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 week 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 divided country. They’re on a school trip, and the climate is rambunctious: virtually 40 girls singing along to Duran Duran. But formerly they cross the heavily patrolled margin, reality makes. The nature 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 crumble municipality cores, the stores are empty. Here, merely a couple of hours from their little hometown of Marburg, beings have been queueing for basic groceries.
In a carefully staged meeting with local students, the girls are told that their notions are wrong, that life here is good. When the East Germans insist that even their form of Coca-Cola is better than the west’s, the proposed rapprochement descends into a battle over soft drink. Tina and Barbara are unsettled by the constant propaganda, the authoritarian flavour. It’s almost like see 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 jailed. Some are shot, or blown up by excavations in the death strip.
One day, the boys inspect the medieval municipality of Erfurt for a sight-seeing tour. As some of them mill around the bus, a towering, gangly male in his 20 s approachings, acquainting himself as Bernd Bergmann. The girls are astonished to learn he was born in Marburg, before his mother took him to the GDR as a child. When he recognized their Marburg number plate, he wondered if they might know a friend of his.
The girlfriends are hesitant at first, undecided what the hell is manufacture of him. But they are also curious, and Tina and a couple of others arrange to meet him in a coffeehouse later in the working 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 attacked by the Stasi, the East German secret service. Tina is outraged: how can both governments only fastening its beings up? The friends agree to meet Bernd again in the night, in a noisy underground saloon 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 remember experimentation, 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 visualize- 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 city on the banks of the river Lahn. My brother went to the same school as Tina and Barbara. Through old letters and institution reports, and Stasi records, I pieced together what happened- how their giddy assignment be transformed into a cold-war drama, prompted a small war at their school, and ended with their schoolteacher being put on a secret service watch list. I tracked down that teach, the schoolgirls, and the man ready to threat everything to get out.
It might seem odd, 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 oppositions of that era- 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 provinces 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 shut. They abhorred the divide, but there was another factor that pricked Barbara’s shame. Like all German girls, she’d learned about the country’s Nazi past at institution, and the importance of moral courage. Indeed, the school trip to the GDR included a inspect to a former Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald. Barbara often wondered what she would have done back then: look away, or resist?
When I talking about here her at her dwelling near Hamburg, she tells me she had a clear sense that encourage Bernd was the right thing to do.” I think we just saw this amazing opportunity ,” she says. She describes the students’ decide:” We’re doing this, we’re going to pull this off .”
Later that evening, the girls sneaked out of their youth hostel 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 feeling turned serious. Bernd signalled to them not to speak, in case the Trabant was bugged.
In the bar, they huddled in a corner. The girls told him about the hiding place. The more they spoke, the more certain they were about the plan.
The next day, claiming simple curiosity, the girls expected their guidebooks about border checks. They were told there were no heat sensors or hounds at the checkpoint they would be using, a urban cover at Wartha-Herleshausen. Reassured, they cast Bernd a telegram from a local post office: a Christmas greeting, a prearranged be pointed out that the scheme was on. As a precaution, they then burned their mention with his address.
By now, their little radical had grown to almost a dozen parties; other classmates had get gale of the contrive. 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.