Jakob Abs is killed crossing the railroad tracks, tracks he has crossed many times in the past. His death leads several people to recall what they know of his life and to speculate about his death.
Rohlfs, an East German secret agent, is observing Heinrich Cresspahl in the small northeastern town of Jerichow because Cresspahl’s daughter, Gesine Cresspahl, works for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in West Germany. Gesine met Jakob Abs when he and his mother arrived in Jerichow as refugees from Pomerania at the end of World War II. She was thirteen and he eighteen at the time. They soon developed a brother-sister relationship, which they have continued through her university years and his time working at a railroad job in another town. Gesine finally decided to leave Communist East Germany and move to West Germany.
Rohlfs talks to Jakob’s mother about the goals of socialism; she asks Heinrich Cresspahl to carry two suitcases for her to the train station, which causes the rumor that Cresspahl has left for West Germany. Jakob, who works as a dispatcher for the state-owned East German railroad, is contacted by Rohlfs and receives a telegram from Cresspahl, saying that his mother has gone to the West.
Jonas Blach leaves East Berlin, where he teaches English at the university; he meets Gesine in the street when she is walking with American officers to their car. In Jerichow, he is introduced to Jakob at Cresspahl’s house, where Jakob has gone because his mother has left. Some time before he traveled to Jerichow, Jakob broke up with his girlfriend, Sabine. As usual, Rohlfs is keeping them all under surveillance. Jakob puts his mother’s things in order; to him it feels as though she has died. Jonas, who is involved in a group critical of the Communist government, tells Jakob and Cresspahl about the group.
When Cresspahl calls Gesine to tell her about Jakob’s death, she has already heard about it. She remembers how she, on a surprise visit from West Germany, had run into Rohlfs, whom she did not know at the time. She had sat in a restaurant, waiting, and as Jakob walked in, he recognized Rohlfs. Jakob denied Gesine’s identity while establishing eye contact with her to let her know he would meet her later. He then left with Rohlfs to talk about his mother. When Jakob met Gesine outside, they took a cab to another city to catch the train to Jerichow. After an escapelike trip that involved changing trains, long after midnight they ended up at Cresspahl’s house, where Jonas still waited. Rohlfs met them all there later, and they discussed the political situation, especially the rebellion in Hungary. Rohlfs allowed Gesine to return to West Germany.
Jonas returns to East Berlin; Gesine sends a telegram from the first post office on the West German side. Coming to his office, Rohlfs discovers that Jakob disappeared Tuesday evening. Jonas, who has lost his job at the university, visits Jakob that Tuesday, October 30. It is the day when Jakob has to decide for himself whether to use his job at the railroad to delay a troop transport with tanks under way to end the rebellion in Hungary; he lets it pass through because he understands that a delay of ten minutes or even a day will not make any difference. In their conversation, Jonas also realizes that Gesine has not told Jakob about her love for Jakob.
The next day, Jakob makes his trip to the West, officially to see his mother, which Rohlfs has cleared with the authorities. Jakob calls...
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Gesine from his hotel, and they spend time together over the next few days. Coming from a visit to the refugee camp, they hear on the radio about the suppression of the Hungarian rebellion by the Soviets and the imminent military action by the West in the Suez Crisis. On their last night together, Gesine asks Jakob to stay in the West, while he asks her to come with him to the East. She takes him to the local train station, and he leaves alone. The next morning, he is very tired, and, as he crosses the railroad tracks on his way to his job, he is struck by a train. He dies shortly afterward during surgery. Sabine and Jonas, who have in the meantime been staying with friends and visited a literature class at another university, notify Cresspahl. Cresspahl arrives in the early afternoon, and Jonas takes a train to Jerichow. The next morning, however, Jonas turns himself in to Rohlfs, who arrests him. Gesine meets with Rohlfs in West Berlin to talk about what has happened.