First escapes at the Berlin Wall

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First escapes at the Berlin Wall

Right after the Berlin Wall was erected people tried their first escapes at the Berlin Wall. The first days in August 1961 it was still possible to find a forgotten spot. And determined people on West Berlin pulled apart the barbed wire to help people from East Berlin with their first escapes at the Berlin Wall. But soon it became more difficult to get out.

First escapes at the Berlin Wall

First escapes at the Berlin Wall

Students escaping the Berlin Wall

But students from the Freie Universitat in West Berlin were the first people that didn’t give up so easily. Dettlef Girrman, Dieter Thieme and Dodo Kohler wanted to help their fellow students with escapes at the Berlin Wall.

They did this with a passport scheme, climbing in the Berlin sewers and digging the first escape tunnel

Passport Scheme at the Berlin Wall

Their first tactic was a passport scheme. Students from West Berlin travelled to East Berlin for the escape at the Berlin Wall. Over there they made contact with students that didn’t want to be in East Berlin and wanted to escape at the Berlin Wall. It sounds easy, but of course they had to be very careful. If a student from West Berlin lingered too long in East Berlin he or she immediately became suspicious. And they were pretty easy to spot. East German spies of Stasi could easily see they were from West Germany because of their clothes.

To avoid being noticed they only stayed in one spot for a couple of minutes. They talked as briefly as possible with the would-be escaper. And of course, they used secret language. If the student from West Berlin wanted to meet the escaper, they exchanged messages on the phone. The FU student said ‘uncle joseph’ recommended a certain radio program. In that way, the escaper knew at what time and what day they should meet. At the exact time of the radio program.

ddrpassportgdrNew identities

The West Berlin students tried to get as many fake or borrowed passports as possible. In the mean time, the escapers had to practice their new identities. The people showing on the passport looked like the escapees. But if the nationality on the passport said they were from Lithuania or Sweden, they had to be able to talk in that language. At least, a few convincing words or sentences. Enough to convince the border patrol to let them pass. Not an easy task. The border patrol asked as many awkward questions as possible to avoid escapes at the Berlin Wall. But luckily for these students, they didn’t notice the fraud. The escape at the Berlin Wall worked.

The passport scheme lasted five months. After that it became too difficult, because of special stamps that were acquired. In January 1962 it was no longer possible to escape at the Berlin Wall this way.

Escape at the Berlin Wall through a sewer

But the passport scheme was not the only method the West Berlin students used to help students from East Berlin to escape at the Berlin Wall. They also used a dirty and very stinky route. The Berlin sewers were handy to for escapers.

But you definitely had to know where to look. Many sewers were already closed down in the years before the Berlin Wall came into existence. In the late 1950’s the sewers were used to smuggle cigarettes and other stuff between East and West Berlin. And to avoid this, many sewers were no longer connected.

But not all of them. High school students who wanted to help their friends in the East escape at the Berlin Wall found a sewer 500 yards from the Eastern border. The sewer was situated in a factory area. On the other end of the border it ran just into Kreuzberg. Nobody lived in this area, so it was the perfect spot to escape at the Berlin Wall.

Escape at GDR sewer, photo by Georg Slickers

Escape at GDR sewer, photo by Georg Slickers

Stinky escape

Nobody would see the escapers fleeing through the sewer. But there was one difficult obstacle that needed to be tackled before they could use the sewer. The manhole had a thick grill that needed to be removed first. Without anyone noticing. The Stasi had to be kept in the dark.

It took the kids days to saw through the thick sewer grille. But once in the sewer tunnel, they had to find a solution too for what happened after their escape at the Berlin Wall. Because they had to wade through the dirt and stink they could be smelled for miles. A laundry service was needed desperately.

Luckily for the high school kids, the Stasi didn’t smell them out. The Girrman group did. The students from West Berlin saw the opportunity of the sewers too for an escape at the Berlin Wall. They helped at least 134 students to the other side of Berlin through the sewers. Once the dirty, but happy stinkers were in West Berlin they entered the students cars and drove off to the hostels that belonged to the Freie Universitat. There they showered all the muck of their skin.

Nearly caught by the Stasi

But the stinky escape at the Berlin Wall didn’t last long. At the fifth night, on the 12th of October 1961 a vehicle quickly approached the factory area and East German policemen jumped out. They covered all the manholes they could find. Nobody got arrested that night. All the escapers had just arrived at West Berlin. The policemen didn’t know what to do and walked up and down the area. Nobody wanted to get dirty and nobody entered the sewer.

But this option for an escape at the Berlin Wall was gone. The next day they placed a very thick grille on the sewer hole that could not be sawn through.

praalgraf invalidenkerkhof berlinEscape at the Berlin Wall through a grave slab

The Girrman group still didn’t give up and started digging tunnels to help people escape at the Berlin Wall. They found a shed with a suitable basement near the Schonholz goods station in West Berlin. On the other side was the Pankow Municipal cemetery. They started digging their tunnel. It became 25 yards long and ended right under a very well cared for grave slab. 23 East Berliners were able to escape at the Berlin Wall through this last resting place. Their escape at the Berlin Wall was a great succes. But they were noticed by the Stasi. On the 29th of December two young East Berlin women tried to flee to the other side but were arrested and imprisoned.

The students from West Berlin were very successful while it lasted. 5000 East German people and students were able to escape at the Berlin Wall. They got a chance to escape to West Berlin and start a new life. Or continue their studies on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

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