April 7, 2000

I Was an East German Elian Gonzalez

By Uwe Siemon-Netto, a writer and Lutheran theologian living in New York City. Wall Street Journal / April 6

Elian Gonzalez's Miami family deserves a cheer, not a sneer. For four months now I have been watching them with growing admiration. They remind me of a family named Eckart, which played an important role in my childhood in Germany over half a century ago, when I was an Elian of sorts.

On Aug. 17, 1947, my mother smuggled me from the Soviet to the American zone of occupation. I was only 10 and terribly thin; I had just recovered from tuberculosis and been kicked out of the Thomasschule, the last traditional Gymnasium allowed to operate in Leipzig under communist rule. Two reasons were given for my expulsion: I hailed from a "bourgeois" family, and I went to church on Sundays.

The author's parents, in happier times.

No two escape stories are alike, of course. In my case, we had to cross not an ocean but the Harz mountains; and my mother survived. She had found out at what time the Red Army soldiers patrolling the border between what was soon to become East and West Germany were changing guards. At that moment of relative inattention, she hustled me into a disused railroad tunnel. On the other side we skirted the British checkpoint, and soon found ourselves on the back of a truck carrying plaster to Kassel, in the American zone. There my mother put me on a train; she then returned to Leipzig to look after her own mother and pursue her career as an oratorio singer.

I was on my own, separated from my mother by what Winston Churchill a year earlier had termed the Iron Curtain. My father was already in the West, but he was unable to take care of me. A blind veteran of World War I, he lived in an American-run nursing home, where he was convalescing from a severe illness.

But there were the Eckarts, old family friends in Ulm, a southern German city badly damaged by Allied bombing. The Eckarts picked me up at the train station, took me to their home, shared their rations with me and sent me to a private boarding school. Much later I found out that Eckarts had paid my tuition for years until my father was able to do so.

Was I homesick? You bet I was. Did I miss my mother's loving arms? Naturally. Yet as I watch the spectacle around Elian Gonzalez, I keep wondering: What if my mother had taken me back to Leipzig instead of following me to the West eventually? What if some blue-stockinged attorney general in West Germany had decided that I belonged in the East?

I would have been shoved into a socialist school and given an option: quit going to church, become a young pioneer, blabber Marxist slogans in public -- in other words, live a constant lie -- or forget about having any kind of career. I might have tried to flee to the West again as an adult and wound up dead at the hermetically sealed border, just as Elian's courageous mother died trying to get away from Cuba.

I might also have been captured while attempting to flee and then sent to one of East Germay's ghastly jails. Or I might have stayed and adjusted, and ended up like so many of my contemporaries who remained in East Germany: zombie-like, imbued with an entitlement mentality that prevents them from embracing the liberty they were given when communism imploded in 1989; joyless, envious, nostalgic for the rules that had ordered their miserable lives in the Marxist prison called the German Democratic Republic; incapable of participating fully in a free society.

Is this the fate 60% of Americans believe appropriate for Elian Gonzalez? Do they think it is preferable to being brought up by a loving family in Miami's spunky Little Havana? Do they really believe the sentimental gobbledygook spouted by the likes of the National Council of Churches about Elian's father? Do they trust Elian's father, this comrade who strikes connoisseurs of communist societies as a manifest pawn in the hands of Fidel Castro?

Why do prominent Americans, especially the Clinton administration, allow themselves to have their noses tweaked by this inveterate enemy of America? Don't they recognize his tricks? Were they not disgusted by the spectacle of Elian's grandmothers flying around the U.S. accompanied by the goons of Mr. Castro's intelligence service? Did it not strike them as strange that upon the grannies' return to their impoverished island they were driven around tumble-down Havana like conquering heroines in gleaming black Mercedes-Benz convertibles?

Now Mr. Castro demands that he be allowed to dispatch a delegation of some 30 people to pick up Elian. Tyrants always send delegations, for they never trust individuals to return to their realm. It baffles me that this certain signal of what lies in store for this little boy does not seem to sway the minds of politicians, prelates and pundits who purport to care about him.

These Americans are generous all right, but only to a dictator who hates their country. Their generosity inexplicably excludes Elian and of course those latter-day Eckarts, Elian's remarkable family in Little Havana.



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