Read an Excerpt
The Gypsy opened the trunk of his car and Michaela got inside. She crouched
sideways, hugged her knees and watched the lid come down on a sunny day. She
didn't think about the danger. She didn't think about anything. She just gave
herself up to this very strange moment. "Get in the trunk," he'd said. Yeah. OK.
The Gypsy got in the car and drove away. It was very hot inside the trunk. There
was a little rust hole in the middle of the trunk lid, and Michaela peered
through it, watching layers of forest fall away. After a few minutes, the car
slowed to a stop, and Michaela heard the Gypsy talking to somebody, probably a
soldier. She felt the car move again, then stop once more a few minutes later.
The trunk flew open and the Gypsy looked into her wide green eyes.
"Run!" he shouted.
Michaela scrambled out of the trunk and saw she was in a field surrounded by
forest. The Gypsy was pointing to a barbed-wire fence fifteen feet away. Beyond
the fence was a low hill covered with brush. Michaela ran like a crazy woman.
She got to the fence and climbed over it as carefully yet as quickly as she
could. Then she ran up the hill, through the brambles that scratched her bare
legs and snagged her black silk blouse, which had looked so pretty with the
checked shorts she'd worn that day. Gradually, she realized that she was running
through a vineyard.
She saw a woman standing in the distance. Michaela ran toward her, hoping.
"Is this Austria?" Michaela gasped.
"Yes," said the woman. "Are you from East Germany?"
"Yes!" Michaela said.
Michaela could barely think. She'd cleared the threshold. This woman seemed
happy to see her. It was almost as if she'd been expecting her. It was like a
Communism meant different things to different people, but to Michaela Woike, it
was simply boring. There just seemed more to do in the West, at least from what
she could see on West German television, one of the few outside influences the
authorities couldn't filter out. Life seemed more, well, colorful, unrestrained.
The fashions, the music. Of course, the political freedoms were nice, too.
Michaela had thought about escaping for years. Not just from East Germany, but
from home. She had been born and raised in a beautiful little village called
Zella-Mehlis, a postcard of a place snuggled high in the lush green mountains of
Thuringia. Even when she was a child, Michaela had dreamed of fleeing its
infuriatingly pastoral monotony.
And why not? Her father had abandoned the family when she was just three years
old for reasons that never were quite clear. All she remembered was a tall man
with a black beard, and the cryptic admonitions of her mom: "I forbid you to see
him." Not surprisingly, Michaela didn't have a very good relationship with her
mother. And she wasn't particularly close to her sister, who was seven years
All she asked out of life was the chance to live an exciting one, to travel to
fantastic places, to have a career as an artist. But she knew even when she was
a little girl that such a life was unattainable in her gingerbread village,
which lay on the wrong side of the Fulda Gap, the strategic mountain pass that
separated one superpower army from the other.
Still, Michaela experienced the sensation of freedom when she went off to
nursing school after she turned seventeen. Her high school graduating class had
been so tiny thirty people that only the top three students were given
opportunities beyond a limited range of vocational choices. East Germany needed
more workers than artists, it seemed. Since she wasn't one of the top students,
her options were quite limited, which drove her crazy.
But at least nursing school got her out of Zella-Mehlis and into Suhl, a
slightly bigger town a few precious miles from home. And then a year of nurse's
training got her a job in a psychiatric hospital in a much more distant village,
called Biesdorf, which just happened to be on the outskirts of the big city
Unfortunately, it was East Berlin. Life in a big Communist metropolitan area
turned out to be just as static as life in a small Communist town. She lived in
an apartment on the hospital premises and the work was quite dreary. Many of
these patients were truly insane, while others seemed little more than chronic
complainers and mere nonconformists, like herself. She worked all sorts of
shifts, night and day. If she wanted to go into Berlin, it would take thirty
minutes by train. It was hard to have an outside life, though she tried. She
acted occasionally in community theater, because it was fun and she was pretty.
She wrote and illustrated a children's book, though she couldn't find anybody to
But it wasn't enough. She wanted to travel. She wanted to go West. And it seemed
like a lot of people her age felt the same way. One day, a friend told her some
rather amazing news.
"Have you heard? The Hungarians aren't shooting people at the border anymore."
Michaela got excited. East Germans had always been able to travel to Hungary, a
favorite holiday spot. And now, Hungary had apparently sprung a leak. It had
relaxed its border controls. There was almost a hole to Austria, to the West.
She told her friend, Thorsten, who lived in her building, that she was thinking
of going to Hungary and making a break for the border. It was quickly becoming a
thing to do among young people.
Michaela began to lay the foundation for her plan. She told her coworkers that
she was going to take a vacation to Czechoslovakia and, ahem, Hungary. Another
nurse, her friend Katrin, became suspicious immediately. In certain circles, a
"vacation in Hungary" was becoming almost a code for escape.
"Are you going to defect?" Katrin asked.
"No," Michaela said. "No. I can't say."
Katrin asked Thorsten, "Is Michaela going to defect?" and he said, yes, he
thought she was.
This made Katrin very determined. She invited Michaela to her parents' home in
Weimar one weekend, and when nobody was looking she dragged her into the
bathroom. One never knew what homes or rooms were bugged, so it paid to be
careful. Katrin turned on the faucet full blast, then told Michaela that she
knew she was going to defect, and that she wanted to defect, too. Why not do it
It was amazing how easy it had been to get visas to Hungary. The two women
figured the authorities would be suspicious. After all, it seemed as though
everybody knew somebody who had taken advantage of this new hole in Hungary. But
there wasn't a problem at all. Trying to cover their tracks, they also got visas
for Czechoslovakia and decided to spend a week there first. They packed lightly,
like they were going on a short trip, not leaving forever.
Michaela didn't say a word to her mother, who was a member of the Communist
Party. The less she knew, the better for everybody. Michaela and Katrin took the
train to Prague. Needless to say, they played the part well. Katrin was tall and
lean with a leonine mane of long black hair; Michaela was small and sassy with a
reddish brown bob. They hit the bars, met people, tried to have some fun. They
had been dreading the scary adventure ahead, and partying among the Bohemians in
Prague was the perfect release. For a while.
They finally decided it was time to begin hitchhiking to Hungary, a method of
travel that was pretty safe in the Stalinist world. They caught a few rides, but
didn't dare tell anybody what they were up to, until the last guy, a Hungarian.
He was driving and Katrin was sitting up front, chatting away, and it just sort
of came out that they were planning to cross over to the other side. The
Hungarian told them exactly where to go, outside a town called Sopron, right on
the border, right where he was headed. Katrin wrote the directions down and the
Hungarian drew a little map.
The city sizzled in the August heat and the tourists wore their skimpiest
clothing. Sopron was filled with Gothic and baroque buildings that drew visitors
from all over, but Michaela and Katrin were too nervous to notice. They were so
paranoid that they even bought T-shirts with Hungarian writing on them who knew
what they said? so they would look like tourists. Of course, they couldn't
bring themselves to actually wear T-shirts with slogans. It just wasn't them.
At dusk, they went to the outskirts of town and began to hitchhike. An old man
on a tractor stopped and offered them a lift. They told him they wanted a ride
to the border. If he suspected something, he didn't let on. He just dropped them
off on a stretch of forest road, the starting point on their homemade map.
Katrin studied the directions in the twilight and away they walked, into the
woods, terrified by their courage. They crept through the brush for a few
minutes, then heard rustling in the distance. Then voices.
Michaela and Katrin dropped to the ground. They stayed there, absolutely
motionless in the itchy weeds, for maybe half an hour, long after the muffled
voices had drifted away. The weather was miserably muggy and the mosquitoes were
ravenous. It was soon pitch dark. They got up and began walking again. They came
to the edge of the woods and saw a huge field in front of them.
This wasn't right. The landscape wasn't matching the description that the
Hungarian had given them. There was no way they could cross this field without
being spotted. While they whispered about what to do, signal flares sailed over
their heads. The young women froze.
"Halt!" somebody shouted.
Soldiers with dogs, big Alsatians, jogged up to them. Michaela and Katrin were
petrified. But the soldiers, looking at the two pretty young things quaking with
fear, could not have been nicer.
"Oh God," one said. "Why did you go this way? If you would have gone a little to
the right, you would have made it."
"Why did you stop?" asked another. "Now our superiors have seen you and we have
to take you with us."
The Hungarian soldiers put them in a truck and drove off. They stopped several
more times for other soldiers who had seized other East Germans. The truck was
full by the time it reached the military base, where another forty East Germans
who had been caught that night were being held in a stockade. The soldiers put
Michaela and Katrin in a cell with another young woman from East Germany. Katrin
and Michaela were scared and started to cry, but the Hungarian guards were
extremely nice. One of them brought Cokes and stayed around and smoked with
them. He said it was his last day in the army. He figured what the hell, and
told them how they could get into Austria. He told them to wait three days, then
try again at a certain spot. He said if people were caught twice in three days,
they were sent back to East Germany. But if you staggered your escape attempts,
you were merely set free in Hungary to try, try again.
The next morning, Michaela and Katrin were interrogated by an officer. Nicely
interrogated. Then, the Hungarians just let them go. Just like that, the two
girls walked off the base to the main road. They were relieved but still
somewhat rattled, not to mention terrified of attempting another escape. They
decided to go to Budapest because they needed to get their visas extended. So
they began hitchhiking. And the first driver knew right away what these two East
Germans were doing in a Hungarian border town.
"Do you want to escape to the West?" he asked.
"No!" Michaela said.
"Yes!" Katrin said.
Both women were under considerable stress, and they weren't exactly getting
along at this point. But Katrin was adamant about getting this escape over with
and the man in the car who was a Gypsy was quite convincing. He said he knew a
good place at the border. He would take each of them one at a time in the
trunk of his car. Then, all they had to do was run a little.
"Let's do it!" Katrin said.
Michaela reluctantly gave in.
"Get inside the trunk," the Gypsy had told her.
"Yeah," Michaela had responded. "OK."
Michaela was sweaty and panting and scratched by brambles that had snagged the
black-and-white shorts that matched her blouse. She was disoriented, almost
delirious with adrenaline. The woman in the vineyard led Michaela to another
woman, a farmer named Marie, and Marie got her car and drove Michaela back to
the border to wait for Katrin. Finally, Katrin came running through the
brambles, up the hill, into the vineyard. Apparently, the Gypsy had tried to get
a little something from Katrin after he'd dropped Michaela off.
"Come over here, sweet baby," he'd said, putting his arm around her shoulder.
Katrin was a very tall woman, really strong, and she had gone a little crazy.
"Stop it! What have you done with my friend, you bastard!"
The Gypsy had backed off immediately, apologized profusely and then drove Katrin
to the border and dropped her off. The two women would talk about it later,
about how insane they had been to have accepted his offer in the first place.
After they thought about it even longer, they didn't blame this Gypsy for making
a pass at Katrin. He was just giving it a try.
The Austrian named Marie took Michaela and Katrin to her house, gave them lunch
with wine. Two other East Germans were there, too. The village was full of them.
A couple of days before, a crowd of them had simply stampeded through the fence.
There was a new refugee camp in town and it was absolutely full. In fact, the
government had set up daily shuttle buses to take East German refugees into
Vienna. The refugees were like heroes.
Michaela and Katrin got on one of these buses and went to the West German
embassy. They were given one hundred marks each the standard amount that West
Germany paid East Germans with the courage to defect and put up in a hotel for
the weekend. The place was full of refugees just like them, and they all swapped
stories about their narrow escapes, the people they left behind, the amazing
From Vienna, Michaela and Katrin were sent to a camp in West Berlin, the side of
their city they'd never seen. It was overwhelming. Especially the little things.
In East Germany, for example, if you ordered pizza, you got a little circle of
tasteless dough with a couple of baked tomatoes on top. But when Michaela and
Katrin ordered pizza here, it was a wheel of food so plentiful they couldn't
have hoped to finish it. And the bathrooms, with the water that came on
automatically when you stood over the sink. More than once Michaela drenched her
The West Germans were sort of amused by the people they dubbed, sometimes
derisively, the Ossis, or "Easties." Michaela was in a supermarket once, trying
to figure out how these people selected produce. They were putting their
vegetables in plastic bags and then weighing them on a machine that spat out a
sticker that they then affixed to the bags. Michaela was watching this one older
woman when suddenly she swung around.
"Are you from the East? Do you want me to show you how this works?"
Michaela was mortified. Being out of sync like this was not a pleasant feeling
for a twenty-one-year-old woman with a self-assured sense of style. It didn't
take long to adapt, however. She found a flat in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, a
charmingly blighted pastiche of ethnic restaurants, offbeat art houses,
counterculture clothing shops and bars so progressive that they held special
nights for lesbians, including people who were lesbians just on special nights.
Michaela dyed her auburn bob a raven black and slipped into Berlin's bohemian
underbelly. She also got a job as a nurse.
Meanwhile, the exodus of East Germans quickened and huge demonstrations broke
out in the streets. Dissent was erupting all over Eastern Europe. Each regime
reacted differently to the demands for the type of reforms that Mikhail
Gorbachev had introduced in the Soviet Union. East Germany, for example, became
even more doctrinaire. Poland gave up after a while and held a democratic
election. And Hungary began cutting down the 160 miles of fence that separated
it from Austria, from the West.
By the autumn of 1989, tens of thousands of refugees were racing for the
widening hole in Hungary. Many were East Germans, but humanitarian agencies
began noticing Soviets, Romanians, even Somalis fleeing something or other.
Then Hungary dropped all pretense at controlling the outflow of people. It
announced that East Germans wouldn't need visas to transit Hungary into Austria.
In other words, people like Michaela no longer had to cut through the woods.
They could stroll through the checkpoint without any paperwork at all. Hungary
transformed itself into a wide-open portal to the promised land. The border
became a vortex. The entire region, the entire world, was put into play.
The coup de grâce was delivered by Gorbachev himself. He came to East Germany on
October 7, the fortieth anniversary of the day the Soviet Union had forged the
nation from the rubble of World War II. East Germany was hemorrhaging people.
Huge crowds were marching in the streets to denounce party chief Erich Honecker.
These same people turned out to cheer Gorbachev. "Gorby!" they shouted. "Help
And Gorbachev was there for them. He admonished those who wouldn't change with
the changing world. "Life punishes those who come late," Gorbachev told
Honecker wouldn't listen. Nearly three decades before, as a party functionary,
he himself had supervised the building of the Berlin Wall to halt the same sort
of exodus, to imprison an entire people. Communism's gatekeeper was not about to
let his people go. He was not about to give them the little freedoms they
So the escapes continued. Those who couldn't make it to Hungary flooded West
German embassies in Poland and Czechoslovakia to plead for asylum. Within East
Germany, the protests grew larger and spread to more cities. "We . . . are . . .
the people!" the people roared, louder and louder. Less than two weeks after
Gorbachev's visit, Honecker was deposed by his own Politburo.
His successor, Egon Krenz, tried to placate the people with a new law born of
desperation. He decided to relax the travel ban on East Germans so they, like
the Hungarians, could travel West and, presumably, return home again. A
Politburo member read the resolution at a news conference. Radio stations
broadcast it immediately. People who heard it poured out of their homes and
moved toward the barriers. Could it be?
Michaela was having dinner with her roommate. She had actually come to regret
her decision to slip through Hungary. She was missing these amazing
demonstrations, this incredibly inspiring and rather stylish revolution against
the old guard. And she never regretted it more than that day in November 1989,
when she sat down for dinner. One of her roommate's friends, a West German,
burst into their apartment.
"Turn on the TV!" she shouted. "The wall has fallen!"
They turned on the television set and there it was: Michaela's countrymen,
joyous and disbelieving, pouring over and around and through the wall, heading
West, heading right for the television cameras, right for their living room. The
border guards had merely stepped aside. Michaela stared with disbelief at the
ecstatic faces from her old world, crashing like a wave into her new one.
"Shit!" hissed her roommate's friend, either speaking without thinking or
thinking far ahead. "The Ossis are coming!"
Then she looked at Michaela, embarrassed.
"You're not an Ossi, of course," she said.
Michaela just shrugged. Of course she was. She just hid it well.
She'd be gone from Berlin in just a few months. Romance and art school and a
thrilling new world beckoned in London. But she was still, in her soul, an Ossi,
an outlander, a seeker of asylum, a woman who had disappeared into a forest one
day and emerged as a refugee on the other side. She had merely been a few steps
ahead of the rest, as usual. She had been selected by circumstance to help
unlock the gates, broaden the breach a bit, make it easier for the millions who