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Berlin Wall's Fall Ended Life In 'Prison' For Family In Restricted Zone

  • Claire Bigg

East German border police set up barbed wire along the border between East and West Germany.

East German border police set up barbed wire along the border between East and West Germany.

WEISSENBORN-LUEDERODE, Germany -- Living in divided postwar Germany, Horst and Rita Zinke could look forward to a visit from their relatives just once a year.

But these weren't ordinary family reunions, with long talks, kisses, and warm embraces. "We stood on a hill and waved at each other with white handkerchiefs,” Rita remembers. “It was painful. We could see them, but we couldn't go to them."

Horst and Rita were cut off from their West German relatives in 1949, when the territory occupied by Soviet forces after World War II was proclaimed the German Democratic Republic and physically divided from the West.

Worse still, the new internal border ran close to Weissenborn-Luederode, the Zinkes' small village in the central region of Turingen. That meant they now lived in a region with even harsher conditions than the rest of East Germany -- the so-called "restricted zone," a heavily guarded sliver of land that ran along the border's Eastern side.

Each of the yearly gatherings with their Western relatives was fraught with risk. "We had to be careful,” he says. “If it lasted too long, the army would come. We had to wave and quickly leave."

WATCH: Rita and Horst Zinke show where the tightly guarded border divided them from West Germany.

Residents of the restricted zone faced severe travel bans. While East Germans were permitted to move freely within the GDR and the countries of the Soviet bloc, residents of the 5-kilometer-wide restricted zone were prohibited from leaving their village of 1,500 people without applying for permission weeks in advance.

Even a walk to a nearby forest or a trip to a neighboring restricted-zone village was forbidden. A 1 a.m. curfew was enforced every night, without exception.

"The fences, the unfriendly guards rattling their big keys, all this really gave you the feeling of being in prison," Rita says.

Chance To Escape

In theory, Horst and Rita could have fled. In the early years of divided Germany, the border consisted of a simple barbed-wire fence. The low security allowed almost 700,000 people to escape to the West in the first three years of the GDR's existence.

Horst, a retired electrician, recalls how one of his acquaintances, a border guard, crossed over into the West for a few hours in 1954 to watch the football World Cup on television.

When caught, his friend's punishment was relatively mild -- just four weeks in jail.

A watchtower near the village of Weissenborn-Luederode
"At the time, the local population didn't take the situation very seriously. Otherwise many more would have fled," Horst says.

Gradually, the border was reinforced, with a double metal fence, watchtowers, guard dogs, alarms, trenches, and minefields.

It became one of the world's most heavily fortified borders. Hundreds of Germans are believed to have been killed attempting to cross it; some human rights groups put that number at over 1,000.

Horst and Rita watched with dismay as workers began installing the high metal fences near Weissenborn.

That's when Rita's brother decided it was time to leave. He climbed through a hole in the remaining barbed wire and sought refuge with his relatives in the West.

Freedom, however, had a price. In punishment for his escape, Rita's brother was denied re-entry to Weissenborn when his mother died six years later. He was forced to watch the funeral procession from the same hill he used to climb once a year to wave to his sister.

He was first allowed to return to the restricted zone to visit Rita in 1973. They hadn't seen each other for more than 20 years.

Emotional Reunification

As travel restrictions began to ease, Rita was granted much-awaited permission to travel to West Germany in 1980. Horst had to stay behind, as couples were prohibited from traveling together to minimize the likelihood of escape.

Horst and Rita Zinke with their daughter, Michaela
Rita, who worked as a cook in the village school, had grown used to a life of restrictions and shortages. For her, the trip to the West was a shocking experience.

"It was tough. The shops were full, there was everything, and it was all much nicer and better than in our country,” she recalls. “Even the grass looked greener! It was really hard to take it all in. I was a nervous wreck."

Rita's eyes still well up with tears when she remembers East Germans tearing down the border on November 9, 1989 -- a day she thought she would never live to see.

Residents in the restricted zone, she recalls, cried with joy as they embraced friends from neighboring villages in the streets after 41 years of separation.

West Germans also welcomed them with open arms.

"We could walk into any restaurant and get free food and drinks. People also gave us chocolate," says Horst and Rita's daughter Michaela, who was 24 at the time. "It was such an exciting time, because we could really feel that the borders had opened. It was amazing."

"The connection between the villages was restored. Everyone traveled, we could walk into any restaurant and get free food and drinks. People also gave us chocolate,” Michaela says. “It was such an exciting time, because we could really feel that the borders had opened. It was amazing."

Horst and Rita are now 70-year-old pensioners and still live in Weissenborn, together with Michaela, her husband, and their teenage daughter. Michaela, who had trained as a construction worker before 1989, returned to school after the fall of the Berlin Wall and now works as a historic preservationist.

Today, they prefer to joke about their ordeal in the restricted zone. But leafing through old pictures in their family house, they can't help but feel some anger as well.

"When I talk about these times, I get quite angry,” Michaela says. “I'm furious, too, at those who now say that life was wonderful in East Germany. It was anything but wonderful."

Michaela and her parents also ask themselves why, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, no one has been punished for making them spend the better part of their lives behind fences.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​