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52 years ago, they were caught up in history

Naive and new to Germany, Springfield woman helped in escape from East Berlin.

History is often told in broad sweeps, linked to philosophical or political points with a gospel-like eye toward enduring lessons.

At a kitchen table in a retirement condo off Derr Road, Heidi Fehdke made it clear she wanted none of that in recounting her escape to freedom in West Berlin 52 years ago.

Seated across from Barbara Matthies, the woman who passed the false documents that made it possible, Fehdke said, “I just want to tell my story.”

She still has some hesitancy about disclosing details, particularly the names of others who helped her.

“We are still living with the past,” she said of those who went through the experience.

It’s a past in which history itself seemed blow like weather that summer into the lives of the 16-year-old Fehdke and Matthies, a graduate of Springfield High School.

“I got there in mid-June,” said Matthies, who after a career spent in foreign languages at Iowa State University in Ames has returned to Springfield to be close to her father, Roland, and brother, Dick.

Matthies had gone to Berlin at the suggestion of then Wittenberg University President Clarence Stoughton, for whom her father worked, as part of a Lutheran World Relief project to help the people of post-war Germany.

“I was a kind of assistant house mother in a home for young girls who came from the East to go to school in the West,” she said.

The girls were daughters of Lutheran pastors from the Eastern zone, men whose work was frowned by leaders whose political creed decreed religion to be “the opiate of the masses.”

Recently done with their studies when Matthies arrived, the pastors’ daughters were on their summer vacations of 1961. So many, including Fehdke, had headed back into the Eastern Zone.

It was on Saturday, Aug. 12, during a much anticipated visit with her grandmother in Thuringia that she received a telegram from her uncle with a kind of coded message. He had been with her family in West Berlin but crossed into the East to send the message, in part to avoid suspicion.

“Please come home,” was what the message said.

Although home was not Berlin, the train went through Berlin on the way, and the message told her to look for her uncle on the platform there.

At a time when the flow from East to West had turned from hundreds into thousands a day, “I had a feeling in my fingertips about this,” Fehdke said.

Although she said she was “astonished,” she didn’t panic.

“I was very clear in my mind. I said goodbye to my friends, to the friends of my parents.

“My grandmother was upset,” she said, so upset she nixed Fehdke’s plans to go to Berlin by car with her friends and insisted on a train just to make sure her granddaughter would get there.

On the train, a man sitting across from Fehdke and unaware of the purpose of her trip said, “Finally something’s being done so these people don’t keep crossing.”

“You could feel the tension in the atmosphere,” she said.

When she spotted her uncle on the train platform in Berlin Monday, Aug. 14, she faced a problem: “Where the heck am I going to stay?”

Her parents’ home was a train ride away, and her Berlin home was in the West, where she did not have the proper papers to go. The solution came in a call to one of the other girls from her school whose family lived in East Berlin.

Knowing of Fehdke’s arrival, Karin, a German assistant house mother at the same school, crossed into East Berlin on a sort of diplomatic mission.

“She was asking every girl living in the home, ‘Do you want to come back (to the West)?” Fehdke recalled.

“Some of them chose to be with their families,” Matthies said.

For Fehdke, that question would be posed later, but for the moment it was non-existent: her family was waiting for her in West Berlin.

When Fehdke nodded yes, Matthies, who had recently graduated from Oberlin college, became enmeshed in the problems anything but academic in the Berlin without the O.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Matthies said. “I was so new, so naive. My German was still pretty shaky. But these colleagues came to me and said they would like my help. And I thought, this is such a horrendous situation, I’ve got to do something.”

What she did was deliver false identity papers, on which Fehdke’s picture had been affixed, one subway stop across the border, slipping them in Karin’s pocket.

With armed East German guards carrying carbines above her, she made the delivery. But here, the memories of the two women part company.

Fehdke remembers getting the papers from Matthies at the house in East Berlin. Matthies has no recollection of leaving Friedrichstrasse platform.

Matthies translated Fehdke’s recollections: “She says I came about 3 o’clock with the papers to her (friend’s) house. A couple of hours later, she came over, traveling one extra rail stop to ensure she’d be getting off in the West.”

The ruse was not without risk for Fehdke, of course. Had she been discovered, she might have become one of the many political prisoners sent to languish in jail.

Back then, she never gave that possibility a thought.

“At the time all this was happening, the people involved didn’t grasp how serious it could have been,” said Matthies. “Only now can we appreciate just what we were doing.”

Added Fehdke, “We were euphoric, goal-driven and naive all at once.”

Only later did they appreciate that Fehdke had fled Berlin during a precious and small three-day window of opportunity before the border was effectively shut down.

At Fehdke’s reunion with her brother, sister and parents, joy and coffee mingled until her father said, “I have to go back to my congregation (in the East). A good shepherd doesn’t leave his flock.”

“I went back (to Berlin) to see the wall get higher and higher and thicker and wider,” said Matthies. “Who’d have thought?”

Matthies was as surprised in 1997, after the wall was down, when she found herself crying while passing beneath the Brandenburg Gate, which she’d not passed under since her first days in Berlin.

Although Fehdke never saw her grandmother again, she was able to meet her parents in Budapest. She and Matthies have had a handful of reunions, the latest earlier this month.

“History is not simple,” Fehdke said.

It’s a truth she revisits again every time the two of them get together.

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