They were West German boys on a school trip. He was a young man desperate to escape from East Germany. Thirty five years later, they tell their story
It’s December 1984, a few weeks before Christmas. Tina Kirschner and Barbara Kahlke, two 17 -year-olds from West Germany, are sitting on a creaking red bus headed for the socialist part of their subdivided country. They’re on a school trip, and the mood is boisterous: virtually 40 teenagers singing along to Duran Duran. But once they cross the heavily patrolled margin, actuality reaches. The world-wide they’re entering feels alien and forbidding. All around them, slogans celebrate the glorious achievements of the German Democratic Republic( GDR ). Yet as they pass through the disintegrate municipality cores, the stores are empty. Here, merely a couple of hours from their little hometown of Marburg, people ought to have queueing for basic groceries.
In a carefully staged encounter with local students, the girls are told that their thoughts are wrong, that life here is good. When the East Germans insist that even their version of Coca-Cola is better than the west’s, the projected rapprochement descends into a battle over soft drink. Tina and Barbara are unsettled by the constant propaganda, the tyrannical flavour. It’s almost like visiting an open-air prison; after all, the people around them can’t leave. Most of those who try to escape to the west are arrested and incarcerated. Some are shot, or blown up by mines in the death strip.
One day, the teenagers inspect the medieval metropolitan of Erfurt for a sight-seeing tour. As some of them mill around the bus, a towering, gangly soul in his 20 s approachings, establishing himself as Bernd Bergmann. The girlfriends are astonished to learn he was born in Marburg, before his mother took him to the GDR as a child. When he discerned their Marburg number plate, he wondered if they might know a friend of his.
The girls are hesitant at first, hesitant what to induce of him. But they are also curious, and Tina and a couple of others arrange to meet him in a cafe later in the day. Bernd tells them he’s desperate to join his friend in Marburg. He has applied for an exit permit many times, but has always been rejected. Now he’s considered a troublemaker. He’s lost his job, and is being bothered by the Stasi, the East German secret service. Tina is outraged: how can both governments exactly fasten its beings up? The friends agree to meet Bernd again in the night, in a boisterou subterranean rail where they can talk more freely.
Later, the girls climb into the empty bus. Someone says, half joking: what if we take him across? For now, it’s just a speculation experiment, almost a game. They look around the bus and notice a half-broken seat in the back row that can be tipped forward. One of them crawls into the space behind it. The others walk around the bus and check that she can’t be seen through the back window.
Yes, they thoughts- this could work. At least, in theory.
It sounds like a cross between a John le Carre thriller and the Famous Five: the schoolchildren who tried to breach the iron curtain. I stumbled across their story by chance, because I too grew up in Marburg, a quiet university city on the banks of the river Lahn. My brother went to the same school as Tina and Barbara. Through old words and institution reports, and Stasi records, I pieced together what happened- how their giddy operation turned into a cold-war drama, triggered a small war at their school, and concluded with their teacher being put on a secret service watch list. I tracked down that teach, the schoolgirls, and the three men ready to jeopardy all is get out.
It might seem odd, to arrange an outing to a totalitarianism, but at the time of the school trip, east-west relations had been thawing a bit. It manifested the contradictions of that era- the desire for a rapprochement despite the intense antagonism, and the fact that numerous Germans had personal ties to the other side.
Barbara’s father, for example, was a refugee from the eastern German states that are now part of Poland, arriving in West Germany at the end of the battle. Her mother was from East Germany, but left before their own borders was sealed. They loathed the discord, but there was another factor that pricked Barbara’s shame. Like all German adolescents, she’d learned about the country’s Nazi past at academy, and the importance of moral courage. Indeed, the school trip to the GDR included a stay to a former Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald. Barbara often wondered what she would have done back then: look away, or withstand?
When I talk to her at her home near Hamburg, she tells me she had a clear sense that promote Bernd was the right thing to do.” I think we just saw this amazing opportunity ,” she says. She describes the students’ finding:” We’re doing this, we’re going to pulling this off .”
Later that night, the girls sneaked out of their student lodging and into Bernd’s waiting Trabant. Barbara recollects being intrigued by the idea of the underground bar, and thinking that they might dance a bit. But in the car, the mood turned serious. Bernd signalled to them not to speak, in case the Trabant was bugged.
In the bar, they clustered in a corner. The daughters told him about the hiding place. The more they spoke, the more certain they were about the plan.
The next day, pretending simple interest, the girls expected their navigates about border checks. They were told there were no heat sensors or pups at the checkpoint they would be using, a rural traverse at Wartha-Herleshausen. Reassured, they mail Bernd a telegram from a united states post office: a Christmas greeting, a prearranged be pointed out that the intention was on. As a precaution, they then burned their tone with his address.
By now, their little group had grown to almost a dozen people; other classmates had get air of the program. That night, there was a heated discussion about the risks, and the girls decided to call it off. They would have to let Bernd down that morning, in person.