The Story of the Most Successful Tunnel Escape in the History of the Berlin Wall

An abandoned bakery, some shovels and a few buckets were all it took for a few university students to defy the symbolic barrier of the Cold War

A woman crawls through Tunnel 57 to escape East Germany. (Courtesy of Hans-Joachim Tilleman)
smithsonian.com

In 1963, a group of West German students set out to dig a tunnel underneath the Berlin Wall. Among them was a young man named Joachim Neumann, who had fled from East Germany, officially referred to as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, just a few years earlier.

When he had escaped in 1961, using the borrowed passport of a Swiss student, he left behind most of his family and friends, including his long-term girlfriend, Christa Gruhle. Most of his co-conspirators shared a similar intention: to reunite with loved ones, separated by the 155-kilometer barrier that surrounded West Berlin from the GDR.

The students’ plan, harebrained and quixotic as it was, was only one of many employed during the course of the Berlin Wall’s existence to bring people from the east to the west. The methods exercised ranged wildly; in many ways the brazenness of attempted endeavors escalated in proportionality to the East German police’s desperation to stop them. Secret compartments were built into cars, documents were deployed to obscure train stations, and tunnels were built underneath the looming battlements of the wall.

Depending on the mode of accounting, this last method was not particularly successful. Only around 300 people escaped over the course of nearly 30 years through tunnels that took months to dig and were, more often than not, discovered before being employed for their intended purpose.

But repeated failures rarely amounted to all-out dejection. Neumann’s first tunnel project failed: someone informed the Stasi, the East German secret police, who arrested hopeful refugees as they tried to escape. Gruhle was one of those caught and was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Undeterred, Neumann tried again. With many of the same students, he set out to build another tunnel – beginning in a derelict bakery in the West and burrowing underneath more than the length of a football field. The passage later became known as Tunnel 57. During the two days it operated, it was the single most successful escape in the history of the Berlin Wall.

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Neumann is the sort of man who, under normal circumstances, strikes one as nothing other than unremarkable. He favors conservative but practical attire in plain hues, with understated glasses anchored on a substantial nose. Upon speaking, he reveals himself as impishly avuncular and unapologetically clear-sighted.

As a 21-year-old civil engineering student in the East German city of Cottbus, around 125 kilometers southeast of Berlin, Neumann was only a few credits from earning his degree when decided to escape. Sixteen years earlier, Germany had been defeated in the second World War and the country had been carved into four sections administered by the victors: France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Neumann wound up under proxy Soviet rule, in the GDR. During the first years of division, up to right after Neumann’s flight, there was no wall separating Germany. People could move across the border with documentation, although it wasn’t without risk.

By his own account, it wasn’t until he reached the border checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse S-bahnhof and was standing in front of the East German guards that he quite realized how dangerous this endeavor was. The police – including the Stasi – were brutal and relentless in their persecution of people trying to flee from the GDR. It was not in the interest of the state to have defectors leaving the centrally planned economic project, especially because those people would then become living – and free-speaking – critics of the regime.

Over the course of the Berlin Wall’s existence, a blockade that was planned surreptitiously and erected without warning in 1961 (and which split the capital city between the half administered by the Soviets and the quarters overseen by the three other war victors), more than 100 people died trying to cross it. In many cases, those people died directly at the hands of border guards. Many more, an estimated 250,000 people, were detained as political prisoners, and the most common cause of political imprisonment was attempting to escape.

Neumann knew of places like Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi prison where attempted defectors were detained indefinitely in starkly grim conditions. And the sense of possible imprisonment was not far from his mind as he stepped up to the checkpoint where guards waited to scrutinize documents, a false Swiss passport clutched in his hands and his pockets stuffed with various bits of detritus – a movie ticket stub, a public transportation ticket – the student had thought to send along as possible supporting documentation of his identity.

“It occurred to me,” Neumann recalled recently, “that there was no way for me to adopt a convincing Swiss accent. And so as I stood waiting for my passport to be checked, I decided to pretend that I was an arrogant Swiss tourist.”

He didn’t speak to the guards. They waved him through the first check, but at the next they sent his passport to secondary control and he was forced to wait with a guard as the document was verified. The guard tried make small talk, asking Neumann what he thought of Germany’s capital city. Neumann responded by sticking his nose in the air and harrumphing. A few follow up questions elicited more growls from Neumann, until the guard gave up in exasperation and ultimately waved Neumann through the West Berlin, his cultural prejudices none the better.

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After the wall’s construction, politically sensitive youth, people whom countless failures did not dissuade, quickly concerned themselves with devising passageways between East and West Berlin. As a university student in West Berlin, Neumann had no trouble finding groups of students who were trying to open escape routes for East Germans.

“When I build a political system from which people try to escape, then I have to think about why they want to escape,” Neumann said, explaining how so many people were drawn to the cause. “And the GDR said, it doesn’t matter a bit why they’re leaving, we’ll close down and then they’ll stay here.”

The GDR’s stubbornness and authoritarian rule, unyielding to the demands or desires of their citizens, found its most apt metaphor in the Wall and its fortifications that jutted into and split apart Berlin’s neighborhoods. “Our current president [Joachim Gauck] once said that the construction of the wall turned the residents of the GDR from citizens of the state into inmates of the state,” said Ralph Kabisch, one of the men with whom Neumann built Tunnel 57. “No other idea is as perfect to describe how the wall changed things.”

Armed with this conviction, Neumann, Kabisch and more than a dozen other men burrowed down 11 meters into the ground from a bakery close to the border, and dug a rectangular opening wide enough for one person to slither through on hands and knees parallel to the ground above. This continued under Bernauer Strasse, under the 12-meter-high wall, under a signal fence that activated an alarm when touched and under the so-called “Death Strip” – a wide no man’s land carpeted by steel spikes and overseen by floodlights and guard towers – until slowly slanting up toward the surface of the earth.

The digging took five months, and it was grueling work. The men slept in the abandoned bakery for weeks-long shifts, piling up sacks of dirt in flour sacks and occasionally rinsing off the encrusted mud from their bodies with buckets of water (“We stunk,” Neumann observes now, laughingly).  They weren’t sure where exactly they would emerge on the eastern side, and considered themselves lucky when, upon breaking ground, they found themselves inside an old outhouse behind an apartment building at Strelitzer Strasse 55.

The tunnel was ready on October 3, 1964. The men sent word to all the people they had been digging to – sisters, brothers, cousins, parents – telling them when to come to the building on Strelitzer Strasse and whisper the code word, ‘Tokyo,’ to West Berliners who had crawled through to the East and would show them the tunnel opening.

“We were told the street address, and asked to pretend as though we were just on a normal Sunday evening visit to some acquaintances,” Hans-Joachim Tilleman, one of the people who escaped through the tunnel to the West recalled. “So we walked along the side of the street – right across the street was a watch post where border soldiers were standing – and we counted house numbers: 53, 54… 55. And we were very close to the soldiers. And that’s already quite shocking. The heart is going…” Tilleman makes a fluttering gesture with his hand at his chest where his heart is.

“On the other side of the wall, on a tall building, was a Fluchthelfer (literally an ‘escape-helper’), who was watching the street to make sure it was clear,” he continued. “And they were supposed to shine a gold light when there was a problem.

“We didn’t see a light, so we continued to the building. There were some people inside, and we told them ‘Tokyo’ and they let us into the hallway where we took off our shoes and tiptoed to the inner courtyard. In a little outhouse in the back, they let us down a shaft, and we crawled through.”

Tilleman can’t remember how long it took for him to push himself through the tunnel; he remembers almost nothing about what the long dark passage was like, as though fear had suspended the progress of time.

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During the tense, euphoric, hours when the first groups of people began escaping through the tunnel, the diggers were also on edge that something might go awry. Everyone was palpably aware of the border patrols’ vigilance. Some of the students carried pistols.

The next day, Neumann received an unexpected letter from his girlfriend, Christa Gruhle, who wasn’t due to be released from prison until December. She had been let out early; she was writing him to tell him, even though she knew nothing of the new subterranean project underway.

Neumann scrambled to get word to Gruhle, and that evening, she appeared at the apartment house to whisper the code word. This time, she reached West Berlin safely.

As the night dragged, a few of the border guards on patrol noticed something was askance. They sent a few plainclothes officers to the door of Strelitzer Strasse 55, who quickly realized what was happening and called for back-up. One of the diggers standing at the door, a man named Reinhard Furrer, saw them coming and crept back through to the tunnel opening to warn the others.

In the confusion that followed, as the students retreated toward the outhouse in an attempt to reach the tunnel opening and scramble back toward the bakery, a few shots were exchanged and  a young border guard named Egon Schultz was shot. He died later on the way to the hospital.

Schultz’s death was blamed on young radicals by the East German government. The tunnel was demolished. The diggers, distraught, responded by sending balloons over the wall with a letter attached.

“The causative murderer is the East German secret police,” the letter read. “The real murderer is the system that addressed the massive flight of its citizens not by removing the cause of the problem, but by building a WALL and giving the order for Germans to shoot Germans."

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Neumann and Christa Gruhle were later married, and they remained so. Furrer became an astronaut; Kabisch continued smuggling people across the border for decades. Tunnel 57 became known as such because 57 people – representing nearly one-fifth of all the successful tunnel escapees who reached their destination over nearly three decades – crawled through it to the West in two nights. 

Years after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, and Germany was reunified, a case was opened concerning the death of Egon Schultz. His autopsy report had been disappeared by the Stasi in an effort to cover up the incident, but the case found that the fatal shot had been fired by a border soldier. And the soldier was operating on instructions from a Stasi officer.  

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