Forced to participate in a Free German Youth march in East Berlin around 1952, nurse Irene Kucholick used the occasion to sneak across the border for the first time since her years hidden as a boy smuggling food to her family. Returning to share her dreams of living in the West with her fiance, Volker, Irene faces her worst struggle yet.
I loved Volker with all my heart, but I felt like a bird beating my wings against a wire cage trying to get out.
[At home]….The next morning the door bell rang and I opened the door to see Herr Viehstig, our Cultural Director, and some other Party people from Wiesen. Shocked, I gestured for them to come in.
….”You behaved disgracefully in Berlin, Irene,” Viehstig accused.
The blood drained from my face. I felt cold and shaky. He went on. “You did not know our national anthem and you refused to carry the flag.” He went on reading from list. “You tried to pick up an enemy leaflet and you were seen in West Berlin. Those are very serious accusations and you must be dealt with.” I was stricken by these charges which, for the most part, were true. How did they know I had been in West Berlin?
“You are suspended from duty until further notice.”
“I cannot go back to work?” I was incredulous.
“You shall work at hard labor in the uranium mines.” For how long was not clear.
….I first became a radiometrist. Carrying a Geiger counter, I walked both along the slope and underground in search of uranium….This was an easy job, but unfortunately it lasted only a few days and then I was reassigned.
Lorries brought heavy pitchblende out of the mine where they were put onto elevators and raised three or four stories high….I worked inside the freight cars with three others, mostly men. We shoveled the heavy dirt into the corners and sides so the car would fill evenly. Even though we used large shovels, if we did not shovel quickly enough, we would be covered by the pitchblende.
….I worked frantically to keep my corner of the car filled evenly….Workers not completing their work quota were docked on food rations….We worked feverishly and there was no time to look anywhere except at the hurtling black dirt. Every second counted.
Russian guards, posted in special watchtowers high above us, watched as we worked. If I had not known that I could go home that night, I would have thought I was already in a hard labor camp.
….I prayed, Please God, take me home. I have nothing more to lose on this ugly planet.
I tried mightily to keep up my share of the shoveling but could not complete it in time. Jumping from moving cars hurt my whole body.
….My shifts changed every week. The mines were operated around the clock and at a back-breaking pace.
….One evening Volker came to see me. He was visible shocked to see the weight I had lost. When he saw the difficulty I had standing up straight, he sat me down and took both my hands in his.
“Reni, my Reni, what are they doing to you? This is a enough. [My friend] Gretl, we must stop this cruelty.”
“We had better get her mother to come and talk to the Party officials,” Gretl said. “Irene cannot survive this work.”
….A few days later Gretl and Mama went to the Party officials but they were told that I had to learn my lesson. After many weeks I was assigned to work on a platform sorting rocks out of the pitchblende. The dirt came down with a tremendous noise. I never heard one human voice during the entire eight-hour shift.
…Volker asked Doctor S. to come see me. He came one evening and after his examination he said, “You are suffering from total exhaustion. I’m going to the Party people and see what I can do…” ….Good Doctor S. He really wanted to help.
Sometimes I thought that all the people talking on my behalf did more harm than good.
Once winter comes I will die, I thought.
And yet, she lives today in Maryland. Childless due to uranium exposure, Irene gives the gift of her story to future generations. When I read her memoirs they say: You are stronger than you think. You can face dark days and stand in the sunshine again reborn.
Kristin King is an author, publisher and co-founder of the nonprofit, Future Hope Africa. The closest she’s come to exposure to radiation is under a lead blanket during xrays. Living in Holland, Kristin finds it odd that the Dutch do not cover her sons or ask her to leave the room for xrays.