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Last updated: 25 october, 2009 - 20:44 GMT

Penpals across the death strip

Folke Kayser in 1988

Folke Kayser started writing to her East German friend, Jens, in 1986

BBC World Service listener, Folke Kayser, grew up in West Berlin. Back then, she had a chance encounter with a boy from the other side of the Iron Curtain. This is her story...

I grew up in West Berlin very close to the Berlin Wall. In 1986 at the age of 12, I was playing close to the border where the wall was just a fence and a boy on the opposite side saw me and yelled hello.

Below the watch towers, across the death strip we exchanged names and addresses and became pen pals.

It was a bright sunny summer day with no wind, but still I had to repeat my address several times until I was understood, the barking of the dogs was the greatest disturbance.

During the three years of our penpalship, my new friend, Jens, and I probably exchanged about two dozen letters. His very first letter never arrived. It must have been opened and withheld by the postal censors. After six weeks without a response he simply wrote another one.

In his letters Jens told me about his everyday life and I about mine.

Jens had the bad luck that his family home was located very close to the border, in the so-called "safety zone". Residents were heavily observed, faced many restrictions and no East German from outside the safety zone was allowed to visit them without a special permit. Visitors from the West were completely forbidden.

During East German times, the area where he lived was grey and dismal with run-down houses and hardly any distractions for teenagers. He told me about his anxiety about getting the apprenticeship he wished for; they were centrally allocated by the state. He ended up getting an apprenticeship as a carpenter – his second choice.

I told him about things I did with friends and the journeys I made with my family. The letters were not very philosophical, rather descriptive and narrative. I was the only person in the West he knew. Jens wanted to know what life in the West was like and I told him – though I was careful not to brag or make him feel frustrated with his situation.

It helped that I had a good idea of what life in East Germany was like, because we had family and friends in East Germany whom we visited frequently. My East German cousins were about my age. Even though our East German relatives experienced greater economic scarcity compared to us, we all essentially shared the same well-educated, middle-class family background.

I could tell from the stories he told that Jens, in contrast, must have grown up in extremely frugal circumstances in a family where reading books was uncommon.

I lived in West Berlin and Jens lived in Teltow, Brandenburg. Now it's a 10 minute drive between the two points, but back then it was worlds apart.

The empty space between the two points was a deserted railway yard which, after the wall was built and all train services had been cut, had turned into a great jungle and adventure playground. I was playing there with a friend when we had our cross-border encounter with Jens and one of his friends.

Since that particular corner of the East German-West Berlin border was so desolate, there was just a steel fence.

Yet the death strip was just as frightening: seen from the East German side it consisted of barbed wire, fierce German shepherd dogs on long leads, regular car patrols, a trench, a broad stretch of mined land on which the watch towers stood at shooting distance from each other, then another barbed wire fence, and finally the wall. The mines buried in the death strip were not lethal anti-personal mines, but light-emitting ones, to draw attention to the border guards in the watch towers who had orders to shoot and kill any escapee. Their teams were reshuffled daily to avoid bonding.

On the day Jens asked me to shout out my name and address, there was not much to fear though. The border guards were sitting high up in their watch towers. I'm not even sure they actually took any notice. In any case, they could not shoot people outside the death strip. Still, the situation had a somewhat forbidden tickle to it.

In 1989, a few days after the wall came down, Jens came to visit me. It was an exciting moment. He was quiet, though. I could sense that he felt intimidated by the relative wealth of my family home and surroundings. To my great disappointment he didn’t want me to visit him. He felt too ashamed of his own more modest living conditions.

He visited us a second time towards the end of the year and we gave him a huge box full of Christmas goodies, which he felt both happy and embarrassed about. It contained the same things we used to send our relatives in the East - coffee, chocolate and cookies.

He then said that he didn't want me to visit his home and never wrote or called again.

What an irony: our friendship lasted three years of political separation, but eventually broke down because of perceived socio-economic differences.

On New Year's Eve, 1990, my family celebrated together with our relatives from East Germany. It was the first time they could all come and visit us. It was a time of exuberant joy and excitement. Together we all walked underneath the Brandenburg Gate and cried.

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