On Tuesday 18th May 2021, members of the Berlin Guides Association seized a very special opportunity: an online encounter with Joachim Neumann, a witness to the history of the Berlin Wall who took part in the building of several escape tunnels underneath it. In the 90-minute session, Neumann gave us a fascinating account of the challenges of the ‘conspiratorial’ activities, the moral implications and the tunnel-building itself.
After leaving East Germany with a ‘borrowed’ Swiss passport in late 1961, Neumann became part of a group of young people in West Berlin who dedicated much of their free time to helping other East Germans to escape from the GDR. They started out as just eight like-minded people, mostly close friends or relatives. The tunnels they built were improvised, narrow and often unstable. Neumann, being a student of civil engineering at Berlin’s Technical University, was in charge of planning & construction.
Over 130m long, they went underneath the Berlin wall, the border fortifications and the restricted-access residential zones close-by. Many of the escape helpers had personal motives for digging up to 10m deep into the Berlin soil, like wanting to help friends who had stayed behind. In Neumann’s case it was his wife-to-be (who had been arrested and imprisoned for over a year in the GDR after her first failed escape attempt).
He managed to get her out, together with 56 other people through the famous “Tunnel 57”.
The escape helpers relied on a large informal support network, among them the messengers who had to get information to people in East Berlin waiting for a chance to escape. These couriers had to be foreigners or Germans from West Germany, as West Berliners were generally not allowed to visit the other part of the city in the 1960s.
In his later life as an engineer, Neumann specialised in this field of construction and was even involved in the building of the Channel Tunnel between England and France!
This piece was contributed by BBS Member Konstanze Deeters.
Learn more about organised escape assistance at riskingfreedom.de.