As President Obama begins his fifth Vineyard vacation and the Secret Service descends on the Island, I am reminded of when decades ago I was Stasi File No. 014204797Z to the East German secret police. When I suspected that I had a Stasi file, I went in search of it at the ominous fortress-like former East Berlin police headquarters shown in the 2006 film The Lives of Others. All East German secret police files were kept there. Under the direction of a stern-faced Frau Lutwig, I filled out endless forms, giving my name and West Tisbury address and the years of my visits to East Germany as a travel writer.
My first visit there was in 1961, just after the Berlin Wall went up. My last trip was in 1989, just before the wall came down. I had been under surveillance since March 1983, I learned, “because I had met German people on my visits who were considered political enemies of the people of the DDR” and because I lived in a place where “all the important people in the U.S. government live.” Those were the days when U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara both had summer homes on the Vineyard.
I first went to East Germany on foot at Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin on a snowy December morning. Late that afternoon, when I was in the railroad station at Freidrichstrasse warming up, an East German policeman approached the table I was sharing with an elderly East German couple. As he passed us on his way to the men’s room, he volunteered to drive me back to Checkpoint Charlie. But his volunteerism was thwarted by the old East German, who spirited me upstairs to the elevated train before the policeman came back. The S-Bahn still linked East with West through a passport control station, and my U.S. passport got me back to West Berlin.
Later travel-writing visits took me to the historic cities of Leipzig and Dresden. Then in 1983, on the 500th anniversary of the birth of theologian Martin Luther, I went to Eisenach, where Luther had been imprisoned. There I met Karla. Ordinarily in the days of the German Democratic Republic, Westerners and East Germans were kept apart as much as possible, but there were too many of both at Luther sites to make that possible. Karla and I shared a breakfast table one morning. She spoke minimal English; I spoke minimal German. We conversed through a dictionary, but soon we were friends. And whenever I returned to East Germany, Karla would find and guide me. I knew that her son in law was in the East German army. I did not know that he lived with her.
Karla and I corresponded when I came home to the Vineyard, principally via holiday cards. But one summer I mailed her a picture postcard of Edgartown harbor. In English I thought she could understand, I wrote: “The cats are well. The weather is fine.” My postcard was intercepted by her son’s commanding officer. Later when the son in law failed to get the promotion he had expected, he was told that the CO thought my message was code.
If the East German police state still existed, as a resident of this Island where U.S. Presidents Clinton and Obama have both had summer White Houses, I would surely have a fattened surveillance file!