Flight to Freedom

updated 10/02/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/02/1989 01:00AM

All his life, Michael Dürer had been waiting for the moment to arrive. Now, watching the television news from Co-burg, the West German city just six miles across the border from his home in Thüringen, he could scarcely believe his eyes. Hungary, the report said, was about to open its border with Austria and allow throngs of East Germans to flee across to the West. Already 10,000 of Dürer's East German countrymen had made their escape to freedom in West Germany; now, Dürer knew, the time had come for him and his family to join them.

For much of his life, Dürer had despised the repressive society of his homeland and was tantalized by television images of the West. Then a few years ago, he traveled briefly to Switzerland, taking advantage of an East German law permitting citizens to visit the West—as long as they left their families behind. "It was so clean and modern there, and people could say what they want," he recalls. "But I had no political freedom, no economic freedom and no real freedom to travel." Since then Dürer, a 33-year-old bus driver, had held to the hope that someday he, his wife, Heike, 24, and their 2-year-old daughter, Franziska, would have their chance to start anew in the West.

Earlier this year, the Dürers began hearing reports that border guards in Hungary had stopped shooting at East Germans attempting to escape into Austria; buoyed by the news, Michael badgered East German authorities for a month to obtain a visa for Hungary, only to be rebuffed. Then, on Sept. 10, came the broadcast from Coburg. At once Michael decided that he and Heike would drive to Czechoslovakia, slip across the border illegally into Hungary—then somehow make their way to West Germany.

Fearful that the borders could close as suddenly as they had opened, the Dürers had to move swiftly. First Michael tuned up the family car for the long trip—no mean feat, since the Dürers' feeble Soviet-made Lada was at best an untrustworthy ally. The couple gave friends their radio and television set—bought only after months of saving—but precious family mementos had to be boxed and left behind. After four nerve-racking days, it was finally time for Michael and Heike to leave.

The Dürers left Thüringen on the evening of Sept. 15. With only four tote bags stuffed with food and a change of clothing, they appeared an ordinary family bound for a weekend in Czechoslovakia, and East German border guards quickly let them pass. The scene at the Czech-Hungarian border later that night was considerably more frightening. "I looked at the map and saw what seemed to be a good place to cross over," says Michael. "But when we reached it, we found that the village was filled with police." They had heard that the Czechs were rounding up refugees, stamping their passports to show that they had tried to escape, then returning them to East Germany—and the possibility of a decade in prison.

The Dürers decided there was no turning back. They quickly headed for the River Danube, which runs along the border, but it too was heavily patrolled. Then fortune intervened. "A man overtook us in his car," Michael says. "I didn't know at first if he was from the police, but then he told me he could lead us across the border—if we would give him our car."

More desperate than wary, Michael and Heike followed the guide to a shallow spot in a tributary of the Danube; on the far side was a vast field—and freedom. It was exactly midnight when they stepped into the water. "I carried Franziska like this," Michael says, crooking his arm. "Heike carried three of the bags, and I carried the other. The water came up to our thighs, but the river was slow. Our guide did not come across with us, so we had to find our way on our own. We were lucky it was completely dark, no moon at all." They forded the river in a few minutes, but it took two hours to cross the field of sunflowers as they moved cautiously, always looking for guards. After changing out of their wet clothes, the couple walked down the road to a small village and fell into a troubled sleep at a bus stop; only Franziska slept well.

The first bus of the morning came at 5 A.M.; they took it to the nearest train station, then traveled to Budapest, where they headed straight for the refugee camp set up by West German officials in the muddy yard of the Zugliget Evangelical church and orphanage. There, hundreds of East Germans huddled in tents—people who had slipped into Hungary with no papers at all and almost no money—waiting for the West German Embassy to issue them passports and for charities to provide buses to transport them. "The people here are all afraid," said Ewie Magyarosi, a West German relief worker. "They think everybody they don't know is from the Stasi, the East German secret police." Women looked over their shoulders in fear and men cringed when a photographer passed by; one refugee nervously packed and unpacked his luggage all morning, casting furtive glances to see who might be watching.

Dürer was luckier than many of his compatriots. Over the years friends and relatives in the West had given him presents. "This sweater," he said proudly, "Benetton." With their help, he had also accumulated a few hundred dollars in West German marks. After refugee workers at Zugliget told him he would have to wait a day for the next bus, Dürer, fearing the border might close, made up his mind to take a taxi to the Austrian border at Nickelsdorf that same morning—a 120-mile journey that would cost nearly $90.

When two Western journalists approached him, Michael had no hesitation about letting them share the ride—and telling them the reasons for his flight-even before they offered to pay for the taxi. "They say that in East Germany you have the freedom to choose your work," he said bitterly. "The government said I was free to choose, then they told me to choose to be a bus driver." He paused to consider his daughter. "If she grew up in East Germany, she would get a good education," he said, gazing at the sleeping Franziska. "But she would get none of the fruits of life, none of the enjoyment, none of the satisfaction. I want better than that for her."

After two hours, the taxi arrived at the Austrian border and swung into a line of cars—Austrians returning from holiday, Hungarians exercising their relatively new right to travel, East Germans yearning for freedom. Minutes later the Dürers pulled up to the guard kiosk, where a border patrolman studied their passports uneasily, then abruptly walked away. Heike gasped; Michael stiffened. Down the road, they could see two guard towers; could their dream of freedom be turning into a nightmare? A middle-aged officer walked to the taxi, put his face in the window and examined the Dürers closely. Then he stared at their passports. Wordlessly, he handed back their papers and walked away. Instantly, the taxi began to roll into Austria.

It was not until after the Dürers had settled into a journalist's rented Mercedes for the trip to West Germany that Michael's sense of humor emerged. "You want to know why I didn't think you were secret police?" he teased. "Because the Stasi look like thugs. Their cars aren't this good. They don't speak English so well, and they don't speak German so poorly."

As the car cruised along Austria's autobahn at 90 mph, Michael pondered the future of his homeland. "I think in five or six years, we will be able to return for a visit, when this regime is gone," he said. "But we won't stay. It will take East Germany years to recover from the last four decades." But he is confident that progress will come. "[The reforms] Mikhail Gorbachev have started cannot turn back now," said Dürer. "Soon there will be just one house in Europe."

Late that afternoon, the Dürers reached the West German border near Passau. Police processed them quickly, then sent them to a converted army barracks at Deggendorf, 30 miles away, to spend the night. "They will fill out forms in the morning, and probably have their papers the next day," explained Michael Brunk, the young officer in charge of the barracks. "We have 8,000 job listings here, for everything from doctors to restaurant workers. People get jobs in just a day or two."

Michael isn't sure just what he will do; perhaps drive a bus, perhaps find a new trade. "There are so many opportunities," he says. For now, he and Heike hope to stay with relatives in Munich. Franziska will soon be ready for preschool, and Heike may go back to work as a secretary. There are no plans beyond that, no thought of any problems that might befall them—just the simple, perhaps naive belief that whatever happens, life will be better.

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