September 1945 - Schwerin to Helmstedt

"Lunchtime the next day, we continue on to Stendal, and then a variety of small trains get us close to Helmstedt. We spend the second night in a goods train very close to the border crossing. […] Early in the morning, at 5, we leave the train with hundreds of others. Now all the poor refugees will try their luck. We know what is ahead of us. Some people will lose all their possessions, some even their lives. […]

We fumble our way forward in the dark, amongst the crowd, and into an unknown and yet definite direction. The air is full of whispers and murmering. The strong wind makes everything even more eerie."

We take the 8am train to Helmstedt, spending a last moment gazing at the station. When she stepped back on the train here it was with better health, but must also have been with some trepidation. She had spent three months here with her aunt, and getting back on the road again must have been daunting. But I wonder if there was also an excitement that she finally had a plan for a border crossing, and the strength to follow it through.
27th July - Schwerin to Helmstedt
"Progress is slow. Godemanns have too much luggage! […]They have to repeat each section of path three times, while I stand and wait with the frontmost things. […] It begins to dawn when we discover a small two-wheeled cart. Godemanns load everything onto it. When they begin to pull, the cart breaks apart. Herr Godemann repairs. They re-load, unpack some things, and tie everything up. […] Finally Godemanns give up on their hopeless task. After arduous work, we reach the edge of a Forest, and with it the first post."

"Hundreds wait for entry, or for an opportune moment? Twice, the mass of people is pushed back with the butt of a gun, and the movement means we also get pulled into the crush. Carts fall over, people scream, fall…[…] Herr Godemann has already managed to get through to a giant of a Russian soldier. […] But will we really manage it? We will! The Russian pulls the crowd of people apart, and we are allowed through. How? Well, a golden watch works wonders. As fast as we can, we disappear in the direction of the forest the Russian points us to."
"As soon as we are out of sight of the crowd, we stop. We need to catch our breath. We’ve made some gains, but there is a lot more to go. We are just starting. We know that somewhere behind this forest…… will we reach it? Slowly, far too slowly, we make progress. I go ahead with Frau Godemann, and scope out the path, which I have to do instinctively. […] It costs me all my strength to move the pram forward. Then we begin to meet the first people coming from the West. Now I know I am on going the right way."
"We have to get through an overgrown ridge, as we’d be spotted immediately in the valley. Then a Russian blocks our path ahead. There are several men and women already with him. And exactly at this moment, Gerlinde starts crying. I hand her a slice of bread from Godemann’s bag. Her mouth is sufficiently full, but the Russian stays, and won’t be moved for anything."
- Part 1
The train journey goes by quickly, and quite soon we arrive in Helmstedt. Last night, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where she may have crossed the border, and what would be possible to see today. Her descriptions are quite detailed, but it was so hard to make sense of the landscapes and forests from a satellite image – and we also couldn’t find clear enough information about where the 1945 border actually was. So I started the day off with some anxiety about how today would go.
Rach and I head to the info office, which closes in 30 minutes, and speak to a really enthusiastic local man, who gives us lots of leaflets about all the local monuments dedicated to the former border. Helmstedt and Marienborn were some of the most important points on the inner German border. Today again I am enjoying the process of finding them out on the road, and learning so much in person.
We decide to make our way to the museum now established at the former border. The 10k walk takes us about two hours, and takes us first to the outskirts of the town, where we see two houses, and I say ‘ these are exactly what I pictured the place she first crossed the border and had a schnapps’. We walk on, coming past a medieval tower, which was later used by the Russians to patrol the border. So here we must somewhere be passing the first part of the border, but it is not clearly marked.
"I tell Frau Godemann that I need to go on. I give her a small bottle of schnaps […] and squeeze past the crowd, and past the Russian. […] the Russian threatens, swears and finally pulls out his whistle. I think to myself “by the time help comes I’ll be long gone”, and I hurry on. It’s all uphill, on a small sandy path. My veins in my arms swell up. I want to go on, on, on. Then we meet three soldiers from the other side. They show me the way, and caution me to hurry. At the moment, the post is unmanned. I do everything I can, puffing like a steam train. Finally, after 15 minutes, I see the final turnpike – and behind it freedom. But it is blocked by two Russian sergeants!!"
The walk takes us through forest that runs parallel to a motor-way. We stop mid way, and I take a moment to look back, up the hill, to where the path leads up the hill and into the light. I think ‘the light is how I pictured her crossing over the border’.
Helmstedt Station
We keep walking, and this time meet first one, than another man on the way. We came off our GPS route by accident and walk through what first feels like a village. In passing through, we see signs for offices, and many people, including children, in the grounds. Coming to the end of it large signs tell us that this is a private compound that we shouldn’t have walked through. Later research confirms that these old buildings are now used to house asylum seekers, while they wait for news about their possible futures in Germany.