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.

The
The school bus during the trip. A half-broken seat on the back sequence( where Barbara Kahlke is visualized) furnished the secrete infinite 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 castling, keeping an seeing on the teachers. Tina and the others bided 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 move to open the back door for fresh air. One of them chitchatted to the driver, while the others let Bernd in through the back. The teenagers 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 swiftly occupied the back row. One daughter happened to have some tranquillisers with her, and Barbara popped half a pill to stay calm. The bus gathered out of the parking lots.” There was no turning back ,” Tina recollects.” He was lying there in the back, and none knew anything- simply us .”

As they approached their own borders, Tina and the others sang along to Tina Turner at the top of their expressions to pacify 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 completely floored me. We pondered,’ Oh my God, we’re busted ,'” Tina says.

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

There was a knocking din to areas outside: more patrols, tapping the bus to check for secreted disguising infinites. Barbara tried to hide her fright. The patrol interrupted, handed back their passports, turned around 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, lives in our reveal: Bernd Bergmann from the GDR !”

Barbara has a clear image of Bernd popping up from behind the back seat. Blood was running down the two sides of his kuki-chin. In his hiding place, wincing from the guards as they knocked on the outside of the bus, he had bitten his lip.

Tina says she felt 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 institution crusade started .”

***

” School War” was one newspaper headline in the weeks that followed.” Marburg Schoolchildren’s Tragedy” was another. Decades later, they are unable to solely make sense of how the town’s political faultlines were exposed. Some of the helpers on the trip-up have since 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 front room, Jurgen Beier pauses and tops up my coffee. The retired educator still lives near the school where he taught for decades, in an idyllic neighbourhood of Marburg. He has a vivid recognition of the moment a stranger emerged from the back row of his academy bus. He equates 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 schoolteachers ,” he says,” no matter how good your planneds .” Beier had become of the trip’s organisers. He’d believe their institution, the Steinmuhle, might even partner with an East German school, given the thawing political relationship.” That undoubtedly 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 excursion 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 agent ,” 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 newly opened Stasi archive that informants had hindered an gaze on the tour. Yet they’d somehow missed the fleck 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 mean for everyone. Legally, the situation was clear. Helping him had been a crime until the selection board had traversed the border. In West Germany, it was no longer a crime: their government considered all Germans its citizens. The bus declined Bernd off at a police headquarters where he had been able to formally enter the system, and in legal terms, he was free.

But the group had still set themselves in gigantic jeopardy. In this tight surveillance government, 80% of escapees were arrested before they even reached the border. For the GDR, defections were a public dishonour. Failed escapees and their helpers were punished harshly. Simply 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 trip, the West German government advised the teachers and students’ kinfolks not to travel to the GDR. For Beier, this meant they are unable to drive through the transportation hallway to see his best friend in West Berlin. Another coach on the tour had a sister in the GDR, whom she could no longer visit.

Bernd
Bernd Bergmann and Barbara Kahlke reunited after 30 years. They are drawn 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 record is missing. We go down to his study in the cellar to find it. He ransacks around, and pushes a dark-brown cardboard folder from a shelf. It’s a replica of a exhausted 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 promotions an escapee( this is the case in quotation marks as it was a West German word; East Germany called such aides human traffickers ). His relationship to the GDR is characterised as” touristic, unfriendly “. He is categorised as an” hustler of a insurgent organisation “. The register also says that an notify is to be issued should Beier ever re-enter the GDR. Attached to it is a Russian translation, since the ordering applied to all countries behind the iron curtain.

***

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

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 carves and dreamlike landscape paintings. With Beier’s allow, I present Barbara his record. She had no idea; it was released after she left Marburg.

” That’s a nightmare for a coach, definitely ,” 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 schedule. Barbara said nothing:” What was I supposed to do, make a cross against my own refer ?” 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 coaches heartless, and strangers communicated frantic letters. Politicians publicly supported the students; far-left papers criticized 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 insists that these teachers 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 service. The frictions smacked Tina hard-handed:” I was quite emotionally sensitive back then, and all of that is actually confused and disturbed me. At some phase I exactly couldn’t take it any more .” She lowered out of school, two years before she would have graduated.

Barbara continued. The next academic year brought different teachers. She started to feel better, graduated, left Marburg to study medicine and then took up coating. 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, connects 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 consider I would have been able to done the same .” Barbara searches astounded, proud, and somewhat unsettled.

What about the risks, I request Luci. She interrupts.” I reckon I would have taken that risk. 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 regrets:” 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 thrived 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 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 impeded her in the dark about the flee. Yet she apparently forgave him, later link him in the west. A couple of duration I ask after her line-up of affairs, but she gently avoids my questions.

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

What she tells me next takes me entirely by surprise. At the time of Bernd’s escape, Birgit was 23 years old. She enjoyed her activity as a teacher, 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 totalitarianism; he wanted to live in a republic. Birgit recalls how much he wanted to live in the west, how determined “hes to” get there.

Immediately after he satisfied the girls from Marburg, he informed her about the program. Her first reaction was to try to stop him.” Of route I required 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, however, who virtually landed 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 position as a teacher. Despite the intense pressure, she managed to persuade the Stasi that she knew good-for-nothing. She weathered months of surveillance, interrogations 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 conceded an depart countenance, and assembled him in Marburg.

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

By now I have 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 subconsciou. We talk informally several times, and I hear his storey 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 affection for Tina and Barbara. But he likewise echoes how crushed he and his wife were when they later consulted their Stasi records, and read about the extent of their surveillance. It still perplexes me how the secret service 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 cluster of teenages in a squalid red bus?

During our final telephone call, I request Bernd why he was so desperate to live in the west.” Ich wollte Freiheit ,” he says:” I craved discretion .” A few weeks earlier, he accidentally agreed to accept a reunion with Barbara. They satisfy at the place where it all began, the Steinmuhle school in Marburg, having not seen each other in about three decades. I announce Barbara afterwards to hear how it departed. In her tranquilize, astute acces, she says it was lovely to see Bernd again, and to talk about the escape. Throughout our interviews, she has been very modest about her persona in it, reluctant to be in the spotlight. But toward the end of the label, she says softly:” 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 bit 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 publication ).

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