They were West German adolescents 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 progressive part of their subdivided country. They’re on a school trip, and the mood is unruly: nearly 40 teenagers singing along to Duran Duran. But formerly they cross the heavily patrolled margin, actuality affects. The world they’re registering feels alien and forbidding. All around them, slogans celebrate the glorious achievements of the German Democratic Republic( GDR ). Yet as they pass across the crumple city cores, the patronizes are empty. Here, simply a couple of hours from their little hometown of Marburg, beings ought to have queueing for basic groceries.

In a carefully staged meeting with neighbourhood students, the girls are told that their marks 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 planned reconciliation descends into a battle over soft drinks. Tina and Barbara are unsettled by the constant propaganda, the authoritarian atmosphere. It’s almost like call 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 fatality strip.

One day, the girls call the medieval municipality of Erfurt for a sight-seeing tour. As some of them mill around the bus, a towering, gangly follower in his 20 s approachings, establishing himself as Bernd Bergmann. The daughters are astonished to learn he was born in Marburg, before his mother took him to the GDR as small children. When he discerned their Marburg number plate, he wondered if they might know a friend of his.

The daughters are hesitant at first, apprehensive what the hell is stimulate of him. But they are also strange, 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 occupation, and is being beset by the Stasi, the East German secret service. Tina is outraged: how can both governments exactly fasten its people up? The friends agree to meet Bernd again in the night, in a boisterou underground 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 recalled experiment, almost a game. They look around the bus and notice a half-broken seat in the back sequence that they are able to 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 believe- 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 also grew up in Marburg, a quiet university township on the banks of the river Lahn. My brother went to the same school as Tina and Barbara. Through old characters and academy reports, and Stasi records, I pieced together what happened- how their giddy duty turned into a cold-war drama, provoked a small war at their academy, and ended with their teach being put on a secret service watch list. I tracked down that educator, the schoolgirls, and the three men prepared to jeopardy all is get out.

It might seem curious, to arrange an outing to a dictatorship, but at the time of the school trip, east-west relations had been thawing a bit. It reflected the inconsistencies of that age- the wishes for a rapprochement despite the intense struggle, and the fact that many 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, arrived here West Germany at the end of the war. Her mother was from East Germany, but left before the border was closed. They abhorred the split, but there was another factor that pricked Barbara’s conscience. 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 visit to a former Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald. Barbara often wondered what she would have done back then: look away, or fight?

When I am speaking to her at her residence near Hamburg, she tells me she had a clear sense that facilitate Bernd was the right thing to do.” I think we just saw this amazing opportunity ,” she says. She describes the students’ resolution:” We’re doing this, we’re going to pull this off .”

Later that evening, the girls sneaked out of their student lodging and into Bernd’s waiting Trabant. Barbara remembers 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 huddled in a corner. The daughters told him about the hiding place. The more they spoke, the more particular they were about the plan.

The next day, claiming simple interest, the girls requested their templates about border checks. They were told there were no heat sensors or puppies at the checkpoint they would be using, a urban span at Wartha-Herleshausen. Reassured, they sent Bernd a telegram from a local post office: a Christmas greeting, a prearranged signal that the proposal was on. As a precaution, they then burned their greenback with his address.

By now, their little radical had grown to almost a dozen parties; other classmates had gone jazz of the schedule. That night, there was a heated discussion about possible risks, and the girls decided to call it off. They would have to let Bernd down that morning, in person.

The
The academy bus during the trip. A half-broken seat on the back row( where Barbara Kahlke is drawn) afforded the hide space for Bernd. Photograph: Courtesy of Jurgen Beier

On their final morning, they visited the Wartburg, a medieval castling. Barbara went on the tour of the castle, retaining an seeing on the teaches. Tina and the others remained on the bus, feigning sickness, so they could inform Bernd of the change in plan.” But then he was there, with all his stuff, and we had parked so conveniently, and it all seemed so easy. We decided at the last minute to pull it off ,” Tina tells me when I catch up with her on the phone.

The bus had stopped under an archway, sheltered from spectators. Tina and the others expected the motorist to open the back door for fresh air. One of them chit-chat to the driver, while the others let Bernd in through the back. The teenagers stood in the aisle to block the view. Bernd folded his almost 2m frame into the hidden space, and the girls piled their coats on top.

When the rest of the group returned from their tour, the helpers promptly occupied the back row. One girl happened to have some tranquillisers with her, and Barbara popped half a capsule to stay calm. The bus drew out of the parking lots.” There was no turn around ,” Tina recalls.” He was lying there in the back, and nothing knew anything- only us .”

As they approached their own borders, Tina and the others sang along to Tina Turner at the top of their expressions to soothe their nerves, Private Dancer and I Can’t Stand The Rain. The bus stopped for lunch. Suddenly, there was a knock on the window: East German police.” That completely floored me. We reputed,’ Oh my God, we’re busted ,'” Tina says.

But the policemen were interested only in the motorist; he’d parked naughtily and was told to move the bus. When they reached the checkpoint shortly afterwards, a uniformed sentry got on to check their passports. He strolled straight-shooting down the alley, towards Barbara.” I “wouldve been” feel my heart defeat ,” she says.” I was really scared. Because he was standing right in front of us, merely a metre from Bernd .”

There was a knocking reverberate from outside: more guards, tapping the bus to check for concealed concealing infinites. Barbara tried to hide her panic. The sentry paused, handed over their passports, turned back and left the bus.

The doors shut. They swept the border.

Some 20 minutes later, one of their friends are caught up the onboard mic and announced:” Our guest today, live in our testify: Bernd Bergmann from the GDR !”

Barbara has a clear image of Bernd popping up from behind the back seat. Blood was percolating down the two sides of his chin. In his hiding place, decreasing from the guards as they knocked on the outside of the bus, “hes had” bitten his lip.

Tina says she felt like a hero.” We applauded, we were beside ourselves, we were super happy, which was totally stupid because that’s how we -” She pauses.” That’s how that whole institution campaign started .”

***

” School War” was one newspaper headline in the weeks that followed.” Marburg Schoolchildren’s Tragedy” was another. Decades later, it was unable to to solely make sense of how the town’s political faultlines were uncovered. Some of the helpers on the trip had now been died, as have two of the coaches. Those who are alive, and willing to talk, still seem scarred by the experience.

In his sunny, tranquil living room, Jurgen Beier pauses and meridians up my coffee. The retired educator still lives near the school where he schooled for decades, in an idyllic neighbourhood of Marburg. He has a vivid remembrance of the moment a stranger emerged from the back row of his school bus. He likens it to a car disintegrate; all he could think about was what to do next. His students were celebrating, but he had to consider the practicalities: what should they do with Bernd now? What should they tell the parents, and the authorities concerned? He knew this would have ramifications far beyond their little town.

” You don’t endanger your classmates and your teachers ,” he says,” no matter how good your intents .” Beier had is an element of the trip’s organisers. He’d dream their academy, the Steinmuhle, might even partner with an East German school, given the thawing political relationship.” That certainly turned out to be rather naive ,” he says.” With hindsight, you get the impression that we were under constant surveillance .”

The school had to book the journey through a GDR-friendly travel agency, and a is part of a communist organisation in Marburg had to accompany them throughout.” I don’t think he was a spy ,” Beier says of the minder.” He was more or less a guarantee for the other side, that everything was a bit under control .”

Others did spy on the group, though. After Germany’s reunification, Beier found out through the freshly opened Stasi archive that snitches had hindered an seeing on the journey. Yet they’d somehow missed the fleck where the adolescents hid an East German fugitive under their coats.

It was Beier who had to deal with the immediate aftermath of Bernd’s escape. After talking to the East German on the bus, he explained to his students what this signify for everyone. Legally, the situation was clear. Helping him had been a crime until they had intersected their own borders. In West Germany, it was no longer a crime: their government considered all Germans its citizens. The bus put Bernd off at a police headquarters where he could formally enter information systems, and in legal terms, he was free.

But the group had still gave themselves in gigantic danger. In this tight surveillance country, 80% of escapees were arrested before they even reached the border. For the GDR, defections were a public mortification. Failed escapees and their helpers were punished harshly. Merely a couple of days before the tour, a West German mayor had been arrested by East German police for his minor role in an attempted escape times earlier; he was sentenced to six years in jail.

In the weeks after the tour, the West German government advised the both teachers and students’ houses not to travel to the GDR. For Beier, this propose not given the opportunity to drive through the transit passage to see his best friend in West Berlin. Another schoolteacher on the expedition had a sister in the GDR, whom she could no longer visit.

Bernd
Bernd Bergmann and Barbara Kahlke reunited after 30 times. They are drawn outside the school in Marburg where the drama began. Photograph: Daniel Stier/ The Guardian

We go through a load of old school reports Beier has photocopied for me, all neatly named. One crucial report is missing. We go down to his study in the cellar to find it. He rummages around, and pushes a dark-brown cardboard folder from a shelf. It’s a copy of a released 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”, a person who is promotions an escapee( it is in quotation marks as it was a West German period; East Germany announced such aides human traffickers ). His relationship to the GDR is characterised as” touristic, unfriendly “. He is categorised as an” operator of a subversive organisation “. The file also says that an alarm is to be issued should Beier ever re-enter the GDR. Attached to it is a Russian translation, since the order applied to all countries behind the iron curtain.

***

“Shit!” utters Barbara when I tell her about Beier’s Stasi file.” The good boy .”

We are sitting in her family home in the small town of Bargteheide, near Hamburg, where she works as an creator. Around us are her carves and dreamlike landscape paintings. With Beier’s permission, I present Barbara his record. She had no idea; it was released by she left Marburg.

” That’s a nightmare for a educator, definitely ,” she says of the flee. 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 masterminds of the hope. Barbara said nothing:” What was I supposed to do now, make a cross against my own mention ?” 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 teaches heartless, and strangers sent frantic characters. Legislators publicly supported the students; far-left articles criticized them. What had been a personal decision became a weapon 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 educators. All their lives they had been told to be brave in the face of injustice. Now they were being treated like criminals.

After weeks in conflict situations, the threat of expulsion was softened to 16 hours of community service. The frictions punched Tina hard-boiled:” I was quite emotionally feelings back then, and all of that are actually confused and upset me. At some time I simply couldn’t take it any more .” She fell out of school, two years before she would have graduated.

Barbara continued. The next academic year brought different teaches. She started to feel better, graduated, left Marburg to study medicine and then took up painting. 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, meets 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 guess I would have done the same .” Barbara searches amazed, proud, and somewhat unsettled.

What about the risks, I question Luci. She pauses.” I thoughts I would have taken the health risks. 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 bitterness:” 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 flourished 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 this article. Often, his wife, Birgit, picks up the phone. Birgit was Bernd’s girlfriend back in Erfurt, and according to German press reports, he prevented her in the dark about the escape. Yet she apparently forgave him, later join him in the west. A got a couple of duration I ask after her area of affairs, but she gently avoids my questions.

Then, months after our first contact, I call her to verify some facts. When we get to the part where Bernd apparently remained his proposes from her, she pauses.” I knew about the escape ,” she says eventually. She carefully weighs her paroles, and contributes:” I guess you can write about that these days – it’s harmless now .”

What she tells me next takes me wholly by surprise. At the time of Bernd’s escape, Birgit was 23 years old. She loved her enterprise as a educator, her friends and family. She felt that by are concentrated 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 dictatorship; he wanted to live in a democracy. Birgit recollects how much he hankered to live in the west, how determined he was to get there.

Immediately after he fulfilled the girls from Marburg, he informed her about the hope. Her firstly reaction was to try to stop him.” Of route I craved 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, extremely. And if he was caught, she said that his delegation supported him, and visit him in prison.

It was Birgit, nonetheless, who virtually property in jail. After Bernd’s escape, the Stasi interrogated her and their own families. 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 occupation as a schoolteacher. Despite the intense pres, she managed to persuade the Stasi that she knew good-for-nothing. She accepted months of surveillance, inquisitions and menaces. 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 awarded an exit countenance, and met him in Marburg.

” We were so much in love, and that gave us strength ,” she says.” He is the love of my life. And vice versa. I intend, we’re still together! It’s lasted .”

By now I have heard from all the exponents- 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 interrogation together with Barbara in Hamburg, but again mutates his attention. We talk informally several times, and I listen his floor 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 accolade and praise for Tina and Barbara. But he too recalls how crushed he and his wife were when they later consulted their Stasi records, and read about the extent of their surveillance. It still puzzles me how the secret services 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 bunch of teens in a shabby red bus?

During our final phone call, I ask Bernd why he was so desperate to live in the west.” Ich wollte Freiheit ,” he says:” I missed democracy .” A few weeks later, he unexpectedly agreed to accept a reunion with Barbara. They gratify at the place where it all began, the Steinmuhle school in Marburg, having not seen each other in about three decades. I call Barbara afterwards to hear how it croaked. In her pacify, musing course, she says it was lovely to see Bernd again, and to talk about the escape. Throughout our interrogations, she has been very modest about her character in it, reluctant to be in the spotlight. But toward the end of the entitle, she says calmly:” That was a pretty great operation .”

* Sophie Hardach’s novel, ConfessionWith Blue Horses, about a girl growing up in East Berlin, will be published 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.

If you would like a comment on this section to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s words page in reproduce, delight email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for booklet ).

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