Thursday, November 20, 2014

Escaping Under the Berlin Wall

From The Smithsonian:
After the wall’s construction, politically sensitive youth, people whom countless failures did not dissuade, quickly concerned themselves with devising passageways between East and West Berlin. As a university student in West Berlin, Neumann had no trouble finding groups of students who were trying to open escape routes for East Germans.

“When I build a political system from which people try to escape, then I have to think about why they want to escape,” Neumann said, explaining how so many people were drawn to the cause. “And the GDR said, it doesn’t matter a bit why they’re leaving, we’ll close down and then they’ll stay here.”

The GDR’s stubbornness and authoritarian rule, unyielding to the demands or desires of their citizens, found its most apt metaphor in the Wall and its fortifications that jutted into and split apart Berlin’s neighborhoods. “Our current president [Joachim Gauck] once said that the construction of the wall turned the residents of the GDR from citizens of the state into inmates of the state,” said Ralph Kabisch, one of the men with whom Neumann built Tunnel 57. “No other idea is as perfect to describe how the wall changed things.”

Armed with this conviction, Neumann, Kabisch and more than a dozen other men burrowed down 11 meters into the ground from a bakery close to the border, and dug a rectangular opening wide enough for one person to slither through on hands and knees parallel to the ground above. This continued under Bernauer Strasse, under the 12-meter-high wall, under a signal fence that activated an alarm when touched and under the so-called “Death Strip” – a wide no man’s land carpeted by steel spikes and overseen by floodlights and guard towers – until slowly slanting up toward the surface of the earth.

The digging took five months, and it was grueling work. The men slept in the abandoned bakery for weeks-long shifts, piling up sacks of dirt in flour sacks and occasionally rinsing off the encrusted mud from their bodies with buckets of water (“We stunk,” Neumann observes now, laughingly).  They weren’t sure where exactly they would emerge on the eastern side, and considered themselves lucky when, upon breaking ground, they found themselves inside an old outhouse behind an apartment building at Strelitzer Strasse 55. (Read more.)

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