Saturday 13 August 2011

Escaping from East Germany

It was with mixed emotions that Elfriede said goodbye to Ruhla, a stable home for the past six and a half years.  She had found steady work there, her children had attended school there, and Irmgard had been confirmed at the Lutheran Church there.  This had been the only home her son Manfred truly remembered.  Even so, she could not risk their safety.  The communists in her workplace wanted her to become political and she wasn't willing to comply.  She had to get out of East Germany.

It was in 1953 that Elfriede starting planning her escape from East Germany.  She left Ruhla in April of 1954 with only the clothes on her back and her two children in tow.  Ironically, Ruhla was only 30 miles from the West German border; however, it would not be safe to escape there.  They would have to cross the border in Berlin.  Wearing her Communist pin that she had earned for her hard work at the Wartburg auto factory, Elfriede and her children boarded a train for Berlin, 300 miles to the northeast.  In the capital, they purchased tickets for the untergrundbahn (U-bahn) or subway to the western half of the city, telling the authorities that they were visiting Elfriede's Tante Hanna for a week. 

Elfriede was nervous, but she tried not to convey her feelings to anyone as she climbed aboard the yellow CII train.  As the U-bahn headed west, she was forced to show documentation at every checkpoint.  Borholmer Strasse -- yes, the guard let them continue their trip!  Chausseestrasse -- they were free to go!  Invalidenstrasse -- the guard passed them by!  Friderichstrasse -- yes, they passed that checkpoint safely!  As the train progressed, Elfriede's children watched the posters of various Communist leaders like Stalin fly past -- all of a sudden, the posters stopped -- they must be in West Berlin!  Little Manfred and Irmgard could not mask the excitement on their faces, but Elfriede put a finger to her lips, reminding them to keep silent, not wanting to alert the Stasi (Communist secret police).  Then they hit Heinrich-Heine-Strasse.  No check.  On they went to the Oberbaumbrucke check point.  No check.  Finally they reached Sonnenallee Station.  Elfriede ripped the medals off of her chest in a moment of liberation.  She was sure that the reason whe was not questioned on the train is that she wore the Communist medals, convincing the authorities that she was a proud Communist.  And yet it was Communism that she was fleeing.  Hallelujah!  The Neumann family was finally safe. 

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the building of the concrete version of the Berlin Wall.  Originally a barbed wire barrier, it eventually became a concrete wall.  Between the end of World War II and the erection of the wall, 3 million East Germans escaped to the West, even though the borders were closed (except in the capital city).  It was the Communists' intent to prevent further defections by putting up the wall.  Although escapes were more dangerous once the wall was built, they were still risky in the late 1940's and 1950's.  Under the watchful eye of the Stasi, escapees risked jail time or even death when trying to cross from the east to the west.  By the 1960's, escapes were made by hot air balloon, by plane and by tunnel.  A concrete wall would not stop their trek to freedom.

(I dedicate this post to Elfriede Neumann, Rob's Oma.  To learn more about Elfriede, read my post titled "Bon Voyage" dated June 2, 2011.)

Photo of Conrad Schumann defecting to West Berlin courtesy

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