I wasn’t thinking of the coronation of Elizabeth II when the letter arrived. I was reading George Orwell’s 1984 in Treptow, East Berlin. My host, Dr.med. Blumenthal, father of my friend, Kay, had advised me to read it. I had been invited to visit the Blumentals for a second time. Because of the war, the regime calling itself socialist, the adventure and, I admit, the teenage daughter, I accepted the invitation.
There was not yet a wall between East and West Berlin in 1953. The urban transport system ran through all four sectors of the city. However, overnight stays in the Soviet sector without a visa could lead to a stay in a Stasi jail or even an unwanted visit to the Soviet Union. My host immediately applied for my permission to stay. I was in a dramatic place at a dramatic time!
The East German uprising
Workers had gone on strike on 17 June in East Berlin and in more than 700 other towns in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Soviet Zone of Germany. About one million had demonstrated, carrying banners calling for reversal of the higher work norms, lower prices, free elections, release of political prisoners, and so on. They had been angered by the fall in living standards and emboldened by the sudden death of the Soviet leader Stalin on 5 March. In the GDR, the Russians had rolled out their tanks and the East German para-military police, the Kasernierte Volkspolizei (Barracked People’s Police).
My friend Kay, aged 19, arrived home depressed, on leave from the Kasernierte Volkspolizei. He confessed he had thought their service was to protect the workers, not bully them. This was a volunteer body and he was in the medical corps. He hated it! How could he leave?
An escape from East Germany
I pointed out there was an unguarded foot bridge not half a mile from his home. He should cross it and then he would become a citizen of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany. Over 331,000 left in 1953 and over 48% of them were under 25. He explained he could not leave because of his father losing his older son, who had abandoned school to join the Nazi Waffen-SS. He was reported missing, presumed killed, outside Warsaw. I advised Kay to complete his medical studies and leave the forces as soon as he could. This he did.
On our final day together Kay took me to have a drink with several of his comrades and I was surprised when they all ridiculed their leaders. This had happened the day before when I went with his sister to the cinema and members of the paratroopers had had reacted in the same way.
Drama across the world
There had been drama elsewhere. In France industrial unrest was developing, leading to a general strike. In Iran the elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh had been overthrown by the CIA, backed by Britain. In Kenya, Britain was attempting to deal with a revolt. And, fearing communist influence in British Guiana, the British government was about to suspend the constitution, and militarily occupy the colony.
More significantly still, in July, the Korean War ended by the signing of an agreement between the USA and its allies and communist North Korea – World War III had been avoided. However, only weeks later the Soviets tested their first thermonuclear bomb.
But what was in my letter?
Choices for the future
The letter, which arrived in late August, was from my father to let me know that I had passed all my A level exams and that I had been offered places at two universities I had applied for, London (LSE) and Manchester. I had to make a decision on where I wanted to study. I was soon back in Bolton analysing the positives and negatives of both universities. My dad favoured Manchester, my mother, London. “Go out and see the world!” was mother’s view.
Remarkably, I remained friends with Dr (Sc). Kay Blumenthal-Barby until his death in January 2011. A thanatologist at the University of Göttingen, he possessed the largest collection of sympathy cards ever, recorded even in the Guinness Book of Records.