I related in “Walker recounts travels of his youth” (Beacon, June 28) how I came to work in Linz, Upper Austria, in a Quaker organisation helping to settle refugees from Eastern Europe.
Walking in Austria, my love of hill-walking in England morphed into hiking in the Austrian Alps, when the Friends Ambulance Unit contingent spent Christmas at a home for distressed mothers and children, sharing in the Swedish staff’s traditional festivities, while the residents were away.
I swapped rambles along the English coast for touring the Carinthian lakes in southern Austria on foot by myself. Staying at youth hostels out of season, I enjoyed personal service from the wardens, like having breakfast brought to my room.
My legs were also challenged when I stayed in the top apartment of a tall block in Vienna. After dark, I had to race upstairs to it before the time switch at the bottom plunged the stairwell into darkness.
An American soldier invited me to Linz’s Methodist church, set up after World War II for ethnic Germans evicted from Eastern Europe by the Russians, Poles and other communist regimes.
Some hymns sounded familiar and I gathered the gist of the pastor’s sermon in German. His charming daughters spoke fluent English, with an American accent.
One sister later admitted that she and her friends had cried in the street when they heard of Adolph Hitler’s death in 1945.
Hitler was born on the outskirts of Linz. His favourite pastime was said to have been planning a major reconstruction of the city, which would have had a special place in his empire.
Nobody else got off at a bus stop 12 miles outside Linz, for the preserved Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen. It was the worst walk of my life, around grey stone buildings under an overcast sky.
I imagined the horrors they’d witnessed as I glanced towards the large granite quarries which had “exterminated through work” hundreds of thousands of enslaved Polish and Soviet political prisoners.
After our stint in Linz, Len (a Quaker friend) and I decided to visit Berlin on our way home, staying in Munich for the first night. While walking through the English garden there, we accidentally wandered into a naturists’ preserve.
We worried that we might be expected to take off our clothes, too, until a woman with a pram and some children appeared, all fully covered. We followed them out.
I booked two car seats from Nuremberg to West Berlin with an agency that matched hitchhikers with private drivers offering rides for a fee. We joined the motorway at Hannover, for one of only three routes through East Germany permitted by the Soviet Union.
We had to take our bags inside the customs post while our driver waited outside. An officer told me to empty my large rucksack onto a long table. After scrutinising its contents, he asked me where I’d got a hand-embroidered tablecloth.
Without thinking, I told him in halting German that it was a gift from a Hungarian refugee (fleeing from the communists, of course). He hesitated, then returned it and said I was free to go. I felt he’d respected my honesty.
However, our driver was upset at my stupidity when he learnt why I’d been so long. He drove through East Germany to West Berlin in silence, past watchtowers on either side and, occasionally, women mending the road by hand.
Len wanted to attend a Friends’ meeting (Quaker service) in East Berlin, where the Quakers were honoured for providing relief to the German population after World War I when the Allies demanded reparations from them for starting it.
The East Germans had not yet built their infamous wall between East Berlin (the Russian sector) and West Berlin (the American, British and French sectors). The street railway stopped at the border, but the underground railway still ran across it.
Friends House lay down a side street close to the station. Len’s scant German attracted the cautious welcome a handful of elderly Quakers gave their unexpected English visitors.
We next took a train to Stalinallee, the main thoroughfare in East Berlin. Its plain, monumental concrete blocks contrasted sharply with West Berlin’s Kurfuerstendamm, a glossy showcase for the capitalist West.
My heart pounded while Len changed some West German marks into East German ones in a bank, at the official one-for-one rate. He could then produce his receipt if we were challenged while spending some bought in West Berlin at the market rate of one-for-four.
We were fascinated by some automats that dispensed precise quantities of beer into beakers in exchange for pre-purchased tokens in their slots. Otherwise, we saw little else we wanted to buy.
Our youth hostel in West Berlin was in Spandau, the district in which Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy, was imprisoned. Over 40 years later I discovered that my grandfather was born in that same district.