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 divided country. They’re on a school trip, and the mood is rambunctious: nearly 40 teenagers singing along to Duran Duran. But once they cross the heavily guarded border, world hits. The world-wide they’re enrolling feels alien and forbidding. All around them, slogans celebrate the glorious achievements of the German Democratic Republic( GDR ). Yet as they pass across the crumble township cores, the browses are empty. Here, simply 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 planned rapprochement descends into a battle over soft drink. Tina and Barbara are unsettled by the constant propaganda, the despotic sky. 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 prison. Some are shot, or blown up by mines in the extinction strip.

One day, the teens call the medieval municipality of Erfurt for a sight-seeing tour. As some of them mill around the bus, a tall, gangly soul in his 20 s approaches, 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 a child. When he discerned their Marburg number plate, he wondered if they might know a friend of his.

The girlfriends are hesitant at first, distrustful what to see of him. But “its also” curious, and Tina and a couple of others arrange to meet him in a coffeehouse 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 merely lock its people up? The friends agree to meet Bernd again in the night, in a boisterou 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 remembered venture, almost a game. They look around the bus and notice a half-broken seat in the back sequence that is likely to be tip-off 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 speculate- 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 town on the banks of the river Lahn. My brother went to the same school as Tina and Barbara. Through old characters and school reports, and Stasi records, I pieced together what happened- how their giddy duty be converted into a cold-war drama, prompted a small war at their school, and ended with their educator being put on a secret service watch list. I tracked down that teacher, the schoolgirls, and the three men ready to peril everything to get out.

It might seem strange, 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 contradictions of that age- the desire for a rapprochement despite the intense struggle, and the facts of the case that numerous Germans had personal ties to the other side.

Barbara’s father, for example, was a refugee from the eastern German responsibilities 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 sealed. They loathed the separation, but there was another factor that pricked Barbara’s shame. Like all German girls, 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 trip 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 residence near Hamburg, she tells me she had a clear sense that assistance Bernd was the right thing to do.” I think we just saw this amazing opportunity ,” she says. She describes the students’ tenacity:” We’re doing this, we’re going to push this off .”

Later that night, 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 climate 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 her all about the hiding place. The more they talked, the more particular they were about the plan.

The next day, feigning simple interest, the girls expected their steers about border checks. They were told there were no heat sensors or pups at the checkpoint they would be using, a urban sweep at Wartha-Herleshausen. Reassured, they sent Bernd a telegram from a local post office: a Christmas greeting, a prearranged signal that the project was on. As a precaution, they then burned their memo with his address.

By now, their little group had grown to almost a dozen people; other classmates had get gust of the proposal. 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 institution bus during the trip. A half-broken seat on the back sequence( where Barbara Kahlke is portrait) catered the bury room 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, keeping an gaze on the educators. 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 material, and “were having” 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 onlookers. Tina and the others questioned the operator to open the back door for fresh air. One of them chatted to the driver, while the others let Bernd in through the back. The girls stood in the alley to block the view. Bernd folded his almost 2m frame into the hidden space, and the girls piled their hairs on top.

When the rest of the group returned from their tour, the helpers speedily occupied the back row. One girlfriend happened to have some tranquillisers with her, and Barbara popped half a capsule to stay calm. The bus pulled out of the parking lot.” There was no turning back ,” Tina echoes.” He was lying there in the back, and nothing knew anything- just us .”

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

But the policemen were interested merely in the move; 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-shooting down the alley, towards Barbara.” I could really feel my center outdo ,” she says.” I was really scared. Because he was standing right in front of us, simply a metre from Bernd .”

There was a knocking racket from outside: more lookouts, tapping the bus to check for obstructed concealing rooms. Barbara tried to hide her dread. The patrol paused, handed back their passports, turning back and left the bus.

The doors shut. They traversed the border.

Some 20 minutes later, one of their friends picked 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 side of his chin. In his hiding place, shrinking from the guards as they knocked on the outside of the bus, he 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 pauses.” That’s how that whole school conflict started .”

***

” School War” was one newspaper headline in the weeks that followed.” Marburg Schoolchildren’s Tragedy” was another. Decades later, it is impossible to only make sense of how the town’s political faultlines were uncovered. Some of the helpers on the journey had now been died, as have two of the teachers. 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 schoolteacher still lives near the school where he taught for decades, in an idyllic neighbourhood of Marburg. He has a vivid remember of the moment a stranger emerged from the back row of his institution bus. He likens it to a car gate-crash; 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 mothers, and the authorities? He knew this would have forks far beyond their little town.

” You don’t endanger your classmates and your educators ,” he says,” no matter how good your goals .” Beier had become of the trip’s organisers. He’d remember their academy, the Steinmuhle, might even partner with an East German school, given the thawing political relationship.” That clearly 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 trip-up through a GDR-friendly travel agency, and states members of a socialist organisation in Marburg had to accompany them throughout.” I don’t think he was a snoop ,” 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 stopped an gaze on the errand. Yet they’d somehow missed the bit where the teens 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 intended for everyone. Legally, the situation was clear. Helping him had been a crime until they had swept common 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 station where he could formally enter the system, and in legal terms, he was free.

But the group had still made themselves in prodigiou hazard. In this tight surveillance government, 80% of escapees were arrested before they even reached the border. For the GDR, defections were a public shame. Failed escapees and their helpers were penalized harshly. Only a couple of days before the excursion, 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 expedition, the West German authority advised the teachers and students’ kinfolks not to travel to the GDR. For Beier, this aim not being able to drive through the transportation hallway to see his best friend in West Berlin. Another teacher on the journey had a sister in the GDR, whom she could no longer visit.

Bernd
Bernd Bergmann and Barbara Kahlke reunited after 30 years. They are painted 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 certificate is missing. We go down to his study in the cellar to find it. He rummages around, and draws a brown cardboard folder from a shelf. It’s a facsimile 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”, a person who is assistances an escapee( this is the case in quotation marks as it was a West German term; Eastern germany announced such helpers human traffickers ). His relationship to the GDR is characterised as” touristic, unfriendly “. He is categorised as an” operator of a subversive 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 tell applied to all countries behind the iron curtain.

***

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

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 statues and dreamlike landscape paintings. With Beier’s dispensation, I demonstrate Barbara his file. She had no idea; it was released after she left Marburg.

” That’s a nightmare for a teach, 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 masterminds of the programme. Barbara said nothing:” What was I supposed to do, make a cross against my own name ?” The radical stuck together. They wrote an apologetic 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 frenzied characters. Politicians publicly supported the students; far-left newspapers assaulted 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 coaches 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 services. The frictions touched Tina hard-handed:” I was quite emotionally sensitive back then, and all of that are actually distracted and unnerved me. At some place I precisely couldn’t take it any more .” She removed out of school, two years before she would have graduated.

Barbara continued. The next academic year brought different educators. She started to feel better, graduated, left Marburg to study medicine and then took up coating. Today, she still wonders if they could have free-spoken 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, joins us. I expect her what she makes of her mum’s decision.” I think it’s good that she did it ,” she says, confidently.” I belief I would have been able to done the same .” Barbara seems astounded, proud, and slightly unsettled.

What about possible risks, I expect Luci. She interrupts.” I belief 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 escape. She lives in Bali, where she works as an interior designer. Despite the personal cost, she has no repents:” 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 prospered in his new home. He now operates a successful insurance business in Marburg, and regularly drives along his old escape route to see purchasers in the former Eastern germany. For those he left behind, it was a different story.

I call Bernd several times while researching 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 saved her in the dark about the escape. Yet she apparently forgave him, later unite him in the west. A couple of seasons I ask after her side of phenomena, but she gently avoids my questions.

Then, several months after our first contact, I call her to verify some facts. When we get to the part where Bernd apparently remained his schedules from her, she hesitates.” I knew about the flee ,” she says eventually. She carefully weighs her messages, and includes:” 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 adoration her enterprise as a schoolteacher, 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 tyranny; he wanted to live in a republic. Birgit recalls how much he craved to live in the west, how established he was to get there.

Immediately after he congregated the girls from Marburg, he told her about the hope. Her first reaction was to try to stop him.” Of route I missed 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 said that his delegation supported him, and visit him in prison.

It was Birgit, however, who almost territory 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 occupation as a educator. Despite the intense distres, she managed to persuade the Stasi that she knew good-for-nothing. She weathered months of surveillance, inquisitions 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 granted an depart admit, and assembled 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 just 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 intimates doing the interrogation together with Barbara in Hamburg, but again changes his thinker. We talk privately several times, and I sounds his narration 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 delight for Tina and Barbara. But he likewise 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 mystifies me how the secret service 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 cluster of teenages in a shabby red bus?

During our final telephone calls, I expect 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 congregate at the place where it all began, the Steinmuhle school in Marburg, having not seen each other in about three decades. I announce Barbara subsequentlies to hear how it exited. In her calm, intelligent lane, 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 towards the end of the call, 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 part to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s characters page in publication, satisfy email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for publication ).

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