And to think Heidi Davies al­most didn’t write back …

Sunday Times - - Travel - ● L S. © Heidi Davies

In 1960, as a 13-year-old, I was dream­ing of see­ing the world. It was hardly pos­si­ble at the time, so I sent my name to a Ger­man mag­a­zine for pen­friends from all over the globe. Boy, did I get many let­ters. I sorted them into piles of “yes”, “no” and “maybe”. When my fa­ther looked at the “no” pile, he picked one let­ter up and said: “You have to write to Klaus Moehring. He lives 20 min­utes from my home town.” This birth­place of gen­er­a­tions of our fam­ily was in com­mu­nist East Ger­many, a place that was no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to have con­tact with. For any East Ger­man to com­mu­ni­cate with any­one in the West meant heavy scru­tiny for both.

Some­what re­luc­tantly, I wrote to Klaus and a lively cor­re­spon­dence en­sued, with many let­ters opened and cen­sored. I was re­peat­edly warned to be care­ful what I wrote. The Stasi (Min­istry for State Se­cu­rity) was ever vig­i­lant and I be­lieve there was a file on our fam­ily, which re­ally made me laugh, as I was a lit­tle South African girl, with no in­ter­est in politics.

In 1969, I ap­plied to visit East Ger­many so I could meet my grand­mother and other rel­a­tives and also my pen­friend. Per­mis­sion was granted.

My rel­a­tives did not own a car but my pen­friend did, so I was driven around through the “green heart of Ger­many”, as Thuringia is known, in this quaint lit­tle car, a Tra­bant, cough­ing and belch­ing ex­haust fumes into the at­mos­phere at fright­en­ing lev­els.

Fi­nally, the day I was to meet my grand­mother for the first time and see the town where my fa­ther was born dawned.

Eis­feld was a bor­der town and had even stricter con­trol than other towns. But ac­cess was de­nied all of a sud­den. It was com­mon prac­tice to harass Western­ers and this was one way to do it.

It was then that my pen­friend be­came in­stru­men­tal in my meet­ing my fam­ily. He took a huge risk by fetch­ing them and tak­ing them to the next vil­lage, where an emo­tional meet­ing took place.

Now in 2018, 58 years later, Klaus and I are still writ­ing to each other — from that “no” pile to a life­long friend­ship. How for­tu­nate to have ex­pe­ri­enced such a pre­cious bond with such un­usual be­gin­nings.

“The Notebook” is about chance meet­ings and un­for­get­table en­coun­ters peo­ple have had on their trav­els. Send us your story — no more than 400 words — and, if pub­lished, you’ll re­ceive R500. Mail trav­el­[email protected]­day­ with the word Notebook in the sub­ject line.


BRIDGED GAPS A view of the Saale River in the Ger­man state of Thuringia, once part of com­mu­nist East Ger­many.

Pic­ture: Heidi Davies

DEAR OB­JECTS A col­lec­tion of let­ters to the writer from her friend.

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