A Tale to Tell, Part I: Leaving East Germany

When Verona Chambers, wife of Principal Tom Chambers, decided to leave East Germany, it was not a simple walk in the park.

“To come to America was not the struggle,” said Mrs. Chambers. “The struggle was to actually to leave East Germany.”

East and West Germany were divided by an impenetrable wall known as the Iron Curtain. East Germany, a communist country was owned and controlled by Russia. In contrast, West Germany, a democratic country, was divided between Britain, France and the United States. Inside East Germany was Berlin, also known as “the heart of Germany”. Berlin was divided into the east and the west, the east again being owned by Russia, while the west was divided between Britain, France and the United States. Russia divided the east and west by a wall, which is known as the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall served the same purpose as the Iron Curtain: to prevent people from the leaving the land owned by Russia. After the Cold War, Russia planned to rebuild itself. But that didn’t work out so well, which made people begin to flee. This caused Russia to build both the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall.

“Because so many people fled, the Russians were afraid because you can only rebuild a country if you have people,” explained Mrs. Chambers.

By the time the walls were built, thousands of people had already left.

“The young people, the smart people who wanted to start off a new life and wanted to build things up,” said Mr. Chambers, “they left because they saw more opportunity.”

On the contrary, not everyone tried to flee. “The older people, they’re the ones who stayed because they didn’t have enough initiative to make a change for themselves,” said Mr. Chambers.

After the walls were built, people found themselves separated from their families. “My family lived in Hamburg [out of Russian territory in West Germany]. They closed everything. Now all of a sudden we were trapped in the East, [we] couldn’t get to the family, nor could get to us,” said Mrs. Chambers.

Mrs. Chambers went through a lot of grief, along with the other people stuck in East Germany. People were not allowed to have books, unless they were already approved. All of them were censored. Television stations were also censored; no programs from the western stations were to be viewed, only programs from the eastern stations.

Mrs. Chambers’s biggest problem was freedom of speech. “The main problem was that I could not speak my mind,” admitted Mrs. Chambers. “We were not allowed to speak our opinion. We only had to talk party-line. You were brought up like that, you learned that in school. And if you didn’t, you got into trouble. And I got into a lot of trouble.” Mrs. Chambers got into so much trouble during her years in college that she even had to face an expulsion hearing for “not speaking party-lines.”

Eventually, “not speaking party-lines” cost her her job. Furthermore, she was put under surveillance and was cut off from everyone. Anyone who made contact with her would lose his or her job.

Later, she was declared “an enemy of state.” After a little over a year of trying to leave, she signed a paper that banned her for 25 years. She was taken to the border with her two children by her family, happy to leave, but since her family was not allowed to leave, she was also saddened.

Taking only four bags with them, she and her two children crossed the border into West Berlin. “Basically, what we had to do was go through a border-crossing, like a partially underground, partially up-ground [border-crossing] and then take a metro, subway, for four stations. And then you got up and everything was colorful! And there were so many, I don’t know, I can’t even explain to you. Just the little things,” said Mrs. Chambers with a smile.

Look for  Part II, which will describe Verona Chambers’s experience coming to America, in the coming days,