Her name was Johanna. She was normal and one of East Germany’s droids. Wake up, take the bus to work, take the bus home, sleep, rise and repeat. Or at least that’s how it used to be…
Johanna woke with a start to see that she was safely in her bedroom. She knew she had a nightmare, but couldn’t remember what it was about.
Yawning, Johanna stretched and swung her legs over the bed. Her feet tapped the frigid wooden floor as she checked the calendar, May 15th, 1921. Sighing, she took out her uniform that she cautiously pressed, not wanting to upset her boss again. Even so, she always hated those uniforms. They were so stiff, but she dare not complain.
Johanna brushed through her hair with a thick brush, and quickly pulled into a tight bun before silently walking into the hallway. She stopped outside her room and smelled the bacon sizzling on the stove. She followed the smell to the kitchen, where her mother was humming and her oldest sister, Renete, was tiredly poking at her egg.
“Guten morgen,” Good morning, her mother called, still stuck in the song she was humming. Her hair bounced as she moved gracefully about the kitchen, pieces of her almost white hair falling out of the messy bun she threw together.
“Guten morgen,” Johanna responded, still not completely awake.
“Are you ready for your big day?”
“Mama, you say that every day. There is nothing special about today.”
“Oh, totchter, there is something special in everyday.”
Johanna sat down at the cramped table, ignoring the urge to roll her eyes, Mama always called her totchter, or daughter. Glancing across the table, Johanna noticed Renete’s head was slowly sinking closer to her fried egg.
“Renete!” Johanna screamed.
Renete bolted awake, and Johanna couldn’t help but laugh. Renete was 23, where Johanna was merely 19. Then, right on time, the rest of the family began to pour into the cramped kitchen. There was Hans, the eldest child, dressed in his pressed uniforms with an air of confidence no one could defy. Heinz was a scrawny sixteen year old whose uniform was two sizes too big. And there was Ralf. He was twenty and by far Johanna’s favorite. He was confident, but not stuck up like Hans, and skinny but not scrawny like Heinz. They were practically inseparable. Practically. Way in the back of the room was the youngest, Annegret who was only fourteen. She was tiny like mama and had the same platinum blond hair too. The rest of them had more of a dirty blond or brown, like their father.
They were all greeted into the kitchen and served their one egg and one slice of bacon.
“Now that Hitler is president, we can eat plenty of eggs, so be thankful.” Mama always felt the need to be thankful for everything. But, Johanna couldn’t argue about this one, she loved having food that tasted like something other than mush.
After breakfast, Johanna retrieved her brown paper bag from the cupboard. She packed a sandwich that was made from parts of their pig that nobody wanted and a single apple for lunch. She packed her work shoes and apron for the dirty part of her job. She took a deep breath, and walked into the hallway and stared at the heavy oak door in front of her. Dare she enter? She drew a shaky hand and twisted the knob cautiously.
There he lay, her father. He had a fatal lung disease and was unable to work.
“Hello.” Johanna said, her voice quaking.
“Johanna?” Her father’s voice cracked.
“Yes papa, it’s me. I’m about to leave. I just wanted to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Johanna, I’ll see you tonight.”
“Of course,” she responded.
She walked out of the room that could barely fit a bed and heard him cough loudly. She sighed, said goodbye to her family and left for the bus.
The bus was frigid. Faces were cold and grim. No one greeted each other, hardly anyone even looked up from their slouched positions. Johanna stared out of the frosty window. The sky promised rain. Everyone walked in straight orderly lines, eyes, empty and blank, only doing what they were told out of fear. Johanna thought of a better place. The year before, she worked in America as a nanny. There, everyone was happy and did as they pleased. She smiled to herself. The kids were very kind, but her visa lasted only eight months. It was so much better than East Germany. There, everyone was kind and not so strict. It was beautiful, with the mountains and luscious green hills, she couldn’t think of a place she’d rather be. Johanna knew there was a life better than the one her family was living.
The bus tires squealed to a stop, telling everyone to get off. Johanna stood, grabbed her paper bag and left the bus. The checkpoint was a large marble building with steps of stone with guards that rarely smiled. But then there was Klaus. Johanna knew him well after six years of taking the same route. She smiled at him and sat her bag on the metal platform.
“How’s your papa, Johanna?” he asked.
“The same as usual.”
“I hope he gets better soon.”
“As do I.” There was a slight pause. “How is your wife?”
“Excellent,” he replied.
He peered into her bag only slightly.
“You’re good to go, Johanna, have a nice day.”
“You as well,” Johanna nodded.
She began to walk to the right when something caught her eye. A woman, probably around twenty-eight years old, passed the guards and sprinted left. No one ever went left, such was an act of treason to East Germany. This lady did. The guards shot at her, bullets soaring around her. One struck her arm but she kept running. Ten different alarms went off and all of the guards went running in to stop her. One tried to pin her down, but she kicked him in the stomach, and managed to squeeze through the bars. And in only a few seconds everything was back to normal and the blood was mopped up.
Johanna boarded the next bus, and thought only of the woman that escaped to West Germany. What an act of courage. Dare she wonder? Dare she even think of it? It would be treason to even daydream. But, she couldn’t help herself. She thought, and thought, and thought. She thought about the life she could lead in the West. Her thoughts grew wilder. Once in West Germany, she could renew her visa and go back to America. Her dream home. Then, she could come back and bring her family after the war. Or could she take them with her?
As the bus screeched to a halt outside of the crumbling brick building, she shook away all thoughts of America and West Germany. This was her life whether she liked it or not. Who was she to deny the path laid out for her? She shouldn’t be so selfish. She needed to help her family and her country. But, even so, she couldn’t stop of thinking of the woman who left and worked in a robotic state.
Later that evening, Johanna went back through the regular transport and talked to the officer about her day. Before she knew it, she was back on her cot in her tiny bedroom, staring at the plain ceiling, wondering and wondering.
Everything was normal again. Bland, plain, boring. Johanna sunk back into her regular routine and the incident three weeks ago was almost forgotten. Nobody spoke of it. It almost seemed like it never happened. But, it did. Johanna still thought about every night before she fell asleep. She admired the lady’s bravery and courage, and feared the bullets. She wondered what her life would be like in the West. Was it bad, like everyone says? It couldn’t be worse than the East. Johanna could no longer even take the bus to work without a guard breathing down her neck.
She was walking to the bus stop on a sunny Monday morning when something caught her attention. A man in brown rags and uncombed hair was sitting on the curb of the street holding a sign. It read: Hitler Lies! He is no more than a murderer! He kills Jews in gas chambers! You could be next! Flee, while you still can!
Johanna’s eyes flitted around, afraid someone would arrest her for looking. She wasn’t the one who was arrested. Guards from all angles came out with guns raised, pointing at the man with the sign.
“Sir, you are under arrest under the new statue of Hitler. You must not speak ill of our powerful chancellor. You shall now come with us to be interrogated or you will be shot,” shouted a stern and powerful looking guard.
“You will all get what you deserve. Shoot me now, and God will punish you. I shall be rewarded. You will be doing me a favor. The truth will always come out.” He sat staring the guards in the eyes, looking down the barrel of a gun as a trigger was pulled.
The man was no longer defiant. He was non-existent, lying in a growing pool of maroon, forever staining the tiles.
“Let this be a warning!” The guard shouted, his words echoing through the silent street. “Heil, Hitler!” With that they dispersed leaving the man on the ground, his sign dissipating in blood.
Johanna wasn’t sure why, but all of a sudden, she was sure. She schemed through the bus rides, through her work and in bed that night.
Johanna stuffed her singular bag with a change of clothes, seven pieces of stale bread, an apple, and a wrinkled picture of her family. She was ready. But she had to be brave. Brave.
The next morning came and anxiety flowed through her, shaking her hands and dilating her pupils.
“Johanna, you seem quiet this morning, are you ill?”
“No mama. Just tired. The rain was loud last night.” She really didn’t get much sleep but she hardly noticed that through her anxiety.
“What’s really wrong, Johanna?” Ralf whispered to her over breakfast.
Tears prickled her eyes. She needed to stay strong. For his safety, he could never know.
“I already told mama. Nothing is wrong. I am just tired.” He gave a long, skeptical look at Johanna’s eyes and she felt like she was being violated, like he was reading her mind. Johanna hastily looked away and preoccupied herself with breakfast.
“Johanna, after work, could you help me with my Hitler project? I’m drawing a tribute to him, and I figured you could help.” Annegret looked at Johanna, her eyes like a baby deer’s.
“I’ll see,” Johanna choked. Desperately she looked at the ancient grandfather clock. It was time for her to leave. “I must go, I am going to be late.”
“Good luck, tochter. I’ll see you for dinner.” Mama pulled her in close. Johanna wanted to stay there forever, wrapped in her mother’s warmth. But, she had to make it brief, they couldn’t suspect anything.
“Ich liebe dich, Mama.” I love you, Mama.
“Ich liebe dich, totchter. Now hurry, you are not to be late for work.”
I wiped tears from my eyes and hurried to papa’s room.
“Oh, Johanna, I was wondering when you’d come in.”
Johanna approached his bed.
“Are you feeling better?” She asked.
“It’s nothing, you don’t need to worry about me, just a little chest pain this morning.” That meant he was in a lot of pain.
“I am sorry to hear that papa. I hope you feel better today.”
“Me too, Johanna. Now you better get going and I will see you for dinner.”
Johanna nodded and managed to croak one final good-bye.
She jogged out of the house and down the street to the bus stop. She hurried in right as it was about to leave. Now, she stared at the windowpane, a lone tear dripping down her cheek as she knew, she would never see them again. She didn’t care about the tears now. She had made up her mind. When the bus screeched, signaling the end of the ride, her heart skipped a beat. She wiped the tears from her eyes and composed herself. She walked on shaky legs to Klaus, who she knew wouldn’t hurt her. At least she didn’t think he would.
“Guten morgen, Johanna.”
“As to you, Klaus.”
She set her bag on the inspection table.
“What are you up to today?” Klaus asked.
“Oh, just the usual, work, and Annegret wanted me to help her with a school presentation.”
“Wow, how old is she now?”
“Fourteen. Fifteen next month,” Johanna answered.
“Wonderful, I see she didn’t have to work early like you.”
“Yes, we managed enough money to keep her in school.”
Now, he gave the bag only a fleeting glance.
“Give Annegret the best for me, Johanna.”
“Of course I will, Klaus. And,” She couldn’t help herself. “Thank you.”
He nodded and then, everything came in slow motion. She began to walk her usual route, to the right. Then, she turned on her heel, squeaking the tiled floor, and she ran. Her heart leapt in her throat. Blood pounded in her ears. Shots rang out around her and alarms screeched, becoming a background noise for the thumping of her heart. She briefly looked back and saw Klaus, shooting. But, not at her. Up, at the ceiling. He gave a single flash of a smile and Johanna ran. She kept running, guards burst through doors from all sides and advanced on her. She couldn’t fight them. She had to run. The gold writing their uniforms glinted in the fluorescent lights. A guard grabbed her right arm. She kept running. She struggled to remove the hand, but it wouldn’t budge. Eventually, multiple guards had her pinned down. Then, they went limp. Johanna burst through them, barely having time to register the fact that the guards were bleeding, on the floor, dead. She knew who did it. Even so, she ran and didn’t look back until she burst through the metal gates towering above her. She slipped through the iron bars separating her from freedom and kept running. She only stopped when she arrived in West Germany.
The lights were bright, even in the light of day. She was free. The sounds of laughter echoed from the streets below and there were trees and parks, and water. Children ran through the streets, playing games and even the grass seemed brighter.
Tears of joy fell from Johanna’s eyes onto the grass below her. She had made it. She beat the system and earned her freedom. But, at a costly price; she would never see her family again. Tears of joy became tears of grief because she couldn’t turn back. She thought of Annegret graduating school, Ralf getting a good job, and how they would all grow families, have children and grow old together. She was alone. All alone. How would they afford anything now? Johanna and her mother brought in most of the money. But, she thought of Ralf, Renete, and Hans. They would want this for her. Besides, Ralf and Hans were about to get jobs anyway. Maybe one day, they’d join her in West Berlin after the war. Johanna knew she was kidding herself. Triumphantly, she walked down the hill and towards the city of West Berlin, knowing that the nightmare she was living was over.
Johanna was washing the dishes looking down at the skyline of Berlin when her neighbor, Elke, burst through her front door.
“Elke, is everything alright?” Johanna was concerned.
“Alright? It’s better than all right! Come, Johanna!” Elke smiled as she shouted at Johanna to follow.
“Where are we going?” Johanna asked but didn’t receive an answer.
Elke lead her to the hospital down the block. Johanna confusedly stumbled and tripped, but kept going. Suddenly, Elke stopped in front of a room.
“Elke, what is the meaning of this…” She trailed off as Elke pushed open the door and Johanna saw who was inside.
“Papa!” she screamed. Johanna ran to him, happiness coming in sobbing tears.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Papa, it’s me, Johanna!”
“Johanna? We thought you were dead! We’ve missed you so much.” Tears fell down his cheeks as well.
“What are you doing here?” Johanna managed to ask.
“They threw me out of the east because I was too old and sick to work.”
“That’s horrible. But at least now you’re free.”
“Yes, I am. And knowing you are too, I can die happy.” His eyes closed peacefully.
“Yes, totchter?” he said and the word made her start to cry all over again.
“What’s it like back in the East? How is our family?”
“They miss you gravely, but they are all thriving under their new lives.”
“I’m glad.” Johanna gave one watery smile at him and walked out with Elke.
When she got back to her house, there was something in the mail for her. Johanna opened the box and peered inside. There was one envelope, addressed to her. It had an American stamp.
“My visa! They renewed my visa! Finally, I’m going to America!”
Everyone heard through their open windows and came to congratulate her. She was to leave in one year. They partied throughout the night, celebrating her new life to come.
She was ready for the next big adventure to America.
Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to the real Johanna who escaped from East Germany during the war. She died recently and no one knew. I thought her story deserved to be told. She met my grandmother after she moved to America and they became good friends. As stubborn as she was, she was courageous, and deserves to be honored as such.