The Prodigy

Long Short Story by Walter and Margaret Munchheimer

The Prodigy

Prologue

I don’t recall exactly when it first occurred to me that I might be gifted at what I was doing. Others seemed to have noticed, and there were the occasional third-person references to potential—to a bright future. It all felt pretty normal to me, so I just kept doing what I was doing. The assignments quickly became more demanding, the challenges exhilarating and always thoroughly mastered. New teachers were brought on board; new directions opened up for me. Right from the beginning, I was very good at this.

It felt good when I was occasionally called “maestro,” though, in truth, that was initially as much flattery as anything. Still, by the age of seventeen, I was regularly demonstrating my talents to demanding audiences, first only a handful of times, but eventually, I was preoccupied by it. The popular perception has always been that those of us in this profession live a glamorous life in the public eye. There is some truth to that, of course, but much of my time was spent in enforced anonymity.

My musical training began at an early age, but not unusually so among concert performers. Mutti and Vater had some reason to suspect my talent and Vater had the connections needed to get me the instruction that would launch my careers. Grooming talent had always been important to the State as a means of building international legitimacy and respectability. The Volksinstitute for Social and Cultural Advancement had many accomplished musicians, most now past their prime performance age, who could still be of service helping promising youngsters develop their talents. Young musicians—like me—who would, in turn, take their places on the international stage. All of which was of no concern to me at my young age, of course, only the fun of playing the piano and making Mutti and Vater proud mattered then.

In the earliest days, for perhaps the first year or so, I don’t recall specifically, music lessons were taken at home, Frau Treutler coming to my family’s three-room apartment for two hours of instruction each week. In the style and method common for that time, instruction was rigorous, and practice on my own between weekly lessons was expected to be sufficiently thorough to learn that week’s assignments so that new material could be covered and assigned for the following week. Progress was rapid. It was soon apparent that I was outgrowing the used old Petrof upright piano Vater had got for me when I started. From that point on, my lessons took place away from home, and that included most of my daily practice sessions, too.

Beginning about age seven, my daily routine would now include riding the streetcar directly from school to the rehearsal salon at the Institute on Birkenstraße. It was an exciting time for a young boy who was well looked after at the Institute. I had moved beyond the old Petrof; I now had access to new Estonia pianos. If you know about pianos, you can understand my elation. I loved playing and learning and I loved the attention I was getting. To tell you the truth, I looked forward to coming to Birkenstraße from the moment I got out of bed in the morning. When I sometimes overstayed my allotted practice time, the salon director would drive me home—young children were discouraged from riding the streetcar alone after dark. I must tell you, I had the best childhood any boy could have.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I fear I have neglected to introduce myself properly to you. My name is Ernst Doppelmann, the only child of Ruth and Konrad Doppelmann. Home is Leipzig, German Democratic Republic. You may have gotten the impression that my formative years included none of the more common distractions and activities of childhood. That was certainly not the case, but it is true that I preferred playing the piano to doing most other things. Partly, I suppose, it was difficult and even dangerous to play outdoors. There was still considerable wartime building damage in my neighborhood, and this limited safe play, at least in the minds of my parents. Hiding from playmates among the ruins was fun for us though, I have to say. Of course Mutti would have been horrified if she had known.

I have to smile now when I occasionally think back on those early days. As punishment for my childhood misbehavior, Mutti would sometimes prohibit me playing the piano, such was my attraction to the instrument that this was the most serious restriction she could impose. It was done with mixed emotions, I feel certain, because Mutti loved hearing me play, and I often made a special point of playing those songs I knew she loved best. Vater wasn’t around as much as Mutti was, but I know that he kept informed of the progress I was making. His colleagues at the Institute made sure of that. Oh, that’s right, I didn’t mention that Vater worked at the Institute—or rather, for the Institute—in the diplomatic service. He traveled a great deal on his job so he was not always home at night. Mutti is a kind and mild-mannered woman; I would almost describe her as a simple, plain woman, if that would not be mistaken for backward or even slow-witted. She is certainly neither of those things. In German, we have a word “sympathisch” that really has no good English equivalent, but that word best describes her. She is kind and has a loving disposition, but she nevertheless managed to keep order in the home. Vater, on the other hand, was very strict about household rules and conduct, but as I said, he was not always at home. So I grew very close to Mutti, but always had complete respect for Vater, though there was always a respectful distance between us for as long as I can remember. At least until we were reunited.

Within a year or so after my lessons moved to the Institute on Birkenstraße, I got a new teacher. I had liked Frau Treutler and knew what to expect of her and how to gauge her reactions to my progress. I would gladly have continued under her instruction, but of course, that was not up to me to decide. I never actually heard Mutti and Vater discussing the change, so I could not be certain, but I believed at the time that the Institute had made that decision for them. Of course, now I know it for certain.

In any event, by age eight, I began receiving instruction from Gerhard Krummholz, excuse me—Herr Krummholz. He had been a concert performer for some years, but was generally regarded as a ‘B level’ talent. To me, he was a stern master who often seemed to forget that I was by then still only a young boy and, at most, an intermediate piano player. I felt that his expectations seemed far better suited to a more accomplished player. To be honest, there were times when I was left wondering if he wasn’t shaping me as a person as much as a musician. Whether it was his rather demanding treatment or my determination that Vater should never get a bad report from anyone at the Institute, it did seem to push me as Frau Treutler no longer did. And he called me “maestro” in a way that made my future success seem all but predetermined. At least, that is what I believed.

In point of fact, far from being displeased, Vater seemed particularly pleased with my progress around that time, although he rarely heard my playing. This, he told me, was because he received regular reports from colleagues at the Institute, including some who were in more senior positions than he. This was most encouraging; making Mutti and Vater proud of me was what mattered most.

I have already mentioned that I was well looked after at the Institute right from the start. It wasn’t even that the adults there were especially kind to me, or that sort of thing. It was more that the people all seemed to take an interest in me. You can imagine that a young child feels very special when it seems that he is the center of everyone’s attention. Let me say again, it wasn’t that I was showered with acts of kindness or affection that I remember feeling from that time. It was simply that someone from the Institute was always present to take care of me. To look after me.

I was an ambitious, determined student from the start. I loved playing piano and I practiced my lessons diligently. For this, I was rewarded by being included with some of the older children in periodic discussions about some of the other countries outside of the homeland, “in order to prepare” us for the time we would begin to travel on our own performance schedules. It was also felt to be useful for that reason for us to get English language instruction. This was all provided to us through the Institute’s “Familiarization” program. I was thirteen or fourteen then, and my days were now spent entirely at the Institute. My schooling was all taking place there. Music was still my prime interest and focus, but I was getting a complete and intensive education. There was so much more to be learned than it seemed my early primary school would have been able to teach me, that it was easy to feel that the Institute was special and I was special for being a part of it. And, as I said, I was well looked after.

Before leaving the matter behind entirely, I should point out that Herr Krummholz, my stern teacher for the past eight years, no longer seemed to me the harsh taskmaster I had encountered upon our introduction. He remained strict, stern and demanding, but I believe that I better understood a man of his intensity by then and, of course, I had matured a bit as an adolescent and as a piano student. I also credited the Institute for knowing what was best for me when it assigned Herr Krummholz to be my teacher.

I was not surprised when a new teacher was soon assigned to me for what was described as “Abschlussarbeit,” finishing work. I was sixteen years old and had been getting music instruction for more than ten years. It seemed like the right time. What was left but to burnish my skills to the point required to be a legitimate professional performer? By then, I had already performed at numerous group recitals at the Institute attended by family, friends and Institute people. These were events the Institute staged once each year to honor its music students and, indirectly, their parents too. The older, advanced students were required to give a solo recital to which the leadership of the Institute and other important officials would be invited. Those were held in the Institute’s Festhalle, a separate auditorium reserved for just such performances, and for special gatherings of the Institute Director when visitors came on business from Berlin. I had the privilege of giving my recital there before my seventeenth birthday. It was also the first time Vater had actually heard me give a real performance. That was thrilling. I had always known that Mutti loved just hearing me play. With Vater, I always believed that it was as important to him that I excelled, as it was that I played at all.

I was now completely confident of my technical abilities as a pianist and I had built a decent repertoire by that time, so I felt that what was needed was just that final level of performance polish and personal self-assurance called for when you step out onto the stage alone in front of a knowledgeable audience as a world class pianist. Getting a new teacher to finish helping me achieve that was, as I said, no surprise. Fräulein Prachtvoll, however, was a surprise. She seemed far too young to have been much of a concert pianist herself, so I must confess that I was both disappointed and more than a little bit confused (offended, too) at the Institute’s decision to assign her to take me to the top.

When I say that she seemed too young for her role, I mean that it seemed to me unlikely that she could have had the practical experience that I was now looking for in a teacher to prepare me for that last step up onto the world stage. This is what irritated me, to be quite honest about it. Fräulein Prachtvoll, Katharina, was twenty-seven, and certainly did not fit my image of a concert pianist. I hadn’t ever even heard of a female pianist reaching the level that I expected to reach for myself. Oh, yes, of course I knew of Clara Schumann, because she was born and lived in Leipzig, too, but that had been so long ago it did not seem the same to me.

Playing piano was my life’s passion, so I found myself, for the first time, facing what I can only describe as a roadblock that I had to get around somehow. To be fair, Katharina was a pianist, and quite a good one. I just never felt that her focus was on my musical development. Besides which, I could play better than she, so it was altogether unclear how she was going to help me get my career underway. That is all I cared about.

It did not take long for me to find out.

Katharina stirred my teenage senses. She was attractive in a way that adult women had never seemed to me, and young enough to be able to relate to me in a way that adult women never before had. Everything about her seemed intended to captivate. The girls my own age that I knew, even the pretty ones, had none of what Katharina had in abundance. I was infatuated, and yet, she was my teacher and was owed respectful deference. Certainly, I never said a word to her about any of these feelings, and I know that I conducted myself fittingly as her pupil at all times. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that she gave me more to think about than just music lessons. I wanted to believe that she must have known that, too. There were cues that I don’t think were just in my inflamed imagination, though my imagination was responsible for plenty. To this day, Katharina stands out as special, someone I still fantasize about. Like so much else, I have no doubt at all that that is just what the Institute intended.

Instruction often consisted largely of discussion, to a far greater extent than it ever had with Frau Treutler or even Herr Krummholz. Some of this involved music theory, or the lives and legacies of the great classical composers, or musical interpretation, and such, but much of it did not. None of it was particularly personal, but it was no secret to anyone at the Institute that I was passionate about the piano and determined to have a career as a top-tier concert pianist. The Institute had invested much time and expense in training me to reach my level, and I came to realize that it would be Katharina’s job to help me understand that I was valued not just for my musical skills, but in other ways as well. The first lesson I learned was that having a career on the concert stage would be dependent on how willing I might be to help the Institute in those other ways.

Life after the end of Hitler’s War was hard in many ways. We lived in a new country with the promise of a bright future, but it was apparent that that future would be some time in coming. Even in the late 1960s when I was a child, there was still widespread destruction around, and shortages of almost everything were commonplace. My family was fortunate to have a nice apartment, though it was small, and Vater had his own car even before then. I cannot say that all others were as fortunate.

Shortages and the other anxieties of daily life were adult concerns. Like all children everywhere, I made my own fun with whatever was at hand, and Mutti and Vater were very good at doing what they could to shield me from unpleasantness. Listening to recorded classical music on the Gramophone was a favorite activity, in which I variously mimed the violin or piano soloists or became the orchestra conductor with wild, exaggerated, sweeping arm gestures. It was great fun.

As Vater’s tenure at the Institute grew, he was able to provide more of the small things that we knew our new country was making possible for us. I naturally assumed that he must be an important man there, but maybe all young boys see their father that way. Certainly, getting me started on piano lessons with my own piano at home has to be understood to be a luxury not everyone was in position to have. We could thank the Institute for that. So, too, when the family eventually qualified to be moved into an actual house with a private entrance on the ground floor and a private space in the back for a garden. Vater was an industrious man who worked hard, and the Institute looked after him well. As my own development progressed, I was proud that I was also responsible for the family occasionally getting small privileges of some sort.

So there it was: The Institute needed my help for some other things. Of course I would help. The Institute was my whole life. Apart from Mutti and Vater, everything I cared about was at the Institute. I wasn’t about to let them down now. Or Katharina. Katharina, oh Katharina.

The hours spent most days were devoted to practice and building a repertoire. Instruction no longer involved regular sessions with my music teacher; that was no longer needed. Katharina would only stop by my rehearsal room occasionally, and always only briefly on her way somewhere else. From time to time I would encounter her in the Institute cafeteria and she might even join me then for lunch, but that was rare. Still, it was gratifying to know that she was taking a continuing interest in me. You can be sure that I took a continuing interest in her.

Those days, time was set aside for me to meet with some of Katharina’s colleagues to whom she had introduced me. I was even given the honor of spending a week in Berlin for discussions with several of these same colleagues and others. Throughout this time, I assumed Vater knew of my growing involvement with the Institute, but we never spoke of it specifically; the Institute thought it better that way.

I was ready to take part in what it was that the Institute supposedly felt I could help with. You must remember that by then it had already been suggested that my performing career might be in jeopardy—would be in jeopardy—if the Institute could not be certain of my willing cooperation. But I couldn’t show my willingness if I did not even know what I was supposed to be cooperative about. The whole thing couldn’t very well be a secret or Katharina wouldn’t have been so explicit about it, but no explanation was offered. I did not believe that I could ask those with whom I was meeting for an explanation without risking the appearance of criticizing the Institute or complaining about its treatment of me. But I did ask Katharina.

“Ernst,” she said, “you are in too big of a hurry for everything. You are an impatient young man. The Institute has high hopes for you and it has always treated you fairly. Don’t you agree?” Of course I agreed. The Institute was my whole life and the key to my hoped-for career as a pianist. But, I wondered aloud, if the Institute had wanted my help in other ways beside music, why was it wrong of me to be impatient about wanting to get started helping? She had to laugh at that, perhaps she had not considered that sort of a response. “I am just a piano teacher here. I do not get involved with any of the Institute’s other endeavors,” she replied, and gave me a short hug as she departed. I was satisfied.

In the ensuing months, I was preoccupied with “Patriotic Citizenship” classes and batteries of examinations of all sorts. There was barely any time left over for the piano, unless a Saturday class or field exercises happened to end early or were rained out or canceled for another reason. Sundays I tried to keep free to spend at home with Mutti and Vater, if he was in town, otherwise I might have no contact with them at all anymore.

There were several of the music students of my age at the Institute who I was friendly with. I occasionally played duets with some of them, and even piano quartets with some. That isn’t four pianos playing together, you understand, it’s three stringed instruments—normally a violin, viola and cello—accompanied by a piano. There are some really wonderful pieces composed for small ensembles like that, and the interaction among us provided a special sort of enjoyment. Playing together was actually a release from the demands we all put ourselves under every day to excel as solo performers. And it was a social time we could spend with each other to considerable laughter. The Institute did not generally offer many opportunities for laughter. For me, it was also a time when music could take the place of classroom and field instruction in other matters. None of these other students were involved in the citizenship classes, as far as I knew, but these were things that were not discussed with anyone else, so I most likely wouldn’t have known about it anyway.

Up to that point in my time there, the Institute had provided me with accomplished music instructors, practice facilities and quality musical instruments for my use, along with most of my primary and all of my secondary schooling. You can understand that to me, the Institute was essentially a music conservatory that trained the most talented young people in our country for careers as concert performers.

It turns out that the Institute did much more than that, and it needed a lot of information about a lot of things to do all the things it did. I did not find it unreasonable that the Institute should rely on those of us it was helping to help in turn, if there was information we came across that might be useful. The citizenship classes taught me to recognize how even the smallest, seemingly inconsequential piece of information was important if the Institute was to be able to keep looking after us well. And the extra privileges my family enjoyed also had to be considered. Vater obviously must have known all of this, given his long tenure at the Institute but, of course, we did not speak of such things directly. Even if it had come up, I don’t know that we would have had much to discuss in any case. He was a diplomat doing important work representing our country, and I was just a young man receiving instruction on becoming a more involved citizen. It was hardly the same thing.

So, if simply providing information about this or that which I became aware of is what the Institute believed I could help with, I saw no reason not to do my patriotic duty in that way. Having made that clear, it seemed like the right time for the Institute to take steps to formally launch my career on the concert stage. It turns out the Institute was not yet ready for me to get that career underway. It would be almost two more years before I was finally scheduled to appear for the first time as the featured guest soloist in a concert hall. Two years during which my training became ever more intensive and from which I emerged with brand new skills and a proficiency in something other than the piano.

At the completion of my training, I was assigned to one of several groups of Institute graduates doing literature reviews and correspondence purification. The Institute’s need for information didn’t always end with acquiring information; it also included ensuring that some information we handled never got to its intended destination. If it could be harmful to the Institute’s mission of service to the nation, it needed to be reworked, destroyed or assigned to others for outside resolution. It turns out I was good at this work, and the Institute saw to it that I moved up quickly to being a first level leader of my group. I had not yet turned twenty.

Throughout, I kept full privileges to all the facilities at the Institute’s practice salon. The rehearsal room assigned to me had been upgraded to a larger room with recording facilities attached so that I was able, with the help of an Institute technician, to record and critique even the smallest details of my playing at any rehearsal session I wished. And I was now playing on a full length Schimmel concert grand piano. Except for the fact that I was not yet playing to a filled concert hall, I felt I had reached professional performance caliber as a concert pianist. I had no doubt at all that I was ready to start my concert career on my own. Of course, that would not have been permitted.

Three days a week were devoted to music studies and three days each week I spent doing my other duties for the Institute. Sundays, I spent with my parents at the newer residence they had been allotted in the countryside just outside the city. It was on one such Sunday visit that Mutti asked me about my concert schedule. I suppose she might have been wondering when they could see me perform, or maybe whether I might be performing out of the area and unavailable for some future Sunday visit. In any case, I had to tell them that there was no schedule yet as I hadn’t yet been cleared to begin my playing career. I recall Vater being surprised at that. Surely he must have been aware of my status at the Institute, so I thought this should have come as no surprise to him. But it did.

Eventually, it was Katharina who gave me the first concrete news concerning my concert career. At last, I was to be the featured soloist at one of several concerts to be held on Republic Day, 7 October. That was still five months off, and there were one or two things the Institute had planned for me in the meantime, but this was exhilarating news, to be sure. I still remember it clearly; how could I forget a thing like that? It was a Thursday afternoon about 14:30. That Sunday, I was able to share the good news with Mutti and Vater.

At 7:12 Monday morning, I boarded the train for Dresden. I was carrying instructions from the Institute for a meeting I was scheduled to attend there, along with equipment I had been issued for my assignment. I studied the written material as thoroughly as possible during the 1h:37m train trip, and then again in the taxicab on the way to the Institute office. This was to be an entirely new assignment for me, a sort of worthiness test I was told, and the scheduled meeting was for the purpose of receiving a dossier to fill me in on background information the Institute had already acquired to help ensure a successful conclusion to my assignment. I had been authorized to spend up to one week on the assignment and to report the successful outcome to the local office of the Institute before returning home. In the event I was unable to complete the assignment, that would have to be reported to my own immediate leader at Birkenstraße. Luckily, I was able to notify the local office within four days that I had engaged the target and completed my assignment. I headed home with an immense sense of relief and a feeling of satisfaction at a new job well done. This was serious business, and it turns out that I was good at it.

After my return from Dresden, I continued to oversee my group doing document reviews for another six weeks. This was useful work, I have no doubt, but it was no longer challenging to me personally. I had seen how I could make far more significant contributions to the work of the Institute. Once again, I wanted to take the matter up with someone, and once again I recognized that this would not be appropriate. Katharina’s words came back to me again and again. “Ernst, you are in too big of a hurry for everything,” she had counseled on an earlier occasion. This was a time for patience, and for not upsetting any plans that would get in the way of my first concert appearance next October. By mid-June, I was reassigned to Operations Group 10-H where I would have the possibility to do further significant work. My patience was paying off.

10-H consists of a leader and a reported fifteen or twenty other operatives, whose identities are unknown to me. Unlike my previous position doing document review, Operations Groups all have mandatory rotations of eighteen months, so whoever was part of my unit today might be transferred out by tomorrow anyway. Attached to our unit is a support group of two dozen or so analysts and schedulers.

I spent the first seven weeks studying the standing orders and policy guidance of 10-H and reading relevant intelligence estimates prepared within the Institute. That is when I received my next assignment, the first since transferring to 10-H.

Leipzig has always been a somewhat more progressive city, and even now under our new government, there are activist tendencies here that the Institute regards as counterrevolutionary. These are not thought to be organized currents of agitation; that is, there aren’t leaders of movements per se, but a number of individuals were known to be active in ways that troubled the Institute. One, in particular, had become especially problematic and would no longer be tolerated. On the 22nd of August, I left for the nearby city of Weissenfels with my assignment.

Re-education or persuasion was not my assignment; there are others with that responsibility. Field operatives of 10-H are assigned to follow subversive individuals with known habits and associations and established patterns of movement until they are able to engage their targets secretly and with surprise, whenever possible. If the intelligence provided me concerning targets is accurate, such assignments mostly call for patience and stealth, and sometimes a bit of luck. On this occasion, it did not take long to track down the target, but the opportunity to engage him securely was always interrupted in ways that could compromise my work, and possibly even me personally. Returning home without completing my assignment was out of the question, of course.

On the evening of 28 August, an opportunity did present itself. I followed the target and two other men onto the grounds of a church cemetery where the three men talked for maybe two or three minutes, before the two others left. The target then stooped behind a grave marker, retrieving an envelope or folder of some sort which he slid under his jacket. The way was clear for me to complete my work, but now there was a new consideration. Something of obvious significance had been arranged for pickup at this spot, and that was surely something the Institute would want me to retrieve. When I returned to Birkenstraße the following morning, I was able to report a successful conclusion to my assignment. And I was carrying information of a most sensitive nature.

My opening concert was now just five weeks away. I had selected a program of Brahms, Liszt and Schubert, among which were some of my favorites and some Mutti loved best as well. Since the transfer to 10-H, my piano studies had been curtailed to the weekends only. With a repertoire of perhaps 200 pieces, a concert pianist cannot simply play any of them on demand and give a flawless professional performance. Several weeks of concentration are typically devoted to final preparation. Now, I was focused on bringing my six chosen pieces back up to performance level. That is what I was in the process of doing when 10-H changed my plans.

The envelope I had brought back with me from my last assignment contained four documents which 10-H analysts concluded could only have come from inside the Institute. What was puzzling about this was that the information in the documents, while highly classified, was regarded as being of little value to a citizen known only for his activism. The bigger concern now was whether that individual also had had unknown ties to a foreign intelligence service.

10-H is a domestic affairs Operations Group—H stands for “Heimat,” or homeland—and it would not generally have jurisdiction for encounters with agents of a foreign government, unless they had to do with creating domestic civil unrest. But the possibility that there was a collaborator at the Institute supplying classified documents was enough for the Institute Director to insist that 10-H retain responsibility at least as far as learning the identities of those involved. Beyond that, the matter could be turned over to another Operations Group or State Security Police, as appropriate.

Personally, I had no reason to expect further involvement in the matter; whatever came next was a separate assignment which could go to anyone in 10-H, or even anyone else from the Ministry of Interior working under direction and orders from 10-H. I was preparing for the first performance of my concert career, now just a few weeks away. My operations leader explained to me why the Institute was nevertheless keeping me assigned to these new developments in the case. Operations Groups at the Institute function on the basis of restricting information about everything to the smallest number of people possible. Anything else increases the risk of compromising vital security interests and personnel. Doesn’t every security service everywhere operate on a similar policy? I had already seen and read the documents in question, as well as the dossier on the man from whom I retrieved them. Anyone else would have to learn these things that I already knew about. Moreover, I was regarded as safe for the assignment because I could not possibly be the inside source of the material, having just engaged the target to whom the documents were given. I had a new assignment.

Of particular interest to our analysts was a coded reference in one of the documents to what they interpreted to be a planned meeting with a foreign agent to take place on 7 October in the south of the country near the Czech border, while Republic Day celebrations were taking place throughout our country. That assumed meeting was to be my assignment. If it actually took place, I was to observe the encounter and photograph the participants, but take no other action.

Assigning me to monitor a suspected meeting on Republic Day, 7 October, meant that my first-ever concert appearance scheduled for that day was being preempted by the very Institute that had spent more than a dozen years to give me the chance at a concert career in the first place. What I had worked toward for most of my life was taken away in a twenty-minute discussion with my superior. Plain and simple.

How Katharina could already have known all about this development I can only guess at, but she did and she was standing there outside the leader’s office as I was leaving. She wanted to talk with me; would I care to go for a beer? That wasn’t much of a consolation, but it was something, and I was in need of some cheering up. No one would do that better than she. She made it unforgettable.

On 4 October, I drove to Plauen, a small and unremarkable town near the border with Czechoslovakia. The suspected meeting was still three days away, but I needed time to familiarize myself with the area and to determine what secure vantage points were available to me to observe the meeting. I would also take the opportunity to inspect the condition of all border installations closest to Plauen to have some understanding of how difficult or easy it would be for a foreigner to enter and leave the country, assuming the suspected agent was truly a foreigner. 10-H believed it to be a foreigner, largely because of the selection of this location so close to not one, but two, international borders. The Czech border is 35 kilometers to the southeast; the internal border with Western Germany is less than 20 kilometers to the southwest. If the agent were a citizen of the GDR, the analysts felt the meeting would likely have been arranged somewhere closer to Leipzig. Much of this was speculation, of course, and it was my job to be prepared to document and report on whatever was going to take place here.

No amount of preparation could really have prepared me for what took place on the late afternoon of 7 October. The information I was given was that the likely meeting spot would be on the south bank of the Elster River where the bridge crosses from Plauen city center to the OstVorstadt area. I spent most of that day in a secluded spot there waiting. With no idea of who I was looking for, I had to pay attention whenever anyone approached the south bridge embankment. Throughout the day, individuals and couples passed by that spot frequently, but of course, these were mostly just local residents taking a holiday stroll along the river. You must remember that Republic Day is our biggest national holiday, the day on which my homeland became a new country.

The first to arrive was a sedan with Berlin number plates. I snapped a photo. Berlin? That was puzzling. More photos as the driver emerged. He checked his watch and walked rather aimlessly around the general area, stopping sometimes at the river’s edge to toss pebbles. His occasional glances at his wristwatch were just the sort of repetitive behavior I was on the lookout for. I could not make good sense of the Berlin plates though. This might be a more important meeting than I had been led to believe. Maybe it was nothing. Still, I had to keep him in sight, even as other people strolled through that area and increasingly stopped nearby. Mostly, he would ignore those people or even turn away. That helped me.

Within thirty minutes, a man on foot caught my attention. He had stopped near the east embankment of the bridge and settled there, sometimes standing at the river’s edge, sometimes seated on a grassy strip a few steps back. He had brought a sandwich along which he now unwrapped and took a few bites before returning the rest to his rucksack. This could be a resident enjoying the holiday off as so many others were, but the rucksack was worth paying attention to. I snapped photos.

The riverfront was becoming more crowded as dusk approached. These were spectators for the celebratory holiday fireworks to follow, I learned later. But the gathering crowd was making it increasingly difficult to keep a clear focus on any one individual which, of course, was my assignment. The driver of the car with Berlin plates and the man with the rucksack were still there. A few others I had been watching had moved on.

A situation finally appeared to take shape. The driver of the car had left his position and was walking slowly toward the east embankment of the bridge, nearer to where the man with the rucksack was now talking with another spectator. I needed to leave my vantage point or risk losing visual contact amid the crowd. I continued to take photographs, uncertain of how useful these would prove to be, considering the crowd. I worked my way around the spectators to the opposite side of the man with the rucksack from where I had been positioned, and established a spot where he could be clearly seen once more, as could the driver, who had stopped walking perhaps ten meters away. More photos. I had begun to suspect that the meeting I was there to observe was to be between the driver from Berlin and the rucksack man. If one of those involved was here from Berlin, that would be highly significant. So when the driver was once again on the move toward the other man, I readied the camera.

If that was to be the meeting, the man with the rucksack gave no indication of it, even as the driver strolled up to him and walked by. No sign of awareness, no evidence of recognition. The rucksack man was still in conversation with one of the other spectators and that continued unchanged. A minute passed. Then two. And three. Still the man with the rucksack made no attempt to break off his conversation with the other spectator in favor of the driver, now standing some three meters past him. If there was to be a meeting here on this day, I was apparently going to have to look for it elsewhere in the crowd.

From my new vantage point, I could now also see the person with whom the rucksack man had been talking. This was no spectator come to see the evening’s fireworks. God in heaven, it was Vater! So, was this the expected meeting? It couldn’t be a coincidence that he was here, could it? But Vater? Was he the foreign agent 10-H had sent me here to observe, or could he possibly have been sent here by the Institute on his own assignment for some other purpose? But what purpose could that possibly be? On the right side or the wrong side? What was he? And what about the man with the rucksack he was talking with? Was he here for the clandestine meeting, or was he just a spectator? None of it made any immediate sense to me. Of greatest concern to me—what if this was all just an elaborate test of my loyalty to the Institute? I was cold with fright and uncertain of my duty, but if I was to carry out my assignment, I would have to document this encounter. Only then did I notice that the driver of the car from Berlin had just photographed the pair. Now it seemed clear: he was some sort of agent or operative himself, probably sent by the Institute in Berlin, and possibly sent to observe me, too. Was I now one of the hunted? Was he just here to observe and photograph, as I was, or did he have the authority to engage Vater? Or me?

This avalanche of thoughts took no more than maybe ten seconds of time, and it may have been even less; everything seemed speeded up beyond my ability to comprehend and reason. The assignment suddenly seemed far less important than having a plan for leaving here alive. But then what would I do? This was feeling like an unavoidable trap for me, no matter how it would end. I needed precious time to sort this all out and come to terms with an intensely personal, urgent crisis. Seconds were all the time I had.

Throughout that afternoon, I had kept to myself in a fairly secluded spot above the riverbank and had not moved from there since long before the car from Berlin arrived. Even as I later worked my way around the crowd to my present vantage point, I thought it unlikely that the driver of that car had seen me at any time. And even if he had, he would have seen me doing just what I was sent here to do. Thinking it over, the threat he posed to me personally was probably not very great. But he had photographed Vater. The Institute would surely deal harshly with Vater, even if the driver did not. And Mutti.... What about Mutti? There would be repercussions. On the other hand, if this was a test of my loyalty and Vater was in on it… the idea that Vater could actually be in on a scheme to trap me was terrifying. We were family. Wouldn’t he have let me know that this was coming? No, possibly not. There was plenty about our work with the Institute that we did not discuss. If this was a test, I needed to be seen in the best possible light as a reliable operative. And an obedient, faithful son.

I do not recall now whether I had been able to figure out my next moves or not by the time the meeting was being forcibly broken up. The driver of the car from Berlin had attempted to grab the rucksack man from behind, causing them both to fall to the ground, one on top of the other. Vater had disappeared into the crowd. I lost sight of him. The scuffle on the ground continued for a few seconds more until the rucksack man, now without rucksack, was being led through the crowd in handcuffs toward where the driver’s car was parked. If I hadn’t figured it out before, the urgency of the moment made clear to me exactly what I needed to do next.

Dusk had settled all around us as I stalked the agent leading his prisoner back to the car. The prisoner was pushed into the back seat of the car, the rucksack was tossed into the front passenger’s seat. I had been able to approach the vehicle from the opposite side, and stood blocking the driver’s door in such a way that he and I now came face to face. I pulled out my credentials wallet that identified me as an Institute operative, explaining that I was on assignment here and I would need at least some basic information from the driver or my report back to Birkenstraße would not be acceptable. I had obviously startled the man, and his first reaction was to threaten me with arrest, too. Instead, he agreed that we could discuss it, but first we needed to drive out of town out of public view, to someplace private.

Areas in the GDR within a few kilometers of international borders have deliberately been kept undeveloped, so it was not difficult to make our way to secluded surroundings within minutes. The driver and I both got out of the vehicle. What we were about to discuss could not be done in front of the prisoner. It was now nearly dark outside, made more so because we had found our way into a heavily forested area. First, I wanted to know the identity of the prisoner and of the man he had been meeting with at the time of his apprehension. I was told that the prisoner was thought to be a West German citizen, an agent for a Western intelligence service, probably West German BND. The identity of the man he was meeting with was not known to the driver, but he would be identified soon enough from his photos, if not from interrogating the prisoner first. That piece of information was important to me. Evidently, the driver was authorized to take action on his own, the prisoner would not necessarily be transported elsewhere for questioning. That was important.

The GDR is the land of my birth. I considered myself a patriot and, of course, I was grateful to the Institute for the many ways it has looked after me. But I was confronted with a choice here that I could not avoid. It would be fateful no matter how I chose. It weighed heavy on me, the thought that either Vater appeared to have made his choice, and his continued anonymity depended on me, or that I would have to take the safest course of action and just try to save myself. I had always held Vater in the highest regard. He was a thoughtful man, a person of conscience who I was now seeing also as either a traitor or a remarkably courageous man. I struggled over both possibilities. To say that I felt conflicted would be to put it too lightly. This would be the time to find out if I was as courageous. But I had no idea what being courageous at that moment would mean for me, what it would require of me. This was not a situation I wanted to face. Of course, that was not an option. There was a life on the line.

When it came, my decision was swift and final.

I retrieved the camera and handcuff keys from the driver’s lifeless body before pulling it deeper into the forest. He was carrying no identification papers, but he had a handgun of the sort issued to State Security Police. I took his weapon, too. My training at the Institute had repeatedly covered all of these procedures, but the circumstances here were so extraordinary that with every move I made I agonized over what clues I was leaving behind that would eventually incriminate me and my parents.

And now I had a prisoner to deal with as well. I pulled the man from the car and positioned him face down over the front fender while I examined the contents of his rucksack in the dim yellowish glow of the headlamps, spreading barely enough light to reach the blackness of the tree line just ahead. Beside a partially eaten sandwich, it contained a bundle of East German marks, a few Czechoslovak currency bills, a sweater, car keys, an electric torch and the man’s Czechoslovakian identification papers: Dušan Novák. Dušan Novák!? Had the driver intentionally misled me that this was a West German man, or was this his cover identity for a covert mission he had been caught at? Or maybe his capture and arrest had been a mistake from the start. Now it was my job to do the interrogating.

“What are you doing in the German Democratic Republic?” I demanded to know. I was told that he was a production planner for export trade to this part of Saxony. He would come into the country three or four times a year to receive orders for Czech-made goods, mostly bicycles and shoes, from the Ministry of Economic Production and Distribution. It was quite obvious he was not a native German speaker.

“Then why were you arrested?” He had no idea, he told me, other than maybe he had been observed talking to someone the authorities were looking for, or maybe he had been mistaken for someone else, but he was only at the river to watch the evening’s celebrations.

“Who was the man you were talking with at the river?” Again, no idea, probably just another spectator like himself.

“What are you doing with a bundle of East German marks? What do you need those for, if you’re just here getting production orders?” This is where his response seemed to falter a bit, enough to justify suspicion. Until I knew differently, I had to assume that the State Security Police had good reason in making his arrest. I had to assume that I was not getting truthful responses from the prisoner at this point.

“Who is the Economics Minister for Saxony?” I demanded. He did not know his name. I did not know either, but my question had really only been intended to produce confusion and cause the prisoner to stumble in his explanation. It did that.

“You will not leave this spot alive if you don’t begin to cooperate with me,” I threatened. “You are not Dušan Novák. What is your true name?”

“Dušan Novák,” he insisted, “but I can give you maybe some information about the man at the river.”

“The man you were talking to when you were arrested?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not interested in the name of a spectator at a fireworks show,” I lied.

“He’s much more than that. He’s a man with influence in the government.”

“That’s of no concern to me,” I lied for the second time. It was becoming clear to me that I was not dealing with a businessman from Czechoslovakia who, by now, would be much more agitated and fearful in his demeanor than the man I was with.

“You are not Dušan Novák,” I repeated, emphasizing the name. “I know that the man you were talking with has influence in the government,” I pulled my service pistol and swung it up toward his head, “and he would not be interested in bicycles and shoes. He’s my father.”

If my revelation had not had the desired effect—or perhaps it was the threatening Luger staring him in the face—I would be leaving those woods alone that night. But it did, and he had information he was prepared to share with me that I would want to know. I pulled him off the hood of the car and we sat down inside to continue the questioning. For starters, he said that he had met on two previous occasions to exchange information with Vater, but only knew him as “Meistersinger.” He was Rodger Wycliffe, an Intelligence Officer with MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. I learned that MI6 regarded “Meistersinger” as one of the most valuable contacts in the country, a man with reliable access to highly sensitive matters. In response to my continued questioning, Agent Wycliffe described in some detail what he knew from the dossier MI6 had on Vater. I also learned that there was as yet no dossier on me, as far as he was aware.

I continued the interrogation until I felt reassured enough that my prisoner was probably not a double agent who could betray me. In any case, it was far too late to reconsider my options; I was going to have to somehow persuade Agent Wycliffe to work together to leave the country. This wasn’t yet exactly treason, maybe, but it went against everything I would ever have even thought of doing just two hours earlier. Now, my survival appeared to depend on teaming up with my prisoner. I suppose at that point he couldn’t really be considered my prisoner anymore. More likely, it was the other way around. In any regard, we now seemed to have the same urgent purpose.

We drove back to Plauen to where Agent Wycliffe had parked his car, a Czech-made Škoda sedan. The Berlin car was cleaned of fingerprints, emptied of contents and left behind. Now Agent Wycliffe would do the driving. His route into and out of the GDR was through Czechoslovakia; his Czech papers were important for that. From there, he would cross into Western Germany near the Czech town of Libá, then through the Selber Forest on the German side to the town of Marktredwitz. From there, he had secure transportation available to and from either Vilseck or the NATO base at Ulm. If needed, a secondary crossing point into and out of Czechoslovakia lies farther south, just west of Cheb, but Cheb is headquarters of one of two battalions of Czech border police, and considered riskier for that reason. We headed to Libá.

Crossing into Czechoslovakia from the GDR on the rural road we were following went without incident. After nightfall, the small border control station was manned by a single officer who waved us through, presumably because of our Czech vehicle with Czech number plates. Inside Libá, we parked the Škoda. From there, we would be on foot for about two kilometers to reach the crossing into Western Germany, and then another one kilometer past the crossing point to where Agent Wycliffe’s contact, a German man, would pick us up for the drive to Marktredwitz. But first we had to get through the border crossing facing us.

Agent Wycliffe had crossed here before, most recently, two days earlier on his way to the meeting in Plauen. In this area, the border installation consists of a guarded strip with a double wire mesh fence, located about 100 meters inside the actual border between the two countries. Watchtowers are positioned at intervals along the fence. It seemed fairly easy for us to avoid these at night, though it would be dangerous if spotted, as border guards are allowed to shoot intruders on sight.

The more imminent threat in my mind was from landmines in the guarded strip along the fence. It was possible to pick our way through the barbed wire strands of the fence, though it took some concentration in order to do it as quickly as possible to avoid detection. The danger from landmines had been overcome with the help of a rudimentary minefield map of this location Agent Wycliffe had, as long as the mines had not been repositioned from his last crossing forty-eight hours earlier.

Shortly after 23:00 we were through the fence and safely past the 100 meters beyond, into Western Germany. The fence had torn a hole in Agent Wycliffe’s sweater and I had a cut across my right forearm. But we had survived the crossing and we were out. Agent Wycliffe was safely out; I was somewhere I should not be. Now I had to face being in a hostile land with no citizenship papers. I felt as though I was betraying my homeland just by being on this particular ground. I could hardly consider myself lucky. And if I could not get some help for my injured arm soon, I might need more than luck to survive the night.

I believe that I did what was necessary that night, but in the present moment, I could not rid myself of thoughts about that day. I agonized over why I had been sent on an assignment that turned out to involve my father in a compromising role. What was the explanation that had led me, of all people, rather than another agent, to be there? For that matter, what was the explanation for why Vater was there? I might just have to accept Agent Wycliffe’s explanation for that. If it was a test of my loyalty, that afternoon I learned—we all learned—that it had its limits. At least it now seemed clear that Vater could not have been in on it, if what Agent Wycliffe had told me was true. If my being sent there was coincidence, then coincidence very likely saved Vater considerable grief. And Mutti too. Now I was the one left to deal with grief. I wanted more than anything to tell Vater what had happened, where I was. I wanted to let Mutti know that I was all right. Of course, that was not possible.

“Is that it? Is that your full and complete statement?” The voice was authoritative. It did not invite ambivalence.

The question brought my thoughts back around to the room I was in with three other men seated together at a long table and a woman in uniform who was recording the interview. Agent Wycliffe and I had arrived at Vilseck in Western Germany in the early hours of 8 October 1987. We were in some sort of military installation, I gathered, because I had been taken to an infirmary where a military doctor had tended to my injured arm. It required suturing. I had spent an exhausted night in private quarters and was served breakfast there before being escorted into this room at precisely 10:30 this morning. What dreary October morning daylight there was leaked into the room through the slits of the window blinds. It was winter gray inside and out.

“I—I think that’s everything,” I answered. It sounded more tentative than I had meant it to be. The man questioning me spoke in English, but he did not sound British. American maybe. I couldn’t be certain of that; I had never met an American. The other two men were an Englishman and a German. I asked about Agent Wycliffe’s condition and was told they did not know an agent named Rodger Wycliffe. Of course they would say that, I realized, I’m dealing with foreign security services here. I had made my first mistake already: I should not have asked. I was there to answer questions, not to ask them.

My credentials wallet with my Institute identification was lying on the table in front of my questioner, seated directly across from me. Now he was studying the document and formulating a question, his forehead already creased into furrows of suspicion as if trying to conjure my thoughts.

“Who is your father?” he finally asked.

“I’ve been through that already, with Agent Wycliffe, or whoever he is. Last night at the border.”

“Well now you’re going through it with me, and I may not be the last one to ask you about it.” The voice was now vehement. Menacing. “So, Comrade, tell us about your father.”

The word stings. It was meant as an insult, a not-at-all-subtle reference to me as no more than a Russian pawn. My face is flushed; my ears throw off unwanted heat. I tried to hide any trace of resentment in my voice. “All I know is that he works for the Institute where I take piano lessons,” I replied.

“Oh, come now, Ernst,” he shot back, glancing for confirmation at my identification papers. There was agitation in his voice. “You’re not here because you were playing the piano, you’re an East German spy—we know that much—and …”

“Spy? I’m no spy!”

“Well now, Comrade, how do you think it looks from over here?” He swept his gaze right and left onto the others seated alongside him. “The man you claim is your father was very nearly caught by State Security Police last night. There has to be some reason for that. And for your actions last night, too. After what you did to one of theirs, they’ll be glad to get you back—you know they’ll trace the ballistics back to you—and that’s just where you’ll end up if we can’t get some cooperation from you.”

He was right in what he had just said, but I had spoken truthfully. I really could not give them a more meaningful answer than that. Just twenty-four hours earlier, I would not even have dreamed that I would be witnessing Vater in a secret meeting with a British spy. I just did not know more.

“Well, let me help you out a bit then.” This was the German man now speaking. “Your father lives in Leipzig, is forty-seven years old, married to Ruth, forty-nine, you are an only child, age twenty-one. Your father works for the Institute all right, he is the senior attaché to the military directorate, and he has been working with us for the past fourteen years. His cover name is ‘Meistersinger’ and he is one of our most important assets in the East.”

I sat motionless, silent, staring across the table at my interrogators, disoriented by the information they knew, but I did not. Why had they told me these things? Was it meant to encourage me to betray my country? I would not do that. I was trying my best to remain focused and to make sense of the situation I was in, to prepare myself for the questions they would surely ask. The harder I worked at it, the more vacant my thoughts. I could only try to focus on just staying focused. In the end, I could not even manage that. Coherent thoughts all escaped me.

“Does any of that help you remember anything you might want to get off your chest?”

If I had tried to say anything, nothing but stammering would have come out of my mouth. My throat seemed to have collapsed in on itself; my mouth was dry as dust. The words I needed to be able to say were nowhere to be found.

“Well!?” he prompted. He looked at me hard without speaking, impatient for a response. I was flailing for answers that were better than any of the ones that came to mind. “Ernst, you have to tell us more than you have!”

I held his gaze, but volunteered nothing more. If they actually believed I was a spy, as they had said, it would go harshly for me. Even so, I could see no immediate benefit to my correcting their characterization of my vocation. The enormity of the situation weighed on me in a way that I had to struggle for breath. Here I was in a foreign land, held at a military facility, being interrogated as a foreign spy for which I would very likely be put in prison, but knowing also that it would be a certain death sentence to be sent back to the GDR. Just when it mattered most, I felt incapable of helping my situation in any way. I had to be content with imprisonment as the preferable alternative to execution.

All I ever wanted was to be a concert pianist. The Institute had promised me that.

By the time my interrogation ended for the day later that afternoon, I had spent several more hours answering what I thought I could, mostly about things that were inconsequential. But, of course, I myself had been trained to recognize that seemingly inconsequential information could prove to be damaging in the wrong hands. No surprise that I was now on the other end of the hunt for damaging information. In truth, I had no vital security information to give; that hadn’t been my job. I described the house Mutti and Vater lived in, the apartment we had before they moved into the house on the outskirts of Leipzig, Vater’s car, the two assignments I had carried out for the Institute before this latest one that ended in catastrophe. I named the piano teachers I had at the Institute and gave the names by which I knew the Institute Director and the leader of Operations Group 10-H. There were no secrets in what I was telling them, not really. Somewhere in that stack of file folders on the table, these tidbits were probably already known to them anyway. I described my “Patriotic Citizenship” training. I told them that I was supposed to have played my first-ever professional concert just the night before. I think I even told them which pieces I had selected to play, but maybe I just imagined that and I hadn’t actually mentioned it. It was on my mind.

In those first few hours, so many things crowded into my thoughts, and most of them seemed desperately trivial, considering my circumstance. I thought of a particular childhood playmate with red hair—not the disconcertingly seductive auburn of Katharina’s hair, but bright red—red hair was so unusual. I recalled having broken Mutti’s favorite vase by running wildly through the house when I could not have been more than three years old, and how I had cried about it for hours afterward until she took me in her arms and sang to console me. This had been a day of exhausting emotions. Sometimes it seemed terrifyingly real, other times it felt improbably unreal. How is that possible? I was weary to the depths of my soul, relieved that this day was over. I needed sleep. I only hoped that I would be allowed to.

I spent the next seven days at Vilseck. Some part of each day I met with various authorities to answer questions, when I could. I also got some important information in return. Agent Wycliffe—the man I knew as Agent Wycliffe—had agreed to bring me out of the GDR with him not only because I had saved him from capture, or worse, by the State Security Police, but also to prevent compromising my father as a valuable asset of a foreign security service. For that reason, I was told, the Institute would be contacted through diplomatic channels proposing to exchange me for a West German operative held in the East. This was not likely to happen, I was told, because I was simply not important enough for such an exchange, but it could help lessen suspicion on Vater if the Institute was given reason to believe that I had been taken out of the country against my will. There was no assurance that they would believe it, but it was important to try. I understood that they had done this for their own reasons, but I was grateful just the same.

I also learned that I was being turned over to the West German security service to decide what to do with me. I certainly had not set out to defect, but I obviously could not go back home either. It came down to my needing asylum from the very people I had been brought up to regard as an enemy. That wasn’t the first irony I felt in this whole situation, but it was the most unsettling, by far.

For my own protection I was given a new identity—Reinhold Fischer (not my first choice)—and West German residency papers. I would not be imprisoned. For the time being, I was to get housing in Bayreuth, some fifty kilometers to the west. My movements would be observed, that was to be expected, but I was free to move around the city as I wished and felt it was safe for me to do so. I was to be given a stipend to live on, in exchange for which I would make myself available to authorities as they deemed useful. That is how I would spend nearly the next three years in this new phase of my life as a “free” man.

In time, life in Bayreuth would come to feel satisfying, but not without some personal struggles on my part. My West German “hosts” made no unreasonable demands of me, and I even got used to being followed wherever I went. But I could not pretend that I was not in a foreign country, under constant surveillance, with unknown consequences for actions I might take, even innocently, which the authorities found troubling. I could not even be certain what sorts of things they might find troubling; I knew how this worked. I knew from my life in the GDR that when authorities deem one’s activities troublesome, it usually brings difficulties down on one’s head. I was certainly not imprisoned here, but I was not yet free, either. Not until I came to understand that all of what I was experiencing here was actually normal life outside my homeland.

Coming to that understanding meant I had to overcome the social disconnect I felt from almost everything in the West: the culture, the availability of daily necessities, the ready access even to luxuries, the sense of being part of the broader outside world through constant news and information not generated from the government. Leipzig was the one place in the GDR that could not receive West German television signals and was therefore known as the “Tal der Ahnungslosen”—Valley of the Clueless. I was raised to be one of the clueless. Bayreuth was quickly teaching me how much I did not know about the world. But it also reassured me that Vater must have known these things when he made his decision. I even imagined that his decision had been made, in part, with his family’s future, my future, in mind. I could not know then how such a thing would be possible, but perhaps I would get the chance to ask him one day.

I met and made friends with people of my age, I attended concerts and haltingly began the sort of social life young men would already have been active in by my age. Even in this, there were difficult adjustments to be made. The young people here had an ease of mind about them that was completely foreign to me. It went against learned behavior of more than twenty years. Forming bonds of friendship required a level of trust with others that I had so far spent my lifetime avoiding.

During that time, I was introduced to the management at Steingraeber & Söhne piano company who gave me a practice room at the company’s Artist Studio next to the Chamber Music Hall. Steingraeber pianos, hand-crafted in Bayreuth, are very high-quality instruments, highly sought after among top-tier pianists and concert halls the world over. I had seen a few older models, but new Steingraeber pianos were not available to us in the GDR when I was playing. I had impressed these people with my playing, and there was talk of me giving a series of performances at the Music Hall. My West German handlers warned against it for fear of possible retaliation, so nothing came of that, although I played occasionally with local string quartets and others in small private recitals by invitation only. And, increasingly, I was sought out as a piano teacher for serious intermediate and advanced piano students. Naturally, I had to avoid publicity in all of this, or risk having my photograph and new identity find its way back to 10-H. But this was as close to the life I had imagined for myself as I had yet come. I missed Mutti and Vater greatly, but I was on my own now, doing well, learning to enjoy my life and, I must say, I was prepared to go on this way.

Like everyone else in West Germany, I heard the news on 9 November 1989 that the Wall was coming down and that Easterners were free to cross the border whenever they pleased. You can only imagine the depth of emotions I felt. I immediately consulted my handlers at the BND to find out what limitations I was still under and whether I was free to travel to Leipzig to see my parents or whether they could come here to see me. I wanted to know about telephoning them. Although I was told that all of these things were for me to decide, they advised against contact right away, until the political uncertainty of the moment became more settled. The state institutions of coercion were all still in place in the GDR, and that meant there was still a risk to the safety of my parents and myself. They let me know, though, that Vater had long since received word through his confidential channels regarding my whereabouts and health. I waited until 1 May and then I telephoned. It was a short call, just enough to hear each other's voices again and to resolve that we would soon have much to catch up on.

My return to Leipzig was planned for July. Steps were already being taken in both the West and the East for the early unification of our countries. West German laws were largely in force already throughout the Eastern Zone and the remnants of the old regime there had all but collapsed by then.

It was a tearful meeting I had with Mutti and Vater when I arrived home in Leipzig. Vater did not weep, but he was a different person than the larger-than-life disciplined pillar of my childhood. It had been three years since we last saw each other, but it might just as easily have been half a lifetime and a world away. My last image of Vater—the one that I had to carry with me for those years—was of a stealthy figure at twilight that I had been sent to spy on in the expectation that I would inform the Institute of all that I knew. Whether he was aware that I had been at the bridge that afternoon, he did not say. This was not the time to unpack all of the baggage and burdens of a lifetime. Perhaps one day when the time was right and we felt ready to reconcile ourselves to the unsettling realities of the roles we had both played. It was enough to hear the man I had always respected now tell of his respect and admiration for me, too.

We had all endured much, and we felt a mixture of enormous relief and a certain amount of disorientation at our unknown collective future. I was able, however, to bring one piece of very good news about my future. The Steingraeber Piano company had committed to sponsoring my first public concert performance, to be held in Leipzig, playing a new Steingraeber concert grand piano the company would be donating to the city.

As it happened, that concert took place on German Unity Day, 3 October 1990 in the Gewandhaus concert hall, the very same venue that my promised—and later cancelled—first-ever performance on Republic Day three years earlier was to have taken place. The irony of it all was not lost on me.

With Mutti and Vater sitting in the front row, I played a program of Brahms, Liszt and Schubert, among which were pieces Mutti had always loved best. I was where I had always known I should be. It was impossible in that moment not to think a bit nostalgically of all that the Institute had given me to make this moment possible. I was here, and the Institute was no longer.

As I stood acknowledging the applause of an appreciative audience, I could see Mutti’s kind, smiling face looking approvingly up at me just as I had seen her smile at me so often before. And I saw Vater next to her slumping over in his seat, a shadowy figure behind him just now retreating into the darkened depths of the concert hall, leaving behind a small, growing, commotion.

The privileges the Institute had given us were not for free.

About the Author

Walter and Margaret Munchheimer

The Prodigy is one of a selection of short stories, collaboratively written over the course of 2020 as a Covid project between Walter Munchheimer, a retired public sector executive and lifelong musician, and his expat adult daughter, visual artist Margaret Munchheimer. The collection is their debut creative writing effort, and will be published in various forms over the coming year.