The sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, just after midnight on 13 August 1961, was swift and immediate, although in some ways not as swift and immediate as the authorities would have liked. The residents of Bernauer Strasse were able to open the front doors of their houses in East Berlin step out into the Bernauer Strasse, which was in West Berlin. After the border was sealed many residents took advantage of this, stepping out into Bernauer Strasse and never coming back. Bernauer Strasse became a well-known point from which to flee to West Berlin. About a week later the authorities put a stop to this by nailing the front doors closed.
When the front doors were sealed shut, residents found other ways to flee. They climbed out of ground floor windows. One family even broke through the wall of their house in order to escape. There is a large photographic mural on the flank wall of one of the houses on Brunnenstrasse showing some ground floor escapees fleeing to the west.
The authorities responded by bricking those windows up and moving ground floor families to apartments higher up in the building. With ground floor escape routes closed, people started using upper storey windows. Some used ropes. Others jumped; the West Berlin fire brigades stood on permanent alert in Bernauer Strasse during those first few weeks, ready to catch jumpers with their security nets. Some people jumped from rooftops, four stories high. Some were so desperate that they did not wait for the firemen to spread their nets, and jumped directly onto the pavement below.
Some of the escape stories are hair-raising, and also show the true desperation of the times. The Finder family escape is illustrated in detail on the information boards lining Bernauer Strasse. They lived in the third floor apartment of Bernauer Strasse 7, and decided to flee on 22 September 1961. Their neighbours, however, notified the border police. As Mrs Finder stood on the third floor window ledge of her apartment a border guard from next door ordered her back inside. He fired a warning shot from his machine pistol. This prompted the West German police, assembled in the street below, to fire tear gas at the border guard. It also prompted Mrs Finder to jump into the security net held out below. Photographs on the information boards (photographer unknown, Ullstein Bild collection) show the moment of her escape.
Remember, please, that at this moment Mrs Finder had just jumped from East Berlin into West Berlin. She could not return and she had left her husband and young old son behind her, three stories up, with a border guard pointing his gun at them. If they failed to follow her the family would be permanently separated. By now, the border guards had begun to force their way into the apartment she had just left. Mr Finder had to act quickly. He threw his 5-year old son out of the window and into the net below. A few years ago I had children who were five years old. I cannot imagine doing that to them and I cannot imagine how Mr Finder felt as he let go of his son.
Mr Finder himself followed quickly. There is a video screen set up alongside Bernauer Strasse and it shows footage of the Finder family escape. Mr Finder appears to cling to a window ledge before falling into the waiting net below. It appeared to me to be a hard landing, but all three members of the family had made it and were safe.
This story is astonishing, horrific even, but the risks taken by the Finders were not uncommon. The month before, at Bernauer Strasse 8 next door, Helga Knittel had jumped out of her second storey window with her husband and daughter in order to escape. She was nine months pregnant at the time and gave birth three days later.
The outlines of the houses that stood on Bernauer Strasse are set in the grass. Today it is possible to stand at Bernauer Strasse 7 and find the place where the Finder family made their escape.
Not all escape attempts were successful. By mid-October 113 people had escaped from Bernauer Strasse; four lost their lives. It was at Bernauer Strasse where the first fatalities caused by the border regime occurred. The first fatality occurred within ten days of the border being sealed.
Eventually, the authorities decided to clear the Bernauer Strasse properties in order to stop the escapes. During September and October some the 2,340 residents of Bernauer Strasse were forcibly evicted, with prioritisation given to those considered high risk. East German police and members of the SED party militia forced their way into the apartments, told the residents to pack their belongings, loaded them into trucks and drove them off to new homes at unknown destinations.
Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):
- Point of Finder Family Escape: N 52° 32.190 E 013° 23.522
Berlin Day 2 Walk Statistics (of which this post forms the second part):
- Date of Walk: 20 December 2013
- Total distance covered: 5.79 miles
- CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO INTERACTIVE MAP!!!
An extraordinary and fascinating story, one that will stick in my mind along with the images. RH
What RH said…. I don’t think I could be half as brave as those people.