THE PENPAL WHO UNITED A FAMILY
And to think Heidi Davies almost didn’t write back …
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]daytimes.co.za 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.
DEAR OBJECTS A collection of letters to the writer from her friend.