Leaving East Germany

16 Sep

A few notes, some rather amusing, from a bleak period of history. To my generation, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and escapes from East Germany, were unpleasant reality as we were growing up, though thankfully only in the form of news from afar. The two best pieces of news that I ever saw were the first moon landing and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This commentary from John Dornberg, published in February 1980 Popular Mechanics, accompanied an article about the epic escape of Peter Strelzyk and Gunter Wetzel (along with their families) by means of a secretly built hot-air balloon.

A hundred ways to beat the border

Anyone with a strong desire to leave East Germany is standing at the end of a long, long line. Successful emigres have used just about every means except rockets. Many have tunneled, and some have scuba-dived, under the border. One man, in 1966, built a mini-submarine that conveyed him, at 3 mph. from the East to the West German coast along the Baltic Sea. Others have rowed that route in rafts and dinghies,  and one woman swam it – over 40 grueling hours.

Over the years, several dozens – a few not even trained as pilots – have used small planes to fly over it. And in 1962 an entire family, using helpers on the other side, crossed the Berlin Wall from one building to another on a tightrope cable with a roller and suspended sling seat.

East Germans are often smuggled out aboard the trucks traveling on the East-West transit routes, They jump their country’s ships in neutral harbors or off friendly shores. They take advantage of the more relaxed rules in some other socialist countries, such as Yugoslavia, to escape while on vacation (although loved ones are often left behind, since the government discourages entire families from vacationing together – for obvious reasons).

Some have simply rammed through border fortifications with armor-plated trucks, buses and cars. And every year several dozens – no one really knows how – continue to make it across the mine-fields, past the tripwires and shrapnel guns, watchtowers and guards, through and over the fences on foot. Every land conveyance known to man has been used, from a tiny Isetta, rebuilt to hide one person under the seat, to a Cadillac, remodeled by a professional escape organization to stow one escapee between dashboard and firewall.

The “gentlemanly” way, though by no means less risky, has been to simply outwit the border guards with passport flim-flams, fake documents or a straight face.

Thus, in the mid-1960s, some 180 East Germans were spirited out disguised as foreign diplomats, riding in long, black limousines from a car-rental agency, and displaying impressive-looking, leather-covered documents, originally printed as membership cards in a fancy West Germany Playboy-type club called “Confederation Diplomatique.” The initials “CD,” embossed on the cards, were misread by East German frontier guards as diplomatic passports.

Four East Germans once passed through Berlin’s “Checkpoint Charlie” wearing homemade Russian officers’ uniforms and driving a Soviet-make car which they had painted regulation olive green. The East German guards actually saluted them as they left.

One East Berliner even managed to escape backward. A professional photographer, he hired several beautiful girls as models, took them to “Checkpoint Charlie” and told border officials he was on assignment from an East German magazine to take publicity pictures of the frontier arrangements, which are ballyhooed by Eastern propaganda as a “defensive measure against capitalist-imperialism.” He asked several of the guards to pose with the girls and, with his back to West Berlin, began taking scores of pictures, moving one or two steps backward – closer to freedom – with each shot until he was standing on the white demarcation line. He then turned and bolted into the arms of American MPs, who had been watching his antics with great amusement.

Beyond the stone markers and demarcation signs is a space (A) up to 100 meters wide, cleared of trees and shrubs. The common double row of barbed wire fence (B) with land mines between is currently being replaced, either by a double row of wire-mesh fencing (C) and mined strip, or by single wire mesh fence (D) 10 feet high with tripwire or remotely triggered shrapnel guns mounted at leg, midsection and head levels. Beyond fencing is a concrete trench (E) to trap vehicles attempting to ram their way out. Beyond that, a plowed security strip (F) 40 feet wide picks up all footprints. Back from the service and patrol road are old-style wooden guard towers (G), newer concrete tower command posts (H) and observation bunkers (I), plus leashed dogs on long wire runs. Even nearby villages (J) have their 10-foot-high walls and the border crossing checkpoint (K), up to three miles from the border, lies along a rear security line (L) with electronic, acoustical and tripwire sensing devices.

The Mauermuseum  which, at least by their own account, recorded the events of border crossings and tried to help, had some more amusing bits in their “143rd Press Conference” of 2005. source, or source (alternate pages German and English)

The large number of visitors encouraged us to look for new premises: on 14 June 1963 the “Haus am Checkpoint Charlie” was opened and became an island of freedom right next to the border. From here, through a small window, escape helpers could observe all movements at the border crossing; escapees were always welcome and supported, escape plans were worked out, and injustice in the GDR was always fought against.

Mauermuseum – “Museum Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie”

Because helping refugees with fake passports was also punishable by Western courts, due to “document forgery,” Albert Schütz, a restaurateur by profession, smuggled invented passports. Instead of “Corps Diplomatique,” the passport would read “CONFEDERATION DIPLOMATIQUE.” Or else he made up United Nations passports. Those travelling with these were treated especially politely, since the GDR wanted to be accepted into the UN.

Checkpoint Charlie also remembers the most original flight. A GDR citizen succeeded in reaching the final checkpoint unnoticed. He was an Austrian, so he said breathlessly to the officer. He had just received a telegram that his mother lay dying in West Berlin. He had forgotten his passport in the excitement. The inspector fetched another and then went into the checkpoint-house, in order to make inquiries. The “Austrian” now told the same story to the new inspector and guard, only this time that his mother was in East Berlin. “Do you think they’ll let me through without a passport?” The answer he got was pessimistic. “I live very close by, then I’d rather go back and get my passport,” he said, and was in West Berlin.

The Giggle Wrecker

For an amusing fictional take on crossing the wall, I recommend the short story “The Giggle Wrecker“, in the collection “Pieces of Modesty” by Peter O’Donnell.

The Minister frowned. ‘If he can be got from Moscow to Berlin, surely you can get him over the Wall? It’s only another hundred yards or so.’    ‘A very particular hundred yards, Minister. Okubo is Japanese, and only four feet ten inches high. In an Aryan country he couldn’t be more obvious if he carried a banner with his name on it. Getting him out would require a major operation. Worst of all, we’re not the only ones who know he’s in East Berlin. The KGB knows it, too.’


‘We go in from Sweden by air,’ Modesty said. ‘Willie is Herr Jorgensen, who runs a small antique and rare-book business in Gothenberg. I’m his secretary. I can’t show you what I’ll look like just now because I have to dye my hair, but I’ll be equally convincing.’

‘We have got away with it for the last five years,’ Willie said in his rather stilted Jorgensen voice, and took out a packet of Swedish cigarettes. Tarrant looked at Modesty. She said, ‘We’ve made a ten- or twelve-day trip to East Berlin from Sweden every year for the last five. The antique business in Gothenberg is quite genuine and belongs to us.’

She gave a little shrug. ‘We began it a year or two before we retired from crime. It seemed a useful provision, to see what went on behind the Curtain and to establish credible identities there. We kept it up because it seemed a pity to let the thing lapse. The East Berlin police have Herr Jorgensen and Froken Osslund on record. We’ve been tailed and bugged and checked and politely questioned. They’ve given up tailing us now. We know that, because we always know if we’re being tailed. They may still bug our rooms. We never bother to check, because even if the rooms were clean there might be three bugs in each when we got back from a trip. So when we talk in our rooms, we talk in character.’


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