Thursday, February 16, 2012

Commissar Konev & the Pit

     I was at my post  early on a Friday morning, smoking a cigarette, feeling rather chipper. It was November of 1989 and I was a border guard in East Berlin, working the guard station along the Aleksanderplatz. Konev, several years my elder and three ranks my superior, had the prime watch and showed up late that morning. The news out of Moscow had been dispiriting to him. He was a hardliner. Gorbachev’s perestroika had been restructuring the country to the point that the natives were restless, and getting quite uppity. Daily patrols about our position would reveal to us many East Berliners not quite happy with our longstanding détente with the West. They were itching to get at us,
you could feel it, and the daily rounds of rock-throwing by teenage hooligans were ever-increasing.
     It was in just such a climate that we saw it. It was coming from over the West side but it had obviously circled around a bit- a large transport plane about the size of a fin whale.
Inside were about 200 Ukrainian Jews on their way toward a new life. Gorbachev had bought them a new lease on things, and they were in their own way, now escaping us.
     The guard station looked out over a large expanse of the Aleksanderplatz, including a section which had been transformed into an archaeological dig. Recent investigations had
shown the exisence of extensive underground chambers and bunkers (no, not the Fuhrerbunker) which ran underneath the city out toward the Brandenburg gate. The historical societies had managed to gain permits from the city to allow them to create
a large, soccer pitch-sized hole in which they everyday would bring shovels, picks, and paintbrushes, wheelbarrows and buckets, and work at deciphering some of the conundrum which had been the legacy of the fascists on Berlin.
    To be fair, some of their finds were often quite fascinating, and would receive big writeups in the newspapers. But on this day we had reason to attend to the pit for other reasons.
     The plane taxied in on the middle of the avenue. It was certainly odd enough, and all I could do to keep Konev from discharging his weapon in its direction- after all, flying in from the West, it seemed to be perhaps aimed at the Wall like it were a missile. But it didn’t. It taxied to the end of the block, and you could tell the pilots were doing all they can to apply pressure to the brakes to keep it from skidding into the pit.
    But that was exactly what happened next.

    When the plane reached the edge of the pit it had almost acquired inertia but the final push of its wheels toppled it into the pit. My concerns were for the pilots, taking the brunt of the fall, as the plane teetered and toppled headfirst into the sixty foot deep hole. However it was not long before the passengers and pilots emerged from the vessel and milled about on the floor of the pit, gesturing to us, asking for help, a ladder, anything to bring themselves up to ground level and back to civilization. The idea of them being trapped inside a Nazi-era fortification must have been both highly ironic, as well, the idea of their being yet trapped behind our border had to have been doubly disconcerting.

    Konev looked about the edges of the pit. He did note that there was a tall ladder of about fortyfive foot height nearby, and he set about positioning it on a ledge so that the refugees might begin ascending it. The first of these was a babushka of about seventy five years of age. She retained some measure of pluck, however, and began to take the ladder one rung at a time.
    “Come on, come on up, come find your taste of freedom!” Konev assured her, and the look on his face became quite quizzical. If I could say he appeared to be the cat who ate the canary that would be a good approximation of his expression.
     Meanwhile, I was watching Konev’s hands. He was fingering the safety on his Kalishnikov, and setting the mechanism to single-shot. I barely got the words from my mouth “What are you doing, you fool!” when the old woman reached the top of the ladder, and Konev put a bullet right into her chest. She toppled headfirst back down into the pit, and was soon swallowed up by the crowd of babushkas at the bottom, wailing lamentations and defiantly shaking fists.

    I knew what I needed to do. I realized there was no other choice, that if this went on, it would become an international incident. I set my own weapon to single-shot and drilled him. His body toppled and he fell himself, down into the pit, landing face first on an archeological grid of twine and dust. I said a prayer for his soul, and indeed, one for my own. But had I not done this, he would have continued his taunting the refugees, and he would have continued firing at them, perhaps until they were all dead. I knew he had done it for in his opinion they were attempting escape. Such it was in those years.

    I looked down into the pit and called for the next woman to come on up. “Come on, taste your freedom, I swear, I shall not fire!”
    It was with much trepidation that the next babushka began to climb the ladder in my direction. When she reached the top of the ladder I set my weapon on the ground and helped her off with both hands, so that the others could see I was no longer armed.
   I cut the wires that separated the pit and the lip of the pit from the free air of the West. I helped seventy of them across before the guards from the neighboring guardpost came and assisted the rest of the refugees up and out themselves. The Wall would be coming down in the morning. We too were tasting our first breath of the new wind.

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