By Douglas H. Stutz, Naval Hospital Bremerton Public Affairs
One risked everything – including death – to escape to freedom. One faced multiple ordeals – including loss – overcoming each with strong faith. As Navy Medicine focuses on the theme of a ‘New Year and New You,’ there are two staff members at Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) who have gone above and beyond to share their stories on such a premise.
Silke Nied Sookbirsingh, certified medical assistant with 4/OB clinic and Willie Tart, Information Management Department electronic health records trainer, have shared their stories of overcoming odds and weathering hardships in the best-selling inspirational book ‘Unwavering Strength.’ The book was released Oct. 3, 2014, in Toronto Canada. Sookbirsingh, who went by just her maiden name Nied in the book, and Tart are featured with 30 other authors. Each author focuses on how they dealt with adversity by finding inner strength. From death to daring defections, these stories take readers through the author’s experiences and the sorrow, hurt, and tragedy associated with each. Nied found out about the upcoming book from Tart and her harrowing chronicle is told in the chapter, ‘Escape from Behind the Iron Curtain.’
“There are a few people here at NHB who knew my story, but there are a lot of others who did not and are now interested,” said Nied, who made it back to Toronto for the release and associated book signing. If there is one central theme or message from Nied’s story, it’s ‘never to take freedom for granted.’
Phrases like the ‘Cold War’ and the ‘Iron Curtain’ might be a generation removed, but for Nied who grew up in East Germany, the words form a legacy of liberty denied before freedom was found. The release date of ‘Unwavering Strength’ coincidentally falls on the same date as the official reunification of Germany. The Berlin Wall came down in Nov. 9, 1989. That seminal moment marked the end of communist rule for many. But during the 45 years of the deadly divide between east and west, countless German’s had tried – in vain – to escape.
Although no concise figure is known, hundreds of people died seeking their freedom and countless more suffered during that time. The barbed wire, machine gun, and land mines took a deadly physical and psychological toll. “The Berlin Wall was built officially to keep the enemy out, but everyone there knew it was to keep the East Germans in,” said Nied. Several groups note that more than 1,100 people died trying to escape the heavily fortified and mined former East-West German border between 1961 and 1989. In addition, according to the Potsdam Centre for Historical Research, an estimated 100,000 people were also imprisoned in East Germany for trying to flee to the West.
“Nevertheless, many people tried to escape,” Nied said. “Some were successful. Some paid with their lives. Never in my wildest dreams did I think my parents would ever risk our lives. Why would they want to start over at their age? The answer was simple; Freedom!” It was during a summer vacation in Bulgaria and Romania that the actual idea of committing to a family exodus to the West was solidified. At a camp ground one evening, Silke’s Uncle Dietmar from West Germany made a surprise appearance. Plans were discussed of actually trying to make a run for it, or in their case, a swim for it across the River Danube. But it was easier to talk about than make happen. Any short span across the river wouldn’t work even at night due to a full moon, making it impossible to elude border guards. They next tried to find a suitable place in Hungary to swim across, but found they couldn’t even get close to shore without getting shot. Discouraged, but not defeated, they drove back home and commenced to plan the next attempt. “We knew we had to train to swim at least three kilometers (approx. 1.86 miles) across the river,” said Nied. Necessary precautions would have to be taken against the elements. They also needed to ensure that all the required personal credentials were protected and would make it across the border. In a scene straight out of a Cold War spy movie, important family papers were passed between Silke’s father Ulrich and her uncle at an autobahn rest stop, with her father placing them in one of the stalls and then the uncle going in to retrieve them. But the hardest part of waiting was to keep the family intentions a secret.
“I couldn’t tell anyone about our plans,” related Nied. “Not to my best friend, not even to my grandparents. One word overheard and my parents would have been arrested and sent to prison for at least 12 years and I would have been placed in an orphanage.” On July 19, 1979, after the several aborted attempts, numerous sleepless nights, and anxious days filled with trepidation, Silke and her family set out for the small Romanian town of Orsovo near the Danube. Their plan was to swim across the bay there to Yugoslavia and Uncle Dietmar, who would then whisk them to West Germany and freedom.
A common practice of the border patrol was to shoot first and maybe ask questions later. Bodies were commonly left where they fell, as a none-too-gentle reminder to all on the perils of trying to flee. “Needless to say, I was scared to death,” Nied remembered. “I wasn’t so sure anymore that I wanted to be free. But after a while I settled down.” Their plan called for more subterfuge. Uncle Dietmar registered in the only hotel available to western tourists, and obtained a room overlooking the portion of the bay they planned to swim across. He was to stand outside his well-lit room on the balcony, and raise his arms to his side if the coast was clear.
With the fall of darkness, their uncle sent the signal and the time came. Despite a daylight temperature in the 90s, the evening chill added to the cold of the Danube. As they glided into the water, adrenalin provided fuel for their freedom. “Everything was so quiet, almost eerie and so unreal,” said Nied.
The lights behind them on the Romanian side grew smaller as they made their way to the shore of Yugoslavia, looking for one red light and one green light, the standard maritime signal markers for ships plying up and down the river. “We could feel our wet clothes getting heavier and heavier,” Nied recalled. Half way across, a Romanian patrol boat flashed on their search lights. Silke and her parents dove several times to avoid being caught in the glare as it passed over the river. Just as that nautical problem was handled, another rose. Instead of one red light and one green, there was two of each, with one set of lights moving. “It was a ship. Something no one had thought of,” said Nied. “It could have been our death if we swam towards it and got caught in the propeller or ran over.”
Just as it seemed Silke had no strength left to make it, she felt her mother Ingrid drag her the final few meters to the other side. They had made it across. Right into handcuffs by patrolling Yugoslavian border guards. For almost two weeks, they were kept under watch by the local police and constantly questioned as their uncle frantically searched the area for them, fearing the worst had happened. They were then transferred to the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade where diplomatic intervention had them finally at the West German embassy, but not before ensuring it wasn’t an East German ruse. The emotions of the moment took over. “Mom and dad started crying and I couldn’t understand why,” she said. “But I then realized that we were free. We were on West German soil.”
In the meantime, Uncle Dietmar was still driving up and down the Danube trying to find any clue as to their whereabouts. “He spent two weeks trying to find us before he returned home empty handed,” Nied said.
Eventually he told family that they were lost, presumably forever. Three more Cold War casualties caught by the Iron Curtain.
But when Silke and her parents reached Frankfurt, her mother phoned ahead to let their family know they were coming. “My aunt was somewhat shocked, confused and ecstatic at the same time,” recalled Nied. “She then called my uncle and told him we were okay. He couldn’t believe it at first. Then he helped to bring out the champagne to celebrate.”
“I related my story to my children so they never take freedom for granted. It can be taken away in an instant. I will forever be grateful to my parents that they had the courage to be free,” Nied said.
To be continued….