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.

The
The school bus during the trip. A half-broken seat on the back sequence( where Barbara Kahlke is painted) added the disguise seat for Bernd. Photograph: Courtesy of Jurgen Beier

On their final morning, they visited the Wartburg, a medieval castle. Barbara went on the tour of the castling, maintaining an attention on the coaches. Tina and the others stood on the bus, feigning sickness, so they could inform Bernd of the change in plan.” But then he was there, with all his nonsense, 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 questioned the driver 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 teens stood in the aisle to block the view. Bernd folded his almost 2m frame into the hidden space, and the girls piled their coatings on top.

When the rest of the group returned from their tour, the helpers rapidly occupied the back sequence. One girl happened to have some tranquillisers with her, and Barbara popped half a capsule to stay calm. The bus plucked out of the parking lots.” There was no turning back ,” Tina recollects.” He was lying there in the back, and nothing knew anything- exactly us .”

As they approached the border, Tina and the others sang along to Tina Turner at the priorities in their singers to mollify 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 absolutely floored me. We contemplated,’ Oh my God, we’re busted ,'” Tina says.

But the policemen were interested merely in the motorist; he’d parked seriously and was told to move the bus. When they reached the checkpoint shortly afterwards, a uniformed protect got on to check their passports. He trod straight down the aisle, towards Barbara.” I “wouldve been” feel my soul lick ,” she says.” I was really scared. Because he was standing right in front of us, merely a metre from Bernd .”

There was a knocking racket from outside: more pickets, tapping the bus to check for secreted hiding infinites. Barbara tried to hide her fear. The protector interrupted, be handed over their passports, turned around and left the bus.

The doors shut. They crossed the border.

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

Barbara has a clear image of Bernd popping up from behind the back seat. Blood was trickling 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 was almost like a hero.” We cheered, we were beside ourselves, we were super happy, which was totally stupid because that’s how we -” She hesitates.” That’s how that whole school struggle started .”

***

” School War” was one newspaper headline in the weeks that followed.” Marburg Schoolchildren’s Tragedy” was another. Decades later, it is impossible to exclusively make sense of how the town’s political faultlines were disclosed. Some of the helpers on the errand have all along been died, as have two of the schoolteachers. Those who are alive, and willing to talk, still seem scarred by the experience.

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

” You don’t endanger your classmates and your schoolteachers ,” he says,” no matter how good your purposes .” Beier had been one of the trip’s organisers. He’d thinking their institution, the Steinmuhle, might even partner with an East German school, given the thawing political relationship.” That apparently 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 errand through a GDR-friendly travel agency, and a member of a socialist organisation in Marburg had to accompany them throughout.” I don’t think he was a sleuth ,” 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 recently opened Stasi archive that snitches had impeded an gaze on the trip-up. Yet they’d somehow missed the chip where the teenagers disguised 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 denote for everyone. Legally, the situation was clear. Helping him had been a crime until they had crossed their own borders. In West Germany, it was no longer a crime: their government considered all Germans its citizens. The bus lowered Bernd off at a police headquarters where he could formally enter the system, and in legal terms, he was free.

But the group had still put themselves in gigantic threat. In this tight surveillance district, 80% of escapees were arrested before they even reached the border. For the GDR, defections were a public humiliation. Failed escapees and their helpers were penalise harshly. Merely a couple of days before the trip-up, a West German mayor had detained by East German police for his minor role in an attempted escape times earlier; he was sentenced to six years old in jail.

In the weeks after the journey, the West German government admonished the both teachers and students’ kinfolks not to travel to the GDR. For Beier, this denote not being able to drive through the transport passage to see his best friend in West Berlin. Another schoolteacher on the excursion had a sister in the GDR, whom she could no longer visit.

Bernd
Bernd Bergmann and Barbara Kahlke reunited after 30 times. They are visualized 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 labelled. One crucial report is missing. We go down to his study in the cellar to find it. He rummages around, and drags a dark-brown cardboard folder from a shelf. It’s a reproduce of a liberated 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 assists an escapee( this is the case in quotation marks as it was a West German word; East Germany announced such aids human traffickers ). His relationship to the GDR is characterised as” touristic, unfriendly “. He is categorised as an” operator of a insurgent organisation “. The register also says that an alert is to be issued should Beier ever re-enter the GDR. Attached to it is a Russian translation, since the prescribe applied to all countries behind the iron curtain.

***

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

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 figures and dreamlike landscape paintings. With Beier’s permission, I indicate Barbara his file. She had no idea; it was released by she left Marburg.

” That’s a nightmare for a schoolteacher, obviously ,” 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 intention. Barbara said nothing:” What was I supposed to do, make a cross against my own refer ?” The group stuck together. They wrote an apologetic to their teachers and peers, explaining that they’d helped Bernd ” out of humanity “. Parents weighed in, defending their children. Newspapers called the teachers heartless, and strangers cast ferocious letters. Legislators publicly supported the students; far-left newspapers assaulted 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 insist that these schoolteachers did not influence the school’s position. But Barbara and Tina both recall a distinct animosity from GDR-sympathising teachers. 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 strains stumbled Tina hard-handed:” I was quite emotionally feelings back then, and all of that really disconcerted and disturbed me. At some object I only couldn’t take it any more .” She dropped out of school, two years before she ought to have been graduated.

Barbara persevered. The next academic year brought different coaches. She started to feel better, graduated, left Marburg to study medicine and then took up covering. Today, she still wonders if they are able 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 request her what she makes of her mum’s decision.” I think it’s good that she did it ,” she says, confidently.” I speculate I would have done the same .” Barbara appears astonished, proud, and somewhat unsettled.

What about the risks, I request Luci. She delays.” I speculate I ought to have been taken the health risks. Because if it had been me in its own 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 facilitated him. Because he exactly didn’t want to be over there .”

***

But what of Bergmann? The escapee from the GDR thrived in his new home. He now operates a successful insurance business in Marburg, and regularly drives along his old escape route to see clients in the former Eastern 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 impeded her in the dark about the escape. Yet she apparently forgave him, later link him in the west. A couple of seasons I ask after her surface of incidents, 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 kept his proposes from her, she pauses.” I knew about the escape ,” she says eventually. She carefully weighs her terms, and contributes:” I guess you can write about that these days – it’s harmless now .”

What she tells me next takes me altogether by surprise. At the time of Bernd’s escape, Birgit was 23 years old. She desired her chore as a teacher, her friends and family. She felt that by are concentrated on those things, it was possible to carve out a good life in the east, to be happy there. But Bernd was different. He did not want to live in a tyranny; he wanted to live in a democracy. Birgit reminisces how much he yearned to live in the west, how ascertained “hes to” get there.

Immediately after he matched the girls from Marburg, he informed her about the design. Her first reaction was to try to stop him.” Of route I wanted 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, nonetheless, who virtually landed in prisons. After Bernd’s escape, the Stasi interrogated her and her family. She was told that if she refused to talk, her parents would lose their jobs. Again and again she was questioned. She was sacked from her responsibility as a teach. Despite the intense pressing, she managed to persuade the Stasi that she knew good-for-nothing. She digested months of surveillance, interrogations 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 conceded an depart permit, and joined 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 make, we’re still together! It’s lasted .”

By now I have just 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 sentiment. We talk privately several times, and I hear his narrative 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 likewise remembers 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 linked 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 knot of teens in a shabby red bus?

During our final telephone calls, I expect Bernd why he was so hopeles to live in the west.” Ich wollte Freiheit ,” he says:” I wanted impunity .” A few days later, he unexpectedly agreed to accept a reunion with Barbara. They convene 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 extended. In her allay, intelligent route, 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 capacity in it, reluctant to be in the spotlight. But towards the end of the call, she says quietly:” 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.

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

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