Erika Hoffmann was afraid as she walked through the dark, rain soaked streets of Eisenach, a small town just inside the border of East Germany. She should not have been out at this hour, ninety minutes after the curfew of ten o’clock which had been imposed in January.
The soviet rulers had been worried about people attempting to escape to the west and if she was caught by the Stasi who knows what would happen to her.
People sometimes disappeared without warning.
The fact that she had been visiting her friend and lost all track of time would not matter at all to the authorities. No, they would automatically accuse her of some kind of subversive activity or, worse, trying to escape to the west!
She had lived all her life in Eisenach, from birth in 1922 until now and, at thirty one years of age she should be married and have a family but, because of the war and subsequent occupation by the soviets she had not met anyone she wanted to marry.
She was tall and slim, with jet black hair and dark brown eyes. The very opposite of the girls featured in the Nazi posters for the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls.
Both her parents had been shot by the Nazis for daring to stand up to them when their home was raided after a neighbour accused them of being Jews in 1944. Luckily for Erika she had been away from home at the time and had not been involved but after the soviets arrived things were no better. The Russian soldiers were like animals and hated all things German. They were out for revenge for what had happened to them when they were invaded and no woman was safe. Many being raped and even murdered.
Now, in 1953, things were a little more settled but the whole community lived in fear. Neighbours informed the police of everything, curtains constantly twitched and Erika had to be careful not to be seen going into her apartment for fear of a neighbour informing on her!
She had taken off her shoes so there would be no sound from her heels as she flitted from shadow to shadow, stopping constantly to look and listen, pressing herself into a doorway when a police patrol drove past. Her dark woollen coat helped her to blend in and not be seen as the car drove slowly by, her heart beating so loudly in her ears she was surprised they hadn’t heard it. For a second she thought the policeman in the passenger seat had seen her as he looked straight at her but, no, they continued on their patrol without even a pause and, once again, the street was empty and quiet.
As soon as the sound of the car had faded away, she made a dash across the road to her apartment house.
“Hey!” a man’s voice shouting, “What are you doing there?” Erika froze in the doorway, not daring to breathe. There was a crash and a dog yelped, “Get away from here, damned dogs!” A door slammed and quiet returned once more.
Closing her eyes she let the stale air escape from her lungs. She heaved and felt the bitter taste of bile in her mouth but managed to keep the contents of her stomach from escaping and, without wasting any more time, opened the door with her key, crept silently past the concierge’s door and along the corridor to her own home where, once inside, she leaned her back against the front door and breathed a sigh of relief.
She was angry at having to be so afraid. This should be a civilised community, she should not live in fear for her safety just because she had overstayed at her friends house.
From what little TV they were allowed to see, Erika was sure her cousins in
Bad Hersfeld, just a few kilometres across the border in the west, didn’t have to worry about such things.
She thought about her cousins, Markus and Franke. She visited them often in happier times but since the country had been divided she had not seen them at all. They wrote frequently to each other but had to be careful in case her mail was intercepted and checked.
She knew that Markus had become a policeman after the war. He was younger than she was, just twenty seven, and his sister who was the same age as Erika, was an ambulance driver. They had survived the war as Franke had become a nurse in 1939 and moved to ambulances in 1943 and when the war came to a close, Markus had deserted and Franke hid him until it was safe.
The walk back from her friends home tonight had finally convinced Erika that she was not going to live like this any more. She had been frightened almost out of her wits and there and then she decided it was time to escape to the west to join her cousins and be free once more.
The only problem she had was how to cross the border. The security was watertight now and anyone caught trying to get through could be shot.
Later, as Erika lay awake in her bed, she thought about how she would get across. There was the fence with barbed wire and there was also, possibly, a minefield. Even if there wasn’t, there were almost certainly alarms and she had seen the watch towers and armed guards for herself.
She decided that the best method was the railway as the train stopped at both Eisenach and Bad Hersfeld. How she would do it, though, was a different matter altogether.
Her friend Elsa, whom had been visiting, was a ticket inspector on the Deutsche Reichsbahn. She knew that train crews were changed at the border for West German staff but Elsa could get her on board and she would know where to hide for the border inspection.
Elsa Schröder was the same age as Erika. Her father had been killed in August, 1944 during an air raid by the American 91st bomb group and her mother passed away soon after. The doctors said she had a heart attack but Elsa preferred to believed she had died from the grief of losing her father.
As a result of both losing their parents in such tragic circumstances the two women had grown up together. They had no other friends and Elsa didn’t seem that worried that she had never met a husband. When she worked she always wore trousers instead of a skirt and although she was very pretty and had a stereotypical Germanic appearance of blonde hair and blue eyes she kept her hair cut short so, when she wore her uniform she looked more like a young boy than a grown woman.
Since the death of their parents, almost a decade before, they had become very close and trusted no-one but each other so now that Erika had made this life threatening decision the only person she could turn to was Elsa and that would have to wait until she next saw her.
Turning over on to her side, Erika closed her eyes but sleep would not come. The fear she had experienced and the concern about her future would keep her awake all night until daylight began to fill her room as the first day of the rest of her life began.
It was Sunday. The dress shop where Erika worked was closed and she had the day to herself. Elsa was also off work as this was her Sunday off too.
About midday, Erika walked the half kilometre to her friends house and knocked on the door. It opened slowly and a worried Elsa peered out. When she saw who it was she said urgently:
“Come in, come in,” and a big smile appeared on her face. Closing the door behind them she threw her arms around Erika’s neck and held her so tightly she thought it would snap!
“Oh ’Rika!,” she said eventually, “I was so afraid you would be caught. I couldn’t sleep all night.”
Erika’s arms squeezed tightly around the others waist as she hugged her and she replied:
“I know, I am sorry but I didn’t dare call you in case anyone was listening in.”
When they finally separated, Elsa took Erika’s hand and looking into her deep brown eyes said:
“I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you. You are all I have left.”
“I know,” she said, gently, “I know,”
“I never told you but when the Russians came they hurt so many people in ways that were unimaginable to me and when I saw what they were doing I cut off my hair and swore that no man would ever touch me like that. I made myself look like a boy so they would leave me alone.”
Erika’s jaw dropped.
“Elsa! I never knew. I just thought it was a style you liked.”
“You weren’t here, Erika, you never saw what happened to the women here. They were animals!”
“I know, I heard. It wasn’t my fault though. How could I be here when I had been sent to work in Berlin?” The dark haired woman felt as though her friend was blaming her for what had happened, as though it was her fault she had not been there.
“I am sorry ’Rika, I didn’t mean it to sound like that. I was just trying to explain why I was so worried about you.”
The two stood in silence for a moment then put their arms around each other and held each other.
Soon, they walked together to the kitchen. Erika took off her coat and placed it on the back of the chair and sat at the little table where Elsa had prepared a pot of fresh coffee. They drank in silence for a dew minutes until Erika spoke:
“Elsa, I want to leave here. I am sick of living in fear.” The blonde woman looked at her friend.
“Where will you go? It is the same all over East Germany.”
“You know I have cousins in Bad Hersfeld? I will stay with them until I find a place of my own.” As she spoke, slowly and deliberately, she watched Elsa’s eyes narrow.
“But that’s the other side of the border.”
“Yes, I know. You remember Markus and Franke?”
“But ’Rika,” Elsa’s voice became a whisper and the furrows in her brow deepened, “How? They will shoot you if you are caught and you will leave me?”
Erika looked hard at her friends pretty face.
“No,” she said, eventually, “I want you to come too. Do you want to?”
“Oh yes,” came the reply, “of course I want to but I am afraid. How will we do it?”
Erika paused before answering:
“On the train!”
“The train!?” Elsa exclaimed, “How?”
“I don’t know. I am so tired I can’t think but we will work it out together.” Erika covered her mouth as she yawned then continued, “I didn’t sleep last night, either. I lay awake thinking of so many things.”
“We could take a nap if you like.” Elsa ventured, “We could use my bed, it is big enough.”
“I would like that but I haven’t brought anything with me.”
“It’s ok, ’Rika, I don’t mind if you don’t.”
Erika thought for a moment,
“Ok,” she finally answered, “it will be like when we were children.”
The two women finished their coffee in silence then, standing, Elsa took the empty cups and placed them next to the sink and together they went into the bedroom.
Erika began to undress, first unbuttoning her blouse and slipping it from her shoulders, placing it neatly on the chair at the end of the bed then unfastened her skirt and stepped out of it, folding it neatly and placing it with her blouse, on the chair. Finally removing her shoes and placing them beneath the same chair. Now dressed in bra, pants and stockings she waited until Elsa had also undressed and watched, with a hint of sadness, as her friend removed her underwear and climbed into bed, beckoning her to join her.
Without all her masculine clothes, Erika saw that Elsa was a beautiful woman. She was tall and slim with small firm breasts and not a hint of fat and she was pretty as a picture with her ice blue eyes shining out of her elf like face which was accentuated by her short blonde hair. She deserved to find a man to love her and not spend her life alone.
But then, she thought, she was alone too, she just didn’t seem to have found anyone she liked enough, even to go out with and working in a dress shop meant that generally, the only people she met were either women or men looking for clothes for their wives or girlfriends.
There had been somebody once, during the war whilst she worked as a typist in Berlin. He had been a soldier in the Wehrmacht and was ten years older than her. He had been posted to Berlin after losing the use of a leg after being blown up by a shell but he was kind and considerate and Erika loved him dearly. They had been together for nearly a year and had become so close that they trusted each other implicitly and he often told her how much he hated the Nazis and couldn’t wait for the war to end. Sadly, he had been killed in a raid as Berlin came under more frequent attacks when Germany was succumbing to the allied advance.
She had been distraught for a time and the only thing that kept her going was that they had made love for the first and only time in her life just days before.
“’Rika?” Elsa spoke softly, “Are you coming?”
“Oh, yes, sorry”, she smiled, “I was just thinking about Helmut”.
“Helmut?” Elsa looked puzzled, “Who is Helmut?”
“Just a man,” Erika replied with a hint of sadness, “Maybe I will tell you about him someday.” then stepped forward and slipped into bed along side her friend who pulled the covers over them both and cuddled into her, holding her tight as she drifted off into a comfortable, relaxed sleep.
A few hours later, Erika awoke and lay quietly, enjoying the warmth of her friends body against her back. It had been a long time since she had shared a bed with anyone and she felt safe and happy to be close to someone again, even if it was a woman, a friend.
Elsa stirred and pulled herself tighter onto Erika’s warm body.
Turning onto her back, Erika put her arm out and Elsa lifted her head so she could place her arm underneath then, lying on her side, Elsa put her head onto Erika’s shoulder and her arm around her waist and the two women held each other in a close embrace.
Elsa looked up, into her friends eyes and moved her head slightly and kissed her gently on the lips.
Erika didn’t understand why she was not shocked and she responded as though it was the natural thing to do.
She closed her arms even more tightly around her friend, who was about to become her lover.
So much emotion flooded through her, so much understanding of why she was still single and why Elsa Schröder was her only friend. Now she knew this moment had been destined from the start, maybe even why Helmut had been taken from her so cruelly.
Later she opened her dark brown eyes and looked into Elsa’s, lying naked in her arms. What she saw through those beautiful, ice blue windows was love, joy and even peace. Moving her head forwards she placed a kiss firmly onto the other woman’s lips who responded eagerly.
For some time they lay in each others arms, silently. No words were needed but soon the room began to darken as the sun set.
Elsa stirred first and sat up, swung her legs off the bed and placed her feet firmly on the floor.
Turning back she looked at Erika and smiled.
“Coffee?” Her lover just smiled back and nodded her head then she too sat up and began to get out the other side.
Standing, Erika adjusted her underwear, fastened her bra and dressed once again in the satin blouse and thick wool skirt she had placed so carefully on the chair, several hours ago.
With Elsa in her robe, they walked together to the kitchen and she sat at the table whilst the coffee brewed on the stove.
For a while the two of them sat in silence, neither one really knowing what to say until:
“Are we ok, ’Rika?”
“Yes, Elsa,” she replied, “We are more than ok,”
Silence reigned for a while longer then Erika looked at her friend and asked:
“Did you know this would happen? Did you plan this?”
“Yes,” came the reply, “Well, no, not exactly. I have loved you for a long time but I didn’t dare tell you because you have never shown any interest in me that way. I was afraid that if I said something you would leave me and to have you as a friend and love you from afar was better than losing you completely.” She looked at Erika intently, worried at what she would say but when no answer was forth coming she continued, “Do you understand me now? You are not angry with me are you?”
Erika took her friends hand and held it tightly.
“No, Elsa, I am not angry. You are right, I didn’t think of you that way. I have never thought of any woman that way but feeling you next to me in the bed, your warm body against mine, I knew that we were meant to be together. That I love you more than just as a friend and that I never want to lose you, ever.” With that, she stood and walked around to the other side of the table and kissed her new lover as if to seal their new found happiness, then sat on Elsa’s knee. They placed their arms around each other and held each other with Erika resting her head on top of Elsa’s.
“We cannot stay here now.” she said, without moving, “If anyone finds out about us we will be reported to the Stasi. We have to leave, and soon.”
“But how, ’Rika? We cannot just get on the train and say ‘two singles to Bad Hersfeld, please’.”
“No, silly, of course we can’t,” Erika smiled, “But you work on the trains, you must meet the West German staff. Can we trust any of them?”
“I don’t know, you are the only person I have ever trusted.” Elsa paused, “What are you thinking we should do?”
“Well, my first idea is that I get on the train at Eisenach and you hide me somewhere on board. Then, when we get to the border maybe one of the others could get you a Deutsche Bahn uniform to change into and you stay on board until we get to Bad Hersfeld. What do you think?”
Elsa thought hard.
“I am not sure. The guards have dogs. Maybe I could try and get two uniforms and we could both pretend to be staff.”
Erika kissed her head.
“Let’s eat,” she said, “and then I must leave. I dare not be late today it was so frightening last night, I can’t go through that again.”
The two of them sat down together and ate the meal they had prepared. They had done this so many times but now it was different. They were no longer just friends they were lovers and together nothing would stop them.
When they had finished and tidied away the dishes, Erika turned to her friend and said:
“Don’t take any chances. If you feel you cannot trust anyone then we will find another way. One way or another, we will get across the border and we will be together. For ever.”
They kissed and held each other for a moment and parted.
This time Erika did not run silently between the shadows. This time she walked confidently home, smiling because she had finally understood what her solitary life had been about.
That night she slept soundly. She remembered no dreams and awoke only with the insistent ringing of her alarm clock.
The day passed uneventfully and she didn’t even think about their escape. After all, until she knew whether Elsa could obtain the necessary uniforms, she didn’t really know how they would do it.
One night, she sat alone in her apartment, listening to the radio. A young man had been shot dead trying to escape to the west in Berlin. The newsreader reported a spokesman as saying he was a traitor to the state and all such attempts to defect would be treated as treason.
Erika shuddered but they could not stay, especially now. If the Stasi found out about them they would be arrested anyway. Risking death would be a fair price to pay if she and Elsa could be together safely.
Almost a week passed by before the two women saw each other again. Elsa had been working the late shifts so the curfew meant they could not be together.
Saturday morning and Erika awoke to an urgent knocking at her door.
“Who is there?” she called.
“It’s me, Elsa,” came the reply.
She quickly opened the door and let her friend inside.
“What are you doing here so early? It is only seven O’clock.”
“I’m sorry,” Elsa said, “but I had to see you before you went to the shop. I risked telling one of the conductors about our plan. He promised to help but could only get one uniform. I have brought it here in case he tells anyone and they search my apartment.”
Erika smiled as she listened. Elsa hadn’t even stopped to take a breath.
“Don’t worry,” she said, placing a fingertip on her friends lip, “We will think of a way with just one.”
“I know, ‘Rika, but there is worse news. The uniform belongs to a colleague of his who is away on holiday. She doesn’t know he has it. We have to go before next Saturday so he can return it without her knowing!”
“A week!?” Erika exclaimed. She thought for a moment then, “Fine, we can do it”. She took Elsa’s face in her hands and looked into her eyes, “We will do it!”
Erika shuddered but they could not stay, especially now. If the Stasi found out about them they would be arrested anyway. Risking death would be a fair price to pay if she and Elsa could be together safely.
“Are you working tonight?” she asked, taking the brown paper parcel from her friend.
“No,” Elsa replied, “Should I come over?”
“No.” came the answer, much to Elsa’s surprise. “Meet me at the shop at five, when I finish. I don’t care if people see us. Only we know that something is different now, they don’t.”
The relief was obvious on Elsa’s face. she smiled happily and put her arms around her lover, enjoying the warm closeness of her body and kissed her with a gentleness that shouted, I love you.
Just before five, the shop door bell tinkled. Erika looked up from the dress she was repairing expecting to see Elsa but instead there was a man wearing a dark raincoat and trilby hat. he looked very severe and Erika immediately identified him as a secret policeman, Stasi!
Her heart leapt into her mouth. She had done nothing but even so, she was afraid. What did he want with her?
Had someone reported Elsa this morning? Did they think it was suspicious, her arriving so early with a parcel?
Even though her heart was pounding in her chest she smiled and said:
“Can I help you?”
The man looked at her for a moment before saying:
Her heart missed a beat. She was amazed it was still beating at all.
Her legs went to jelly and her back hurt as her muscles tensed with fear. She swallowed and licked her lips to moisten then before replying:
“Yes, I am Erika Hoffmann.”
“Ah, good,” the man offered her his hand, ” My name is Dieter, I have been told you are an excellent dressmaker. I need a special dress for my wife for our twenty fifth anniversary party.”
Erika breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed.
“Are you alright?” the man looked concerned.
“Yes, I am sorry, it’s been a long, busy week. When do you need the dress by?”
“Four weeks, the seventeenth if that is possible.”
“Yes, it should be.” Erika didn’t even consider that she may not be here, “what do you have in mind?”
“Something elegant but not too fancy,” he smiled, “She is beautiful enough”.
“That will be fine.” She had forgotten her fear now, “I have some pattern books if you would like to look for a style.”
“Oh, yes, ok but not now, you are closing soon. I will come back on Monday if that is alright?”
“Yes, certainly, thank you.” Erika almost forgot to ask, “Could you get some measurements?”
“Ah,” he replied, “I didn’t think of that. It was supposed to be a surprise.”
“That is ok,” she smiled, “Can you perhaps bring an old dress she won’t miss? I can work from that.”
“Yes, I think so,” he replied after a moments thought, “do you want a deposit?”
“No, that can wait until we sort out the details.”
At that moment the door opened and Elsa appeared. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the man so Erika just smiled and shook her head almost imperceptively.
“Then I will see you Monday, Miss Hoffmann, Thank you.”
Elsa held the door open and he nodded to her as he passed,
“Thank you, young man”, he said, and was gone into the darkening, wet street.
“Who was that?” The look on Elsa’s face was that of fear.
“Don’t worry, It was just a customer wanting a special dress for his wife. He frightened me too, at first.”
” ‘Rika, I don’t like being afraid again. It is worse than when the Russians came. At least we knew who the enemy was. Now we can’t trust anyone.”
A tear welled in Elsa’s eyes and Erika wanted to take her in her arms and reassure her but she couldn’t, not here in the shop so she smiled and whispered:
“Soon, my love. Soon we can leave and not have to worry any more.”
After locking the shop they walked together in silence back to Erika’s apartment.
The door to the concierge’s home was open and as they passed she appeared in the doorway.
“Good evening Erika,” she didn’t smile as she looked at them, “Elsa.”
“Good evening Mrs. Steiner,” they answered in unison. “How are you?”
“Fine thank you,” she replied and watched as they continued on their way to Erika’s door and went inside.
“Does she suspect something?” Elsa was still nervous.
“No, I don’t see why she should,” her friend told her, “It is her job to watch people.”
They sat down together at the kitchen table and whilst they ate they discussed how they were going to escape.
“Do you know when your counterpart from the west side is working the same train as you?”
“Yes,” Elsa answered, “There are several options but there is only one opportunity where we have the best chance and that is Thursday night. There is a border guard who likes me. He keeps asking me to go out with him. I always refuse, of course, but I think he is more likely to let me go if he finds out what is happening. Thursday is the only day this week where he, I and the other conductor are scheduled to be on duty at the same time.”
She paused for a moment whilst taking a drink from her coffee cup. Erika looked at her intently, listening carefully as she continued.
“I have an idea. You get a ticket to Eisenach from Gotha. Obviously you will not get off at Eisenach. I am the conductor on that train. When we leave Eisenach, you go into the toilet and put on the uniform and stay there until the train stops at the border crossing. The West Germans get on there and you can come out when they are there. I will get off with my colleagues but will get back on and hide until the train moves again. Once the train is moving, the guards will have got off and we will be free.”
Erika sat silently. She liked the idea but it seemed a bit too easy. Eventually she asked:
“What if the guards want to know why you are still on board if they find you?”
“I have thought about that. The guard believes anything I tell him. I just tell him I have left my hand bag or ticket machine or something. I will stay in the guards office until the train moves off. He will not question me if he has already had an explanation.”
“Can you be certain of that?”
“Of course not,” came the answer, “We cannot be sure of anything but I can’t think of another way. Can you?”
Erika’s brain was in turmoil. So many questions, so few answers.
“No,” she said, finally, “I can’t.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes until, at last, Erika looked up and said:
“Thursday it is then.”
Elsa got to her feet and walked around the table to where her friend was seated and sat down next to her.
“I am frightened, ‘Rika”, she said at last and, taking Erika’s hand in her own, placed her head on her lovers shoulder and listened to the sound of her blood rushing through her ears.
Erika thought hard whilst she stroked Elsa’s hair but try as she might, she couldn’t think of another way through.
She thought about her friend beside her and how long they had been friends. She thought about her cousins in Bad Hersfeld. She couldn’t tell them she was coming and she just had to hope they would be pleased to see her.
What if it went wrong and they were caught? She shivered. She couldn’t think about that. It just had to be a case of what will be will be.
She had to be positive. Be strong. Elsa was depending on her.
She looked down at her friend. Elsa was right, there really was no-one else to depend on, no-one who could be trusted. It was only going to be the two of them for the rest of their lives.
She heaved a deep sigh.
Elsa looked up.
“‘Rika?” She looked concerned.
“I am ok,” she replied and placed a soft kiss against Elsa’s forehead, then, after a pause, another on her nose and, after another pause, one on her lips.
“Come on,” she said, taking her friends hand and leading her to the bedroom.
“What time is it?” Elsa cried, sitting up sharply.
Erika panicked, the curfew! She looked at the clock on the bedside table and relaxed slightly.
“It’s ok, Sweetheart”, she soothed the short blonde hair, It’s just past nine”. She put her arm around the petite body beside her and lay back on the pillow.
“I have to go,” the little voice from her shoulder answered.
Erika watched her dress in silence, drinking in the beauty before her. Toned and slender, firm yet soft, then, covering herself with her robe walked to the door.
They kissed tenderly. All urgency was gone now and before she opened the door she looked into the beautiful blue eyes before her and said:
“Nothing will stop us, I love you so much.”
“I love you too, ‘Rika,” came the reply.
Erika closed the door quietly after Elsa left and rested her head against it for a moment. Now she was scared. From this moment on she would think of nothing else but the days ahead which could mean a new life for both of them or, quite simply, Death!
Erika spent the next day, Sunday, alone as Elsa was scheduled to work so she busied herself with cleaning and tidying her apartment. After she had gone she didn’t want anyone saying she was dirty and untidy. She would probably never see Eisenach again but that didn’t matter. Besides, she didn’t want to stop and think about what may happen on Thursday. She would worry about that enough as the day drew near.
The following day she tried to catch up with all the work she wanted to finish before she left. She had never been a selfish person and didn’t want to leave any of her customers without the dresses they had ordered.
About midday, the door bell tinkled and, looking up she saw it was the man who had come to see her just before closing on Saturday.
He tipped his hat.
“Miss Hoffmann,” he said.
“Good day, Herr……..?” She couldn’t remember if he had told her his name.
“Braun,” he obliged, “But please, call me Dieter.”
“Dieter,” she repeated.
“I have brought an old dress, as you requested,” he continued. “You said you have patterns for me to choose from.”
Erika thought for a moment. Her conscience would not let her take an order for something so important to him, knowing full well she would not be here to finish it. She steeled herself to let him down as gently as she could.
“Herr Braun,” she began.
“Dieter, please,” he interrupted.
“Dieter… I am sorry but I cannot take your order.”
He looked disappointed as he took in what she said.
“That is a shame. May I ask why?.”
“I have to take some time off to visit a relative and I would not be able to finish your dress before you need it,” she paused before continuing, “I would not be happy if I spoilt your anniversary.”
Dieter lowered his head. he looked up again.
I am sorry to hear that,” he said, “I had heard such good things about your work and had hoped… well, never mind.”
He turned to leave but then turned back
“Do you know of anyone else who could help?”.
“If I could make a suggestion,” she spoke hesitantly, “I could take your order and begin the process, making sure you get what you want, then pass it on to one of my associates. They are very good too. The only thing is I cannot oversee the work and you would have to speak directly with them.”
“That will be fine,” he looked happier, “If she works here with you then I am sure she will be good enough.”
The next hour went by quickly as they perused pattern books and Herr Braun finally chose a dress that he thought would suit his wife. He had brought a photograph of her to help Erika find suitable fabrics and colours. She was plain but tall and elegant and soon they had chosen something they both felt would look beautiful on her.
After he had left, Erika felt a little sad that she would not see the finished article. Frau Braun was going to look lovely in what they had chosen for her. It made her realise just what she was giving up. She could never return to Eisenach once she left, her whole life was here. Even though she had no family here and her only friend, her lover, was going with her, she would still miss it.
With sadness she returned to her work and kept herself busy for the rest of the day.
Elsa appeared just before five. It was the last time they would be together before the big day and they wanted to spend as much time as they could in each other’s company.
As they walked home together, Erika looked at the shops and houses as she passed. Every day she had passed them and they went by virtually unnoticed but now she saw them and they looked so familiar yet distant.
“‘Rika?” the voice from beside her, querying.
“Oh, it’s nothing, Elsa,” she answered, “I was just thinking how much I am going to miss this place.”
Elsa looked at her. A worried look on her face.
“You are not going to change your mind are you?”
“No,” she replied with a weary smile, “Don’t worry. We can’t stay even if we wanted to. Not if we are going to be together.”
They walked on in silence until they were home.
Once inside Erika took off her coat and placed it on the stand beside Elsa’s.
“We have not talked about what happens on the other side,” she said.
“Oh…well,” Elsa stammered, “I just thought, well assumed, that you and I would be together. Is that not what you want?” She looked serious.
“Yes, my love, it is but I wanted to be sure you did too.”
“‘Rika, do you know nothing about me? It is all I have wanted for so long! I want to be with you for ever”.
They stepped towards each other and held each other tightly.
“Nothing and no-one will ever come between us.”
When they finally parted Erika kissed her lover and said:
“I need a shower. Put the coffee on and I will be back shortly.”
Back in the kitchen the two women talked as they drank their coffee.
“Well, my love,” Erika spoke first. This is it. The next time we will be together will be on the train on Thursday.”
Elsa didn’t answer but Erika could see she was worried. She reached across and put her hand under her chin, gently raising her head.
“I am so frightened ‘Rika. What if we don’t make it?”
“We will do it,” Erika tried to sound reassuring. “I will die before letting them take you from me!”
Elsa smiled and wiped her eyes.
“If you are with me,” she answered, “then I will be alright.”
The next two days were like a lifetime to Erika. it felt as though Thursday would never come but it did and, at five, she locked the shop for the last time. Placed the key in an envelope and posted it back through the letter box for her associate who worked with her, then headed towards the station for the train to Gotha. She was carrying her largest shoulder bag and a brown paper parcel which contained the Deutsche Bahn uniform.
At Gotha she had about an hour to wait for the last train which crossed the border. It was the longest hour of her life. Every time she looked at the station clock it felt as though it had stopped.
But, of course, it had not and eventually the train arrived and she boarded.
Her legs didn’t want to work and felt as though they had turned to jelly but she forced herself to carry on and found a seat in the leading carriage as Elsa had told her.
The train began to move and pick up speed. Before too long she heard a familiar voice calling:
Erika held up her ticket and Elsa took it, making a show of checking it before clipping it and, with an almost imperceptible smile, handed it back, saying:
“Thank you, have a safe journey.”
She took the punched ticket back.
“Thank you,” she replied, “you too.”
Several minutes later the intercom crackled into life.
“Eisenach. Passengers not alighting here please have your passes and passports ready for inspection at the border. Passengers not passing into the west please alight here. Eisenach the next stop.”
As they had agreed, Erika waited until all the other passengers stood and began to get off. as she reached the toilet door she quickly opened it and stepped inside, closing the door quietly behind her and locking it.
With as much haste as she could muster in such a small space she took off her coat and skirt. She was already wearing the uniform shirt and she unwrapped the skirt and jacket from the parcel and put them on. Finally, she put her hair up into a bun and placed the cap on her head then checked herself in the mirror. The tie, she had almost forgotten the tie and with some difficulty, she had never used a tie in her life, managed to get something that passed as a proper knot.
With her pretty face and dark brown eyes she looked very sexy but at that moment, sexy was the furthest thing from her mind.
Whilst she had been preparing herself the train had begun to move out of the station towards it’s next stop, the border checkpoint!
As she buttoned her jacket the train again jolted and, with brakes squealing, came to a halt.
She could imagine what was happening outside. Elsa and her colleagues would be getting off the train and handing it over to their western counterparts and the guards would be walking through the carriages checking permits and travel documents before releasing the train from it’s gated compound to pass through to the west.
A loud insistent banging on the door made Erika jump. Her heart was in her mouth and beating as though it would burst as she called out:
“One moment, please.”
She quickly pushed her skirt into her bag and hid the discarded brown paper. The Guard banged again and shouted,
“Hurry up, I need to see your papers!”
Shaking like a leaf she unlocked the door and stepped out. She froze.
“Herr Braun… Dieter!” She felt sick as the guard continued:
“Is this why you couldn’t take my order? You were going to try to run to the west?”
Erika couldn’t speak. She looked at him, eyes wide with fear.
“Well, Miss Hoffmann?”
She was shaking uncontrollably now as she slowly nodded her head.
“Listen,” he whispered, “I am the captain of the guards here. I can make it as though this never happened. Go home, back to Eisenach and it will be as if you were never here. Finish my dress, with a big discount of course, and all will be as it was.”
Erika had no choice but to go with him and as she stepped down from the train she saw Elsa talking to the guard who liked her. She had not even had time to get back on.
As she approached them Elsa’s face took on a look of pure horror. Erika could only plead with her eyes to pretend she did not know.
The train’s whistle blew and the gates swung open. With a roar and clouds of steam the big, black locomotive’s wheels turned and the train began to move out of the compound.
“Run ‘Rika, Run!” Elsa screamed and together they sprinted through the gate and into the neutral zone between the two countries.
“Halt!” the two guards yelled in unison, “Stop or we have to shoot!…please!” They pleaded, but the two women were running for their lives, quite literally.
There was a sharp crack and a whistle as a bullet passed close then, suddenly, Erika was knocked to the ground with the force of a sledgehammer as the second bullet found its mark and struck her in the back.
Elsa stopped dead and ran back to her.
“No, Elsa, run,” she croaked, “Please run to freedom, go!”
But Elsa didn’t run. She grabbed the only friend she ever wanted and began to half drag and half carry her to the western side. The rifles fired again and Erika found new strength to try to run.
The guns had stopped now and she could hear voices shouting encouragement. Another shot rang out and Elsa screamed but kept pulling until finally collapsing onto the cold, hard, rain soaked concrete.
There was silence.
Erika’s mind was racing and her head was swimming. She could see blood spreading across the ground and she dragged herself against her motionless lover and held her tightly until the darkness finally overcame her.
Herr Dieter Braun got his wife’s dress but it didn’t make him happy. It was finished by Erika’s associate and it fitted perfectly. His wife adored it and it suited her but he could not forgive himself for being the one who had shot the person who designed it and should have made it. He never allowed his wife to wear it.
Some forty years later the border was reopened and Germany was reunited. The people of Eisenach held a celebration and invited all who had managed to escape, to attend a special service to remember those who had died in the attempt.
Two special guests attended that service, Erika Hoffmann and Elsa Schröder. Now in their seventies both had made a full recovery from their injuries.
The bullet had passed through Erika’s bag and been slowed by the photo album she couldn’t bring herself to leave behind so that when it entered her body it didn’t have enough velocity to do any serious damage but the blood loss and shock had caused her to lose consciousness. Inside the album was a photograph of her parents and the bullet had passed through the centre of the two of them. She always said that they were watching over her that day and saved her life.
The bullet that struck Elsa had passed through her left side but missed all her vital organs. Again the shock and loss of blood caused her to pass out but not before she had dragged her friend near enough to the other side for the West German guards to pull them across and to safety.
Erika’s cousin, Franke, nursed them both after they left hospital and they spent the rest of their lives happily together in Bad Hersfeld.
Neither Dieter Braun nor his wife attended the service. It was said that he was so eaten with guilt that he was never the same again. He passed away of a heart attack in 1974. He never knew that the two women had survived. His wife died six years later.
Copyright 2015. Anna Morrison. No unauthorised reproduction in any form is permitted