“It was a lovely summer’s day …”
Generally, at this point, you’d expect the story to go on to describe visions of children frolicking in a field of dandelions near a picnic.
Yeah, not this one.
Monika Raab is a retired travel agent living with her pet parrot in Kambah, and on this particular day in 1960, she had just jumped a fence at an East German port and was being approached by a guard.
“I even remember what I was wearing. Long black pants with a beautiful, wide-neck woollen jumper, knitted by my auntie. Wool was rare in those days and instantly set you apart as coming from West Germany.”
Monika was born in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1944, as the older sister to three brothers. Her mother remarried a tradesman when she was three years old.
The country was rebuilding from World War II while another war was brewing – the Cold War between Russia and the West. Both sides felt the need to guard their halves of Germany staunchly, but the Russians were extra keen that nobody on their side got a taste for the western way of life.
This reached a crescendo in the early hours of 13 August 1961, when coils of barbed wire were strung along the border of the Soviet sector of Germany’s capital, Berlin. Over the next few days and weeks, these became a wall of concrete slabs and hollow blocks, with only one way in and out – ‘Checkpoint Charlie’. Guards were under orders to shoot anyone on sight who tried other methods.
Monika’s story takes place a year before, but the tension was real. You may not get shot, but you would arrested and fiercely interrogated.
“I had always told my mum that one day, she wouldn’t see me anymore, and she would know I had escaped,” Monika says.
“She accepted that.”
Monika was 16 years old and on a school excursion at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Rostock on the northern sea border when the opportune moment arrived.
Using the crowds as cover, she snuck up to a wire fence, about one-and-a-half metres tall, surrounding the port. In a flash, she was over.
“I had a notebook in my hand because we were meant to present what we had learned afterwards at a sort of show-and-tell display at school.”
The plan was to catch a lift on a departing ship, but first, she had to know where each of them was headed. She tightened her trench coat, took on a confident gait and began looking the docked ships up and down while taking notes.
“What are you doing here?” a guard said as he approached her. The plan was working.
With astonishing courage, she retorted, “That’s for me to know and you not to find out.”
(“That was the thing in those days, you never knew who somebody might be,” Monika explains.)
She went on: “It’s a special day today and I’m writing a story for my school newspaper.”
“Can I have a look?” the guard asked, becoming less suspicious by the second.
“No,” Monika replied bluntly.
“Okay, but you’ve got a pass to be here?”
To be where she was, legally, Monika must have been handed a pass by the guards at the gate.
“Of course. Do you want to see it?” she said while patting her pockets as if looking for it. The guard took this display as adequate proof and proceeded to spill all about the comings and goings of the ships.
The guard’s shift ended and he bid farewell to Monika and turned towards the gate. Monika knew he’d be back the moment he found out the other guards had never granted a pass to any schoolgirl, so she quickly scanned the port for a hiding place. She clambered up a ladder and took refuge in the hull of an Icelandic ship.
“My nerves must have got the better of me, or I dozed off – I don’t know – but in my next memory, it’s daylight. I couldn’t hunker down in this tiny room any longer so I opened the door.”
She was greeted immediately by a large, red-headed man holding a box. He looked as guilty as she did.
“Alcohol was very expensive in Iceland so the sailors would smuggle in whisky from East Germany,” Monika says.
The crew were friendly enough, plying her with food and lipstick, not to mention chewing gum – another rarity in East Germany – but said they would have to report her as a stowaway.
On arrival in Sweden, a black limousine and three suited men greeted her, and despite visions of travelling the world in Hollywood-style glamour from that moment forward, she was whisked away to jail.
“But the lady who looked after the female inmates would invite me out to have coffee with her in the corridor, and we would have lovely conversations together.”
Meanwhile, the ship’s crew had passed the bowl around and gathered enough money for her new life of freedom. A few days after screaming a ‘thank you’ down at the captain from the jail windows, the German embassy sent her to Hamburg, on the Western side.
Six years later, she saw her family again. She didn’t recognise her brothers at first but describes the reunion as the most emotional experience she’s ever experienced.
And yes, she fulfilled her dream of seeing the world as a travel agent based in South Australia with her husband and two children.
She and her boss were in West Berlin, heading for the other side of the Wall – and a meeting with an East German airline – on the night of 9 November 1989, when they were stopped by a chaotic traffic jam spanning kilometres. Champagne bottles were popping, firecrackers were going off, and crowds wept with joy.
“It was crazy. I have never seen anything like it.”
The terrifying era of the Berlin Wall was finally over.
Between bouts of gardening, Monika has penned everything she can remember with the help of her daughter, and she’s now looking to compile these boxes of notes into a published book.
After all, it’s far from an ordinary story.