Section Nine of Ten
By June 1948, we Berliners had experienced a definite improvement in
our living standard. Electricity was now available 24 hours a day. Food
rationing slowly disappeared. Coal became available. And if it had not
been for the rapid price increases, all would have been peachy. Apparently
the Russians had been busy for years printing military money, the same
money I had received while in the British POW camp. It slowly created an
intolerable situation, causing inflation. The Western Powers decided to
create a West Mark called Deutsche Mark. At the same time the Russians
issued a new German Mark, which became the East Mark.
The Western government introduced the new Deutsche Mark by exchanging
all the old money, the Reichsmark, to the new money. Every adult living
in West Berlin and West Germany could exchange up to a certain sum at a
1/1 exchange rate. I can not remember the amount allowed, but I believe
it was 500 marks. The exchange of old money would be at a rate of ten old
marks to one new mark for any amount larger than 500 marks. Our family
had more than 500 marks each and hated to get only 10% of the amount that
exceeded 500. I was not a paymaster in the army for the fun of it. I had
to come up with some angle. After inquiring among my friends and relatives,
I noted that some of them did not even have 500 marks to exchange. I suggested
that I could exchange the amount of money they had at a 1/1 rate and give
them 20 marks extra, provided I could use their I.D. card.
I found many takers, enough to get all of our old money exchanged at
the 1/1 rate.
Apparently, word spread quickly that I could handle money exchanges.
Two weeks later, some friends of my cousin Rudy approached me with a deal.
They, husband and wife, had relatives in the USA and the two had received
American dollars in the mail. They wanted them exchanged to East German
Marks, since they lived in the Eastern Zone. They had 400 dollars.
I let them know that any money exchange would be a risk. The reason
for the risk had to do with the kind of people one had to deal with. If
it were not for the charlatans, life would have been easier. I laid it
out straight, "Iíll try to change your money first to West Marks and
then to East Marks. Should anything happen, you will be the loser. I promise
to take every precaution, not to lose your money." I asked my cousin
Rudy to be my bodyguard during any risky exchanges. Cousin Rudy agreed.
information on exchange rates would be the first step. The black market
for exchanges between dollars and West Marks was near the Kurfürsten
Damm, a main boulevard in the center of Berlin. I found out that the exchange
rate was between 4.5 to 5.5 West Marks for one dollar, according to the
various moneychangers. I made a date with a fellow who offered a rate of
5.8. That rate was high, and any meeting with this sort of fellow required
a bodyguard. Rudy was a few years my senior, and 6 feet tall, weighing
At the appointed street and time, I met the stranger and we stood in
a housing entrance cove. Since he knew I had 400 dollars, at the rate of
5.8 he would have to give me 2,320 Deutsche West Marks. My four hundred
were in $20 denominations, and he counted them. I took the dollars back
from him, until I counted his money. I counted it, and I counted 2,220
marks, 100 marks short. Being 100 short, he grabbed his bundle back and
took 100 marks, and added it to the bundle, plainly to see, so it appeared.
He then proceeded to push that bundle of money into my pocket, and acted
as if he had done his part. I quickly took the bundle out of my pocket,
and tried to count again. He stopped me right there. He grabbed his bundle,
mumbling something like, "I guess you donít trust me." With that,
he turned around and left. I signaled Rudy the OK. I am glad I had Rudy
with me. They had planned to rip me off. That bundle he handed me the second
time was most likely all blank paper with a few notes wrapped around it.
If I had been smarter, I would have accepted the first count, and still
would have had a good deal. However, I do not think he would have gone
through with that, and most likely would have gotten his money back somehow.
I will never know what he would have done.
Since we were still in the neighborhood, I heard of a jewelry store,
one block away, which changed West Marks for dollars. When I entered the
store, two Arabic-looking fellows asked if they could do something for
me. I said, "I hear you might be exchanging dollars?" Oh no,
was the first answer. When I acted disappointed, they responded, after
a slight hesitation, "Could we see maybe one of your notes?"
Sure I said. They looked at it, smelled it, touched it, held it up against
the light, and then asked, "If we were to change money, how much are
we talking about?" I told them I had 400 dollars. Again some hesitation,
then they took a chance. They probably thought that I was too young to
be a policeman. "We can give you 4.5 West Marks for one dollar."
Now I acted disappointed. I chuckled and said, "I can get that anywhere."
After more acting by both parties, they came up to a 5.1 rate. I thought,
if I am firm, I will get 5.5. I told them that I was thinking of a rate
closer to 6.0. They chuckled. They repeated the 5.1 rate. Now I acted some
more. I turned around, shrugging my shoulders and opened the door to the
street. They called out, "Letís talk about it." Fine, talk. The
bid finally was 5.5 and I agreed. They counted the 2,200 Deutsche West
Marks onto the counter, I counted the 400 dollars on the counter.
The next stop, to change the West Marks into East Marks, was a place
near the Brandenburg Gate. I knew that the going rate was 1 West Mark for
4.2 East Marks. The only difficulty was the large amount to be changed.
Rudy, my bodyguard, was still with me. I handed him 2,000 West Marks to
hold while I checked the market to find someone who could handle the large
amount. He was not to be near me, nor should he let on that he even knew
me. Just a safeguard. I acted now as if I needed to change 200 West Marks
for East Marks at a 4.2 rate. A dark-skinned fellow caught my eye. I hoped
that he was not the police. I had no problem with him and I changed the
200 West Marks to 840 East Marks. Then I asked him if he could handle a
larger sum. "How large?" he asked "1,900 West Marks."
"Give me an hour," he said, and when I agreed, he disappeared.
An hour later, I had the 1,900 West Marks exchanged for 7,980 East Marks.
I took 100 West Marks as my commission and shared it with Rudy.
Rudyís friends were delighted with their fortune and I had gotten a
little excitement again.
On June 24, 1948, the Russians isolated Berlin by restricting all barge
traffic and all Autobahn traffic coming from the west. They also suspended
all coal shipments from the Eastern Zone to Berlin. Then the authorities
announced that we in Berlin would receive only two hours of electricity.
They even threatened to stop the water supply. Just when we thought all
was well, we had another crisis. I had started college. Now I would not
even have a warm place to study, nor would I have light. What a mess.
At first, we Berliners were worried about the Western Allies. Would
they buckle under to the Russians who wanted all of Berlin? Luckily, they
resisted and started an airlift, flying in certain corridors between West
Germany and West Berlin. Tempelhof, Berlinís major airport could not handle
all of the planes. Refurbishment of two minor airports began immediately
with the extension of the runways. It was unbelievable how the West got
together to show the Russians what the West could do. Around the clock,
many kind of airplanes landed in Berlin with supplies. Naturally, we went
back on rations. We knew that we would again have to supplement our food
The planes supplied Berlin with dehydrated vegetables, white flour,
and other dry goods. What we needed were potatoes, cabbage, turnips and
other fresh food. By winter, we also would need coal or wood. Our one good
fortune was that we still had access to the Russian Zone and East Berlin.
It was restricted access, but access. The police would control the various
transportation modes to discourage West Berliners from acquiring food or
coal from the east. I had to do the same things I had done two years ago.
I had thought that those days were behind me.
Of the many trips to obtain food supplies, only two trips came to mind
and might be worth mentioning. My cousin Rudy and I became not only partners
providing for our families, but also became good friends. We worked well
together and soon we collaborated to gather needed supplies. One morning,
we got on a train and traveled to the Russian zone to get potatoes. We
both had a little metal handcart with us, like a small flatbed cart. At
a small town, we left the train and walked about a mile to a farmhouse.
The farmer was very friendly. When we asked if he could sell us some potatoes,
he answered that he could. As much as you can carry he said, and it will
cost you only 20 marks for 100 pounds. What a deal. We got greedy. The
farmer furnished the sacks and we filled eight of them with potatoes, about
800 pounds. The farmer only shook his head and grinned. We paid him with
the greatest thanks we could muster. He said what he really felt about
the Russian blockade and that we all must do our share to help the Berliners.
He could have gotten into trouble with remarks like that.
Now we had the job of getting that load home. The problem was not only
the amount we had to move, but also we had to avoid the East police at
the train station. Once we were on the train, we would be safe. Moving
the eight potato sacks was tedious. The road to the station was dirt, not
easily manipulated with the little handcarts. Therefore, we moved the sacks
one on each cart. At the station, we noticed a large bush near the tracks.
We stowed the two sacks in the bush. Then we repeated this procedure three
more times. We could now wait for the train. We bought our tickets and
hung around near the station. When the train was near, we left the station
platform, walked to our bush and stacked our sacks in a pyramid fashion.
This allowed us to place ourselves right and left of the sacks to heave
them into the train from the far side of the platform. As soon as the train
stopped, we opened a door, and we swung the eight sacks, all on top of
each other into the compartment. Luckily, only one person occupied this
compartment. We climbed on top of the sacks, closed the door and the train
was on its way. After rearranging the sacks, we even had room to sit down.
At the last station, we had to transfer to the S-train, our elevated train.
We moved the sacks on the platform two at a time on our cart, always keeping
the other sacks in sight. Stairs had to be taken one at a time. I could
not lift a 100-pound sack of potatoes, instead we both grabbed them and
carried them up and down the stairs. It was quite an operation. It took
us one hour to move them to the S-Bahn. At our home station, we moved the
eight sacks to the street, and then separated. Rudy went left and I went
right. I loaded two sacks on the cart and moved it about 100 yards. I placed
them on the sidewalk and went back to pick up the other two. It took a
while and it was getting dark. When I arrived home, I called my father
down for help. Mother was delighted with the potatoes.
The second noteworthy trip that I took was also in the company of Rudy.
Our uncle in East Berlin said he would give each of us 50 pounds of coal
if we promised we would not tell anyone who gave us the coal. We got the
coal from my uncle and promised that we would not reveal the source.
I have to set the stage for what happened next. A while before this
trip, Rudy and I saw a cartoon in the paper that struck us to be very funny.
Two burglars had just broken the show window of a store and a policeman
was standing behind them. One burglar said to the other, "Please turn
around very inconspicuously."
Three stations before the border, I told Rudy that when the train stops,
I will hang both of our sacks of coal on the outside of the door. The train
stopped and I opened the door. Using the S hook, I hung one sack on one
door handle and was in the process of hanging the other one, when I heard
Rudy say, "Please turn around very inconspicuously." I tried
to be very nonchalant in closing the door and turned around. Sure enough,
two East German policemen were standing right next to us. "Is something
going on out there?" one asked. "Not very much," I answered.
It did not help. At the next station, they made us bring in the sacks.
But I noticed that one of the policemen had a real Berliner dialect to
his speech. In my best Berliner accent, I praised the efforts of the East
German police. I kept on talking and told them about our need for the coal.
Anyway, at the next station they left and wished us wiedersehen
or 'see you again.' It was a great surprise. It showed that control by
the Communists over the population was not as strong as the bond of the
In May 1949, the Russians finally ended the blockade of Berlin, realizing
that the Western Powers would not abandon this city. It was high time that
our living standard improved and the general atmosphere returned nearer
to normal. The Marshall Plan had been in effect for two years already,
but only West Germany benefited from it.
My college performances during my first year were dismal. I ended up
failing my first college semester and had to repeat it. I guess the Russian
blockade and the resulting ventures were limiting my study and attendance
By now, daily activities did not include so much time spent standing
in line for food. Having to accept shortages of many items was now part
of our past. Electricity, gas, and coal were available and the only disruptions
in my studies were the ladies. I had more time to go dancing. Either my
friend Werner or my cousin Rudy would accompany me to the various ballrooms.
I did not know that one could have so much fun on a dance floor. I encountered
many nice girls who danced delightfully and were able to follow every one
of my crazy dance steps. Enjoying the company of many older ladies helped
me to mature. I was a very late bloomer, barely shaved at 21, and I had
maybe two hairs growing on my chest.
After my first year of college, I had to choose my major, either mechanical
and electrical engineering. I decided to become a mechanical engineer.
The studying progressed much better now and my grades improved. I did not
have to worry about history and Latin study. One of my professors even
said, "Do not try to remember everything, just remember where you
can find the answer." I preferred his procedure, and to his credit,
all of his exams were open book tests.
For over a year, nothing really exciting occurred until I dabbled in
making fireworks. I had met two young ladies who worked in a pharmacy.
I decided I wanted to make fireworks, not only rockets. The rockets were
supposed to take the payload to great heights and end in colorful bursts.
I needed a great number of chemicals and the two pharmacist's helpers obliged.
First, I made a large bowl of black powder on our dining room table. That
definitely was very smart. Then I stuffed the black powder into paper tubes
I had rolled myself, packing the powder tightly. Very smart again. I added
a fuse and taped a stick to it. Then I tested it in the flowerbed of our
balcony. I stuck my homemade rocket into the soil, lit the fuse and stepped
back. As soon as the burning fuse touched the tube, with a gigantic bang,
the rocket disintegrated. It never moved even an inch upward. I was glad
it did not break our windows.
Meanwhile, I turned various chemicals into little balls, the size of
marbles. They were supposed to give the colorful bursts. They needed drying.
I laid them on a cookie sheet and placed the sheet into our tile oven's
warming cavity. Very smart again, bordering on genius. It was evening and
the oven was only slightly warm. I forgot to remove them from the oven,
however, and the next morning my mother placed firewood in the oven and
started a fire. Within a few minutes, I heard a strange hissing sound.
When I looked over to the oven, I saw smoke pouring out. My little color
balls burned. The room had a very high ceiling, about 12 feet. The colorful
smoke occupied the entire room down to about 4 feet from the floor. I have
to admit, my mother was not pleased, saying it lightly.
This was the end of my rocket experiment. I could not resist, however,
to save the black powder for New Year's Eve. I placed the bowl of black
powder on top of the remnants of a blown-up concrete bunker, left over
from the war, and lit it. It burned very nicely for at least a minute.
Still and all, I could never hope to be a rocket scientist. Had I been
clairvoyant, I would have known that 14 years later I helped send many
spy satellites into polar orbit without blowing up the booster.
In early 1950, my sister and her two girls moved to Cologne, West Germany.
My brother-in-law had found a permanent place to live, financially supported
by the German post office. This forced us, my mother, my father and I to
look for a new apartment. My parents liked the outlying apartment complexes.
It was a very peaceful area and the buildings were only two stories high.
I had my own room. I commuted to college by bicycle, in rain, snow or shine.
Many major streets of Berlin had bicycle lanes. The lanes were elevated
to be even with the sidewalk and created a buffer zone between the sidewalk
and the street.
The last semester towards my engineering degree was in progress. My
father was still working for the forest service. My mother did not go back
to her market business and enjoyed her retirement. Weekends were time for
visitors. Three of her sisters and friends came to visit often and my mother
invariably had cakes and coffee ready. My time was divided between schooling
and the ladies. When I came home late from a dancing establishment, it
was easy to miss the last streetcar. A few times, I walked miles, before
finding another line, which took me closer to home.
The Washtub Incident
One day Hilde, a young woman I had met, asked me as a favor to pick
up a zinc washtub from a friend of a friend. The friend informed Hilde
about a small hole in the tub. I had seen my father repair little holes
in zinc tubs and said I could fix it. Hilde handed me five marks for the
asking price. One quandary; the tub was located in East Berlin and visiting
that section of Berlin was not my favorite activity anymore.
A short ride on the elevated train and a short walk, not too far from
the border, brought me to the washtub lady. The border was still relatively
open, except they checked luggage sometimes to prevent smuggling. I gave
the washtub lady the five marks and she handed me the tub, pointing out
the little hole. The tub weighed about 20 pounds. It was oval shaped, about
4 by 3 feet. I took the tub under one arm and was on my way back to the
train station. The station was right on the border between East and West
Berlin. About 30 yards from the border, two guys in civilian clothes blocked
my way. They identified themselves as detectives, East German police. They
wanted to know the destination of this washtub. I told them that I was
on my way home. But they required me to come along to the police station.
At the station, a uniformed policeman took charge of the washtub. I was
shuttled into a cell with a bunk bed. I had to remove my belt and my shoelaces.
While I was sitting in the cell, I had made up my mind concerning any future
detention. I would try to escape at the first chance should they accused
me of some illegal activity. About an hour passed. Then a uniformed policeman
asked me to follow him. He took me to an office on the second floor.
One of the two detectives that had stopped me on the street, asked me
to sit down. He asked me if I had smuggled precious metal across the border
before. I told him that I never smuggled anything across the border and
that I bought the tub for a friend and the planned usage was as a washtub,
not as precious metal. Besides, I did not even know that an ordinary washtub
was precious metal. He said that this offense carried a two-year prison
sentence. Then I casually mentioned that the tub had a slight hole and
that I had planned to fix that hole. He got on the telephone and requested
to have the tub brought to his office. When a policeman entered the room
with the tub, the detective lifted the tub against the sunlight. He found
the slight hole I had told him about. That little hole saved my neck. He
gave me his card and directed the policeman to give me back to my personal
property, including the tub. He explained to me that he was convinced that
I did not smuggle precious metal. He said, "Should you be stopped
before you get the border, show them my card, and ask them to call me."
With the greatest relief, I marched out of the station and without hesitation
took the shortest route to the border. I told myself at this point that
I would never again enter East Berlin, or East Germany.
College finals approached and I was getting very nervous. Tests never
were my strength. As in high school, math and physics were still my favorites,
but now also drawing, lab and shop had great appeal. I was weak in chemistry
and thermo-dynamics. We had written tests and a 30-minute verbal test,
conducted by three scholars. I told myself, "I kept my head with the
Russians at the border, what can three scholars do to me?" It did
not help. Standing in front of three wise man, little olí me, not only
had to listen, but had to give some kind of intelligent answer. I cannot
remember what the questions were, but apparently, they considered my answers
satisfactory. "Satisfactory" was always the general grade I received,
not good, not outstanding, just satisfactory.
graduation ceremony was very spartan. Our principal came into our classroom,
called names and handed the diploma to each person with a handshake. Someone
had called a photographer. He took a picture of all the new engineers standing
in a group on the college steps. We all shook hands and that was the last
time I saw any of my classmates. Berlin in 1951 was just getting over the
shock of the Russian blockade. Supplies were still scarce and so was money.
However, we received the education free and all graduates had already lined
up work with companies in Berlin. I had an offer to work at AEG, a large
electric generator manufacturing company. I had about a week before starting
work. My friend Hilde gave me a graduation presents, a white coat. Every
engineer in Germany wore a white coat in the office. My parents were overjoyed
and mother planned a celebration for the weekend. She had invited about
14 people, friends and relatives.
I started my first real job, for real earned money, and wearing a white
coat. How much better could it be? When I reported to the company, I met
my manager. That was the only time I ever saw him in all my time with the
company. Following that welcome, he introduced me to my supervisor, who
welcomed me and took me into a large room with two rows of about 20 drawing
boards. My supervisor marched me down the drawing board isle to introduce
me to my group leader. The group leader took me two boards down to introduce
me to my lead engineer. My lead engineer introduced himself as Mr. Kramer.
Then he showed me my board and my cubicle. Welcome to German engineering.
My lead engineer was really a very pleasant person. He helped me along
and was very patient when I was a little dense. My first job was to calculate
the natural frequency of a large electrical generator rotor, not by calculations,
but by graphs on the board. My lead engineer mentioned that we had to have
an answer in about four months. When I found a short-cut method, my lead
looked and listened, and thought it to be a good idea. He went to the group
leader and my lead explained the short-cut to the group leader. The group
leader then went to the supervisor. He in turn went to the manager. My
lead engineer then told me to develop it and prove what had now become
the manager's short-cut idea.
My workplace was located in the district of Moabit, while I lived in
the Wittenau district. It took about half an hour to get there by bicycle.
However, when I arrived at work, I always perspired from the ride, causing
a problem. I then changed to public transportation, a bus.
My first paycheck naturally was a special occasion. I gave my parents
half of my paycheck for room and board. They did not encourage me to find
my own place. Besides, it was not easy to find a place to live. We, my
parents and I, got along just fine, and we had no reason to change. My
mother did not necessarily want her only son to fly the coop, with her
daughter living in Cologne.
I still went dancing, mostly joined by my cousin Rudy. The American
music was quite prevalent. I learned a few songs, phonetically. I did not
know what they meant, but that was not important. Rudy and I got along
splendidly and during our dancing excursions, we mostly looked for two
ladies sitting together. Then we would agree on whom to select. It was
a carefree time.
My friend Hilde and I went to the movies often, usually once a week.
Every movie we saw was an American movie with German speaking actors. You
have probably not heard John Wayne or Alan Ladd speak German. I believe
I saw "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" with Humphrey Bogart at
least three times. James Stuart in "Destry Rides Again," and
tearjerkers like "It's a Wonderful Life," were movies we had
to see. I realized the movies depicted make-believe, and that real life
in the USA might just be a little different; especially when I saw how
businesses gave their white-collar workers room to be creative. They called
their bosses by their first names. I did not even called my lead engineer
by his first name.
One evening, on our way home from the movies, I mentioned to Hilde that
I would love to go to America. I had no idea how that little statement
would change my life. Unbeknownst to me, Hilde wrote to an aunt of hers,
who lived in Brooklyn, New York. Hilde told that aunt about me, apparently
in glowing terms. The aunt, Marie was her name, wrote back and told Hilde
she would be glad to sponsor me for immigration. When Hilde sprang the
news, I had a frank talk with my parents. At first, they were not too crazy
about the plan. After they had a few days to sleep on it, they acknowledged
that I would eventually leave home anyway. The question was only, why so
far away? I knew I would not stay in Berlin very long, and would at least
find work in West Germany. Berlin had no future for me. The more I thought
about it, the more I got enthusiastic about the idea of emigrating to the
US of A.
I talked to the American embassy in Berlin and received forms to fill
out. I mailed some of the forms to Aunt Marie. After the paperwork was
completed, it was a waiting game.
One thing I wanted to do; learn how to drive a car, instead of first
learning the English language. In the movies, they showed that everybody
had a car, so I expected that I would be able to buy a car. In Germany,
it was a requirement that driving lessons were given only by a licensed
school. I enrolled, and in two weeks, I had my permit.
In the meantime, my parents made plans to move to West Germany. They
were looking for a place in a small town, not far from Cologne, wanting
to be close to their daughter and grandchildren.
In October 1953, I received a visa to enter the USA and to become an
immigrant. I had heard that after 5 years of living in the USA, I could
apply for citizenship. Until then, the sponsor would be responsible for
my not becoming a burden to the state.
I gave notice to my employer, stating that as of December 10, 1953,
I was leaving the firm. I booked passage on the SS Olympia, a 23,000-ton
luxury Italian liner. It was to leave Bremerhaven, a West German port,
on Dec. 12, 1953 and arrive in New York City on Dec. 18, 1953.
To get to Bremerhaven I had two choices. Go by train and travel through
East Germany, or fly to Bremen and take the train from Bremen to Bremerhaven.
I had already sworn never to set foot back in the Eastern Zone. I scheduled
my flight to Bremen. I took along enough German marks to convert to $100.
I purchased a new suitcase, packed and unpacked a number of times.
Come the day of my departure, I hugged my parents as I left their apartment.
Hilde accompanied me to the airport. I had the address of Aunt Marie and
her last name. I said goodbye to Hilde and she wished me Godís speed.
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