Ilse Schmidt took in a deep lungful of air and slipped beneath the surface of the cold bath water. The shock turned her body electric. Sometimes, to better prepare herself for the winter temperatures of the River Spree, she added ice cubes to the tub. But not when her parents were home. In a police state, even the prying eyes of one's own family could prove fatal.
Tonight, Ilse would escape those prying eyes.
She stared up at the bathroom ceiling. White, like the East Berlin sky that day, suffocated by fog. The kind of sky a person could dissolve into. Ilse imagined that a gentler sky hung over the Western half of the city. That the air itself would taste sweet.
Sweeter than the stale stench of her father's cigars, the motor oil from the garage where he worked, the vodka he sweated from his pores, the acrid gunpowder from his hunting rifle, the bitter frustration that clung to his breath, the cruel scent of his leather belt. Helmut Schmidt, formerly a corporal in the German Wehrmacht, some two decades past. Try convincing him, though, that the war had ended. Ilse was only three years old at the time. Her first memory is of her father's return from the front. A defeated soldier, a veritable stranger. She still thought of him in those terms.
Soon, Ilse would put him in the past, where he belonged. The same with her nervous mother, Gerda. She worked the ticket window at a U-Bahn station. She was cold to passengers and cold to Ilse. All of East Germany was cold, indifferent. Soon, Ilse would put the whole frozen-hearted country in her past.
She had planned her escape carefully. First, she'd chosen her method. By water, of course. She'd spent most of her young life in the pool, training to win Olympic gold. At the age of eight, her swimming skills earned her placement at a sports boarding school. There, she received paltry academic instruction, while her strokes were honed for hours each day. And what good had all that training done her? In 1960, at the age of seventeen, Ilse swam one-point-three seconds too slow to qualify for the East German Olympic team. In the trials for the 1962 European Aquatics Championships, she had fared worse. Every year, a new crop of teenage girls emerged who swam faster and faster. She knew she had no hope of making the Olympic team this summer.
At twenty-one years old, Ilse Schmidt was a failure. A secretary at a textile plant, the Democratic Republic had doubled her work hours, from part-time to full-time. Her swim coach had been reassigned. Ilse had become just another worker cog. Swimming for her country no longer mattered.
Tonight, she would swim for herself: for a chance at a new life in a free land.
Prior to the summer of 1961, the citizens of East Berlin had enjoyed more liberties. They could pass with relative ease from their Soviet-controlled half of the city to the Western sectors nominally controlled by Allied forces: American, British, French. Then, on the night of August 13, 1961, the German Democratic Republic stretched a barbed-wire fence along the political border, dividing the city in two. Within two weeks, they erected a crude concrete edifice in its place: the first incarnation of the Wall. Now that terrifying monstrosity separated Cold War enemies, as well as friends, colleagues, family members, lovers. And, as if the Wall weren't formidable enough on its own, watchtowers had also been erected at various intervals. From these watchtowers, Volkspolizei used searchlights and rifles to protect the border, by any means necessary.
A few East Berliners had attempted to escape by swimming across the Spree. The meandering river divided Berlin between north and south, more or less. Along certain stretches, it also coincided with the political border between East and West. In these places, the grotesque Wall menaced the riverbanks, making it nearly impossible to even approach the water, much less swim its breadth.
Ilse could imagine only one way to escape. She would swim under the Wall.
As she lay submerged in the bathtub, she envisioned the spot for her start dive. Near Friedrichstrasse Station, along the Reichstagufer promenade, only a simple metal handrail stood between everyday pedestrians and the polluted river water below. Presumably, the East Germans deemed the promenade a safe distance from the Western shore. Ilse would enter there, about one hundred meters from where the Wall crossed the river, along Marschall Bridge.
But, even after swimming under the Wall, her journey would be far from over. Beyond the bridge, the border cruelly stretched one extra city block further along the southern bank of the Spree. Her exit point would be the first stretch of Western land beyond the Wall: the shoreline before the Reichstag building. Ilse had estimated the entire distance from dive to safety at 250 meters. A difficult swim for most people, even under the best of conditions. And Ilse's conditions would be far from ideal. Anyone spotted in the Spree, the Vopos shot dead. To go unseen would mean swimming underwater. And who could swim that far underwater?
Every evening after work, in the public pool at Stadtbad Mitte, she swam and swam. Her head submerged, she'd steadily built up the capacity of her lungs, one Olympic lap at a time. Frog kick, breaststroke, glide. One lap per minute. The rhythm suited Ilse. Her body worked more efficiently, in harmony with the water instead of fighting against it. Until her lungs ran out of air, that is. Then her body wrestled against her mind until she was forced to breech the surface. But the work had paid off. In two long breaths, she could swim to West Berlin.
Just five laps to freedom.
Ilse lifted her head from the bathwater and took in deep breaths of air. She wouldn't push herself any further—not right before her swim. She pulled the stopper from the drain, stepped out of the tub, and slid into her threadbare cotton robe. She stood before the bathroom mirror and blow-dried her lemon-blonde hair, which she kept "short as a boy's," as her mother often complained. But, then, her mother complained about everything. Ilse wouldn't miss those sour litanies.
In the living room, her father sat in his wingback chair, the evening paper stretched before him. How many column inches of propaganda did he absorb every day? Unfathomable. Her mother sat on the ugly old couch, flipping through the latest issue of Sibylle, a magazine of fashions neither she nor Ilse could afford.
Her father lowered the paper with a snap. "There you are!" He always barked his words, as if commanding an Allied soldier to halt. "In the water all the time. The swimming pool after work, the bathtub after dinner. Are you hoping to grow fins and gills? You think this will make you swim faster? Ha!"
Her mother looked up at Ilse from a stylish photo spread. She had a way of frowning and smiling at once, each expression faltering and straining against the other. "It's Sunday night. Shouldn't you be getting ready to visit Helga?"
"Yes, I'm leaving soon." Inside, Ilse smiled. She had trained her mother well to notice this new routine. Helga was her paternal great aunt. A recent widow, her eyesight had begun to fail her. Once a week, Ilse road the tram out north to Prenzlauer Berg to keep the old woman company. But not tonight.
In her bedroom, Ilse slipped her hand under the mattress and withdrew an envelope. It contained a single photograph, an address jotted on a scrap of paper, and the paltry funds she'd managed to set aside: two hundred Marks der Deutschen Notenbank, as the money in the East was now called. She'd heard that banks in the West might not even recognize her Marks as legal tender. But she had nothing else to build her future on.
The address—on Prinzenstraße, in the Kreuzberg district—belonged to Renate Maier, her only friend in West Berlin. Ilse had known Renate since childhood, when they swam together at sports camp. Her family had defected to West Berlin before the Wall. Though the girls hadn't seen one another in nearly three years, they maintained correspondence through the mail. Of course, the Stasi almost certainly read these letters. Ilse had therefore never revealed to Renate—or to anyone—her intention to escape.
Just thinking of the Ministry for State Security made Ilse's stomach jitter. She concentrated on the photo.
In the black-and-white image, she and her older brother, Arnold, stood between their parents on the shore of Wannsee Lake. On the far side of the glittering waters, a dark smudge of trees, against which Ilse's hair appeared ghostly white. She was eight years old that summer and already tall and lean. Ilse got her long bones and broad shoulders from her father, her blonde hair and wide mouth from her mother. Arnold and her father had darker hair, shadowed eyes. Scarce smiles. The photo was the lone image of the Schmidt family where everyone looked happy. There would never be another. Arnold had defected five years ago and now lived in Duisburg, in the West. At that time, because Ilse was just sixteen years old and had still hoped to make the 1960 Olympic Team, she'd harbored no thoughts of leaving East Berlin. With luck, Ilse would see her brother again soon.
She sealed the envelope and wrapped it in cellophane. She would take nothing else to the other side. Ilse peeled off her bathrobe and, with long strips of Sellotape, bound the envelope to her abdomen. Then she tugged on her one-piece black swimsuit, put on a gray overcoat, and slipped into a pair of flats. Unnoticeable clothing, disposable. Like the rest of her life in East Berlin.
That included her parents, who, when Ilse entered the living room again, remained fixed in their usual spots. She could swim around the globe, and they wouldn't have budged a millimeter. Ilse grabbed her handbag from where it hung by the front door. Would this be the last time she saw her parents? Or the apartment where they'd lived for the past twelve years? It seemed impossible. Her head felt light, her legs weighted down. She clung tight to the doorknob. After a deep breath, the dizziness passed. She forced a smile, made her voice light against the sudden weight in her limbs. "Auf weidersein!"
Neither of her parents bothered lifting their eyes. "Auf weidersein," her mother sighed. Her father merely cleared his throat.
Good. Indifference was good. Ilse shut the door behind her, and the weight dispersed, like the bursting of a dam. Right before the fastest swims of her life, this same surge of energy had propelled her through the water. Ilse breezed down the stairwell to the ground floor, out the door, and into the bitter winter night.
The narrow street was quiet and dim. The sky remained enshrouded in fog.
She turned onto Friedrichstrasse, toward the train station. Through the haze, her neighborhood appeared unfamiliar, sinister. The true East Berlin. When fully visible, the streets were often too familiar. They tricked her mind into forgetting about the institutionalized crushing of free will.
From out of the fog, Friedrichstrasse Station appeared. The windowed walls glowed eerily in the wet, white air. Ilse paused on the sidewalk, as an S-Bahn train roared over the bridge and slowed for its approach. If she were truly going to visit Great Aunt Helga, she would catch the yellow tram just outside the station.
It would be so simple to board that tram. So simple to sit in Helga's ugly tenement flat making idle chatter. So simple to return to her mindless job on Monday morning and suffer the petty insults of her smug boss, Frau Kessler. So simple to endure her parents. So maddeningly simple to swim lap after lap for a country that had never believed in her. To give up, simplest of all.
Ilse drew nervous breaths through pursed lips, as if poised at the edge of the swimming pool, waiting for the starting whistle. But no coach or referee would compel her next move. And so her legs decided for her. They propelled Ilse toward the river. Like a fish, she slipped through the wave of people disembarking the station. Tired faces, eyes gone flat with resignation. Everyone headed in the opposite direction, to the cramped apartments that awaited them—apartments like the one Ilse had just left behind.
A fetid smell rose from the river just ahead. A strange beckoning. Through the fog, she spotted the black metal handrail that ran along the Reichstagufer. Ilse couldn't see the far riverbank—just a smear of lights from the theater on Schiffbauerdamm. She turned west. The cobblestone roadway was deserted. The sidewalk, too. Good. She didn't want to be noticed.
But, walking alone, would she stand out to the watchful Vopos? The nearer she drew to the Wall, the more attention she would call to herself. She had to appear as if she belonged on that esplanade. But Ilse didn't belong on land. Certainly not on East German land. She only felt a sense of belonging while in the water.
With her mental stopwatch, Ilse timed the sweep of the searchlight from the watchtower that stood at the edge of the death strip. She counted the seconds: Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf. When the beam of light turned its back on her, she began to shed the layers that bound her to the terrestrial plane. First, her handbag. The purse was empty, worn just for show. Its strap slid down her arm and the bag landed with a muffled thud.
Upriver, the dark outline of Marschall Bridge emerged from the fog. A trio of graceful arches, topped by the graceless Wall. Beyond, she could just make out the tall, clean lines of the Reichstag building. Her beacon in the West. Just five minutes away, beneath the icy waters of the Spree. When she emerged, she would take deep breaths of sweet Western air.
Unless, of course, her lungs emptied, forcing her to breech the surface. Then she would get a bullet in the back of her skull. Through that imagined hole, fear crept in. Fear wanted Ilse to stop in her tracks. Fear wanted her to stare nervously up at the watchtower, to search the shadows of nearby doorways for informers, to turn back. But Ilse's legs kept her moving.
She was nearing her dive spot, where Bunsenstraße met the Reichstagufer. Any further, and she risked detection from the watchtower. With each new step, Ilse freed one of the buttons on her overcoat. She charted the arc of the searchlight. The yellow beam passed closer now, then struck out across the water. Ilse shrugged off her coat: the rolling of shoulders, the sweeping of hands. The heavy fabric sloughed cleanly down her back. She was certain a fellow pedestrian would call out to her: Fraulein, your coat! Or a Vopo would leap in front of her, rifle drawn, shouting: Halt! But the only noise was the clatter of a train across the river.
Ilse kicked off her flats. Now she wore only her swimsuit, with the envelope Sellotaped to her stomach beneath. The damp, freezing air gripped her bare limbs. She shivered once, then pushed the cold from her mind. Quickly, she climbed over the handrail and stood at the precipice of the retaining wall. Below, a sheer drop of several meters into the blue-black Spree. She was accustomed to meditating at the lip of the pool, her toes neatly aligned, her thoughts organized, her breath steady. She hadn't recklessly thrown herself into a body of water since she was a child, since the summertime outings to Wannsee, where she and Arnold would take turns climbing onto their father's broad shoulders and leaping into the lake. Now, as the searchlight prowled back across the Spree, she had no time to linger. She aimed herself toward the Reichstag and dove.
Ilse concentrated on the alignment of her limbs, on straightening her jackknifed torso. It was only halfway through her brief descent that she remembered: air! With a deep gulp, she filled her lungs. Her fingertips sliced into the water and, in the instant before her head submerged, she clamped her mouth shut.
A clean entry, which meant a quiet splash. Ilse herself couldn't hear a thing. In the dense underwater silence, her mind calmed immediately and her body took control, steering her upriver. The current was slow, posing only slight opposition to her progress. No current could compare to barbed wire and bullets, or to the machinations of an entire regime. Also, she knew that the current was weakest along the river's edge. With each stroke of her arms, the fingertips of her left hand grazed the stone retaining wall, its surface worn smooth. That tactile check kept her on course. Otherwise, she swam nearly blind through the contaminated water—a miasma of gasoline and sewage that occluded what little light penetrated the surface.
Ilse shut her stinging eyes and counted her strokes: Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf. She would try to maintain her ideal rate of ten strokes and kicks per fifty meters. After twenty strokes, she would reach her temporary haven beneath Marschall Bridge.
Ilse's legs shot back and flared out, kicking like a frog. From the years of repetition, her limbs moved in perfect unity, fluid as the water itself. Kick, stroke, glide. Kick, stroke, glide. She focused on tabulating her progress: acht, neun, zehn. With that tenth stroke, Ilse had swum her first fifty meters. One minute gone. Her lungs still felt full of air. And, thanks to her cold-water baths, the frigid waters of the Spree hardly bothered her. In fact, she felt invigorated, alive for the first time in months. She could remain submerged for days, could swim forever.
Ten strokes to go. Then she could surface. She restarted her count: Eins, zwei, drei.
Yellow light. Even through closed eyelids, she sensed the beam of the searchlight passing nearby. Ilse opened her eyes, suffering the water's sting. A jaundiced glow lit the surface of the Spree. Uncertain how far down the light could penetrate, Ilse glided lower, into the darkness.
Her chest tightened, but Ilse reminded herself not to panic. A mere itching for air, that was all.
With each pass, the searchlight grew brighter, stronger. The Wall was exerting its will against her. She could feel the Vopos itching for action, the selfish blood-tug of her parents, the stricture beneath her sternum. All of these forces, telling Ilse to retreat.
Her limbs kept churning.
A moment later, the bright light disappeared. Marschall Bridge. She must be directly underneath. Now was Ilse's chance to breathe.
As she began to rise, a second light skimmed the water, just beyond the shadow of the bridge. Ilse had known all along that another watchtower stood on the opposite bank, further upriver, but she had misjudged the scope of its vision. Her arms flung out, breaking her upward momentum. Her lips parted in surprise, and precious air billowed from her lungs.
She hovered there underwater, watching and waiting for the arc of the searchlight to pass—seconds that felt like hours. When darkness returned, Ilse pushed against the water and shot up. The moment she broke the surface, her mouth opened wide, like the beak of a hungry baby bird. For the first time in two minutes, she swallowed deep breaths of air.
At that same moment, an engine rumbled over Marschall Bridge. As she bobbed there in the water, Ilse traced the vehicle's path overhead, to the far side of the Spree. Her gaze landed on a small boat. It floated near the opposite bank, at the base of the bridge, maybe fifty meters away. She could just make out the dark shape of a hunched body: the back of an overcoat, the slant of a cap. The figure was facing East—the way she'd just come. A Vopo, guarding the borderland.
Ilse clung as best she could to the damp stone abutment, staring at that shadowy shape. Now that the noisy engine had passed, even the lightest lapping of water echoed off the underside of the bridge. She breathed as quietly as possible, waiting to recover, to refill her lungs. But the longer she remained still, the deeper the cold seeped inside her. Ilse had to move. After one last gulp of air, she slipped her head beneath the water, planted her feet against the abutment, and thrust herself upriver.
She counted her strokes: Eins, zwei, drei.
Ilse's muscles began to strain. But she was no stranger to the burn, to the aching of shoulders and hips. She could endure the pain. If her lungs held out, then her body would carry her to the end.
She focused on an image of herself, standing tall before the Reichstag building. That vision, she clutched to her mind.
Now where was she? Oh, yes. Acht, neun, zehn.
Just one hundred meters to go. The cycle began again. Eins, zwei, drei.
Everything hurt now. The cold bit into Ilse's bones. Her chest grew tighter and tighter. And her limbs struggled through every stroke. She hadn't rested long enough under Marschall Bridge. Her lungs yearned for the oxygenated realm that stretched above her, tantalizingly close. No, she wouldn't succumb to that traitorous urge.
Pressure mounted in her bladder, as always happened at this late stage of her underwater swims. A petty bodily demand, not worth fighting against. She relinquished control, and, for a moment, relished the warmth that clouded around her shivering thighs.
What was her stroke count? Secht? Acht? Oh, god. Fear rushed through her. She'd lost herself in time. Now she wouldn't know when she could safely swim ashore. But had she ever? The distance from her dive spot to the Reichstag was only an estimate. And what was an estimate but a calculated guess? Ilse had guessed with her life.
Her entire body trembled, as if the weight of the Wall lay upon her back. The Soviet will, it turned the river to concrete. Her country willed her to fail now. Was failure Ilse's destiny? When she tried out for the 1960 Olympic team, her muscles had knotted. She had struggled to the lip of the pool, humiliated, and dragged herself out of the water. Now she had failed to properly execute her escape plan. Her exhausted arms and legs pushed hopelessly against the concrete water.
Then, a flutter in her chest. Was she having a heart attack? Ilse swam another stroke, and the seizure struck again—below her heart, below her lungs. A spasm in her diaphragm. Her limbs froze and her throat clamped shut. The spasm buckled Ilse's torso, folding her like a pocketknife. All the air, gone from her lungs.
Up. She had to go up. Her hands and feet shoved against the concrete water, launching her toward the golden light that danced on the wavering surface above. She was nearly there, nearly there.
Her head burst free of the water, and she gasped for air. She felt dizzy, disoriented. Her surroundings made no sense. Why darkness? Why fog? Where was she? Then she snapped into focus. Ilse looked up, and there stood the mighty tower of the Reichstag.
A shout cracked the air: "Halt!"
Ilse captured a quick breath, tucked her chin, and dove. How far to safety? Fifty meters? Just one more Olympic lap. Ten kicks, ten strokes. Eins, zwei, drei.
The cold had numbed Ilse clean through. Her limbs felt foreign—like crude wooden levers screwed into her torso. Her anatomy—that strange machine—transported her to another world.
A sharp sound, like a cough in her ear. A trail of bubbles streaked before her eyes. A bullet. She pushed through its trail, through her terror.
Another cough, this one quiet and polite. A dash of bubbles in her periphery.
On her eighth stroke, just as her legs frogged back together, something struck her right calf. The force of the blow rippled through her, shaking her muscles into chaos, obliterating form. Now the streaks of bubbles came from Ilse, spurting from her shock-parted lips. Her mind knew only one thought: I'm going to bleed out and die. But her body wouldn't listen. From its state of chaos, it realigned itself. Her arms fanned out and back. Her left leg flexed out and kicked, and her wounded right did its best to follow.
Arms raking through the water, her fingers reached and reached. Nothing. When she reached again, she touched the stone retaining wall. Stretching higher, her palm landed flat on the shore. The concrete path before the Reichstag.
She'd made it. Though too numb to feel its textures, her hand now resided in West Berlin.
But her submerged body remained in hostile territory. East Germany controlled the full breadth of the Spree.
Ilse raised her head out of the river. She couldn't believe that all of it lay before her: the curving pathway, the sloping grass embankment, and the Reichstag building itself, looming majestically above it all. She pressed her other palm to the concrete and, with a final dolphin kick, flung her chest onto the walkway.
A man came running toward her through the dark and fog, the tails of his dark blue coat lifting like sails, like wings. As he skidded down the slick lawn, his face emerged from the shadows: square jaw clamped tight, brown eyes. She saw it then, a silver sun on his hat: the insignia of the West Berlin police.
Ilse tried to pull herself from the river, but she had no strength left.
The policeman crouched low and hooked his hands under her arms. He lifted her from the water.
She wanted to thank him, but her teeth were chattering too hard.
The policeman's eyes darted—from Ilse's face to her bleeding leg and back again. "My god," he whispered.
He laid her on the grass, on Western soil. He yanked off his dark blue coat and draped it over Ilse, like a woolen blanket.
"I'll call for help," the policeman said.
She opened her mouth to speak—to say that all she really wanted was assistance in getting to the address taped to her abdomen. To her dear old friend Renate. But the policeman had already dashed away, toward the Reichstag.
Ilse pulled his coat tight around her shoulders. Despite the cold and damp of the grass beneath her, she felt warmer already. Sleepy and warm. Cradled by the welcoming soil. Soon she would feel rested and she would rise to her feet. She could see herself now, standing tall and proud before the Reichstag building. Ilse's trembling lips rose into a smile.
Title image "Under the Water, Under the Wall" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.