The Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse
The Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse had a huge impact on this area. Bernauer Strasse was right in the middle of the border. When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, the entrance of a few buildings was in the East. But if the inhabitants looked out of their windows, they saw West Berlin right beneath them.
Ransacking building at Bernauer Strasse
It was quite scary to escape to West Berlin for these people. Most Berlin buildings are quite high and simply jumping was dangerous. Not only the height made it difficult to escape. GDR policemen were ransacking the buildings, looking for escaping people. But a lot of people living in the Bernauer Strasse had family living in the same street on the West side. They really wanted to join them, no matter how dangerous it was. So they made ropes out of sheets and climbed out of the window.
Escapers at Bernauer Strasse
A lot of them made it safely to the ground. Like the 77 year old lady Frieda Schulze. She was nearly caught because GDR policemen tried to hold on to her from the upstairs apartment. But gravity and the people downstairs helped her, so she could reach West Berlin soil. A lot of people from Bernauer Strasse fell into the jumping sheets of the West Berlin fire fighters.
Victims at Bernauer Strasse
Others weren’t so lucky. Ida Siekmann, 59, became the first victim of the Berlin Wall when she fell out of her window of her upper floor apartment at the Bernauer Strasse. She died of her injuries. Rudolph Urban (47) wasn’t lucky either. He died in the hospital weeks later because of his fall. They longed for a life on the other side of the Berlin Wall but died trying.
One of the last victims of Bernauer Strasse was Bernd Lunser. He tried to abseil from the roof of the Bernauer Strasse on the 4th of October by using a washing line. But The East German police spotted Lunser and cornered him. He ran over the rooftops at Bernauer Strasse with the policemen on his heels. He cried for help, but no one could do anything but watch him. Fire fighters in West Berlin put up a jump sheet for him as well. But when the East German policemen closed in on him, he jumped of the roof and missed the sheet. He died almost instantly.
West Berlin commemorated these victims of the Berlin Wall by putting up memorial sides along that part of the Berlin Wall. At the entrance of Swinemunder Strasse you can still see the memorial for these ten victims of the Berlin Wall.
Jumping over the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse
19-year-old Conrad Schumann longed for a life at the other side of the border as well. He was ordered to watch the fence (before the Berlin Wall was erected, there was barbed wire along the border in the summer of 1961). Schumann was a border policeman. He had just arrived in Berlin after his training and was appalled by the reality of the Berlin Wall.
People from both West and East Berlin were swearing at him for watching the border. People saw him walking the border, not sure what to do. They shouted at him that he should jump. He hesitated for a more than an hour and then threw away his cigarette and jumped. That image of him, hanging in midair, right between East and West Berlin has become one of the most famous pictures of the Cold War in Berlin.
Schumann didn’t have heroic intentions, he told people after his jump. He simply didn’t want to shoot people while guarding the border and by jumping the fence he avoided the moral dilemma. He wasn’t the only deserter. Nine more deserters jumped the fence during the fist 36 hours of the existence of the Berlin Wall.
Tunnels at Bernauer Strasse
But when the Berlin Wall replaced the barbed wire, it wasn’t easy anymore to escape to the other side. The houses on the Bernauer Strasse facing West Berlin were bricked up so no one could get in. But East Berliners managed to flee their country by literally going under ground. Berlin had quite a few tunnel builders with East Berlin people looking for freedom and daylight on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The tunnel at Bernauer Strasse was even more spectacular then the other ones in Berlin. It was not only a flight to West Berlin, but also a tv-documentary. The American broadcast company NBC wanted to make a TV show about a tunnel escape from East to West Berlin. They gave 50.000 Marks for equipment to build the tunnel. The main tunnel builders and TV-characters of the real life drama were Hasso Herschel, Domenica (Mimmo) Sesta and his friend Gigi. Herschel was an adventurous champion athlete. He ran into quite a bit of trouble with the East German police, mainly for participating in the 1953 riots in East Berlin. In 1961 he travelled to West Berlin with a forged Swiss passport. So he didn’t have to dig to get himself to West Berlin. But he was very passionate to build the tunnel. His sister and her baby daughter were still in East Berlin and he desperately wanted them out of there. He stopped shaving until his sister and baby girl were in West Berlin.
Tunnel 29 at Bernauer Strasse
Mimmo and Gigi’s closest friend Peter was still trapped in East Berlin with his wife and kid. Mimmo was a student of construction engineering and knew how to build a solid tunnel.
They began digging ‘tunnel 29’ in May 1962. In West Berlin they found the perfect spot at a factory building just off Bernauer Strasse, near the Berlin Wall. In East Berlin they found a basement just of the Wall.
It was tough work. The soil was solely made of clay, which made it hard to dig. Mimmo and Gigi nearly wanted to stop, until they met Herschel. Herschel had the strength and power to make the project work.
From that moment on, they began digging further and deeper. They met more people who wanted to take up the shovel too. But there still was a money issue. The builders needed quite a lot of equipment to get to the other side of Berlin.
But that problem was tackled easily when they heard about the documentary plans of NBC. 41 tunnelers, most of them students, started digging. It all became quite professional. Other tunnelers with less money and experience always took a risk of burying themselves, but Herschel and his team even had piped in air and had a underground rest and dining area.
Stasi in the Tunnel at Bernauer Strasse
But of course, the building of the tunnel was still risky. Not only because of flooding, but merely because of betrayal. With so many diggers involved, who was to be trusted? One of the diggers could always be a Stasi spy.
Herschel, Gigi and Mimmo were very suspicious when two men, Dieter and Rolf wanted to join in the escape. That suspicion turned out to be true. One of the men was involved with the Stasi. The Stasi put his girlfriend in jail and he could only help her by infiltrating the Tunnel 29 group. But Herschel and his friends didn’t trust the two men and always kept them aside and gave them wrong information. On the day of the breakthrough they kept Dieter and Rolf isolated.
Close escape at Bernauer Strasse
29 people escaped through tunnel 29 (hence the name). Some people even wore Dior dresses to look their best when they arrived in West Berlin. But because of a leak in the tunnel they all came out covered in mud and filth. Not that it mattered. Everybody was crying of joy. Dieter and Rolf and their girlfriends with Dieter’s baby son got permission to crawl through the tunnel after everybody was safe in West Berlin. They vanished real quickly. Rolf knew the Stasi also had contacts in the West and made himself scarce.
Herschel and his friends had hoped to use tunnel 29 more than once, but during the escape the place flooded and could not be used any more. It was quite controversial Herschel and his team got money from the broadcast company to build the tunnel. Only 20.000 DM was used for the tunnel and the rest was split between the three friends. After the film of Tunnel 29 the situation polarized between the idealistic diggers who didn’t want any money for their hard work and the builders who did want money. But when the builders of tunnel 29 were sweating under ground, money wasn’t the issue. They had no idea they would earn anything with it. Their biggest inspiration was the death of teenager Peter Fechter, at Checkpoint Charlie. A copy of his picture with the story of his lonely death near the Berlin Wall hung on the basement wall. Every digger who went down the tunnel saw his face and knew why his was digging that tunnel.
Tunnel 57 at Bernauer Strasse
The tunnel was build by Wolfgang Fuchs, who escaped to West Berlin with wife and kids just after the Berlin Wall was erected. His own escape had made him eager to help others going under ground. He became inspired by tunnel 29 and went to other media to help cover the building costs. He got 15.000 dm by German journalists and 2000 dollars from Paris Match and Daily Mail. He also secretly got 30.000 dm from the Bonn ministry for all-German affairs. Fuchs started digging in West Berlin in a bakery cellar near the Bernauer Strasse. Seven months later he was in East Berlin under a bathroom floor. 57 people escaped though this tunnel at Strelitzer Strasse 55 in 1964. It was also meant as a semi-permanent escape route, but it all went wrong at the 5th of October 1964. Two men begged to use the tunnel to go to West Berlin. When the builders felt sorry for them and allowed them to use the tunnel, they came back with the Stasi. The builders ran for the tunnel entrance. One of them was armed and started shooting to cover their flight. The East Germans fired back. It was pitch black and everyone was confused. An East German soldier, Egon Schultz was hit and he died.
Friendly fire at Bernauer Strasse
The builders made it alive to West Berlin. East Germany made a martyr out of Schultz. But he died because of ‘friendly fire’. The bullets that were found in his body were East German.
Nevertheless, this was not known until the Berlin Wall fell. The dead East German soldier caused a lot of bad publicity. The people that build these tunnels were not longer seen as heroes in West Berlin.
The violence, deaths and money involved in building these tunnels made escaping East Berlin through a tunnel less popular. And the fact that the Stasi people were aware who built these tunnels and even spies helped building them made it too big a risk to flee East Berlin this way.
After 1964 no one escaped through windows or under neath the Bernauer Strasse anymore.
Blowing up apartments at Bernauer Strasse
All the apartments facing West Berlin were bricked up and in the upcoming years the GDR government started to blow up buildings in this area. Soon it became no man’s land. West Berliners hated living here because the Berlin Wall blocked their view and East Berliners were removed from this area. The most well known symbol for this area became the Church of the Reconciliation (Versohnungskirche). It stood right in the middle of no man’s land. No matter how religious you were, the church was out of reach. In 1985 the church got blown up, leaving the area even more tragic. This, and many of the other stories of this area can be read, heard and seen at the Gedenkstatte Berliner Mauer at the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Ackerstrasse. You can also see a part of the original Berlin Wall here, complete with sand to immediately spot intruders.
Because in 1989 all Berliners were very happy to see this hated piece of concrete gone, it is not easy to find the Berlin Wall in the city. But we know the unknown spots, like Invalidenfriedhof where people fleed the Berlin Wall by running over the military graveyard. We know where to find the watchtowers and where people dug tunnels under the Berlin Wall. But also where the most beautiful pieces are, like East Side Gallery and the Mauerpark.
Why was the Berlin Wall build? Answering this question is not so simple as it looks. Back in the days patriotic communist East Germans would say the Berlin Wall was a: “Anti-fascist wall, protecting East Germans against the fascists in West Germany.” In West Germany most people would say: “It’s a brutal wall that divides our country, put up by scary communists.”
The Brandenburger Tor at the end of Unter den Linden became the symbol of reunited Germany and Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Between 1961-1989 the Berlin Wall surrounded the Brandenburger Tor, as you can still see at graffiti on East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain. East Berlin was on one side – a couple of meters further was West Berlin.
The Berlin Wall at Invalidenfriedhof makes this cemetery a very tragic and spectacular place to be. The Berlin Wall ran straight through Invalidenfriedhof. Battles of life and death took place at this military cemetery. This makes the Invalidenfriedhof one of the most remarkable places in Berlin and place to be nr 1 in Mitte for Wall spotting.
The Berlin Wall was a hated piece of concrete in both West and East Berlin. It divided the city and created a large, ugly grey scar. In 1989 118 artists from 21 different countries painted this part of the Berlin Wall that was never touched by art before, because it lies so close to the river Spree. East Side Gallery is the largest part of remaining Berlin Wall.
The Mauerpark was a large piece of Noman’s land between Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding. The Berlin Wall ran straight through the park. Nowadays the park buzzes with life and creativity. At Sunday you can find vintage stuff at the fleemarket, or just chill and enjoy the weird performances at the Mauerpark.
At Kieler Strasse, near the Invalidenfriedhof, you can find one of the most interesting watchtowers of the Berlin Wall. Not only because it is one of the few remaining watchtowers. But mostly, because it is a small museum for the first victim of the Berlin Wall: Gunter Litfin. His brother Jurgen runs the watchtower and museum.
Gropius Bau is a stunning museum with international art. But it is market by two wars. The facade has bullet holes from World War Two. And the museum was useless during the Cold War. The Berlin Wall ran straight through this area, making it noman’s land. Nowadays you can still spot the Berlin Wall near Gropius Bau.
The Berlin Wall was one of the most guarded pieces of concrete. Every piece of Berlin Wall had it’s own watchtower, where the guards or border policemen could sit to watch the environment for people who wanted to flee to West Berlin. After the Berlin Wall fell, nearly all the watchtowers were removed. But the one near Treptower Park still stands strong.
Potsdamer Platz used to be a buzzing square with lots of traffic before World War Two. But after the War it became a large stretch of noman’s land when the Berlin Wall was erected here. Now it’s Berlin’s pride and joy with modern architecture. And you can still find pieces of the Berlin Wall here.
When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, some people desperately wanted to leave East Berlin. They dug tunnels, created passport schemes, escaped through a stinking sewer, drifted over to the other side in a hot air balloon, hid in a car or simply drove through the Berlin Wall. Read about all the escapes at the Berlin Wall.
Sometimes the Berlin Wall is nothing more than a simple glittering brick on the ground to show where the Berlin Wall used to be. But before 1989 the Berlin Wall was a brutal reality, not everybody wanted to experience every day. Some wanted to leave, and dug tunnels or climbed the Berlin Wall. Some people weren’t so lucky. They died, escaping to the other side.