Manti woman reflects on 1960 journey from communist East Germany to the United States
MANTI—Elfriede Schulz sat in the comfortable living room in her Manti home last week reflecting on the safety and liberty she has enjoyed in the United States after journeys fraught with peril, culminating in her and her family’s escape from Communist East Germany.
Schulz says 1960 was a year filled with seemingly hopeless obstacles and constant dread, but those very same emotions and harrowing challenges were what gave her and her husband, Helmut, the courage to try for a new life.
Their journey took them from the small town of Cottbus in East Germany, to Berlin, on to Cologne, and finally to America, where their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints drew them to Utah. They lived many fruitful years on the Wasatch Front before moving to Manti to live out their final years in the peace of rural Sanpete County.
Peace was not something Elfriede experienced as a child. During World War II, her father was drafted into the German army, leaving her, at age 7, with her mother and three younger siblings.
“Like so many men, he did not want to go fight,” Schulz told the Messenger. “But in times of war and draft, this is not a choice they were given.”
Her father was killed in battle on Dec. 20, 1944, but it would be more than a year before his widow and children would find that out.
When the war ended in 1945, the landscape of Germany shifted dramatically, Schulz said. The country was parceled into areas under the control of four different countries—Communist Russia, France, Britain and America.
Schulz’s family had the misfortune of living in East Germany, where Communism controlled everything down to the most minute detail. But she did her best to move on with life. She met Helmut and, in 1957, the two of them were married.
The life they and their entire community lived was filled with a tension and distrust, Schulz says. The Communist government had spies planted in the least likely places, and people sometimes disappeared in the night.
“You couldn’t trust anyone,” she says. “It was very scary, not something most Americans ever experience.”
Helmut and Elfriede Schulz, and their infant daughter, kept a small circle of friends who they felt they could trust. While visiting one such family one night, the topic turned to casual criticisms of life in East Germany. Schulz recalls saying she thought it might be better if they lived somewhere else.
At that moment, her friend made a request that filled her with dread. She asked her to deliver a blanket she had made to her aunt in West Berlin.
Schulz says as she heard herself answer, “yes,” she was filled with an immediate sense of regret and despair over the situation.
At that time, the borders between sectors were essentially open but still highly monitored. The Berlin Wall had yet to be erected. Travel was possible, usually via train, but often discouraged and certainly a risk should the Communist government get the idea you were trying to defect.
The plan was to line her baby stroller with the blanket and lay her baby inside it, make the trip by train, and return. But what seemed so simple when they whispered about it over candlelight in the middle of the night became an intimidating challenge to Schulz, she says.
Her husband comforted her, and they agreed they would make the trip together. Cottbus was 120 kilometers (about 190 miles) from Berlin, where her friend’s aunt lived. To reach their destination, they each required two train tickets—one from Cottbus to Berlin and a ticket on a “ring train,” which circled Berlin’s sectors much the way the belt route circles a large swathe of the Salt Lake City area.
“At the train station (in Cottbus), they refused to sell us the ticket to the ring train, as they would have normally done,” Schulz says. “They said we needed to purchase those tickets upon arrival at the ring train station.”
From that moment, things begin going downhill.
“We got there, we got the ring train tickets, and I know now, but didn’t realize then, that we were being watched,” Schulz said.
Just as the ring train was about to cross the border into West Berlin, it stopped, the doors opened, pairs of police officers entered, scanned the train and immediately apprehended the Schulz family.
They were taken to a police station by armed officers with guns drawn. Their belongings were searched. During the search, officers found the address of her friend’s aunt where they planned to deliver the blanket and immediately began a line of questioning about it, until, finally, frustrated with the answers they were getting, took the Schulzes, passports, loaded the family into a truck and took them to another police station.
“Losing our passports was so frightening,” Schulz says. “At that time, they were the only form of ID anyone had, and you couldn’t go anywhere or do nearly anything without them.”
For the next 16 hours, the family was denied food and drink, and shuttled via armed guard to four different police stations, undergoing coercive and aggressive questioning designed to get them to admit they wanted to leave the country. Once, while being questioned alone, a police officer told Elfriede her husband had already admitted to it, so she might as well too.
“I said that can’t be true,” Schulz said. “He would not say that because it is not true. We didn’t know if we would ever make it back or, or even what to say to each other. It was 16 hours with nothing to eat or drink but fear…. Fear!”
Finally, the police released the family, but marked their passports in red with instructions that they were not allowed to travel. The police took them to the train station and told then to go home, not leave their city, and check in with police every month.
Upon their return their neighbors informed them the police had ransacked their home looking for evidence of sedition but of course had found none.
They tried to go back to their normal lives, but the incident left a scar on them, and they were afraid to tell their friends or family, so as not to endanger them. In public, they whispered to each other out of fear. She got in further trouble for sending a care package to family in West Berlin. The package was confiscated.
“They were on our heels all the time,” she says.
In 1960, as the couple walked to the police station to check in, Schulz told her husband she couldn’t do it any longer.
“How much worse can I get,” she told him. “I’m not going in there anymore.”
Her husband told her, “Maybe we’ll get our passports back someday and we can travel again. She told him, “Dream on, you can go in.”
But when Helmut came back out, the unthinkable had happened. Officers had restored their passports, allowing for travel once more. A nervous Elfiede Schulz walked through the doors of the police station where she, too, received her restored passport.
Upon coming back out, she told her husband, “We have to leave, and we have to leave now.” The pair made a plan. She would leave that Thursday with their daughter, and he would come the following Saturday.
She said, “I got really sick the night before…. We went to my mother in the dark of the night to tell her they were leaving. She was in shock. We didn’t dare tell her why because we were scared to bring her in danger. We felt bad, but that was all we could do.”
At 6 a.m. that Thursday morning, Elfriede Schulz put her daughter in the stroller and made her way onto the train, sat down and hoped no one would talk to her.
The ticket officer came up and asked where she was going. Leste was her answer, to see a lady she knew. How long are you staying, he asked? Two weeks. His last question was, “Are you working?” She didn’t understand why then, but looking back, Schulz knows in her heart it was the most important question.
“If I would have said ‘yes,’ it would have been the end of me,” she said. “He would have checked with my workplace to see if I was missing.”
He left, and she was safe so far, but she still had to transfer to the ring train, where they were arrested before. As the train approached the West Berlin border, the same thing happened with the train stopping before the border and policemen coming in the train.
“That was a moment when you could feel how scared everyone in that wagon was,” she says. “Everyone was as scared as I was. You could barely hear them breathe and you could feel the tension. I don’t know if they took anyone out. I was so scared I didn’t even look up. But then they left, and the train crossed the border, everyone took a deep breath and everyone started talking. That was a moment I cannot describe. You would have to experience that, what a relief it was.”
Elfriede Schulz made her way to the home of family friends who had been forced to escape themselves after the husband was repeatedly asked by the Communist Party to be a spy, and after repeatedly refusing, been told that he refused again, he and his family would disappear.
“It’s really interesting how when you think back, how it really hits you still,” she told the Messenger. “I knocked on the door and it opened and I said, ‘I made it, I made it.’ That’s all I could say. She knew… She [had] helped other people too.”
Next came “two days of hell” waiting for her husband. But he made it, and with him was her mother, who had helped Helmut smuggle important records and school documents to help him find employment, as he was a master auto mechanic.
Her mother stayed for a few hours, then went home. Elfreide would not see her again for more than a decade.
Reunited, the couple was starting over, penniless. Through the help of a refugee society, Helmut found a job in Cologne and had to leave Elfriede the very next morning.
She was alone for a while, but visited her husband when she could. She took care of their daughter, became pregnant with another child, and on Dec. 31, 1960, they were reunited permanently in Cologne, where her husband worked in a large industrial company, a job he enjoyed.
Six months later her brother wrote to her saying he wanted to come see her.
“I was so excited,” she said. “I thought, maybe I could convince him to stay.”
A month later, she was getting ready for church when an announcement came over the radio saying zero travel between all borders had been enacted.
“I was shaking, and felt like someone had stabbed me in the chest so that I would never see my siblings and mother again,” she said.
She decided then and there she wanted to go to America. She told her husband and his reply was, “If you want to go, you take care of it.”
Schulz added, “Up until then, he had taken care of everything, and didn’t think I could do it, but guess what, I did.”
She found a church organization that was dedicated to helping people come to America from other countries. She wrote to the group, was told everything she needed to do, and followed those instructions.
She and her husband took a day off, drove to Frankfurt, and the next morning went to the American embassy to begin the paperwork. They returned to Cologne and waited until their new daughter was born. On Feb. 16, 1962 they flew to America, landing in New York briefly before heading on to Salt Lake City to be with other members of their church.
They stayed with in-laws for a few months before getting an apartment for $35 per month. Helmut got a job with L.H. Strong Volkswagen in Salt Lake City.
“It was little, but that’s all we needed,” she said. Compared to what they were used to in Germany, it was luxury. “It was very simple, but we were so happy. We loved it. When I came here, I was dead tired, but all of a sudden, I felt free. I felt freedom. The sun was brighter, everything was brighter.”
Fast forward to 2016. The Schulz family had blossomed and been blessed many times over, growing again and again. Elfriede and Helmet came to Manti to help take care of their grandchildren while their youngest daughter was away. They saw a billboard for Heritage Heights, a new subdivision development, and learned the property next door to their daughter would be available for purchase.
Elfreide was torn, but she and Helmet made the leap, and it was for the best, she says. Their home in the Cottonwood area of Salt Lake County had many stairs and would have been difficult for Helmut to navigate in his later years.
“I love it here,” she said. “I feel very safe here. It’s a good feeling to be here. I felt prompted—it was a prompting. What can I say? I now know later that it was the right thing to do.”
Helmut passed away last year, and she took care of him until the end.
“I wanted to do it because I didn’t want to give him away,” she says. “I wanted to do anything I could for him until the end. When he died, he was surrounded by his family. I told him I love him, and we saw him take his last breath. It was a very interesting moment, but everything was peaceful and everybody was okay. It was not easy but I still felt at peace. I know where he is [and] that gives me comfort. I am glad for the knowledge I have.”
Looking back on living under Communism and her harrowing journey to freedom, Schulz says she believes more people should be grateful for their liberties and blessings. She knows better than most what people can endure if forced to, but in America, she doesn’t have to endure much except old age and the difficult memories of times long behind her.