New Kid From The Bloc : East German Swimmer Jens-Peter Berndt, Who Defected to West, Has Taken to Life in the United States Like a, Uh, Fish to Water
It had only been three weeks since Jens-Peter Berndt walked away from an Oklahoma City airport gate and his life as revered athlete and East German army officer, but the decadence of Western Civilization had already left its mark.
There, glistening from the lobe of his left ear, was a diamond earring.
His new teammates on the University of Alabama swim team were telling him how great it looked. Coach Don Gambril was trying to explain that Tuscaloosa is not New York and that “some of the people who were eager to help you, might not be as eager now.”
And Berndt, communist role model six weeks ago and now celebrated defector and nearly All-Ameri- can college student, just kept showing that flashbulb-bright Christmas morning grin of his.
His former countrymen, the few who will ever hear of him again, will probably nod knowingly and write him off as a casualty of a contagious capitalist fever. Just another victim of MTV. But for Berndt, the earring somehow symbolically completes a transformation. It marks the ending of one life and the birth of another.
“I wanted to do it because I like it,” said Berndt, who held the world record in the 400-meter individual medley briefly last summer. “That was one of the problems (in East Germany), I could not do an earring. But that is not the reason I defect.
“Now I can do what I want and that is the reason I defect.”
It’s almost that simple, too. He left because it was so easy and because he didn’t think he had any reason to stay. On the spur of the moment, he chose personal freedom over security, which says a great deal about him. He’s only 21, but there is an unmistakable aura of self-confidence oozing from his 6-6, 185-pound frame.
He speaks English amazingly well for a person who was forbidden to use it in his homeland, and seems perfectly at ease discussing any subject. He’s obviously intelligent--often taking a philosophical approach to a question--and has a subtle yet universal sense of humor.
It seems odd that such a thoughtful young man would decide to step out of a decidedly comfortable life and into the unknown, but Berndt insists he had no grandiose scheme behind his defection.
He sat in the airport Jan. 7 with 13 teammates, awaiting a flight to East Germany after competing in an international meet in Fayetteville, Ark. He was playing cards when an East German official informed the team it was time to board the plane.
“I told them, ‘I will follow,’ ” Berndt said. Then he turned his back on East Germany and walked to the airport manager’s office, where he informed a secretary that he wished to stay in the United States.
“I hadn’t planned it until the minute I decided to walk away from that plane,” he said, “but I think it was a long, long process in the underground of my mind. I realized that the time was right, and I made the decision. But I know it was a big decision . . . a big decision.”
There can be little argument over that point. Jens-Peter Berndt is more than a defector. He’s a deserter from the East German army.
“I don’t think they would kill me, but they would probably arrest me for life,” Berndt said. “I am a criminal. In East Germany, it will be that this never happened. My name will be out of the record books. In East Germany, I exist no longer.”
Those were just a few of the thoughts careening around Berndt’s head as he stood in front of an obviously excited secretary in a small airport office. He was being paged over the public address system just as the secretary picked up the phone to call a superior.
“I was a little scared then, sure,” Berndt said, admitting he thought she might be going to turn him over to the East German authorities. “But that was not so brave. I have known before it (defecting) is easy to do. I need much more courage to go ahead to build a new life and to live in this country.
“I am not a dreamer, I know there are many problems. There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of dangers. I must have much more courage in the times ahead.”
Moments later, Jens-Peter Berndt, the quintessence of a stranger in a strange land, began a whirlwind odyssey that ended--of all places--here in the dense pine, hickory and oak forests of central Alabama.
Berndt knew of Gambril, the head coach of the U.S. Olympic swimming team last year, but after he had been interviewed by State Department, FBI and U.S. Immigration officials, he was taken to Oklahoma University for temporary housing. The Sooners’ swim program is not exactly world class, so Berndt never considered staying.
Meanwhile, Gambril’s assistant, Brian Gordon, got in touch with an Alabama alumnus at the State Department, who got a message through to Berndt that Gambril would like to talk to him.
“The good part is that I wasn’t at Fayetteville, so there can never be a finger pointed at me that we had anything prearranged,” Gambril said. “He had talked to some of our swimmers and some others and asked a few questions about U.S. colleges. I didn’t even know he could speak English.”
Gambril found out soon enough. Berndt returned the call and the Alabama coach invited him to come on an official 48-hour visit to the school.
“He said he’d just taken a big step and that he was also supposed to call SMU back and that he’d have to think about it,” Gambril said. “That’s when I said, ‘Just a minute, someone wants to talk to you.’ ”
Gambril, pulling out his ace card, handed the phone to Angelika Knipping, a West German swimmer who is a junior at Alabama.
“He didn’t have anything to hang onto,” Knipping said. “He was kind of scared because he didn’t know anything about colleges or recruiting. I just tried to give it to him step by step and explain that he didn’t have any responsibilities. He could just come and visit.”
Before they hung up, Berndt had agreed to a visit. And although Gambril offered to personally call any other coach in the country, Berndt decided to stay.
“When Peter (he goes by his middle name) was coming here for a visit, nobody was supposed to know about it,” Gambril said, “but when he got off the plane in Birmingham there were TV cameras and reporters all over the place.”
Berndt turned to a State Department official and said, “I think you have a leak in your office. In East Germany they fix these leaks.”
“They were going to suspend me for the whole year (for not returning home when ordered). They said if I did something like that again they wouldn’t let me out of the country. That was when I started to think about defecting ... they made me do it.” --Martina Navratilova, after defecting
from Czechoslovakia in 1975
Berndt grew up in Potsdam, an East German city of 140,000 separated from West Berlin by watchtowers, border patrols, automatic weapons, guard dogs and, of course, the infamous wall. He lived just a few kilometers from the border and passed nearby on his way to school.
“You could not see it from my house, but I saw it often,” he said. “All people in our country grew up with these problems and know of these problems. We have all heard stories of people who tried to get out and did not make it.”
Berndt is hardly a political firebrand. In fact, he defends his former country at almost every turn and insists politics had absolutely nothing to do with his decision. And he can give you a multitude of conditions under which he would never have left East Germany:
--If there was any danger involved. “Those people who try to go over the wall are crazy, really crazy. I can’t compare my case with that. I would never, never endanger my life to defect, because you can live a good life in East Germany.”
--If it hadn’t been so easy. “If there was anyone waiting for me (to board), I would not have done it and waited for another chance . . . but maybe I would never have done it.”
--If he had stronger family ties. “If my mother was alive, I would never have defected.”
That’s just a partial list. But the fact is that Berndt did defect. And his family, his former teammates, even his closest friends in East Germany will probably never understand why. In a society where an 18-year-old applies and then waits at least five years for a car and longer for an apartment, Berndt had both before he was 21. And more.
“They will all say, ‘Why he?’ . . . Why he ?’ ” Berndt said. “I live much more better than the average person and I got a lot support from the government. I had a car and an apartment and a lot of money and a lot of friends and was well known. It will be very hard for them to understand.
“I’ve always been a cheerleader and popular with my teammates, but I think they hate me now. I’m very ashamed if I would see them again.”
Wouldn’t anyone say, “Good for Peter?”
“Maybe someone would think it, but nobody would ever say it,” Berndt said, after giving the question considerable thought. “I have a lot of close friends and I know them very well and I could answer almost any questions about them. But in this situation I really can’t imagine what they would think because we never talk about this.
“You would never be able to leave the country again if they found out that you were talking about these things.”
Berndt also had considerably more freedom than the average East German and globetrotting was just one of the perks that went with being a world-class athlete. He went on a cruise and to Cuba last year for vacation. He even got away with maintaining a strictly forbidden correspondence with an Australian swimmer--for a while.
When you can swim all four strokes with the fluidity and speed of Berndt, the East German hierarchy will look the other way whenever possible. He was the top-ranked individual medley swimmer in the world before the Olympics but dropped to No. 2 when Canadian Alex Baumann broke his world record. East Germany was among the Communist Bloc countries that boycotted the Olympics.
“They tell us not to say more than hello and goodby to capitalist athletes,” Berndt said, “but I talk to them all the time. They tell us not to give interviews in English, but I would do that, too, sometimes.
“No one in our country is allowed to watch capitalist television, but many people do.”
Berndt says he is not in a position to judge American life just yet, he knows only that he likes it so far. And he would do it all again.
“In East Germany, you can make your own life, but there are more rules holding you back,” he said. “Here, there are problems, sure, but you can do what you want. To be happy, all you need is a family and a place where you are well. That can be a house, that can be a town, that can be a country, or that can be all the world.
“I think I can do a lot alone, but sometimes I need others. I will meet the people I will need to start my new life.”
“My mother didn’t like my leaving Hungary, but I just told her that when little birds learn to fly, they get out of the nest.” --Laszlo Tabori, Hungarian miler
who defected after 1956 Olympics
The letter from Berndt’s father, Friedhelm, arrived, unopened, with a note from the State Department informing Berndt that the East German government had requested a meeting with him. It also said that he could decline to meet with them or meet with them under any conditions he wished to set down or simply relay a message to his family in East Germany that he was fine and living in the United States at his own request.
Berndt was visibly moved by the letter, according to Gambril.
“Yes, it upset me,” Berndt said. “But it was only private and I don’t want to talk about it. It was nothing the government made my father do, though. He wanted me to come home. I wrote back and told him I was staying here.”
Gambril, who has been far more than just a coach to Berndt, felt a little helpless this time.
“All I could really tell him is that by the time you’ve reached 21, you have to start thinking about what is best for you,” Gambril said.
If Berndt’s mother were alive today, he would be in East Germany right now, training for another summer of competition and studying for a Russian language exam. Families play an intrinsic--and emotional--role in every defection. Unknown thousands don’t defect simply because they can’t take their families with them or fear for those who they would leave behind.
As a strapping 12-year-old whose potential in the pool was already evident, Berndt sent shock waves through the East German athletic establishment when he took three years off to be with his mother, who died in 1981 after a long bout with leukemia. Berndt was always very close to her. She might have been the only person in East Germany he could really talk to about the rumblings in the underground of his mind.
“My father and I didn’t get along after my mother died,” Berndt said. “My father wasn’t bad, I mean, but if my mother were still alive I would never have defected.”
He assumes that his father, an engineering supervisor, will get a demotion. He doesn’t think that his older sister, Sybille, who works in a Potsdam produce store, will be affected.
“It made my decision more easier that I had not so good feelings to my father,” Berndt said. “Sybille is my sister but I never talked to her about personal problems. I think it was a normal relationship between a brother and sister, but--maybe it would sound bad to some people--it wasn’t real love.”
So Berndt didn’t feel he was leaving that much behind. And it didn’t take him long to find a new family . . . or two.
After Berndt’s official 48-hour visit to Alabama, Gambril was required by NCAA rules to provide Berndt with an airline ticket home, which, according to NCAA rules, is the place from which he came. Oklahoma City, of course, was no home at all for Berndt. So he accepted the ticket and then decided to stay in Birmingham and return to Tuscaloosa on his own and enroll at Alabama.
He was telling his story to a companion in a coffee shop when a couple at the next table who had overheard the conversation approached him. “My husband and I would like to help any way we can,” said Ivana Kajdos, who, with her husband, Mark, defected from Czechoslovakia seven years ago. “We own a tall-men’s clothing store and we’d like to give you some clothes.”
Berndt, who had brought only a gym bag with a few clothes and eight cassette tapes with him on his sojourn to freedom, was soon strolling down the streets of Birmingham looking like a model for Gentlemen’s Quarterly ready to shoot a fashion spread. They also gave him a place to stay the night and have kept in touch with him ever since.
He also received a check for $500 from a couple of German support groups in New Jersey. Both contributions were legal under NCAA rules again because Berndt had not yet been admitted to school. Now, Gambril can’t even help him find a job (he was given a social security number and green card after asking for asylum) because he can’t get a scholarship until next year.
It didn’t take Berndt much longer to decide he would enroll at Alabama than it did to decide to defect. One evening with the Gambrils was enough.
He was playing with the Gambrils’ two Labrador retrievers in front of a fire in the Gambrils’ country cottage overlooking Lake Tuscaloosa when it occurred to him. He had found a home. Not a place to sleep, but a place where he was “well.”
“I think Coach Gambril is great man,” Berndt said, “but you have to see his wife to talk about him. You have to see both together. I decided the first evening after staying with them that I would stay at Alabama University. I knew of Coach Gambril’s reputation, but this was more a decision of feeling.”
The admiration is definitely mutual.
“Peter’s a darling,” said Teddy Gambril, Don’s wife of 32 years. “He goes straight to your heart. All I’m concerned about is that things work out for him, that he’s happy here. When he first got here, he’d get teary-eyed when someone asked about his family, but time has seemed to help that.”
Time, and numerous long talks with the Gambrils.
“I trust them and I think that is the most important thing,” Berndt said. “I believe Coach Gambril wants to help me, not just have me represent Alabama University. He is a little bit like a father to me. He can understand my special situation and my difficult private situation and he’s interested in me to help me and not just to help the team.”
Gambril is still astounded by Berndt’s ability to express himself, the depth of his perception, his ability to comfortably fit into any new situation and his untempered, almost childlike enthusiasm.
“The kid amazes me,” Gambril said. “The answers he gives are the ones you’d program him to give. Considering where he was raised, I’m not even sure where he got all these ideas about personal freedom.”
Berndt has always been a bit rebellious. He understands the gravity of his decision, though. And although he doesn’t fear for his personal safety--"I’m not afraid they’ll come get me because I know no one can get me here"--he says that defection is not the answer for everyone.
“It is not good for everyone to come here because not everyone has the same problems I had,” he said. But when pressed, Berndt has trouble pinpointing exactly what those problems were.
“I’m not really sure what my problems were, why I defected,” Berndt said. “I guess it was more a feeling . . . a feeling that I’m not really free, an unhappy feeling. I mean, I could be happy if I went out and had fun, but there was something in my underground that made me feel unhappy.”
“Those girl singers on television wear too much makeup and too little clothing. Also, they twist their hips too much.” --Fan Yuan-yen, Communist Chinese air force commander who defected to Taiwan in 1977
Berndt thinks that American women wear too much makeup, too, but it’s a rather half-hearted complaint. After all, when a sorority that regularly produces homecoming queens throws a party in your honor--complete with a pool-shaped cake and traditional German fare--it’s easier to kiss the hand that feeds you than bite it.
“I think American girls wear much more makeup than European girls,” Berndt said. “I think they are trying to show more than they are. They say ‘Hello, how are you?’ but sometimes I’m not sure they really mean it.”
“I know a lot of girls who would love to date him,” said athletic department secretary Pam Atkinson, who sounded as if she was one of them. “Those eyes . . . shoo . And that body. And I love his voice, it’s so deep.”
But it’s not just the attention of the ‘Bama belles that has made Berndt’s assimilation into the American life style so smooth.
Despite it’s rural, country-bumpkin image, Tuscaloosa is a veritable international city in Berndt’s point of view. Twenty members of Alabama’s swim team are foreigners, including two West Germans and eight other Europeans.
A group of them were sitting around a cafeteria table after a morning workout recently when Berndt’s roommate, Frank Iacono, a Paris-born freshman by way of Mission Viejo, pointed out that most of the Alabama team doesn’t speak English as a first language.
“What difference does that make?” someone asked. “They don’t speak English around here, either.”
Later that evening, Iacono and Berndt were having fun with America again.
“Coffee is supposed to be black, not red,” Iacono said, holding up a glass mug of American brew. “You’re not supposed to be able to see through coffee.”
“I know, I know,” Berndt said, laughing. “I talked to (West German world record-holder) Michael Gross on the phone and told him the only thing I miss is German coffee. When our coffee is very good, you can stand your spoon in it.”
Berndt is as excited with being in America as an 8-year-old on his first trip to Disneyland. He’s understandably naive about some things, though. He made a short appearance on the “Today” show recently and the trip to New York might as well have been a ride on Space Mountain.
“A limo picked us up at the airport,” said Gordon, who escorted Berndt to New York, “and Peter told the driver to take the long way, with the best view of the skyline. We were stopped at a light and this crazy old guy starts washing the window.
“Peter says, ‘This man is very nice.’ And the driver says, ‘This is a bum who only wants money.’ And, of course, the guy had his hand out.”
Gordon suggested a nice place for dinner, but Berndt said, “Let’s get a Big Mac and see Manhattan.”
“He wanted to stay up all night,” Gordon said, “but finally settled for going to a night club. It was a comedy act. I guess he liked it, he laughed in all the right spots.”
He liked it. Jens-Peter Berndt likes almost everything about his new homeland.
“Now I am free. Now I feel if I lose nothing will happen and if I win that is OK. When I lost matches at home that I shouldn’t have, I worried that they wouldn’t let me out. Now I don’t have to be afraid of my performance.” --Martina Navratilova in 1975
Berndt would like to start competing as an American right now, but he isn’t ready to become a political pawn to do it. He is aware that he can petition President Reagan for special consideration and receive citizenship early. It normally takes at least five years for naturalization.
“I’ve heard that I may ask him for citizenship early so I can compete in the ’88 Olympics,” he said, “but I’m afraid he might use me for political reasons and I don’t want to be used.”
So, for now, he’ll settle for competing for the Crimson Tide, which seems simple enough. But Berndt is quickly discovering that the East German government doesn’t have a lock on arbitrary and senseless rules and regulations.
Jens-Peter Berndt, meet the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., the Big Brother of the West.
When Berndt decided to enroll at Alabama, Gambril sent him over to the Admissions Office where he took an entrance exam and the high school equivalency test. He had no transcripts, obviously, and no way of getting them. But, despite the language problems, Berndt came up with an overall score of 50.8 on the equivalency test.
He scored in the 80s on the math portion, in the high 50s on the science and lower in English and lower still in the Social Studies section, since they don’t teach a lot of U.S. history in East German schools.
“The NCAA requires a 45 for eligibility, so if Peter were a 6-4, 240-pound tackle who quit high school and joined the Marines, he would have been eligible the week he got here,” Gambril explained. “But when the NCAA asked him if he had completed the equivalent of our high school, he said, ‘Yes.’ And they said, sorry, but you can’t prove you had a C average and the GED isn’t applicable to high school graduates.
“Now how can I tell the kid that now he can’t compete, or even train, with the team, but if he’d lied and told them he didn’t graduate, he’d be eligible. I mean, they take his word for the fact he graduated high school, but they won’t take his word that he had a C average, even when their own test proves he must have.
“I don’t even understand it. How do I make him understand?”
Alabama--with the help of volunteer lawyers--is appealing the decision, but the NCAA swim championships are scheduled early next month, so Berndt’s chances of competing this year are almost nil. Tom Yeager, the NCAA director of legislative services, explained that everyone wants to do everything possible for Berndt, but any special dispensations could open the doors for a slew of federal court cases. After reviewing past cases, Yeager says it is unlikely Berndt will be eligible this year.
But Berndt is too excited with the prospects of his new life to agonize over the NCAA. He called a writer in California just to inform him he got a 77 on his first math test. He’s immersed in his schoolwork and back in the pool training with his usual passion.
“The first couple weeks my training was not so good,” he said. “But now I am training good again and I’m getting ready for (U.S. Indoor) nationals (in early April at East Los Angeles College).”
Berndt is also looking forward to this summer when he plans to train at Mission Viejo with his roommate Frank Iacono.
“Frank is going to take me body surfing,” Berndt said. “I love the beach.”
The diamond in his left ear may be simulated, but nothing is more genuine than Jens-Peter Berndt’s wide, contagious grin. And that smile serves as his ultimate appraisal of his new life in America.