cards down on the table. “I Quit!” She roars, and storms away.
“Wait, Elouise!” Bruno yells, but Elouise keeps walking. He hands me a hundred marks and starts to run after Elouise until he is sprinting out of sight.
“Good luck, Bruno!” I holler as he runs around a corner and slips over a pebble. I pack up my bag and go out to the shop to purchase a hot meal for my family.
My favorite deli in all of East Berlin is Ottos Deli. It is perfectly situated about ten minutes between my apartment and Bornholmer Straße. With my rupees won in skat, I plan on purchasing Königsberger Klopses, a dish hailing from Königsberg. Otto mixes veal, pork, beef, onions, and eggs into a hearty meatball. Afterward, they are smothered in a delightfully bright lemon-cream sauce and topped with capers. Thinking of meatballs, my mouth waters as I step into Otto’s.
I am greeted at the door by whole pigs and cows hanging on meat hooks. I see Otto pointing his apprentice towards one such pig and making a cutting gesture before noticing my presence. His face lightens up and he gives an easy smile in my direction.
“There’s Albert! Are you getting the usual?”
“Not today Otto, I figured I’d switch it up. Got any Königsberger Klopse?”
“Oh boy, you’re in luck! I just prepared a few klopses. How many are you looking to buy?”
“I would like a dozen with sauce.”
“Sure thing. Hey, listen, I’ve recently acquired some…” Otto quickly glances around and continues “coca-cola. I will sell it to you for a premium if you are interested.”
Usually, I have no care for exorbitantly priced western products. However, I figure I have some spending money, and I am sure that my seven-year-old daughter Hannah would be thrilled to try some forbidden cola.
“Sure thing, throw it in the bag.”
“ that’ll be 60 marks.”
Cringing, I cough up my 60 marks, thinking of how many currywurst’s I could have bought instead. Otto goes into the back and returns with the meatballs, a container of sauce, and a glass bottle of coca-cola. I grab the bag, give my thanks, and head out the door.
Growing dark now, I pass a Television store. Lines of TVs televise a press conference being given by Schabowski, the party leader of the Socialist Unity Party. He is discussing regulations regarding the wall and border crossings. Given this pertains to my job, I figure I should probably tune in, but I soon grow bored and confused amongst the meaningless jumble of words that Communist officials are so fond of spitting out. Disinterested, I leave for my apartment. Besides, I can watch from home if I care, albeit on a smaller television.
By the time I reach my apartment it is dark. My apartment is in the style of a Plattenbau; unfortunately, I am not able to afford the flashy new Neabeu’s. While it may have been stylish 30 years ago, today my apartment is a rather forgetful block of concrete that is in surprisingly bad shape for its age; multiple apartments lack running water, and repairs have been needed for years now. I make my way up the brutalist concrete steps to the third floor, where I enter my apartment – room 321.
I open my door into the dark hallway that leads to my living room. I put my hat and coat onto the coat rack and turn left towards the kitchen, where I set down my bag of groceries. I take out the coca-cola to surprise Hannah, who I can hear watching the television with my wife in the living room.
As I approach the living room, I oddly hear the voice of Schabowski. Why are they watching that bore of a press conference? I think to myself as I go to find out the answer.
I prepare to announce my presence before turning my attention towards the television that Marlene and Hannah are intently watching. They are watching Heute, the news program. Marlene and Hannah turn their attention to me.
“Albert, have you been keeping up with this press conference that Schabowski just gave?” begins Marlene.
“I watched a short clip on the way home” I reply, “but it seemed no different than any other press conference. What did he say?”
“Honey, it’s the wall. He said that the border is open again. Did they not tell you at work?”
The wall? Open? No, Marlene must be mistaken. “There is no way they are opening the border. Just today an old man got shot trying to make a run for it.” I know that Krenz and Interior Minister Gerhard Lauter have been working on a new travel policy to ease restrictions, but surely that is not what they had in mind! It would be ludicrous, inconceivable that the politburo would institute a policy that would result in the mass flight of East Berliners. With that said, Krenz did promise reform when he stepped into office… however, so did Honecker before him, and he certainly did not enact such reforms. Besides, the Volkskammer would never vote for a candidate who would seriously enact reform. Furthermore, the new draft of travel restrictions Lauter published three days ago was nothing but legislative rubbish and left no impression that restrictions would be seriously lifted anytime soon.
“See for yourself” Marlene gestures towards the Television.
The familiar face of Heute Anchor Claus Seibel begins, “and here is the clip.”
Schabowski reads to the press, “Private trips abroad can now be applied for without prerequisites, conditions, or family relationships.” A reporter asks, “When does this go into effect?” to which Schabowski replies, “According to my information…” he gives a confused look as he squints at his small notecard provided to him by the politburo. He continues, “Immediately. Without delay.”
That Evolutionsbremse! is the first thought I have, out of fear of losing my job. Then, my mind drifts to that old man who tried to cross. His reserved manner, politeness… and the sound of the gunshot. I shutter.
Hannah pulls me back into reality by asking, “Hey dad, whatcha drinking?” She curiously observes the Coca-Cola bottle logo.
I smile gently. “Hannah, have you ever tried coca-cola? It is like Vita Cola but sweeter and nuttier and more American.”
“Coca-Cola?” Hannah looks confused. “No, I haven’t had it before. I want to try it though. Can I?”
“All yours!” I cheer as I hand her the bottle.
“Oh thank you, dad, I’m gonna try it right now!” She scurries down the hallway to the kitchen, leaving Merlene and me alone in the living room.
We look at each other awkwardly, at a loss for words. The silence is deafening. As I prepare to make casual conversation, our silence is broken by a phone call. I reach for my phone.
“Albert. You are to report at Bornholmer Straße no later than 20:00.” I prepare a response, but the hum of the ended phone call tells me that is all I needed to know.
“Who was that?” Questions Merlene.
“Work. I have been called in for the night shift.”
“Huh? You haven’t worked the night shift in years! What do they need?”
“I presume it is because of Schabowski’s announcement. They’re gonna need experienced border agents to deal with the mass of people that’ll gather at the crossings tonight.”
Hannah rushes back into the living room, cola in hand, excitedly exclaiming “Wow dad, this really is better than vita cola! Can you get more?”
I smile at her innocence. “No sweetie, it’s hard to get them. It is only for special occasions.”
“Well, what occasion is it today?” She asks. I hear a boldness in her tone.
I stop to think for a moment and reply, “I reckon you’ll tell your children about today. The first day East Berliners could cross into the West freely since 61.”
Hannah gives me a slightly puzzled look, feigns a smile, and walks back toward the kitchen. She will understand what I mean soon enough.
“I figure I better rest before I have to go back to work. Marlene, may you wake me up around 9:30?”
I climb into bed and close my eyes. What greets me is not sleep; it is the memories of 20 years at Bornholmer Straße. 20 years of service to my country. 20 years of service to communism. I recall my first month on the job, September ‘69. I remember how nervous I was, 18, freshly conscripted and working at Nordbahnhof. Just weeks after conscription, I recall reading the papers of.. who was it? Regardless, while I was preparing to stamp him passage, I saw a man make a run for the Western side about 100 meters in front of me. He was quick, but no man is quick enough to outrun a bullet. The Stasi wanted the new conscripts to see what happens to those who make a run for it. “This is Leo Lis”, began one senior officer. “He tried to outrun the Stasi. We knew he was going to try to escape before he set foot near the border. We told him not to act rash, gave him a lesson about it at his home. And yet, here he lies. Look at him. We will know if you try to run for the West. This will be you if you try to escape.” Blood covering the concrete ground, Leo’s empty and lifeless eyes started at me. They were pretty eyes, characteristically blue.
That was the day my life became devoted to serving the Grenztruppen.
“Time to wake up!”
I open my eyes to Merlene shaking me gently. I quickly glance at the clock on my nightstand – 9:30. I thank Merlene for waking me up and quickly dawn my green Grenztruppen uniform. Before leaving, I make sure to say goodbye to Merlene and Hannah, who are eating the Klopses I brought home. I stuff a meatball or three down my throat as I rush out the front door.
Walking to work, East Berlin is unusually energetic. I pass bars crammed with lively drunks and music. Everyone I pass seems relaxed, smiling. I pass Otto’s and glance down at my watch – 9:49. I will not be late.
As I approach Bornholmer Straße, the small crowds in the street grow larger and larger. By the time I get near the crossing, a mob of people surround me in every direction. I fight my way through the crowd to the front, where I see my fellow Grenztruppen desperately trying to push the mob away from the wall. Behind them is Lieutenant-Colonel Harald Jäger, head of the passport control unit.
“Comrade” I approach Jäger, “I am reporting for duty.”
“By god where have you been? We’ve needed more Grenzers for hours now.”
“My orders were to report here at 20:00.”
“Who told you that? None the matter. We have been letting some more aggressive members of the mob through, but when we do we stamp INVALID in their passport so they cannot return. Suits them right if they’re so eager to leave. I need you to help the Grenzer at the station over there.” He points towards one station being managed by a very young and very stressed out man. “Refuse anyone from crossing. Only let them cross if they insist, but again make sure you stamp their passport INVALID.”
“As you order, Comrade.”
I fight my way through the mob to the station. Inside, about 15 people surround the one young Grenztruppen, waving their passports in the air and fighting their way to the front. As I approach I can see that it is Bruno who is working the station. I try my best to remain calm among the chaos as I sit down next to Bruno. Only after I sit does he notice me.
“Hey, Albert! Surprised to see you here!”
“You as well” I reply. “It seems they are in desperate need of Grenzers.”
“Do you know that or are you just guessing?” Bruno laughs sarcastically. Our conversation is interrupted by an East German woman who starts pounding on my desk.
“I need to cross now!” She demands.
“No you don’t. Denied!” I reply, unable to keep from ginning. I am about to continue my conversation with Bruno when this woman lets out a shriek. Turning my attention to her, I notice she is wearing a pink tank top with a black plastic bag around her waist. She looks oddly familiar. Another spawn of hell sent to me by the punk movement.
“You want passage, so be it.” I open her passport, stamp a big red INVALID over her personal information, and hand it back. “Enjoy the West you creep.”
Satisfied, the woman takes back her passport and crosses over the border. I realize it may have been a mistake to let this lady through with so many more around her, as her exit prompts the crowd to begin harassing the Grenzer standing by the border.
“You shouldn’t have let her through” Bruno tells me as though I cannot piece that together myself.
“NEXT!” I yell at the crowd. They move away from the Grenzer by the border and fight their way to my desk, where they hold their passports open. I pick up my INVALID stamp and stamp every passport on my desk. It seems no one cares if their passport is invalidated; they will do anything to cross.
“Albert, you can’t just let anyone through! Didn’t Jäger tell you to only let a few through?”
“It doesn’t matter” I begin. “You watched Schabowski’s press conference, yea? The border’s been open since he said those words.”
“That doesn’t mean you can let anyone through!” Bruno protests.
“Watch me” I reply defiantly. The crowd that crosses the border is immediately replaced by an even larger crowd who cram into the station and all wave their passports at me. I put down my INVALID stamp for a green APPROVED stamp and let everyone through. I only reach for my INVALID stamp when a punk tries to cross. The way I see it, I’m ridding Germany of these anarchists one punk at a time.
Time flies as I stamp one passport after the next. Bruno, finally recognizing the futility of it all, also begins to approve more people. I find myself truly enjoying my job for the first time in a while, despite all the disorder. After some time the telephone on my desk rings. We both reach for it, but Bruno draws his hand back when he sees me go to grab it.
I hear the voice of Jäger say “Attention all Grenztruppen. It has come to my attention that the mob has grown to a size of over 20,000. It is apparent we are not adequately equipped to deal with such a sizeable force. As such, I am authorizing the opening of all checkpoints at Bornholmer Straße. No background checks will be required. Goodbye.” Jäger ends the call and I put the phone down.
“Who was that?” questions Bruno.
“Jäger. He said every border is open effective immediately.” Bruno’s eyes widen.
“Comrade” I announce to the Grenzer by the border, “I have orders from Jäger to open this border to anyone who wishes to pass.”
The crowd hears my command and lets out a cheer. Like opening a pipe valve, countless Germans flood across the border into the West. I sit back and watch.
“Well Bruno, I say our shift has ended. Want to hit up the bar to commemorate open borders?”
“Of course, lets party!” Bruno and I leave our post and fight against the current of people flowing West. I begin to ponder the future of my career, of my life which has been devoted to the Grenztruppen. Then, I stop. Now is not the time to think of the future. Now is the time to celebrate.