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The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall
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- ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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The goal was to tunnel into the East to help people escape. They spend months digging, hauling up carts of dirt in a tunnel ventilated by stove pipes. But the odds are against them: a Stasi agent infiltrates their group and on their first attempt, and dozens of escapees and some of the diggers are arrested and imprisoned. Despite the risk of prison and death, a month later, Joachim and the other try again and hit more bad luck: the tunnel springs a leak. After several attempts, run-ins with a spy and secret police, and some unlikely financial aid from an American TV network, they finally break through into the East, and free 29 people.
THE FIRST THING that hits him is the smell. Coal-dust. Then he feels it. It pours out, onto his head, his shoulders and into his eyes until he’s blind with it. But he keeps going, hacking into the floor above with an axe, the ceiling shaking, everything shaking, the noise so deafening he can feel it in his bones. Then, suddenly: fresh air. He’s made a hole, one big enough to climb through. He puts the axe down and picks up his gun: if they find him, he’s not going alive. Smearing the coal-dust from one eye with the back of his sleeve, Joachim prepares to climb into the room, no idea what’s up there. He pauses and in the silence he finds himself thinking, not for the first time, how had it all come to this?
12 August 1961 – Rügen Island, East Germany
JOACHIM PULLS HIS foot back from the water. It’s cold, even in August. His friends are splashing in the sea, teasing him, calling him to come in, but he hates cold water and they know he won’t.
He thinks back to last night. Workers beer. Sweat. Bodies tightly packed in against each other. Fumbling and kissing in the corner. He’s never had a holiday like this, not once in his twenty-two years and he doesn’t want it to end. Bright green forest covers the chalk cliffs behind him, white-tailed eagles wheel overhead and the sea is so clear he can see tiny fish flitting through the water.
Just one week left, then it’s back to East Berlin. Three hundred kilometres south, it’s a different world. Grey. Edgy. Even more so over the past few months. They’ve all noticed the changes: more border guards on the streets, the soaring numbers of people escaping to West Germany, as though they know something. There’s electricity in the air, that hum before a storm.
Joachim looks up to see his best friend Manfred wading out of the water. They’ve known each other since they were six, smoked their first cigarettes together, dreamt up elaborate tricks at school. Manfred always got into arguments, but Joachim was that child at school who never got caught, always knew where the line was – never crossed it.
That night, Joachim and Manfred change into jeans and T-shirts, comb their hair and set out across the sand to the beer tent. Another evening in this beach-side paradise on the edge of East Germany, a couple of twenty-two-year-olds in that weightlessness of a long summer with nowhere they have to be.
What they don’t know is that, right now, they’re exactly where the government want young men like them: young men who might make trouble if they knew what was about to happen. For dozens of tanks are rumbling towards East Berlin and tens of thousands of soldiers are creeping into trucks, armed with Kalashnikovs, machine-guns and anti-tank missiles. Any minute they’ll receive their orders and then it will begin.
The next morning it’s the sound that wakes him – the whine of a loudspeaker crackling into action. As he hears the efficient sound of tents being zipped open, Joachim climbs out into the campsite and walks towards the loudspeaker, now blaring out the brassy pomp of military music. Then, a man’s staccato voice: ‘Das Ministerium des Innern der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik veröffentlicht folgende Bekanntmachung…’
Joachim can tell straight away. It’s a government announcement and he tunes out, bored. But then the voice changes, becomes more urgent: ‘Wollankstrasse, Bornholmer Strasse, Brunnenstrasse, Chausseestrasse…’ The man is listing streets in Berlin, streets Joachim has run around in since he was little, and now he’s interested. He can’t work out why the man is talking about them, but then he hears it – the voice says: ‘The border between East and West Berlin is closed.’
Joachim’s stomach registers adrenaline, but his head is catching up, trying to work out what’s happened: if the border between East and West Berlin has been closed, that would mean the city has been cut in half, but how can you split a city overnight? It would mean severing everything – electricity, trams, trains, sewage – and it’s such an obscene notion that Joachim and his friends ignore the announcement and go to the beach.
The following morning, the campsite buzzes with rumours: barbed wire; soldiers on the streets; tanks; machine-guns. Suddenly, Joachim feels a long way from home, and, like a storm chaser, he wants to be in the middle of whatever is happening. After breakfast, Joachim and his friends pack up their old Citroën, zooming back to East Berlin in one stint, arriving at dusk.
As the car weaves through the streets, something doesn’t feel right. It’s quiet. Too quiet. Hardly any people on the roads, few other cars. Eventually, after zigzagging down streets lined with linden trees and functional concrete buildings, they reach Bernauer Strasse, the mile-long road that straddles the border. Climbing out of the car, Joachim and his friends walk towards a sign, a sign they’ve passed hundreds of times crossing the border from East to West Berlin:
YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE DEMOCRATIC SECTOR OF BERLIN
It’s always made them laugh, that word, democratic. Nothing that democratic about East Berlin, Joachim would say. Usually there’d be a couple of policemen standing by that sign, but now, silhouetted in the glare of a single street-lamp, Joachim sees a group of men in green uniforms and steel helmets. But it’s not their uniforms that scares him. It’s what they’re holding across their chests: machine-guns. Barely breathing, Joachim watches as one man turns and strides over: ‘What are you doing? Get out of here! If you don’t…’ The man gestures with his machine-gun.
Joachim turns to leave and that’s when he sees it: a twist of barbed wire glinting in the streetlight. He has no idea what’s happened, what these men are guarding, but somehow he knows that in one night, everything has changed.
The First Escape
February 1945 – East Germany
JOACHIM WAKES TO find his mother stuffing photographs, jewellery and clothes into a suitcase, his one-year-old sister perched on her hip. Downstairs, Joachim’s father is ransacking cupboards, piling fruit and tins into bags, hauling mattresses off beds and taking it all outside where everything is soon coated in snow.
Joachim doesn’t know why they’re leaving; he knows something is wrong but there’s no time to ask questions. His parents pack everything onto their cart, two horses tethered in front puffing out white smoke-clouds of condensation into the cold air. Joachim clambers up, burrowing under a woollen blanket alongside his grandmother, baby sister and mother. Then his father climbs onto the coachman’s seat, nudging the horses into a trot.
Joachim listens to the wheels as they squeak through the ice, watches the snow sift through the trees, dappling their horses white. The farm recedes behind them and Joachim has no idea if he’ll ever see it again, if he’ll ever do those morning walks with his father, racing to keep up on his tiny legs as they checked on the cows, horses, pigs and geese. At the end of a gravel lane, past the fruit trees, where the farm turned into forest, Joachim and his father would watch the stags rutting, their burnt-red fur glinting in the dawn light. He can’t understand why they’re leaving it all behind.
What Joachim’s father can’t tell him – because how do you tell a six-year-old any of this – is that they’re on the run from the Red Army. He’d heard about them last night on the radio, the Russian soldiers coming from the East, raping women and torching farms, and he’s desperate to get his family to Berlin before the Russians find them.
What he doesn’t know is just how close the Russians are already. Only a day’s ride behind, the first troops of the Red Army are marching, leading a column that stretches hundreds of miles. Underneath their feet, the ground shakes, like the first stir of an avalanche, for there are an obscene number of men: six million soldiers. There are soldiers with padded leather helmets driving monstrous T-34 tanks that flatten the snow; there are commanders driving Chevrolet trucks with mortars on the back; there are cavalrymen on long-haired ponies and camels; then, on foot, a million criminals released from gulags, spurred on by rousing Russian war music that blasts from loudspeakers.
And they are fast.
The Russians are veterans of winter battles, and this weather – averaging minus twenty Celsius – is to their advantage. While German soldiers in thin socks lose toes to frostbite, the Russians know to bandage their feet in linen to protect them from the cold. At night, Russian sappers clear minefields; during the day, their tanks blast across snowdrifts, and these tanks are so enormous that when they come across escaping families in carts, they crush them under their huge metal tracks.
These are the final months of the Second World War and Josef Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, has sent his soldiers to take what is now his. A few weeks ago, on the 4 February 1945, Stalin had met British prime minister Winston Churchill and American president Franklin Roosevelt in a palace on the coast of Yalta to discuss what to do with Germany. For years, the US, Britain and the Soviet Union had been allies, fighting against Germany, but now, with victory in sight, like vultures they were scrapping over the spoils. After long negotiations over champagne and caviar, they’d agreed to share Germany. The Soviet Union would take one half: the East. Britain, the US and France would share the West. Berlin, 100 miles inside the Soviet zone, would be divided too.
But Stalin is playing dirty. He wants his soldiers to reach Berlin first, before the British and the Americans, so they can strip the city of whatever is left. Money. Machinery. Uranium – for Russia’s first atomic bomb.
But it is also about pride. Stalin is still recovering from the shock of being invaded by Germany in 1941, over twenty million Russians killed, and killed in horrific ways. Following Hitler’s orders ‘to close their hearts to pity and act brutally’, German soldiers had burnt Russian houses, murdered mothers and babies and sent survivors to labour camps where most starved. Now, it is payback. As Stalin’s troops race through East Germany, they are taking revenge. Scrawny Soviet soldiers, many of them survivors of the horrors of the German invasion, others who’d been brutalised by years of fighting under the command of generals who saw them as expendable, are now tearing into villages and farmhouses, stealing jewellery and china and stuffing it into their tanks, slaughtering animals, raping and mutilating women and setting everything on fire.
Joachim’s father drives the horses on, past frozen lakes and leafless copses, their hooves scudding and sliding on the icy road. They’ve been going for a day without a break, but he knows he can’t stop, because as well as the soldiers, there’s the problem of the river. The River Oder. It’s a day’s ride away and they must cross it to reach Berlin. Though it’s bitterly cold, the first thaw is arriving and the river will soon melt: if he doesn’t get there soon, the ice will crack under the weight of the cart.
But as they draw closer to the river, they are slowed by others on the road, millions of refugees like them, all desperate to escape the Russians. Pregnant women lie on mattresses in carts pulled by oxen, children fix broken axles on overloaded wagons, mothers walk carrying their babies, having abandoned their prams to the snow. Already there are some who’ve not made it – small bundles in the snow, stiff and frozen.
There are hardly any men around, most have been drafted to the German Army in a desperate attempt to save the country, though there are a few German platoons on the roads, sent here to cut off the Russians before they reach Berlin. Joachim’s father is relieved to see the soldiers. He feels safer, though most look like teenagers with enormous helmets that almost cover their eyes.
As daylight fades, in the back of the cart, something wakes Joachim: a low hum. Just as he registers that it’s the sound of an engine, he hears a plane tear through the sky, the staccato rattle of gunfire, then a sound much closer – his grandmother screaming as she clutches her foot, writhing in pain.
The cart stops.
German soldiers are now shooting in all directions and with all the smoke from the gunfire Joachim can’t see what’s happening so he hides under the blanket, his whole body shaking. Eventually, the gunfire ends and, as the smoke clears, Joachim peers over the cart. There are dozens of green lumps in the snow. The German soldiers are motionless, the snow around them turning red.
That’s when the Russians come.
A group of soldiers surrounds the cart and drag Joachim and his family into an abandoned house. Inside, the soldiers shove Joachim’s father into a cupboard to restrain him, then finish their rations of vodka and things happen that Joachim will struggle to ever talk about.
By dusk, the soldiers pass out and Joachim creeps from the corner where he’s been hiding to the cupboard where his father sits, powerless to do anything. Joachim crawls into his lap, nestles in his arms and they sleep.
Next morning, Joachim climbs out of the cupboard to see the Russians packing. For a brief moment he feels relief that they’ve survived, but it is followed by dread when the soldiers drag his father out of the house, marching him down the snow-covered road until they all disappear into the white.
There are no goodbyes. No final words.
Joachim sits in the house with his mother, sister and grandmother for a moment, the wind and snow whooping around them, all of them lost in their own grief. But there is no time for tears, for they must leave the house before the next wave of Russian soldiers find them, before it all happens again. His mother knows they can’t make it to Berlin; she must take them all home, back to the farm.
Joachim runs after his mother as she scours the roads for a cart, for the soldiers have taken their horses and his grandmother has a bullet lodged in her foot and cannot walk. A few miles away, Joachim and his mother reach an abandoned village where they spot a hand-cart, small but still intact; they pull it back to the house, hoisting his grandmother and baby sister on top. His mother then lifts the cart from the front and Joachim pushes from behind as they begin the slow walk home.
As they trudge back along the icy roads, Joachim discovers that despite his stick-thin arms and legs, he is strong. He doesn’t complain about the cold that grips his bones or the pain that sits in his back. Instead, hour after hour, he pushes the cart steadily through the snow, this six-year-old who is too young to understand about war and soldiers and borders but old enough to know that his father has disappeared and he may never see him again.
The Long Walk
JOACHIM’S MOTHER LADLES stew into bowls and brings them to the table. Sitting there, a group of Russian officers who now live in the house. Their house. Joachim’s mother is now their servant, Joachim and his sister confined to bedrooms upstairs.
They’d arrived back in the middle of the night after walking two days only to discover their village had been taken by the Russians. Not all of them turned out to be violent rapists; the officers now living in their house are polite, well behaved. Every day Joachim hopes his father might return, but he never comes.
Meanwhile, the Russian soldiers continue their race to Berlin, rampaging through villages and dragging artillery across rivers on skis just before the water melts.
Two months later, by late April 1945, carrying flags and banners, armed with aircraft, tanks, field guns, mortars and flame-throwers, two million Red Army soldiers are just outside Berlin. Over the next two weeks, the Russians fire a war’s worth of artillery shells onto the city. Fire flows down Berlin’s streets, into its buildings; it finds people hiding in shelters, animals in the zoo, anything that can burn, burns. The sky above the city is red with ash and, underneath, Russian soldiers fight for the city street by street, house by house.
Defending the city are the remains of the German Army, bolstered by recently drafted women, wrinkled old men in straw-filled shoes and terrified schoolboys in baggy uniforms incentivised with bags of sweets. The better-equipped German Gestapo spend most of their time hanging deserters from their own side, often while plotting their own escape. And so Berliners are largely defenceless.
Women have drawn crimson-red lipstick-crosses on bedsheets, hoping the Russians will respect the international sign for the Red Cross and spare them, but instead the soldiers come for them. As the soldiers take the city, they take its women, raping over a hundred thousand – grandmothers, mothers, children. The lucky ones are only raped once or twice. Others are gang-raped multiple times, horribly mutilated, and thousands of women kill themselves – for fear of being raped, or shame after it happens. (These mass rapes are still denied by many in Russia, even by veterans of the war.)
On 2 May 1945, the Red Army takes the city and their soldiers climb onto the Reichstag – the parliament building – where they hoist their hammer-and-sickle flag high into the sky. Below them, fires burn, fuelled by petrol in abandoned equipment; buildings are splayed open, their twisted metal insides spread across the streets; and the stench of chlorine, gunpowder and rotting corpses fills the air. Most of the city is destroyed, buried under seventy million cubic metres of rubble, and the streets churn with mud, blood, sewage and even alligators – escapees from the zoo. Then there are the bodies: bodies buried under debris that will never be matched with a name, bodies of the Nazi elite who committed suicide after alcohol-fuelled orgies, bodies of children who drowned in Berlin’s tunnels while trying to escape, and then, unearthed by Soviet soldiers, the charred body of Hitler, a single shot wound on his skull.
But somehow, though a hundred thousand had been killed in the fight for the city, somehow, there are survivors. Amid the May sunshine, as the oak and maple trees come into bloom, those survivors wander the streets, zombies in torn clothes, scavenging for food, trying to exist in a city where there are no hospitals, buses, trains, fuel or drinking water.
Yet it’s to Berlin that Joachim and his family are now walking, for they have been thrown out of their farm. This time, it’s not the cold they’re up against, but the heat. It’s the hottest summer in years, and every day is framed by the search for water. They become experts at spotting farms where they place tin buckets under spigots and the swollen udders of abandoned cows, pull plums and apples off fruit trees, and search kitchen cupboards for processed cheese and tinned meat. They walk through bombed-out villages and ghost towns, the roads scarred with black scorch marks from shells shot by Katyusha rockets. Everywhere, the earth is dry and cracked – a lunar landscape of craters.
Walking among them, the human detritus of war – limbless soldiers, dazed commanders, Nazis, communists and war criminals. Then there are the other refugees – fathers carrying injured children on stretchers and mothers pushing prams stuffed with squawking chickens wedged next to babies with newspapers for nappies. Joachim keeps his eyes down, away from all of them and away from the swollen, staring bodies in the ditches. Once you’ve seen them, you can’t un-see them.
They walk for days, weeks, so long that Joachim, his skin now caked with mud, has stopped asking his mother when they might reach Berlin. At night, they sleep where they can, in pine forests, ditches or, best of all, barns – straw tucked around them to keep warm. The farms remind Joachim of home and memories flash up: the radio in the kitchen that spewed out boring speeches that Joachim ignored, but when marching songs were played he’d turn up the volume and dance, feet drumming on the floor, hips thrust out, his mother laughing as she watched. Then there was the day the new mechanical grain thresher arrived at the farm. Joachim stood there mesmerised as the motor thrummed into action, the belt zipping along, cylinders whirring, threshed corn sifting through the grates. Eventually, lost in memories, sleep comes and by dawn they’re on the road again.
They arrive in Berlin on a bright autumnal morning in November – five months after they began walking. Joachim has never seen anything like it. The rubble he expected, but not the trams that screech out of nowhere, or the cars that roar past, flooding the streets with their headlights. Berlin’s overground train network – the S-Bahn – is now operating again and they take a train to Greifswalder Strasse in the north-east of the city, where a relative has found them somewhere to stay – a two-bedroom flat that only really counts as one since the front-room window has been blown out by a bomb. None of that matters though. After four months sleeping in barns and ditches, never feeling safe, finally, they have a home.
JOACHIM STANDS IN the room, shivering. Arms outstretched, all joints and bones, he waits patiently as a man in a white coat points a large wooden syringe at him, coating him in a fine, white powder. To get the lice off, he says.
And so the business of living in Berlin begins. It’s winter, their flat with its bombed-out window is freezing and they have nothing to eat. His mother goes out every day, looking for food and anything to burn to heat the house. She walks to the shops that Russian soldiers hang out in, begs them for cigarettes (Berlin’s post-war currency), which she trades for bread. Other days she cleans houses or works in a nearby cowshed, bringing home money and buckets of fresh milk. Sometimes she takes Joachim and his sister Sigrid to the forests on the edge of the city. They’re bare; most of the trees – the oaks, conifers, maples, elms and chestnuts – have been chopped down for firewood. But they’re not here for wood – instead, they scrabble in the shrubbery, looking for the silky brown and white skins of mushrooms, remembering what they’d learnt at their farm back home about which are safe to eat. And then there are the offerings that appear on their doorsteps from generous neighbours – herring heads wrapped in newspaper, which his mother brews into fish soup, Joachim repulsed by the black, shiny eyes that float on top.
While his mother is working, Joachim is meant to stay at home with his grandmother, but instead he explores the adventure playground that is post-war Berlin. With a gang of boys, he runs in and out of bombed-out-buildings, leaping over charred beams and iron girders, playing hide-and-seek to the sound of the chip-chip-chip of the trümmerfrau – ‘rubble-women’ – who probe into the masonry with small hammers, prising away bricks, placing them in buckets ready to exchange for potatoes. Sometimes, when he’s hiding, the floor collapses and Joachim crashes to the ground, twisting an ankle, laughing as he gets up again to hide. And then there are the prized discoveries, what the boys call ‘bangers and crackers’ – small explosives used in the war to ignite grenades. Excavating the explosives with delicate fingers, they lay them on tram tracks, jumping and shrieking when they explode. Long after the sun goes down, Joachim arrives home, hungry, happy and exhausted, streaked in ash.
Meanwhile, around them, Berlin is changing. Hardly anyone notices at first. A clock above the S-Bahn changes to Soviet time. Then a Cyrillic street sign appears. Soviet newspapers are sold at street-stalls, posters advertise Russian plays and concerts are performed by Soviet musicians flown in from Moscow. The Russians are turning Berlin into a new city: their city. It’s part of Stalin’s new massive post-war empire, stretching all the way from Moscow, through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Poland, and on to Berlin and the border with Western Europe. Twenty million Russians had been killed during the Second World War and Stalin never wanted to be invaded again. All this land, these villages between the West and Moscow, gives Stalin a huge protective buffer behind which he feels safe.
And though Stalin has agreed to share Berlin with the British, French and Americans, since they’re not here yet, he can do what he wants: his soldiers steal money and gold from Berlin’s banks, rip paintings off museum walls and take millions of books from the city’s libraries, flying it all back to Moscow. They steal uranium from atomic research labs for Russia’s first atomic bomb and dismantle thousands of factories, putting the brass, metal and machinery on trains for Moscow. After the last train leaves, they pull up the track and take that too.
- On Sale
- Jan 10, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages