Eyewitness History: Tunnel 57 under the Berlin Wall

bernauer 1963

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and we thought that this would be a nice time to re-visit something that originally appeared in the third edition of our in-house C Magazine about a dramatic escape that took place not far from The Circus beneath Bernauer Straße – pictured above a year before Tunnel 57 was built, in 1963:

Berlin is a city of stories, a place where it sometimes feels like there is a memorial on every corner where history permeates every length of pavement and every building older than a handful of years. The city is packed with museums that help us imagine the unimaginable. Then there are the monuments and memorials that stimulate reflection, as well as the piles of books in the windows of bookstores that take us back in order to explain those momentous events that shaped not only Berlin but the modern world. But the process of encasing history in buildings, marble or the pages of a book can put a distance between us and the events, and sometimes it takes a conversation, the hearing of personal testimony, to really bring history to life.

For almost three years now The Circus has been extremely fortunate to have formed a partnership with the ZeitZeugenBörse e.V. (Centre for Witness to Contemporary History), whose network of “eyewitnesses” give talks to schools, journalists and other institutions, telling their personal stories of life in Berlin and Germany. It does not matter whether the stories are extraordinary or simple tales of the everyday – each time we have hosted one of the talks in our Fabisch Restaurant it has been incredible to hear “what life was really like” for people who often spent substantial periods of their life in the shadow of repression, violence and war.

One such eyewitness that we welcomed to The Circus over the past few years was Winfried Schweitzer. He talked about his life in Berlin and beyond during the period in which the Berlin Wall divided the city in two. In 1989, having returned to Berlin from New York where – about to run the marathon – he had witnessed the fall of the wall on television – he wrote down his thoughts at that dramatic moment in history. Many of the stories formed sections of his talk with us, and we are extremely pleased that he agreed to let us print some extracts in the magazine.

Of course, it was impossible to live in Berlin after 1961 and not be influenced by the monstrous construction that was dividing streets, friends and families, but it was in 1964 – at the time of the Tokyo Olympics – that Herr Schweitzer’s story became directly involved with the infamous Wall.

“Many of us young people in the west of the city wanted to help our East German brothers and sisters to flee from the communist city into the free part of the city. I was one of the students who undertook to help them get across – or better under – the murderous border and to safe harbour. It seemed to me at the time to be a tremendous adventure, but as I know now it was no “adventure”, rather a thoughtless irresponsibility towards my dear parents who truly had had enough suffering during the war and the aftermath of the conflict.

We decided to dig a tunnel underneath the Wall on the Bernauer Straße convinced that we were doing the right thing. We used as our password the name “Tokyo”, because it was during the period of the Olympic Games in that city. What I experienced in those weeks and months could fill a book. 57 people escaped through the tunnel, but the project ended when the tunnel was discovered and over 200 shots were fired at us by East German police (Volkspolizei). One of the police guards (Volkspolizist) lost his life, and although of course it was blamed on us, it would later become clear that the shot was fired from behind him – it seems almost certain that it was an accident through a shot fired by his “own” side.

Still, after the event we were declared to be enemy number one by the Communist regime, and therefore we were unable to leave West Berlin by any of the transit routes. If we ever wanted to travel from West Berlin, the only safe way was by airplane. Some of our colleagues tried to go overland were arrested, and sentenced to many years in East German prison.

Thankfully our earlier precautions helped, as we knew each other only by first name, the secret police were not able to use their cruel interrogation methods to get more information out of those they arrested. Of course, there were some people involved who were only out to make a fast buck and organised the escape on a commercial basis. To us, who were risking our lives out of purely idealistic reasons this was disgusting. Later on, when I became a little more familiar with the reasons people were fleeing East Germany I realised it was not only for political reasons that they wanted to escape the regime. For some it was purely the higher living standard of living.

In 1989 I was in New York for the marathon. In the middle of the night I got a telephone call from Europe. It was my son, calling at 8am in the morning Berlin time. He was full of enthusiasm because he just came back from a walk along the wall and from the Brandenburg Gate. His voice was bubbling over as he told me about the exciting events. He had been on top of the wall at the Brandenburg Gate with his skateboard!

Then my daughter came on the telephone. She was a little calmer and told me that she had not yet been to the wall yet as she was waiting for daylight to see the situation properly. After this call I went back to bed but I could not sleep. On November 12th we returned to Berlin, where our children were waiting anxiously for us at the airport. Now we went to the wall ourselves and it was a happy moment as we saw border guards on both sides laughing and friendly like never before.

Every day and night now hundreds of people are hammering with their tools for little pieces of that ugly wall as souvenirs.  For my part, I do not want any piece of this wall of infamy and cruelty. There is too much blood on these stones! But I keep something else for myself: In a small cigarette box I have kept a little piece of clay from the walls of the tunnel we built, fifteen metres beneath the Berlin Wall on Bernauer Straße.”

(from Winfried Schweitzer’s personal notes – December 1989)

(Image Credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F014909-0009 / Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA; Source)