by Roger Noons
a glass of Schwarzbier
Ralph tired of entering East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. Initially his permit filtered most problems but when the Russians took over the administration, the situation became extremely trying. The final straw came in July 1966 when on his return, because he had no receipt for having spent three Ostmarks, he had to undress in front of a Rosa Kleb look-a-like. She smirked as she studied his genitals. He told Heinz Werner later, ‘Even Casanova would have been embarrassed in such circumstances.’ H-W merely smiled.
Ralph began to use the route which had been set up to get children out. His initial visits to the East had been under the umbrella of his profession - Drainage Engineer, specialising in sewerage systems. When he began to advise the Authorities in Dresden and Magdeburg, he had been welcomed with open arms. It became more complicated when he moved to Berlin.
One of his first projects was to overhaul a pumping station which was used to divert sewage over the River Spree. There had been talk in the West of blocking all drainage from the other side, Willy Brandt however, convinced his political colleagues that it would be playing into the hands of the East German public relations machine. The small unit was in Grünberger Strasser, in the south east of the city.
The border comprising the Spree was relatively unguarded. There was no wall and the watchtowers were two hundred metres apart. It never occurred to anyone that there was a route through the sewers without getting drowned or suffering contamination leading to disease. At the Station, which served a mainly residential district, a pump could be turned off briefly without affecting the flow, particularly in the early hours of a morning. When Ralph wished to cross he would send a coded message, by pigeon. Usually he would choose two thirty or three o’ clock, enter one day and return the next. At that time he would have up to ten minutes to scurry across, dragging behind him a holdall containing treasures to be used as either bribes or rewards.
The first girl Ralph smuggled out was three years old, the niece of the Pumping Station Manager. An essential stratagem despite there being more deserving and lucrative cases. The rest of the staff was female and it was for them that Ralph filled his pockets with hosiery, costume jewellery and perfumes. The husband of one of the women owned the pigeon loft. Everyone concerned prayed that no-one would be moved or dismissed.
It was a hot night in August when it had been agreed to go in and out as a single operation. There was no rehearsal and timing would need to be spot on. The child was only two and even her parents knew nothing of the plan. A significant fee had been promised by the boy’s grandfather which would not only buy items to take in, but bribe the necessary officials in the West. All went well until Ralph’s return. The manhole cover had been lifted and he passed the child up to waiting arms. As he was being helped out, the cast iron lid collapsed smashing his right leg. It took more than two years to complete reconstruction, thus concluding his smuggling career.
He still lives in Berlin. In Wilmersdorf, if you see a man who could have been a jockey, walking with a stick, he will tell you his name is Ralf Kindermann. He will tell you nothing more about himself, but smile if for some reason you mention tunnels or subterranean passages. He meets his old boss Heinz Werner Weber three times each week at Finnegan’s Irish Pub in Bergstrasse.
About the author
Roger is a regular contributor to Cafe Lit with 130 of his pieces having been published