Behind the Headlines: in a Cramped Berlin Apartment, Concern About Those Left Behind
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Behind the Headlines: in a Cramped Berlin Apartment, Concern About Those Left Behind

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In a cramped apartment, in a faceless East Berlin housing block, a Soviet Jewish family sat in stunned silence Monday. The only noise came from the crackle of a shortwave radio and the low drone of the television set, bringing news from Moscow.

“We had so many hopes for the future,” said the 30-year-old son. “Now, it is all finished.”

For the estimated 5,000 Soviet Jews in Germany, news of the military coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev brought new fears for friends, relatives and even themselves.

The Soviet Jews living here, on the outskirts of Berlin, were not willing to give their names, worried that even now, in their new land, the KGB was lying in wait. While children played in hallways and on sidewalks, parents waited vainly in front of radios and television sets.

“We have too many relatives still in the Soviet Union,” said a 62-year-old woman. “You can’t understand our fear. We are here, free, but also the Soviet army is here.”

Her son, whose 12-year-old daughter returned to the Soviet Union last week after a brief visit, stared blankly at the radio. When asked if he was worried for her safety, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “What do you think?”

He recalled that the last thing his daughter told him was that she wanted to come again soon.

“What can I say? I can only sit here and wait,” the worried father said. “It is impossible to phone, impossible to find out what is really happening.”


The family exchanged the latest rumors: that Gorbachev was dead, that the president of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, was under house arrest, that tanks were opening fire on the streets of Moscow.

The only phones in the area were broken, but even if they were working, it would be almost impossible to get a phone call through to Riga, Vilnius, Kiev or one of the hundreds of other Soviet cities where relatives and friends are located.

In this housing block, where about 200 Soviet Jews live, everyone had somebody they wanted to reach across the now-closed border.

For this particular Soviet family, Monday’s news came as a double shock: They had been expecting the arrival of a friend from Riga. Now, they were sure, he was stuck at the border, and nobody knew when it would be open again.

A year ago, the family came to what was then East Germany, hopeful they would be allowed to stay. After unification, the German government granted them and thousands of other newly arrived Soviet Jews residency, but has since required that hopeful immigrants first apply for the proper visas in the Soviet Union.

While their legal status is relatively secure, compared to that of Soviet Jews who arrived here from Israel, the conversation Monday focused largely on passports, visas and other documents.

“We were lucky we left the Soviet Union a year ago,” said the 62-year-old grandmother. “But what has happened to our homeland?”

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