MY 4 HOURS AS A SPY

WENDY MICHENER, in West Berlin for the film festival, boarded a train, crossed into East Berlin, stepped onto the platform of the Friedrichstrasse station . . . and snapped the picture at left. Immediately she was arrested: it was verboten. And then the grilling began . . .

September 18 1965

MY 4 HOURS AS A SPY

WENDY MICHENER, in West Berlin for the film festival, boarded a train, crossed into East Berlin, stepped onto the platform of the Friedrichstrasse station . . . and snapped the picture at left. Immediately she was arrested: it was verboten. And then the grilling began . . .

September 18 1965

MY 4 HOURS AS A SPY

WENDY MICHENER, in West Berlin for the film festival, boarded a train, crossed into East Berlin, stepped onto the platform of the Friedrichstrasse station . . . and snapped the picture at left. Immediately she was arrested: it was verboten. And then the grilling began . . .

IT WAS THE FOURTH TIME I'd been across the wall into East Berlin that week (side trips from the West Berlin Film Festival), and I thought I knew the rules pretty well. But there I was, standing in a grey granite corridor somewhere in the mysterious innards of the big Friedrichstrasse train and subway station with an armed policeman for company.

He and another Volkspolizist had arrested me on the platform of the station, the first stop inside East Berlin. The other one had taken my passport and disappeared through a door, w'hich he instantly locked. Now I could hear him arguing loudly with two other men.

The place we were standing was dim. Corridors and stairs led off in several directions. Beside the locked door several two-tiered iron bunks were squeezed into a blind alley of the corridor. I couldn't imagine w'hy they were there, until my guard inadvertently gave me a clue.

He was the jolly sort of German. Even in his heavy boots, green jodhpurs and peaked cap. he looked as if he belonged on the farm with his round healthy face and big grin.

“If you get tired,” he said, laughing a little to reassure me, “you can lie down.” Far from calming me down, this soldierly joke really alarmed me for the first time since I had seen the greenuniformed Vopos converging on me from both ends of the station at once.

The day of my arrest I boarded the eastbound Stadtbahn at the Zoo station in West Berlin. When I got to Friedrichstrasse I clicked off three shots with my camera, up and down the platform, focusing carefully in my amateur fashion. I thought it would he nice to have a picture of the first station in the East—very dramatic, with soldiers silhouetted against the glass-andiron-work structure.

Just as I w'as folding the camera one of the Western trainmen in blue overalls rushed up to me and whispered, “Nicht pestattet. You can't take pictures here.” “Oh,” I said, and looked up to find that the platform which had been empty just a moment before was swarming with green Vopos. Three or four rushed toward me shouting, “Is that the lady who took the pictures?”

There goes my film. I thought sadly, and all but three are shots I wanted from the West. As it turned out, instead of just impounding my film, they took me off to that sooty corridor, checking on the way to see if I was using a good camera. I was.

As we waited, my jolly guard and I exchanged inane pleasantries. We established, for instance, that in Europe wedding rings are worn on the right hand, hut on the left in North America.

Meanwhile, someone behind the locked door continued to take the whole ridiculous situation seriously, and I suddenly remembered that my passport read simply: “Profession—Journalist." They might easily assume I was writing about something important like politics, or, worse still, that being a journalist was a cover story for spying, though what spy. I ask you. would pull out a large Zeiss Ikon and laboriously focus on anything so insignificant and heavily guarded as the Friedrichstrasse station?

When at last the senior man came out, I hastened to tell him I was a film critic, not a political journalist, and not a professional photographer. But by then he had his orders. I was to be questioned.

I was shown to a kind of waiting room with long benches and three doors. Soldiers passed aimlessly in and out of the door at the end. and from the side door to the end door and back. Two men waited on the bench opposite me. looking determinedly relaxed. After half an hour I asked how long they'd been there, and they smiled as at a child asking. “How long till we get home, mummy?” “Not long,” they answered.

I read a bulletin board on w'hich were posted stories about how great life was in the workers’ state. One sign said: “Das Wissen 1st Macht" (Knowledge is pow'er). At that moment all I knew' for sure w'as that I was powerless.

D

Y NOW I was beginning to feel persecuted. Two hours as a prisoner had started me feeling like a caged animal. I was pacing the room, suspicious, prepared for anything. In this frame of mind. I was taken into the side room for questioning. My interrogator motioned me to a comfortable chair—the only padded chair in the room—and I looked up to find my suspicions confirmed. Directly opposite that chair, in the middle of the back wall, there was one of those tiny spy glasses used in some apartment buildings so one can see who is at the apartment door before opening it.

I walked past that chair, knowing my interrogator couldn't insist that I sit there without giving the game away. I chose a plain wooden chair at the side of the room, out of view of the device in the wall.

The interview was conducted in German, and so l was at a distinct disadvantage in trying to explain. Several times I had to ask that a question be repeated, that he speak more slowly, and to consult my Collins pocket dictionary.

Of course, it was my smattering of German that got me into trouble in the first place. I

knew just enough to get around alone, but not quite enough to he fully aware of any situation. My accent isn't bad, and people were always talking back to me too fast.

My questioner asked me to rewind the film and give it to him, and I could see he was watching to see how 1 handled my camera. At this point 1 produced my Famous Players movie pass, and thanked goodness for it. It’s a nice officiallooking plastic card with the word Press written across it—just the kind of identification the Germans, who must carry identity cards at all limes, really respect.

Well then, why was I taking pictures in the Friedrichstrasse station? He suggested a number of innocent-sounding alternatives. Perhaps I was just photographing a relative?

No. I just thought it w'ould be nice to have a picture of the station, and 1 had no idea it wasn’t allowed.

That was too easy. Mightn’t I want to use the picture against the East German government somehow? How could he believe I didn't know' better than to photograph military installations?

I protested that 1 had photographed freely before in East Berlin without warnings of any kind, and besides I hadn’t thought of the station as a military installation.

“All border points are military objectives,” I w'as told.

The examination was thorough, crisp in the military fashion, but not without caution. There was no mention of violence, no harsh tactics. The only threat was the implication of the questions that I was conspiring against the East German government—no minor offense.

After half an hour of this I found myself starting to weep. I was tired. I was hungry. And at the very least I was establishing a police file, complete with photostat of my Famous Players theatres pass. Now I would never travel freely again in East Berlin. Police files have long memories.

My questioner didn't like my crying any more than 1 did. I didn't even have a Kleenex and needless to say, the room did not come equipped. So he ended there.

I sat sniffling in the waiting room, trying to pull myself together. A soldier appeared from the door at the end, and went in to confer with the one who had been talking to me. I supposed that his was the eye on the other side of the spy hole; certainly the arrangement of rooms was perfect for that. Then they both came out and I was told I could pick up my film—or at least part of it—at three that afternoon. My passport reappeared complete with twenty-four-hour pass, and I was shown out the staff entrance at the back of the station.

My first, urgent need was basic. A Kleenex. After an unsuccessful try to buy one at the nearest newspaper kiosk, I came back in the front door of the station. No luck there either. Finally I went into the

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women's toilet and blew my nose on the free paper provided there.

The Berliner Ensemble Theatre, where I had an appointment with some of the staff, is just across a canal bridge from the station, in full

view of it. I apologized for being late, explaining my holdup with the police, and they all laughed at the idea of a spy taking pictures on the Friedrichstrasse platform. This welcome put everything back to normal. This was how it had been before, and might always have been, if I hadn't chanced to put my foot into the Cold War.

At 3 p.m., as instructed, l reported to the staff entrance of the station, expecting to take what was left of my film and return by the normal route. Wrong again. Once more, I was ushered up through the maze of corridors to that all-too-familiar waiting room.

But this time there was no waiting.

I was met right away by a tall, lean, intelligent-looking man wearing very plain clothes, and displaying a solicitous manner. I was ushered (there is no other word for it) into an office, waved once more to the comfortable chair, and once again passed it by. The man handed back my film, developed and uncut. Many of the negatives were underexposed—but

the station pictures were good, just about the best on the roll. He said he wanted to talk to me because he was afraid that the police, with their loudmouthed ways (he actually used the insulting slang word schnautze), had left me with a bad impression.

Now the atmosphere was full of gentle reconciliation and good will. East Germany was turning the other cheek, and I decided that the authorities, counterintelligence, or whoever they were, had decided I was harmless. The police, he suggested, only knew how to follow the rules and had put their big boots in their loud mouths once again.

The man never identified himself or his function, except to say that he worked in the passport department, hut he clearly had more authority than any of the soldiers I had talked to, and he asked far more questions than any of them.

What’s it like in Canada?

Once again we spoke German, though I was convinced that this one spoke a lot more English than I did German. Did Canadians speak Oxford English or American slang? Did Canadians need a passport to get into the United States? Could someone from a socialist country get into Canada?

Altogether, he kept me an hour and a half, and when I had to look up a word in my dictionary, he was just impatient enough to make me think he'd already understood.

Did we have to carry personalidentity cards in Canada? When I said no, he thought perhaps I hadn’t understood, and he took out his green identity book and put it on the table.

I reached for it, but he got there first.

“That’s not allowed,” he said.

He offered me a cigarette. I declined, and he put the package away. “One doesn’t smoke if a lady isn’t smoking,” he said.

Was Toronto big? Did it have a harbor? Was it a border point? How much did it cost to travel from Berlin to Toronto?

Strangely enough, this last was the only question that made my pulse rise. The West German government had paid my way to the Berlin Film Festival, and this connection alone, I was told, was enough to make me something of an enemy in the eyes of the East German government. Fortunately, my own curiosity had lead me to check on the return fare, and I was able to reply without hesitation and without reference to the West German government.

By now I was feeling safe enough to ask a question of my own.

I was in a spot: if they knew how I got to Berlin, I’d be in trouble again

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“Don’t you ever go to West Berlin?” I asked.

“No, why should I? What is there to see? I know all about it. I’ve read all about it.”

At this point we'd been talking about an hour and he wondered il I’d like to have lunch with him.

“Is this a private or an official invitation?"

"It cannot be private," he said, pointing lo his ring and mine. "We are both married, so . . . ”

That was the end of the conversation. “Wait in here." he said, losing his velvet-glove manners. “Someone will bring back your passport.”

It was the soldier of the morning who brought it, smiling and crinkling his eyes at me. “Well." he said in a fatherly fashion, "have you got your film back?"

I had, and I'd signed a receipt to get it, though the police had not given me any receipt when they took it from me. The soldier asked to see it.

When he came to the negatives of the station he protested, “You can't have those. We'll have to cut those off.”

“Oh no!" I spoke positively. "The other man said I was to have the whole film.”

"Oh well, then.” He took me out. still smiling, anti as 1 went down the staff stairs called out politely, “Auf Wiedersehen (Until we meet again).”

“I certainly hope not,” I said, and ran out. ★