Escape!Posted June 28th, 2011
Exhausted, Fritz and Irmgard arrived back at the apartment. It was 5 a.m. They hoped no neighbors had noticed their arrival or their departure the night before. Next time, in addition to the wire cutters, they would need to take a compass. Fritz and Irmgard wanted—they needed—to get home.
But home was in West Germany, not far from the Black Forest. It was certainly not this miserable apartment where they were currently staying. Their belongings, their jobs, all their friends were in West Germany. But, as real as West Germany was—and they continued to be sure it was real—it now seemed not much more than a dream.
They had only traveled to Berlin because Irmgard’s mother had been ill and needed help while recuperating. As was required of those visiting the German Democratic Republic, Fritz went weekly to the authorities to have their West German identification papers stamped and verified. They were only temporarily in the east zone, and they wanted to be sure that status did not change. That had been the summer of 1961.
Then, in an attempt to halt the drain of East German residents heading to the West, authorities erected The Wall, sealing the border. It didn’t matter that Fritz and Irmgard were West German citizens and only visiting the East. They were prevented from leaving—forced to continue living with Irmgard’s mother—forced to take jobs they were assigned. It was assumed they would cooperate like good East German citizens.
Stronger than Ever
Almost ten years had gone by, but the desire to get back home was stronger than ever. They had heard of successful escape attempts, but they knew that most attempts ended unhappily—often tragically.
They started going for hikes in an area as close to the border as was allowed. They hiked in a wooded area—a spot not patrolled as often as border stretches closer to towns. Their plan was to approach the high wire fence, cut it at the bottom, roll under, and quickly get away.
They would go at night. They couldn’t use a flashlight. That would draw attention. Some moonlight would be necessary, but a full moon would make them too visible.
Their first attempt might have been successful but a foggy mist settled over the countryside causing them to lose their way. They were relieved simply to find their way back to the apartment that morning at 5 a.m.
They decided they needed a compass, but even acquiring a compass was a challenge. Their explanation had to sound plausible. One always had to be on guard not to say anything that might arouse suspicion. Even if people were not planning to flee, they had to be so careful. An inadvertent phrase could be misunderstood, and where might that lead? Misunderstandings were strictly to be avoided in East Germany.
Yes! It was time to get out of this place!
Twenty Years Later
When I met Fritz, it had been twenty years since he and Irmgard had escaped. He said they had been very lucky. Once under the cut wire they ran. They ran hard. About half a kilometer from the border they glimpsed the lights of a farm house. They approached the door, and were warmly received.
The family was surprised by their successful escape. A few nights before, the family had heard shots in the night. Before long, a man had appeared through the forest. He was shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. His wife and son had both been shot. She died immediately. The injured son had been dragged back into The East by the soldiers who had shot them. Fritz again said that he and Irmgard had been very lucky. Or maybe their guardian angel had helped them, he said.
Later I thought to myself: I am lucky—so very lucky—to live in a unified Germany in freedom.
No, lucky is not the right word. I am fortunate and blessed. I must continue to acknowledge and be thankful for all the good in my life, and for the freedom and the opportunities I enjoy so much.
Cynthia Irgang lives in Gutenberg, one of eight villages comprising Lenningen, in the Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany.