Bernd Bergmann and Barbara Kahlke reunited after 30 years. They are drawn outside the school in Marburg where the drama began. Photograph: Daniel Stier/ The Guardian
We go through a stack of old school reports Beier has photocopied for me, all neatly labelled. One crucial record is missing. We go down to his study in the cellar to find it. He ransacks around, and pushes a dark-brown cardboard folder from a shelf. It’s a replica of a exhausted secret service file – his own.
It shows that, after the escape, the Stasi concluded that Beier had been the ringleader. Their report on the incident announces him a “Fluchthelfer”, someone who promotions an escapee( this is the case in quotation marks as it was a West German word; East Germany called such aides human traffickers ). His relationship to the GDR is characterised as” touristic, unfriendly “. He is categorised as an” hustler of a insurgent organisation “. The register also says that an notify is to be issued should Beier ever re-enter the GDR. Attached to it is a Russian translation, since the ordering applied to all countries behind the iron curtain.
“Shit!” declares Barbara when I tell her about Beier’s Stasi file.” The poor soldier .”
We are sitting in her family home in the small town of Bargteheide, near Hamburg, where she works as an master. Around us are her carves and dreamlike landscape paintings. With Beier’s allow, I present Barbara his record. She had no idea; it was released after she left Marburg.
” That’s a nightmare for a coach, definitely ,” she says of the escape. But she still feels that the school reacted too harshly. The students were questioned in front of the entire staff, and later given a warning with the threat of expulsion. One by one, they were asked to name the conceives of the schedule. Barbara said nothing:” What was I supposed to do, make a cross against my own refer ?” The radical stuck together. They wrote an confession to their teachers and peers, explaining that they’d helped Bernd ” out of humanity “. Parents weighed in, protecting their own children. Newspapers called the coaches heartless, and strangers communicated frantic letters. Politicians publicly supported the students; far-left papers criticized them. What had been a personal decision became a artillery in the east-west standoff.
For the school, there was one particular source of awkwardness.” There were at least three teachers who had very friendly feelings towards the GDR ,” Beier says. He insists that these teachers did not influence the school’s position. But Barbara and Tina both recall a distinct animosity from GDR-sympathising schoolteachers. All their lives they had been told to be brave in the face of injustice. Now they were being treated like criminals.
After weeks of conflict, the threat of expulsion was softened to 16 hours of community service. The frictions smacked Tina hard-handed:” I was quite emotionally sensitive back then, and all of that is actually confused and disturbed me. At some phase I exactly couldn’t take it any more .” She lowered out of school, two years before she would have graduated.
Barbara continued. The next academic year brought different teachers. She started to feel better, graduated, left Marburg to study medicine and then took up coating. Today, she still wonders if they could have freed Bernd without putting others at risk.
We pause our interview for a lunch of soup and apple strudel. Barbara’s youngest daughter, 12 -year-old Luci, connects us. I ask her what she makes of her mum’s decision.” I think it’s good that she did it ,” she says, confidently.” I consider I would have been able to done the same .” Barbara searches astounded, proud, and somewhat unsettled.
What about the risks, I request Luci. She interrupts.” I reckon I would have taken that risk. Because if it had been me in his position, and they had said no, I would have been very sad .”
Tina has also told her children about the flee. She lives in Bali, where she works as an interior designer. Despite the personal cost, she has no regrets:” I’m just proud that we got him across, that it was a success, that we helped him. Because he merely didn’t want to be over there .”
But what of Bergmann? The escapee from the GDR thrived in his new home. He now lopes a successful insurance business in Marburg, and regularly drives along his old escape route to see patrons in the former East Germany. For those he left behind, it was a different story.
I call Bernd several times while experimenting such articles. Often, his wife, Birgit, picks up the phone. Birgit was Bernd’s girlfriend back in Erfurt, and according to German press reports, he impeded her in the dark about the flee. Yet she apparently forgave him, later link him in the west. A couple of duration I ask after her line-up of affairs, but she gently avoids my questions.
Then, months after our first contact, I announce her to verify some facts. When we get to the part where Bernd apparently obstructed his programmes from her, she pauses.” I knew about the escape ,” she says eventually. She carefully weighs her terms, and includes:” I guess you can write about that these days – it’s harmless now .”
What she tells me next takes me entirely by surprise. At the time of Bernd’s escape, Birgit was 23 years old. She enjoyed her activity as a teacher, her friends and family. She felt that by focusing on those things, it was possible to carve out a good life in the eastern part, to be happy there. But Bernd was different. He did not want to live in a totalitarianism; he wanted to live in a republic. Birgit recalls how much he wanted to live in the west, how determined “hes to” get there.
Immediately after he satisfied the girls from Marburg, he informed her about the program. Her first reaction was to try to stop him.” Of route I required him to stay, that was obvious. Because I didn’t know when we’d see one another again. It could have been a farewell for ever ,” she says. In the end they made a pact: if he reached the west, he would find a way to get her out, very. And if he was caught, she would support him, and visit him in prison.
It was Birgit, however, who virtually landed in jail. After Bernd’s escape, the Stasi interrogated her and her family. She was told that if she refused to talk, her mothers would lose their jobs. Again and again she was questioned. She was sacked from her position as a teacher. Despite the intense pressure, she managed to persuade the Stasi that she knew good-for-nothing. She weathered months of surveillance, interrogations and threats. She and Bernd were able to write to each other, and speak on the phone, but all their exchanges were monitored. In 1986, she was finally conceded an depart countenance, and assembled him in Marburg.
” We were so much in love, and that gave us strength ,” she says.” He is the adoration of “peoples lives”. And vice versa. I mean, we’re still together! It’s lasted .”
By now I have heard from all the supporters- except Bernd. At first he tells me he will only be interviewed in person. We arrange to meet in Marburg, but then he cancels. He hints doing the interview together with Barbara in Hamburg, but again changes his subconsciou. We talk informally several times, and I hear his storey in scraps down a patchy mobile phone line. He was so desperate to leave, he says at one point, that his alternative plan was to steal a helicopter from a Russian air base. He is full of praise and affection for Tina and Barbara. But he likewise echoes how crushed he and his wife were when they later consulted their Stasi records, and read about the extent of their surveillance. It still perplexes me how the secret service missed his contact with the Marburg group. Perhaps the whole mission came together too quickly for them to intervene: within three days, he was out. And who would suspect a cluster of teenages in a squalid red bus?
During our final telephone call, I request Bernd why he was so desperate to live in the west.” Ich wollte Freiheit ,” he says:” I craved discretion .” A few weeks earlier, he accidentally agreed to accept a reunion with Barbara. They satisfy at the place where it all began, the Steinmuhle school in Marburg, having not seen each other in about three decades. I announce Barbara afterwards to hear how it departed. In her tranquilize, astute acces, she says it was lovely to see Bernd again, and to talk about the escape. Throughout our interviews, she has been very modest about her persona in it, reluctant to be in the spotlight. But toward the end of the label, she says softly:” That was a pretty great operation .”
* Sophie Hardach’s novel, ConfessionWith Blue Horses, about a girl growing up in East Berlin, will be available on 13 June by Head of Zeus. She will be talking about this story on the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast on Monday 13 May.
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