Escaping East Germany: Germans Discuss Crossing the Border

Nov 19, 2014

For decades, Germany was divided, cut in two by a highly-secured border that seemed almost impossible to penetrate. Crossing this border was neither easy, nor safe: at least 138 people died trying. But for some, the desire for freedom outweighed the risks, and they made the dangerous journey over, under or right through the border, well knowing they may not survive.

Newseum Enlarge image (© / Nicole Glass) On Sunday, Germans who were involved in escape attempts across the border told their stories at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Moderator Sonya Gavankar led the discussion, which took place about a week after the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Ralph Kabisch, who lived in West Germany during the Cold War, spearheaded an effort to build an underground tunnel from West Berlin to East Berlin. Over the course of five months in 1964, he and a group of 20 students dug a 145-meter-long narrow tunnel from the basement of a closed-down bakery in West Berlin. For some - including Kabisch - the motivation was family: the wall had kept them separated from loved ones. But for a few tunnel diggers who had no family in the east, the motivation was discontent with the communist regime and a desire to help its victims.

Once the tunnel was completed in October 1964, the tunnel diggers organized an escape plan: East German escapees would crawl through the tunnel in intervals over the course of two days to avoid suspicion from the East German border patrol. The plan worked: 57 people managed to successfully escape, and the endeavor was one of the most successful coordinated escapes from East Germany.

Tunnel 57 Enlarge image Tunnel 57 (© picture alliance ) But the conditions of the tunnel were not for the claustrophobic; it had a height of 80 cm (31 inches) and a width of 70 cm (28 inches), making it impossible to stand up or take a break. Escapees had to crawl the entire way. Kabisch remembers seeing a look of triumph on their faces when they reached the west.

"For them, 145 meters (476 feet) feels like two or three miles," Kabisch said. "If you had seen their eyes... I'll never forget their eyes."


Decades after the so-called "Tunnel 57" escape, East German resident Toralf Pilz was about to embark on a risky journey of his own. He had dreams of traveling the world - something he could not do if he continued to live in East Germany. In May 1989, Pilz and a friend traveled to Hungary with the intention of swimming across the Danube River to Yugoslavia - a country that allowed its citizens to emigrate to the west.

But swimming across the river was no easy task; while Pilz made it to the other side, his friend was caught by Hungarian border guards, sent back to East Germany and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Pilz, cold and wet from his long swim, sought help on the other side, and eventually made it to West Germany and enrolled at a university.

Pilz said he does not regret his escape, but he does regret the timing: just a few months after swimming across the river, the Berlin Wall came down and the GDR was disintegrated.

"I'm not the kind of person who loves to risk his life," Pilz said at the Newseum event. Had he suspected that the wall would fall, he would have never made the attempt.


Newseum Enlarge image (© / Nicole Glass) Günter Nooke, a member of the first democratically elected parliament of the GDR and current advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, also provided his insight on the Iron Curtain. Before the fall of the wall, Nooke was an active member of a church opposition group in East Germany. He remembers the climate of fear vanishing as protests - such as the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig - increased throughout East Germany. He recalls the night of November 9, 1989 as an "emotional experience".

"I think the public perception of historic events is sometimes different from those who are eye witnesses," he said.

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany


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