East to West: My grandfather's escape from Communism
The year was 1960, and tearing through the farmland on his motorcycle was my grandfather Helmut Krenz, age 20. A few hours later, he would be jailed in a cold East German prison cell, imprisoned because he tried to escape his authoritarian government.
Without the risks he would undertake in the coming months, my mother would have been born in East instead of West Germany, and likely would not have immigrated to the United States. I too would likely not enjoy the opportunities afforded to me today.
Following World War II, Germany was split up “temporarily” by the four victorious Allied powers for the purposes of rebuilding. However, the Soviet Union sought to permanently divide the country between East Germany and West Germany. Western soldiers looked eastward fearing another world war, while Communist forces along the border also looked eastward to prevent the state’s own citizens from fleeing to freedom.
While the West reaped the benefits of the Marshall Plan — United States aid to rebuild Europe after World War II — and a free market economy (what Germans still refer to as the “economic miracle”), the East regressed into a planned economy, the negative effects of which are still evident decades later. Those who lived in the East and had just been freed from the horrors of the Nazis and the Gestapo were again subjected to exploitation and inhumane treatment at the hands of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Freedom of the press, religion, speech and travel were all severely curtailed, and citizen’s felt as though they were constantly being watched.
Helmut’s formative years were spent in this geopolitical hotbed, less than 50 miles from the Iron Curtain.
Helmut was born in Germany during World War II, but the Krenz family was forced by the Nazis to relocate to what is now Poland. In early 1945, caught between the enclosing Soviets in the East and the Nazis in the West, they became refugees and fled through the brutally cold winter.
After months of running and living as refugees, the family returned and settled on farmland in Warlitz, East Germany, desperately hoping the worst was over. Helmut grew up working the farm, feeding the animals and enjoying relatively peaceful childhood years.
However, he slowly became aware of the reality of the so-called German “Democratic” Republic. Indoctrination came first in the education system and he was forced to submit to Marxist-Leninist ideology in his classes. He felt he couldn’t be open with his peers in school or question anything he learned, out of fear it would negatively affect his prospects for employment.
The absence of economic freedom and career mobility also contributed to the desire to escape. The government mandated that he stay and contribute as a farmer, but he knew he wanted to continue studying, obtain an education and be free to choose his own profession.
In addition to limits on his educational and career prospects, the East German state also actively persecuted those practicing religion, particularly Christians such as Helmut. The official position of the ruling Socialist Unity of Party of Germany (SED) was that Christian churches were foreign bodies and had no place in a socialist state, whose stated aim was an entirely atheist society. Local church leaders were routinely arrested and imprisoned and felt like the Stasi was watching their every move.
Faced with these circumstances in his teenage years was the first time he had the yearning to leave the East. If circumstances allowed him to escape to the West, he would take the risk for freedom.
Helmut’s first opportunity to attempt escape arose shortly after he turned 20 in the fall of 1960. He would travel to Berlin on his motorcycle, then take the city tram in to meet up with family friends and initially scout out the path to the West. However, once on the Berlin train system, the East German police examined his passport and detained him.
He was taken to headquarters, locked in a prison cell and interrogated for hours. After this, the police confiscated his passport and told him he was no longer allowed to travel outside of his hometown. For weeks the Stasi watched and periodically questioned him.
After seven weeks of this surveillance, he was called to the local police station in his hometown of Warlitz. The police chief brought him up to his office and initially appeared to be empathetic and compassionate — promising Helmut a good life if he subscribed to communist ideology and did as he was told. The chief even returned his passport, allowing him to once again freely travel throughout East Germany.
As the meeting was ending, however, the chief coldly looked Helmut in the eyes and said, “I give you one warning, if we catch you on the way to Berlin another time, then 10 years imprisonment is sure for you.”
Helmut was stunned and frustrated — he was no criminal, he simply wanted freedom and a better life.
He would defy the government’s stern warning when he left home with another would-be defector the day after Christmas in 1960. He made the difficult choice to leave his family behind, not knowing if he would ever see them again. He left with nothing but the clothes on his back and a toothbrush; knowing if he carried anything more, he would likely be stopped and questioned.
In order to not arouse suspicion, he first traveled to Leipzig, East Germany instead of going directly to Berlin, spending Christmas at a conference in the city to throw off anyone watching him as to his true intentions. On Dec. 26, 1960, he planned to connect to the central train station in East Berlin. Before the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, the trains in the city still ran between the East and West under heavy passport control once onboard the train. This was the way he would theoretically get to the West.
When setting out from Leipzig, the friend he was traveling with decided seconds before boarding the train he would not attempt to escape given the imminent danger. Helmut pleaded with him to come aboard the train, but the doors suddenly slammed shut — leaving him alone on his four-hour journey to Berlin.
Some people, especially Germans, are familiar with the story of a young Martin Luther, who, facing death during a lightning storm, pledged to become a monk if he was spared. Knowing his next stop could be prison, Helmut made a similar pledge: To serve God if granted his freedom against these insurmountable odds.
On the train, he found an open seat across from a high-ranking East German officer. When it came time to show passports, the border guards gave his only a quick once-over look, figuring any young man sitting near an officer surely did not need to be checked. An overwhelming sense of relief came over him at that moment, but he wasn’t safe yet.
Often times to their detriment, Germans are known for having a rigidly hierarchical view of authority (the VW emissions scandal is a perfect modern-day example). Thankfully, the East German hierarchy was alive and well on this day.
Once in Berlin, he quickly followed the dense crowds to the Berlin tram system. He had memorized the map and knew he had to get off at Gesundbrunnen, the station in the West. He was scared to look at or speak with anyone on the train, fearing there were Stasi spies in the mix of commuters. It was highly unusual there was no passport control on the train that day, and when he reached Gesundbrunnen, he jumped out of the train to freedom.
“No one can describe what that feeling was like,” he said.
Since God held up his end of the bargain, Helmut stuck to his promise, eventually leading churches in West Germany, Switzerland and Sterling Heights, Michigan as a pastor. Many have come to Detroit seeking employment with one of the “Big Three” — Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — but he would joke with people and tell them he was in town to work for the “Big One” — God.
For Helmut, the so-called “American Dream” was never about wealth accumulation or status, but simply the opportunity this country presented. His family could live here in peace, free from government oversight, with access to great schools. The Krenz family enjoyed similar freedom and a good life in Switzerland, but Helmut and his wife Isolde felt it was time to move to Michigan for their children’s educational benefit.
Helmut’s family did not have much money and my mother, born in Erkelenz, West Germany, didn’t know any English after arriving in Michigan. When she began fifth grade during her first school year here, she could only read at a first grade level. But my grandfather would challenge them: “If other kids can do it, you can too.” By the end of that first year, she was ahead of the rest of the class and reading at an eighth grade level. No one in their family before them had a formal college education. Through hard work, my mother ended up receiving a full scholarship to attend Wayne State University.
In part because Helmut chose to leave everything he knew behind on that fateful day in 1960, two of his children went on to receive doctorates, one became a concert pianist, and another helps run a business. I too have the opportunity to now attend the University of Michigan as a result.
In 2016, I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin and retrace my grandfather’s footsteps while studying abroad. The train still runs from the former East German central station to Gesundbrunnen, the former station of liberation. As I sat there riding through the city on that sunny day, I thought about how blessed I am that Helmut took the risk of escaping.
When he was 20 in Berlin, he faced the prospect of at least a decade in prison to obtain freedom, while my trip was spent leisurely enjoying the city. He had to watch his back to ensure the Stasi didn’t tail him on the train; I simply had to use Google Maps to find the correct routes. He was forced to make life-defining decisions, I was faced with the choice of whether I should sample a local currywurst or grab McDonald’s for lunch.
This stark generational contrast is thanks to the establishment of a free society in Germany. So often we take our liberty for granted, but we must remember it is a result of years of sacrifice and striving toward equality, individualism, representative government, peace and freedom for all. I will likely never have to risk my own life in order to secure these ideals for future generations, but we should be thankful many of our parents, grandparents and families did before us. Some escaped dictators, many fought in the armed forces to keep us safe, while countless others made daily sacrifices in order to send their children to college or move to a better neighborhood.
Sitting there in Berlin, I realized my grandfather’s story of oppression and journey to freedom influences the way I see the world today. My belief that America should welcome immigrants fleeing persecution, that individuals deserve to take home more of their own paychecks or that the size of government should be limited, are rooted in the abuses Helmut and countless others faced and still face at the hands of authoritarian regimes in North Korea, China, Venezuela, Russia and elsewhere around the world.
This year marks 28 years since the wall was torn down — the same number of years it was standing. Thankfully my grandfather was able to move through Berlin just months before the East German government shocked the world by constructing it overnight in 1961. He knows it wouldn’t have been possible for him to get out once the structure was in place.
In a recent conversation with him, I asked what his reaction was when the Berlin Wall fell and his home country was reunified in 1990.
He reiterated his belief that whenever a government attempts to stifle people, that institution will ultimately fail. The deep irony of East Germany’s attempted repression of religion is that the peaceful protest movement that eventually led to the toppling of the Berlin Wall began in churches.
Totalitarianism eventually fails and gives way to mankind’s inherent desire for self-government, but conscious strides must be made in order for this to happen. While leaders like U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union set the pendulum of freedom into motion, the will and belief of the millions of people were eventually what pulled back the Iron Curtain.
As one of the millions of people who are fortunate enough to now reap the benefits of living in this free society, I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to continue to improve America as a beacon of hope and a land of opportunity for all people. Only through open dialogue and mutual respect for one another can we prevent the re-emergence of the failed philosophies of the prior century perpetrated in the Eastern bloc, experienced by my grandfather and countless others like him.