Paula is one of our Facebook followers and she contacted me and told me her very interesting GDR love story and that her story has been turned into a love drama by the BBC. I asked her to write an article for our Blog, because her story is so touching! I am very lucky that she didn`t mind do it, thank you very much Paula for the following contemporary witness report!
In October 1985, 4 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I travelled from the UK to Dresden in the then-GDR to spend two years teaching English in the Intensive Language Centre at the Technical University. I was 21 and freshly graduated from university, where I had studied German. I had long been fascinated by the mystery of life behind the Wall and was thrilled and excited to have the opportunity to experience something of it for myself.
My students were, on the whole, mature professional people who needed English for their career development. They came from all over the GDR and stayed for an intensive 3-month course. In April 1986 my new group included a 42-year old paediatric surgeon from Rostock. Knut Löffler. Knut and I got to know each other better when he offered me a lift back to Dresden after I'd spent a long weekend on the Baltic coast. During the 7-hour drive we talked endlessly: about the GDR, art, history, politics, books, music, everything - and formed a fascination with each other which developed over the following weeks into a full relationship. Knut was an eye-opener to me: I had never encountered anyone like him. He was intelligent, warm, cultured, challenging, fun, and very very tender and loving. He introduced me to books, art and music that I had never encountered before, and to a whole new way of living. I learned so much from him and was deeply influenced by him.
From the start the spectre of the Iron Curtain overshadowed our relationship, seeming to rule out from the start any possibility of its turning into anything permanent. But as time went by we realised that we didn't want our relationship to end when my visa expired at the end of August 1987, and so we had a big decision to make. Would we marry and stay in the GDR ... or marry and move to the UK? Either way we would need the permission of the GDR state, but the former would probably have been fairly straightforward. The downside, though, was that I would have had to become a GDR citizen - and give up my British passport. Perhaps, if we had known in 1987, when we were having to make our decisions, that the GDR would open its borders in less than three years' time, we might have decided differently, but at the time there was simply no sign of the huge changes that would soon engulf the country: so we quickly dismissed the idea of me moving permanently to the GDR. And so, in February 1987 we embarked on the process of applying for permission to marry, and for Knut to move to the UK.
It wasn't an easy decision to make, and we agonised over it for months. Knut's whole life was in the GDR: his adored daughter from his first marriage, his elderly mother, a large circle of very good friends and, of course, his career. In England, he would have to start again from scratch, and we quickly discovered that his GDR medical qualifications wouldn't be recognised in the UK and that he'd have to start again at the bottom of the professional ladder. His English wasn't very good, either, so the challenge would be immense. But on the positive side was the desire for freedom: the freedom to travel, of course, but also the freedom to express himself openly, honestly and critically, the freedom to lead a life with minimal interference from the state. And he also hoped that, once he was in the UK, his daughter would apply to join us and would be able to make her life in the West too.
Twelve years earlier the GDR had signed the Helsinki Agreement, which guaranteed the right of its citizens to marry citizens of other countries and to emigrate in order to be with them and so, in theory, it had to give us permission ... eventually. Of course, theory and practice were not always the same thing, and the British Embassy warned us from the start that we would almost certainly have a battle on our hands. In the late 1980s, doctors were emigrating from the GDR in very high numbers, and the situation was reaching crisis point. Knut wasn't just a doctor, but a very highly respected and valued specialist surgeon, and we knew from the start that the GDR would not want to let him go without a fight. But the British Embassy promised us its full support, and assured us that all previous cases had been won in the end, even though they had sometimes taken a long time.
Encouraged by this, Knut submitted our application in February 1987. The repercussions were immediate. Long before he submitted our application to marry and for him to leave the GDR, our relationship had caused him problems at work: he had been sent to the Dresden English course in preparation for a 12-month stint in Prague, where he would have acquired further skills and experience needed for his career development and would also have had more chance to work on his second doctorate. But as soon as it became known that he was having a relationship with a Westerner, he was told that this opportunity was being withdrawn. After he submitted the application, life was made harder still for him, in a variety of petty but humiliating ways. He was officially censured at work for 'betraying' the GDR by wanting to leave, and all his colleagues, regardless of their private feelings, were required to join in the public condemnation of him. A few months later Knut and I planned a holiday in Budapest, plans which we had to abandon when we were tipped off that we would be turned back at the border with the Czech Republic if we tried to cross it and we decided we didn't want to give the authorities that satisfaction.
Officially, we were supposed to get an answer to his application within 6 months, which - provided it was a Yes, in line with the requirements of Helsinki - would just give us time to marry before my visa expired at the end of August. The end of August came, however, and there had been no word from the Rostock Town Hall. I left the GDR to return to London to find a job and a home so that I'd be able to provide for Knut when he was able to join me, whenever that would be. But it was a painful thing to have to do: not only did we not know whether he would ever be allowed to join me in the west, we couldn't be absolutely certain that the GDR would let me back in either.
Apart now, we wrote to each other almost every day, and phoned when we could, though telephoning was difficult. Knut's only phone was in his office in the clinic. He wasn't allowed to dial out to the west, and it was hard to arrange times for me to phone him because he shared the office with a colleague and could never be sure of privacy and, besides, was often called away at short notice to operate. Weeks and then months went by, and still there was no word about our application. In early January 1988 I returned for a short visit (the GDR did let me in, after all), but there had still been no news and we were both beginning to feel the strain. But a month later, Knut was summoned to an official meeting at the Town Hall in Rostock, and we both allowed ourselves to hope that we were going to get the permission we'd been waiting for. There had been a number of encouraging signs: several other applications that we were aware of had recently been approved, and Knut had just been summoned to the army (like all GDR men, he was obliged to be in the Reserves) and had been stripped of his rank - something which was often one of the last things to happen before an application was granted.
But we were in for a huge disappointment: our application was refused.
Knut submitted an official appeal against the decision, the British Embassy also wrote formal letters of appeal on my behalf and our case was even raised in official meetings between UK and GDR government officials. But all we could do was wait. Just over 3 months later, we got the official response: our appeal had been refused too.
The sense of utter helplessness and powerlessness in the face of the GDR authorities was overwhelming. It was slightly less hard for me, perhaps: as a Westerner I had been brought up with the freedom to protest and campaign against injustice, and so I could imagine continuing our efforts to get the answer we both longed for. Knut had only ever known the GDR, where such freedoms did not exist, and trying to act as though they did could prove dangerous. He had two close friends who, separately, had tried to escape from the GDR and had ended up in Stasi jails for their pains: he knew how bad things could get for those who fell foul of the system.
We talked about submitting a further appeal, but Knut had become deeply depressed, and two months later he gave up and our relationship fell apart. I was devastated - we both were; but it wasn't long before we were back in touch, writing and telephoning, though less often than before. We both knew there was no question of trying to re-start our relationship: we both felt too battered and bruised, and besides, nothing had changed in the outside world and there was still no hope for us.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was a moment of both joy and despair for me. I was so happy and relieved that the people of the GDR no longer had to live under the symbol and reality of repression; but I knew that this huge change had happened too late for Knut and me. When our relationship had fallen apart in August 1988 there hadn't been the slightest sign that such big change was on the horizon, and we had both been convinced there could never be any hope for us. And so we had both worked hard to try to get over it, move on, create new lives and new relationships. And to some extent we had succeeded, however much we still cherished our memories and harboured our regrets.
In the following years we often talked of seeing each other again, but it never happened. Part of the reason was practical: at least one of us would always be seeing someone else at the time. And part, I think, was psychological: the memories of the traumas at the end of our relationship stayed very strong for both of us, and we were afraid of re-opening them; and perhaps, too, there was the fear that if we saw each other again the old spark might not be there any more after all, and that this might somehow spoil the memories of a very special relationship. Or perhaps we simply made the mistake that so many people make, and assumed we had forever and that there was no urgency, and that 'one day' would do.
On Millennium Eve, 31 December 1999, Knut phoned me, as he still did two or three times a year. We had a happy, affectionate conversation in which we lamented that we had so often spoken of seeing each other but had never actually done it. Neither of us was in another relationship, for once, and we both felt that too many years had gone by and that THIS year we should promise ourselves and each other that we really would see each other: no more excuses and no more delays. I came away from the call happy and elated, and hopeful that we were on the cusp of a new beginning.
But my happiness was short-lived. Sixteen days later I had a phone call from Knut's daughter, Ulrike: there had been a car crash, and Knut was dead.
And so, when I did finally return to the former GDR, it was to go to his funeral. I remember arriving at Rostock railway station, as I had done so many many times in the past, and half-expecting to see him standing there on the platform, waiting for me. I remember the bitter-sweetness of being in his apartment and once more being surrounded by all the things that brought him back to me so vividly: I remembered many of his books and paintings from our old days together. But he, of course, was not there, and alongside the grief and loss I also had the bitter regret that I had left it too late: if only I had made this journey just a few weeks before ...
At the funeral a close friend of Knut's told me something that Knut himself had never been able to bring himself to tell me. In the summer of 1988, when he and I were trying to work out what, if anything, we could do in the wake of our rejected appeal, Knut had been summoned to a meeting with the Stasi. And they had threatened him, warning him that if he didn't immediately drop his attempts to be allowed to leave the GDR, he should never again drive his car without checking the brake cables first ...
Our story has just been turned into a radio drama by the dramatist Nell Leyshon, and is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as the Woman's Hour Drama, in five 15-minute episodes over 5 days. It is based on the diaries I kept at the time, and the letters that Knut and I wrote each other. German-speakers will notice that most of the cast had no idea how to pronounce German words, including - much to my annoyance - Knut's name. And, of course, such a short drama (1hour and 15 minutes in total) cannot do justice to the full story and in any case, it is a drama and not a documentary, so not everything happened exactly as portrayed in it. But perhaps some readers will be interested to hear it.
Episode 1 can be found here - and will be online until Sunday evening, 8 May.
Episode 2 here - until Monday evening, 9 May.
Episode 3 here - until Tuesday evening, 10 May.
Episode 4 here - until Wednesday evening, 11 May.
Episode 5 hasn't yet been broadcast at the time of writing, but once it has, it will be found via http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/radio/bbc_radio_four/20110506 until Thursday evening, 12 May.