In the early 1980s, an Italian woman, Laura Kraft, fell in love with a man from East Berlin. After years of writing letters and making short weekend visits, she moved to the GDR — and eventually fled to West Germany together with her husband and their young daughter.
In 1982, Laura Kraft traveled from her home in Sicily to Debrecen, a small town in Hungary, for a three-week language course. The students on the campus were strictly divided into groups from the East and the West, were housed in different dormitories, and were not supposed to come into contact with each other. Nonetheless, she got to know a GDR citizen who lived in East Berlin and fell in love with him. During those weeks, the two of them spent lots of time together. Laura Kraft remembers that this had been a risk, because GDR citizens were strictly forbidden to have any contact with language students from countries in the West.
The time in Hungary flew by much too fast. Laura Kraft had to return to Sicily. After she arrived back home, she and her boyfriend developed a lively correspondence. However, it took the letters a long time to arrive and “all of them had been read. That was obvious,” she says. Her friend was seldom able to call her on the phone, because back then calls to Italy were very expensive. Besides, her boyfriend did not have a phone at home, and before calling her from a public telephone booth he always had to collect a large number of coins.
The move to West Berlin
“My longing to see him again grew and grew,” Laura Kraft recalls. In order to get at least a little closer to her boyfriend, she applied for a scholarship offered by the Goethe Institute. She received the scholarship and traveled to West Berlin to take a three-month language course. After Laura Kraft got there, she was able to meet her boyfriend regularly on the weekends. It was easy for foreigners to visit the GDR, says Laura Kraft. So every Friday evening at midnight on the dot, she was standing at a border crossing point to apply for a one-day visa. The visa was valid for 24 hours, and after that she had to leave the GDR. She wanted to spend Sundays with her boyfriend as well, so as soon as she had left the GDR she would immediately get in line again in order to reenter the country. Just past midnight, she would apply for a new one-day visa that would be valid until Sunday night. This always worked — except for the one time it didn’t. “The official at the counter looked at me and said, ‘You’re not crossing over today.’ The problem was that my boyfriend was waiting for me in the cold on the other side of the border crossing.” There was no way she could send him a message, because he had no phone in his apartment and mobile phones did not exist yet. A few hours later on Sunday morning, she tried once again and was able to cross the border without any problems.
Immigration to the GDR
“We desperately wanted to stay together,” says Laura Kraft. After she had received her university degree, the couple applied for a marriage permit in 1985. First, Laura Kraft had to submit her documents in person at the GDR embassy in Rome. “My reception was not very friendly. They probably suspected me of being a spy,” she speculates.
After a six-month wait, the marriage permit was granted. However, she was not allowed to travel directly to her fiancé in East Berlin. Instead, she had to stay in a reception center for prospective immigrants in Zepernick, northeast of Berlin. “There were several barracks there for foreigners, but I was the only person staying there,” says Laura Kraft. After a week that seemed endless to her, she was allowed to move in with her future husband. A short time later the couple was married.
Laura Kraft got a job as an Italian instructor at the Academy of Music in East Berlin. As a freelancer, she translated GDR news into Italian for Radio Berlin International and also worked as a news announcer. Radio Berlin International broadcast this news to many European countries in the respective local languages.
The news items she translated did not always conform 100 percent to reality, she recalls. In daily life as well, there were always two sides to every issue. Everyone had an official opinion and a private one. “You could never express your opinions entirely freely, even to your friends,” she says. “I suffered increasingly because of that. In addition, as a foreigner I was often treated like an outsider, and people created obstacles for me in daily life.” Her husband realized that this stressful situation was becoming ever more difficult for her to bear as the years went by. Because the couple could do nothing to change the situation, they decided to flee. “This was a difficult decision for my husband,” she says. “For us it was clear that for him, flight would be a one-way street. If you left, there was no way back. On top of that, he was a committed socialist. He believed in the system, and he was sure it could be improved,” recalls Laura Kraft.
Finally, a good opportunity to flee opened up in the run-up to Christmas 1988. The family, which now included a young daughter, applied for a visitors’ exit visa so that they could spend Christmas with Laura Kraft’s mother in Sicily. Then the waiting began. Would they receive a visitors’ exit visa for the whole family? “My daughter could have been refused a visa and would have been forced to stay in the GDR as a hostage,” says Laura Kraft. The GDR often used this maneuver as a way to make sure that its citizens would return after a journey abroad. Luckily, the visa was issued for the whole family. “However, we couldn’t tell anyone what we were planning. And we couldn’t take anything with us besides our travel bags. Otherwise the airport personnel would have gotten suspicious when they checked our luggage, and we would have been arrested immediately,” she says. Their love letters, souvenir photos, favorite books, clothes —all of these things had to be left behind.
When their airplane landed in Sicily, Laura Kraft felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted from her heart. “However, I was sad for my husband, who had left his whole life behind him,” she adds. During their vacation, they went to the West German consulate in Palermo. The couple laid out their situation to a member of the consulate staff and explained that they wanted to move to West Germany after Christmas. “The official at the counter almost fell over in surprise,” says Laura Kraft with a smile. “He had never experienced anything like that before. He took us directly to the consul.” The consul issued a passport of the Federal Republic of Germany to Laura Kraft’s husband on the spot.
The family traveled to West Germany in January 1989. “No one could have imagined” that the Berlin Wall would come down less than a year later, says Laura Kraft. “The fall of the Wall was quite a surprise for us. If we had known, we would never have fled.”
Laura Kraft has lived in the state of Baden-Württemberg since 1989, and in Stuttgart for the past 21 years. She has a degree in German language and literature and works at the Global Language Management department at Daimler AG, where she manages translation processes in the Aftersales unit.