10/19/2012 11:24 AM
The Forbidden Journey
How Two East Germans Fled to China to Go West
Cool video A Daring Escape from Communist East Germany to the West via China - SPIEGEL ONLINE
By Peter Wensierski
They were young and in love -- and trapped in an oppressive regime. In 1987, an East German couple traveled clandestinely from Berlin to Beijing in a brazen attempt to escape to the West. Only one of them would make it to freedom.
It would have actually taken just 10 minutes for Jens and Marion to walk the 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) that separated Rykestrasse, in East Berlin, from the western half of the divided city.
But on a day in August 1987, they were somewhere in Mongolia, roughly 7,500 kilometers (4,650 miles) from their street in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. The two students had taken the longest conceivable route from East to West Berlin -- and they were still a long way from reaching their destination. Beijing was still some 1,500 kilometers away, and they had no visa to cross the border into China.
Using a forged invitation, Jens and Marion had made it to Mongolia, which was politically controlled by the Soviet Union at the time. Now came the most difficult part of their trip: China was a forbidden country for citizens of the former East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR). But it was only in Beijing, at the West German embassy, that they could apply for political asylum and acquire the passport that would allow them to live in the West.
Twice a week, a train traveled from the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, to Beijing. Still, it seemed virtually impossible for anyone who was not Chinese to buy a ticket. Soldiers and police were milling around the railway station, and every minute in the vicinity of the ticket counter was dangerous for East Germans without a valid visa. Out of fear of being discovered, Marion retreated to the mountains behind the city and spent the night in the woods in a sleeping bag. Jens anxiously made his way to the Chinese consulate.
In East Berlin, GDR citizens were not granted visas for China. It was a similar story in Warsaw and Moscow. But what about in Ulan Bator? "Nobody in Mongolia picks up the phone to check on something back in the GDR," thought Jens. To improve their chances, he held a few dollars in his hand. The Chinese official gave him a quizzical look and rifled through the documents for several minutes. Then the diplomat took the money and slid the visas across the table. The long march could continue -- along with the debate over whether they wanted to venture the last steps to freedom.
Yearning to Escape the Cage
Jens and Marion have now told their story for the first time. It's the tale of a trip to the East to arrive in the West. Few had dared such a journey in the days when Germany was still divided. Nearly all those fleeing East Germany opted for the short, dangerous route over the Berlin Wall, or they attempted to cross borders within Europe.
"Everyone would say you should go from east to west. But you can simply go the opposite direction and eventually also reach your destination -- it's as simple as that," says Jens. It is now 25 years later. He is sitting in his house in the Spreewald, an idyllic forest and inland delta region southwest of Berlin. His property is surrounded by trees and flowing water, and he can bird-watch from his garden. He loves to imitate their calls, lure them closer and describe their plumage and courtship behavior.
Nature is his great passion -- an interest that had already been kindled back in the days when he studied biology in East Berlin. He longed to explore all climate zones, and the GDR was too small and confining for his dreams. "I wanted to live, I wanted to discover the world," says Jens. "I couldn't accept that aging rulers simply decreed: "'You can't leave the country; you have to stay home in the small cage!'"
Today, Jens writes independent biological assessments on nature conservation projects. He hasn't seen Marion for 20 years. But he has cherished the memories of their forbidden journey, along with photos taken at the time. It was his children who started to ask him what happened back then. "If you want something, pursue it with all your heart," he tells them.
It takes a special kind of person to believe that 9,000 kilometers is not too far to travel to go from East to West Berlin. Perhaps this is the kind of thing you can only come up with if you're 24 years old and in love; if you can put up with not knowing in the morning where you will sleep that night; if the end of the forbidden journey is open; and if you see the dangers along the way as the challenge of a lifetime. And if you seize your freedom, instead of asking for it.
A Dream Destroyed
Marion and Jens met each other at East Berlin's Weissensee School of Art -- in the darkroom. Marion was studying stage design and came along one day as Jens was developing photos from a trip to the Caucasus. The lively young woman was a year older than him. She had a carefree laugh and told him about a wild trip through the countryside. Jens immediately took a liking to her.
That same evening, she went home with him to his one-room apartment in a dilapidated old building on Rykestrasse, right near the old water tower, a landmark in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. It was winter. Outside the building, they stole coal from a trailer and sat on an upturned wooden crate, warming themselves in front of the old tiled stove until late in the night.
Marion soon moved in with Jens. On warm days, she liked to sit on the roof and draw the decrepit chimneys, the ramshackle roofs and the top of East Berlin's TV tower in the distance. Jens paid a monthly rent of 36 East German marks. His neighbors were political activists, artists and punks -- young people who wanted another political system, another life.
Jens, a mountain climber with a long beard, was working in bird sanctuaries at the time. When the zoologist Günter Tembrock accepted him into his class at Berlin's Humboldt University, it was a dream come true for Jens. Tembrock was as popular in the East as Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian zoologist and animal behaviorist, was in the West, and he had compiled the largest animal sound archive in Europe. Jens admired and emulated this great scholar, and he wanted to become a field biologist and explore the animal kingdom.
But, in 1986, Jens was expelled from the university after having been categorized as a "hostile and negative individual." His commitment to nature conservation and his involvement with church environmental groups had incurred the displeasure of East Germany's feared secret police, the Stasi.
Learning to Escape
With his life's dream destroyed, Jens refused to compromise. Instead, he wanted to leave. But how? GDR citizens were not even allowed to freely travel in fellow communist countries. Trips to the Soviet Union were generally limited to delegations and tour groups, and such journeys abroad often cost over 6,000 marks -- more than many East Germans earned in a year.
Uniformed officials at railway stations and highway checkpoints constantly asked for the "march route," the time-limited itinerary that travelers had to respect to the letter.
But Jens had already traveled illegally through the USSR when he was 20. During one transit from Poland to Romania, which was limited to three days, he got off the train in the Soviet Union. Jens took extended trips with a portable, folding boat as far as north as the Soviet polar circle, he hiked in the Pamir Mountains, and he traveled as far east as Lake Baikal -- and didn't report in to the authorities until weeks later, supplying them with wild excuses. In the East German outdoor scene, this type of traveling was called moving "undetected through friendly territory."
Other trips followed. Without a visa, the amateur biologist trekked in foreign climes and took photos with a medium-format camera. He even managed to sell a few of his pictures to East German nature magazines, using the money to finance more travel.
The expeditions through the Eastern bloc taught him how communist bureaucracies worked -- and the best ways to outsmart customs officers and border officials. He would later use this knowledge during his escape with Marion.
Gathering the Necessary Documents
In order to create a somewhat credible story, he and Marion joined the Socialist Mountaineering Club. At a flea market, he purchased a typewriter with Cyrillic letters and used it to create a fake invitation from the Soviet Union. The bogus document alleged that Russian climbers from a fellow socialist mountaineering association in Tajikistan had invited the couple to join them on a trip to "Communism Peak" -- known today as Ismoil Somoni Peak -- in the Pamir Mountains. At almost 7,500 meters (25,000 feet), the peak is the highest mountain in Tajikistan and the former Soviet Union.
The East German police in Prenzlauer Berg were impressed. In any case, with their rudimentary knowledge of Russian, the officials thought the letter was genuine, but felt that it wasn't their area of responsibility.
They said there was a special passport office for Olympic teams at the sports complex in the Hohenschönhausen district. Two weeks later, Jens and Marion were surprised to receive travel documents from this authority, including visas for Mongolia.
From earlier trips, Jens knew that suspicious officials everywhere could ask for their dokumenty, confiscate their passports and put an end to their trip. So it was advisable never to hand over the original identification papers. They decided to take along other documents that looked rather impressive.
"Whenever we were stopped," recalls Jens, "we'd always ask ourselves: What should we show now? The Young Pioneer ID card? Or the membership card from the Society for German-Soviet Friendship?"
He thought the GDR social security ID seemed particularly suitable for the job. It was a small, green booklet the size of a passport, with a large number of pages and a watermark. It was stamped with a big official seal every time he donated blood, which he frequently did. He glued a passport photo into the document and used a large East German five-mark coin -- with its hammer, compass and wreath of wheat -- for a stamp template. All he had to do was coat the coin in red ink and press it on the edge of the passport photo and the reserve fake passport was complete.
Flights into the Wild
During his earlier travels, Jens had gathered names and addresses of possible places to spend the night. For example, there was Misha, the Soviet military pilot. The young East German and the Russian officer had met in a sleeping compartment of the Trans-Siberian Railway east of the Ural Mountains. They started up a conversation over breakfast. Misha was stirring a kind of jam into his tea as he explained that he was from Chita, a city in southern Siberia. Jens said that there was a national park nearby that was home to the Siberian tiger. Misha was impressed. "Not bad," he said. "How can someone from Berlin be familiar with my hometown?"
After a number of hours in the same compartment, Jens mustered his courage and showed Misha on a map the areas he still wanted to explore. "To observe nesting birds," he added cautiously.
"I can help you," Misha said. "I regularly make supply flights for our geologists." The pilot marked on Jens' map where he sometimes landed with his airplane to pick up scientists, and where one could find interesting birds. "Simply go to the airport at Ulan Bator, walk past the barriers, cross the airfield and ask for Misha. I'm there on Tuesdays and Fridays, depending on the weather. Wait for me if I don't happen to be there."
Jens took the officer up on his offer. In the summer of 1986, he and Marion headed east, intending to travel as far as Mongolia for the first time. The plan wasn't to make their escape this year. It was merely a test to see how far they could get.
Following Misha's directions, they walked across the airfield in Ulan Bator and on toward the military section of the airport. They quickly found the pilot, hopped on board his rickety plane and took off. Jens and Marion saw barren mountains and steppes pass below them. There was a crack in the windshield and Misha loudly complained that the repair in Ulan Bator had failed once again. Since the crack widened to become a hole, and a storm front was brewing up ahead, Misha had to make a wide detour to avoid the rain. Hours later, he dropped the couple off at a nature reserve they were determined to see.