Escape From East Berlin

30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former diplomat Jochen Wolter recalls his family's daring escape to West Berlin
November 6, 2019 Updated: November 6, 2019

If we assembled a panel of experts on communism and asked them to recall the symbol that best represented the evil of that philosophy, we would elicit an array of responses.

Some would mention the Soviet gulags described so eloquently by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, where “patients” and inmates were tortured relentlessly, even to death. Others would point to the closing of houses of worship across Red China, the Soviet Union, and other officially atheist communist bloc nations.

Still others would point to the unprecedented killings carried out by Marxist-Leninist states that still defy precise computation. At least 2 million human beings were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the small nation of Cambodia, and over 80 million were put to death or starved in China, and another 60 million in the Soviet Union. 

But for sheer symbolism and the most glaring contrast between the evil of communism and the virtue of the West, it’s hard to top the Berlin Wall.

From the time the Soviets first occupied their “zone” of Germany in 1945, following the end of World War II, up to the summer of 1961, Germans could move freely within the city of Berlin. My own mother and her family were summarily expelled from their modest house in the eastern Pankow neighborhood by the Soviets. Though the house had lost one room due to Allied night bombings during the war, it was still habitable, and the Soviets installed officers in our family’s hearth. There was no compensation for this Soviet larceny, but at least Mom could travel freely to the West, and then on to New York and New Jersey in the spring of 1947.

Although the “Iron Curtain” that Winston Churchill described in 1946 conformed to the borders dividing East and West Germany, and the boundaries between free and communist nations to the south, there was unrestricted transit within the city of Berlin. Subways and bus lines served and connected all sectors of the city: the three free zones and the large communist sector in the east.

The Wall Goes Up

That all came to a screeching halt on Aug. 13, 1961, when the communist East German government, assisted by their Soviet masters, began hurriedly constructing cinderblock walls between West Berlin and the East, preventing East Germans from crossing into the west. The so-called “Democratic Republic of Germany” (DDR to Germans) was clearly embarrassed that some 3.5 million of its people had fled to the West. 

Soldiers building the Berlin Wall as instructed by the East German authorities, in order to strengthen the existing barriers dividing East and West Berlin, in 1961. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Subway lines were suddenly terminated at the east-west border, with tunnels bricked up to prevent underground escapes. Before long, subway maps in the East treated West Berlin as a “blank,” with no subway lines or verbiage in that empty space. Overnight, families were separated, sometimes with spouses, parents, and children stuck on opposite sides of the Wall, never to see each other again.

Two mothers can only wave to their children and grandchildren in the Soviet sector of Berlin from across the Berlin Wall in this file photo. (Keystone/Getty Images)

As the wall was being completed, communist forces added miles and miles of barbed wire, watchtowers staffed by armed soldiers with “shoot to kill” orders, mounted shrapnel guns, and “kill zones” with concrete plazas and trenches designed to thwart any attempted escape by speeding vehicles.

Looking for a Way Out

Even as the cement was drying on the infamous Wall, East Germans were actively seeking ways around, over and even under the hated barrier. More than 5,000 East Germans succeeded in escaping through and around the wall, although over 100,000 tried. Sadly, as many as 245 died trying to escape, the last being Winfried Freudenberg, who perished just months before the Wall was breached, as he fell from the hot air balloon he hoped would deliver him to freedom.

The Wall’s first casualty, just days after it was completed, was Ida Siekmann, who lived on the fourth floor of a Bernauer Strasse walk-up. The Wall was directly below her window, and after tossing down bedding and other furniture, she leaped to what she hoped would be freedom, the western side of the Wall. Sadly, she died from the impact of her fall. Before long, the communists were closing all building windows near the Wall, sealing them with fortified bricks.

Perhaps the most famous murder at the Berlin Wall was that of young Peter Fechter in 1962, about a year after the barrier’s construction. He made a run for freedom, seeking to traverse a barbed-wire fence. Without warning, a rifle-toting East German guard fired on 18-year-old Peter, stopping him cold. Even more heartless than the shooting was the communist response: they literally allowed Fechter to bleed out and die on the barbed wire, retrieving his body only hours later. Another “don’t even think about it” message was sent by the East’s dictators.

A young woman is seen through semi-transparent portraits of people who were killed trying to cross from east to west across the Berlin Wall, at the Bernauer Strasse memorial on Aug. 13, 2011. The wall was equipped with watchtowers, armed guards, and trip-wire triggered machine guns.
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Berlin has many rivers, canals, and tributaries, with more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam combined. The East Germans observed some escapes by water, and quickly moved to deploy armed soldiers in gunboats to capture or shoot departing swimmers and dinghies.

With jumping, swimming, and sprinting proving fatal, East Berliners seeking freedom sought to escape under the Wall. During the Wall’s infamous 28-year presence in Berlin, some 75 tunnels were begun, to give freedom-seekers another option for emigration. 

Heinz Meixner, with his fiancee and her mother, Frau Thurau, show how they arranged themselves in his Austin-Healey Sprite to drive through a checkpoint at the Berlin Wall, Germany, circa 1965. (Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Most of the excavations, however, could not be completed. Scores of those involved in digging the tunnels were arrested by East German secret police (Stasi), facing long prison terms. Though many crawled and scraped their way into West Berlin, others died in tunnel collapses, from oxygen deprivation, and shots fired by pursuing communist police. Reporter Greg Mitchell catalogs this spellbinding subterranean story in his book, “The Tunnels.” 

Still others, aided by pro-freedom groups in the East, managed to bluff and cajole their way through the Wall and its checkpoints. I happen to know one of these brave Berliners who made it through the Wall, as an 8-year-old in 1961, led by his parents.

My wife and I became friendly with Jochen Wolter and his American-born wife, Susan, during his posting in New York as a member of the German Diplomatic Service. From 2009 to 2014, he was the press officer for the Consulate General of Germany, after having earlier served in New York in the ’90s at the German Information Center. 

Wolter’s last post was in Berlin with the German Federal Press Office, where he was responsible for public information about the Ministry of Energy, Research, and Sustainability, from which he retired earlier this year.

But perhaps a bit like the “Superman” character Clark Kent, Wolter only appears to be a mild-mannered civil servant. In fact, he and his family succeeded in escaping through two heavily-guarded checkpoints in the Berlin Wall, with the derring-do, pluck, and ingenuity worthy of a John le Carré or an Ian Fleming novel.

jochen wolter
Jochen Wolter. (The Epoch Times)

To do justice to the story of the Wolter family’s 1961 escape from East Berlin, an interview with Wolter seemed to be the best option.

Herbert W. Stupp: What was your childhood in East Berlin and East Germany like?

Jochen Wolter: I was born in 1953, and was 8 years old when the Wall was built, and later that year, my family began planning to escape. As a preschool kid, daily life was probably not much different than in other parts of Germany. We owned a nice summer cottage at a lake on the outskirts of East Berlin where we spent summers and weekends. 

Childhood life changed when school started. The obligatory oath of allegiance every Monday morning on the schoolyard was a first and clear sign of state-controlled influence of young boys and girls at a very early stage of life. The official request and strong peer pressure to join the communist youth organization, “Junge Pioniere” (Young Pioneers), was another method of ideological influence. Therefore, my parents didn’t allow me to join, which I held against them. For us, it seemed fun to be with others the same age.

jochen wolter
An old photo of the Wolter family. (Courtesy of Jochen Wolter)

Mr. Stupp: What sort of work did your parents do in those days? Were they disadvantaged by not being members of the East German Communist Party?

Mr. Wolter: My father was a chief doctor in a state hospital. My mother, a trained nurse, managed the family of six, including my two older sisters and my twin brother. Although my father was often asked to join the Communist Party, he never did because until the Wall was built, there was always the opportunity to leave the DDR. After the Wall was built, the pressure became almost unbearable. 

My father was able to keep his position only because they needed him there. But from then on, he had to be very careful about what he did and said. There were ears everywhere just waiting for a critical word or comment to provide a reason to fire him. He was aware that his situation as an untouchable doctor wouldn’t last forever.

Mr. Stupp: What sort of freedom were your parents hoping for in the West? How much were they bothered by the lack of freedom of worship, no freedom of speech, no free elections, no work or career decisions without communist government involvement, and the lack of consumer goods that were taken for granted a few miles away?

Mr. Wolter: In addition to all the sorts of freedom you’ve mentioned, most important was the topic of education for them. With four kids in school, the prospects to go to university later and have a high-profile education were almost zero. The communist ideology wanted radical change in society. 

The strategy was to take privileges, including higher education, for the offspring of educated people and give the working class special treatment by opening colleges and universities for them. That created a class of obedient citizens, thankful for the unexpected opportunities and reluctant to criticize or oppose the regime. 

Before the Wall was built, the variety of freedom and choice was a little more difficult to achieve, but still possible. My older sisters even went to schools in West Berlin. The Wall changed everything. Because my parents didn’t want to give up any freedom, they decided to leave the DDR, whatever it would take.

Mr. Stupp: Do you recall overhearing or otherwise learning about your parents’ plans to escape East Berlin, after the infamous Wall was built by the communists?

Mr. Wolter: No, they never talked about it in front of us kids. Although we noticed a dramatic change of their mood from August 13, 1961, on, when the border to West Berlin and West Germany was hermetically closed. 

My parents arranged a family vacation in Thuringia in September 1961 on short notice, which we later found out was meant to check out the “Grüne Grenze” (the “green” heavily wooded border with and to West Germany) looking for an unguarded hole in the fence to get through. But border control with armed guards and trained dogs was already so tight that the risk was too high. This was not an option.

Mr. Stupp: Children are notorious chatterboxes. Was it difficult for your parents to keep you and your siblings from “spilling the beans” about their secret escape plans?

Mr. Wolter: It probably was, but they did a good job. My brother and I never heard or noticed anything until the very last day. My sisters may have known more, but they, for sure, had been instructed to keep their mouths shut. People in East Germany, in general, were used to being careful and silent in public because one never knew who was listening.

Mr. Stupp: Tell me about the organization and the brave East Berliners who helped your family to escape. What did they do to prepare you to get through the Berlin Wall in two cars?

Mr. Wolter: A longtime childhood friend of my father’s, a Protestant pastor in West Germany, contacted a Swiss student group that had developed strategies and concrete plans for escapes from the DDR. Members of the group came as day visitors to East Berlin and contacted my parents. 

The plan they presented was based on our traveling to West Berlin as “returning day visitors” from East Berlin with fake Swiss passports and included a separation of the family in three groups using different checkpoints. My mother agreed, but only under the condition that she would not be separated from her 8-year-old twin sons, my brother and me, which was originally planned differently. The change of the plan was possible. 

To minimize the risk of disclosure, none of our East Berlin friends knew anything, with one exception: very trustworthy friends took our family dog, Mira, a dachshund, later to a parking lot on the transit highway between West Berlin and West Germany and gave Mira to West Berlin friends who took a not-so-accidental break at this place at the same time.

Mr. Stupp: The day your family escaped is a drama worthy of a spy thriller movie. Tell us about “escape day,” with your father driving one car, and your mother driving another.

Mr. Wolter: Escape day was November 11, 1961, a rainy Saturday. My parents let my brother and me watch a TV movie late in the evening, which was very unusual for us. As an explanation, we were told that the whole family would later visit an uncle in West Berlin who had an enormous model railway at his house. 

The next thing was to change clothes. My mother chose different outfits to put on, which had only labels from companies in Western countries. That was a precautionary step in case of a strip search at the checkpoint: a Swiss day-visitor would surely not wear clothes with an East German label. 

At night, the six of us drove in the family car, a Wartburg, toward downtown and parked somewhere near the opera house. In pitch darkness, we met our Swiss helpers, and the group was separated. My mother and we twins got in a car with Swiss car plates and a stranger at the wheel. The next task was sleeping pills to make us boys sleepy and a Swiss-sounding first name for each of us in case somebody at the border checkpoint would ask us directly. At that point, it became clear to us that something very strange was going on. 

The sleeping pill didn’t have an effect on me, so I remember all the details of that journey to freedom: the long car line at the checkpoint, the unexcited conversation in the front of our car between my mother and the driver as if they were long-time partners. The border guard was a heavy woman with a strong Saxon dialect. She acted extremely unfriendly, maybe wanting to prove that she could be as tough as a man on the job. She concentrated on the adults and luckily didn’t pay much attention to us in the back seats.

Mr. Stupp: Seeing your mother and father reuniting in West Berlin, along with your siblings, must have been a very emotional moment. Can you describe it?

Mr. Wolter: The meeting point was a central late-night café in West Berlin, where we arrived first. It was already after midnight. I remember that my brother and I, now pretty tired, kept asking my mother when the others would come. I have admired her all my life for her self-control and coolness in that moment. She answered us several times very patiently, reassuring us that our father and sisters would show up any minute. 

When they finally came, there were tears, hugs, and gratitude. But the night was not over yet. We then rang the doorbells at homes of friends who had no idea that we would come. But people in West Berlin those days were somehow prepared for sudden visits from people on the other side of the Wall, which could never be announced in advance. We found open doors, warm beds, and loving care that night. The first purchase the next day, a Sunday, was six toothbrushes surprisingly found at a kiosk!

Mr. Stupp: Did the West Berlin government or other organizations help you to resettle in the west?

Mr. Wolter: Since we literally left everything behind in East Berlin, there was a need for a new life with all its ingredients. We all got a basic set of clothing and probably some money at the official welcome camp where every refugee had to register. We didn’t need much more because we got a lot of help from family and friends.

Mr. Stupp: Looking back on the entire adventure, which included a real risk of harm and likely prison had your parents been caught, did your mother and father ever second-guess themselves?

Mr. Wolter: They probably had. If so, they kept it to themselves. The dimension of the risk they took became apparent only after it was all over. My parents confessed later that they wouldn’t have taken the risk if they hadn’t had children. For our future, they were willing and ready to take the risk.

Mr. Stupp: How happy were they to be living in freedom?

Mr. Wolter: They never regretted their decision. The freedom to live your life the way you want it, to articulate your opinion free of the fear of oppression and being a part of a real democracy was most important for them. There was no room for compromises.

Mr. Stupp: Do you think the family’s experiences under communism influenced how your parents and your siblings have voted since 1961 escapes?

Mr. Wolter: I’m pretty sure it influenced my parents. It did influence me. I can’t speak for my siblings. But with our experience, we all definitely became sensitive to comments that trivialize communist terror and oppression when and where they occur. A forgiving look back with a statement like “not everything was bad” plays down the crimes and forgets the victims of the brutal and inhumane communist regime.

Mr. Stupp: I know that you have spoken to various organizations about your family’s daring escape through the Berlin Wall and the East German checkpoints. But tell me about the skepticism you faced when addressing school audiences and other groups of young people and students.

Mr. Wolter: It really depends on what kind of an audience you talk to. If it’s a group of supporters of the party that developed from the former East German Communist party, you hear arguments to defend what happened. East Germany had to “protect” its society and borders against what they termed “imperialist influences and invaders.” The Stasi [the feared and hated East German Secret Police] activities were a necessary part of defense toward the enemy within, they believed.

People in the deep West and South of Germany who never visited East Germany sometimes lack the ability to visualize the communist reality. They usually listen silently and don’t deny what they hear. 

Younger crowds are sometimes politically determined and are not willing to hear facts that don’t fit with their left-of-center worldviews.

Some of the young American students at a German summer school in Vermont were in disbelief regarding some indisputable facts I presented them. 

Mr. Stupp: Do you have any thoughts on how we can help students and young people to simply accept or at least be open to the truth about life under communism and other dictatorships?

Mr. Wolter: Archives and personal testimonials documenting the conditions of life under dictatorships and documenting the crimes of undemocratic authorities should never be closed or silenced. It’s important to present these records to young generations in an objective, dispassionate, and unbiased way. 

I think Germany has done a good job teaching the public, including young people, about the crimes of the Nazi regime and the fate of its victims. It is vital to keep those memories alive, and an accurate history should open eyes and ears and make people alert for the dangers of repetition of cruel and inhumane regimes.

Mr. Stupp: As a newly-retired diplomat who had real-life experience with communism, what concerns you most as you look out at the world in 2019?

Mr. Wolter: Communists determine and tell people how to behave and what to think and say. They claim the right to determine what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right or wrong. Whoever doesn’t follow these strict definitions can suffer fatal consequences. 

I see tendencies of a growing intolerance toward different opinions when they are publicly expressed, and sometimes in private conversations, too. Political topics like migration, climate change, or racism are examples. Unacceptable and dangerous fanaticism is a development we see at educational institutions in the U.S. and more and more in Europe, too. 

Radical student groups protest violently against a scheduled [commencement] speaker who might have a controversial opinion on a subject. The intolerance of protesters is bad, but even worse is when universities give in and disinvite criticized speakers. The dominant rule over public speech can be a first step to damage democracy and establish a dictatorship. Educational institutions should be places of discourse and dialogue, places to learn and practice critical thinking, and not places that back down in the face of controversy.

(The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)

Mounting Protests

During the 1980s, as President Ronald Reagan was funding new weapons systems, increasing defense spending, and partnering with Chancellor Helmut Kohl to deploy medium-range missiles in West Germany, many Soviet leaders realized they couldn’t keep pace with the challenges posed by the U.S. and its allies.

The Soviet Union, due to deaths in office, experienced four general secretaries of the Communist Party in short order, from 1982 to 1985. They finally selected Mikhail Gorbachev as their fourth leader, and before long, his policies essentially acknowledged the Soviets’ inability to meet the Reagan challenge.

President Ronald Reagan addresses the people of West Berlin at the base of the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. The President’s words could also be heard on the eastern side of the wall. “Tear down this wall!” he said to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. His address that day is considered by many to have affirmed the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism. (MIKE SARGENT/AFP via Getty Images)

Domestically, Gorbachev ushered in policies of “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring), which included limited private business development and other freedoms, from 1985 through 1988. But as these changes were taking hold across the Soviet bloc, the East German communists were among the last hard-liners. 

Protests mounted in Poland, Hungary, and other communist-bloc nations, eventually leading to unrest in East Germany. Though suppressed for over 40 years, church pastors were among the key organizers of demonstrations demanding freedoms and an end to the communist dictatorship. 

One who was unsettled by all this was Erich Honecker, the long-time general secretary of the East German Communist Party. More in tune with the ruthless totalitarians running Cuba and North Korea, Honecker pleaded with Mikhail Gorbachev to dispatch Soviet troops to East Germany in order to put down the protests. After all, the Russians sent tanks and troops to Czechoslovakia to depose reformers in 1968, as they had in Hungary in 1956. This time, Gorbachev refused, and the dictatorships in Poland and Hungary fell in 1989, leading to free elections.

The Berlin Wall, justified by dictator Honecker as “our anti-fascist protection rampart,” suddenly seemed pregnable itself. Cheered on by late-1980s concerts from David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and David Hasselhoff near the Wall, the demonstrations grew in size and frequency.

East Meets West

Finally, on Nov. 9, 1989, East Berlin party boss Guenter Schabowski appeared at a news conference with a mission of interpreting the government’s new policies on emigration. He began reading that the communist state would “allow citizens to exit East Germany and East Berlin.” When asked when this order would become official policy, Schabowski ad-libbed, in error, and said that “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”

West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early Nov. 11, 1989, as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square. Two days before, Gunter Schabowski, the East Berlin Communist Party boss, declared that starting from midnight, East Germans would be free to leave the country without permission at any point along the border, including the crossing-points through the Wall in Berlin. (GERARD MALIE/AFP via Getty Images)

Though broadcast primarily by the free West German television stations, these programs were routinely (though illegally) accessed by East Germans. Within hours and sometimes minutes, thousands of East Berliners massed at the Wall and the key checkpoints leading to the West. The newly empowered Easterners shouted, “Schabowski said so.” The normally deadpan border guards, overwhelmed by the throngs yet still under “shoot to kill” orders, capitulated and allowed the crowds to move forward and through to the West. Some joined in the merriment.

Before long, East Berliners were hugging their long-estranged neighbors in the West, as others climbed on top of the wall to celebrate. As NBC’s Tom Brokaw (by chance in Berlin on assignment) reported from the just-breached Wall, my mother in Queens cried tears of joy for the Berliners she left behind 42 years earlier.

East Berliners climb onto the Berlin Wall to celebrate the effective end of the city’s partition, Dec. 31, 1989. (Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Although not among the protesters on that Nov. 9, one young East German Ph.D. in quantum chemistry, Angela Merkel, joined the pro-democracy movement by December, and went on to greater things in politics.

Events continued to move quickly, with the Brandenburg Gate re-opened on Dec. 22, truly democratic elections occurring throughout East Germany on March 18, 1990, the demolition of the Wall beginning in June, and the formal merger of the former East with the democratic West happening on Oct. 3, 1990. This “Day of German Unity” has been a national holiday ever since.

When in Berlin, one can visit an array of museums and memorials that catalog the horrors of the Nazis’ 12-year reign of terror. And to understand the cruelty of the Wall and the barbarism during the 45-year run of East German communism, there are also interesting, poignant options.

There is the DDR Museum and also the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, right near that chokepoint between east and west. Off the beaten path near Berlin’s eastern city limits is the Gedenkstaette Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen, an actual Stasi prison and interrogation center, preserved for visitors. The East Germans took possession of this facility in 1951 from the occupying Soviets, and it held political prisoners until 1990.

Committed anti-totalitarian though I have been my entire life, the Stasi prison and memorial was even more chilling than I had imagined. Tours are offered, with the most popular docents being former prisoners at Hohenschoenhausen. Occasionally, even in 2019, a former Stasi prison guard will challenge a tour guide with a variation of “those people deserved to be here.”

In an otherwise vibrant and beautiful city, the immediate neighborhood surrounding the Stasi prison offers classic examples of drab, Soviet-style, substandard apartments. There, you can imagine life from 1961 until late 1989 in East Berlin, where if you stepped out of line, you faced prison and torture, and if you were an ordinary, compliant citizen, you lived to work where assigned, accepted minimal consumer choices, and dared not dream of free expression, real elections, or the right to worship. And the coup de grace: that Wall compelled you to surrender all hope of another life.

Though not explicitly about the Wall, there are at least two films that give us a picture of life under communism in East Berlin. A comedy about the transition from dictatorship to freedom is “Good Bye Lenin!” which won the 2003 European Film Award for “Best Film.” In 2006, a gripping movie that centers on Stasi surveillance of East Berlin residents was “The Lives of Others.” It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film that year, and launched the career of Sebastian Koch, now a star in the “Homeland” series.

So aside from actually visiting Berlin, how best to commemorate this 30th anniversary of the destruction of an edifice that actually prevented the free movement of peoples, trapping millions in an all-controlling system of evil?

Watching a movie or documentary, reading a book, and listening to actual former East Germans are all valid, interesting, and potentially emotional ways to gauge just how “total” this now-defunct form of German and Soviet totalitarianism was. But as socialism becomes more acceptable in polite society chatter, it is worth hearkening back to Jochen Wolter’s advice that we remain vigilant against any rise in despotic ideas and systems.

Certainly, people like Wolter, my mother, and many millions of witnesses know… and remember. 

Herbert W. Stupp served in the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and was a commissioner serving in the Cabinet of NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. His mother was a refugee from East Berlin.

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