Friday, April 1, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: What Price Freedom

Our guest this week is Karsten Horne. Traveling has been in Karsten’s veins from a young age. He followed the overland trail to Europe with his parents then backpacked solo through South America as a teenager. Karsten runs the highly successful Reho Travel in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, catering to a mostly corporate clientele. He is currently working on expanding the company’s retail offerings with a new brand and through rehope sponsors those less fortunate. He manages to combine his love of writing and photography with his travel enterprises, having visited 75 countries and finding inspiration on every journey.

Like any travel writer, you return from holiday and suddenly the work begins. How do I write a story about Berlin that hasn’t already been written? There is always the fear, too, that someone knows more than you and will rip your work apart. A defence of, “Hey, I only had 1,500 words” just doesn’t cut it. Then I remember that it was my late mother that inspired me to visit Berlin in the first place. So I wandered out to the garage and looked through the few belongings she’d left behind. I discovered an essay she wrote back in her university days. I was half-way through it and, bang, there was my inspiration. The rest is history. I hope you enjoy!

The sight of so many Russian uniforms did not surprise us anymore. We did not get excited either. We kept away from the noisy street and quietly played by ourselves in the corner of the living room, the only warm room of the house. Papa was getting restless, staying indoors for days on end. His office in town was closed, and there was chaos on the streets. The shops did not sell much, because the shelves were empty. One day, Papa decided to go to town to try and find some food.

Looking at my watch, I suddenly realised that we were going to be late for our tour. Before rushing out the door I quickly scoffed the rest of my New York cheesecake and sculled the remains of my coffee. It was bitterly cold outside, the ground was covered in deep snow but I had a warm scarf, a thick Burton jacket, and snowboard gloves on so I really didn’t notice.

The “Wall Ride” is designed as a mission through the heart of East Berlin. They kit you out in Russian hats, serve you tea from a samovar, and welcome you with bread and salt. During the drive, you are regaled with stories of escape. “Pull over here, see that house number 60 with the blue door..., well from that house, they dug a tunnel under where we are standing. Imagine the wall ran along this street. They came up over by the traffic lights. Now let me tell you how they hid the dirt...”

In 1989, as the wind of change swept through Berlin there was a strong movement that wanted to eradicate all memories of the once divided city. You have to look closely to find the former border; the snow-covered roads hide a twin row of stones embedded in the street as a memorial. The drab architecture should be a clue but, very quickly, whole districts are being rebuilt or at the very least getting a touch of color.

Papa looked up at us but quickly averted his eyes, we hardly recognised him. He looked such a mess, clothes torn, gold-rimmed glasses gone. How can he see without them? He tried to smile but only managed a lopsided grin. A Russian soldier noticed it and hit him hard across the face. Poor Papa nearly collapsed but was helped up by my brothers. Mutti screamed. I held tightly on to her apron and, through the tears, we watched the pathetic group of prisoners disappear out of view.

Karsten and his family in Europe
Several years ago, I took my mother to the premiere of Goodbye, Lenin, a comedy about a son who tries to hide the collapse of the wall from his bedridden mother who is a strong party activist. My mum had a pretty good sense of humor for a German but just didn’t get the joke in the movie. To her, it was a stark reminder of her childhood. Last year, when my mother passed away, I promised myself that one day I would visit the city that played an important role in her upbringing.

Settling into a first-class compartment as the DB ICE train smoothly pulled out of Berlin’s sparkling new ultra-modern Hauptbahnof, I took one last look at the snow-covered glass dome of the Reichstag and imagined what life in Germany must have been like for her generation. I continued reading the short story, The Russians Are Coming, that I’d recently discovered among my mother’s belongings. Her childhood memories were penned in 1989, only weeks before the wall came down.

Forty-two years later the Red Cross informed us that Papa was suspected of being a Nazi criminal, put on a train to Siberia but never made it. His frail delicate body could not stand the cold and disease; he died of starvation and typhus fever. He suffered the same fate as thousands of Germans before him; his frozen body was thrown out of a moving wagon to litter the silent frozen Russian countryside. A soft deep carpet made up his grave.


  1. What an interesting story - it actually reads more like a memoir than fiction. I was trying to figure out what year it was set in? I didn't know Russians put Germans on trains and sent them to Siberia (with the exception of POW in 1945) I thought the Stasi police - the GDR version of KGB took care of everything. Karsten, thank you for taking us on a journey into the culture that no longer exists.

  2. Hi Lina,

    Thanks for your comments. It's true it was really a mix of two memoirs. I'm not 100% sure of the year. Mum was born in 1938 and I've got a feeling it was 1944. I was there in 2010. If you read the longer version on the link at the bottom you will see that it is focused more on the now and the future than the past.


  3. Karsten, thank you so much this post. Delving into history can teach us so much that we can apply in our own lives today.

  4. Karsten, what an amazing find to discover such trasures within your mother's belongings. She sounds like a fascinating person. And it's so great that she continues to inspire you on your own travels, writing, and career path. Look forward to reading the rest of the story. Thanks!