Stories of times past

  Memories of Franz-Gerhard von Aichberger

camp priest in the provisional refugee camp in Berlin-Marienfelde from 1961 until 1962

Early in September, that is only two weeks after the construction of the wall, I started work as a camp priest in Marienfelde. The camp was completely overcrowded. After all, until the 13th of August 1961 more than 125.000 people had fled to West Berlin.

In the central emergency camp, the refugees were checked by the allied secret services and the German agency for internal security, followed by the provisional accomodation and the distribution to the federal states of West Germany.

The exhausted refugees were under a lot of stress because of the constant interrogations. Therefore the pastoral care for the refugees was facing an important job: simply listening, without any further purpose. I was the youngest camp priest, so I was asked to look after the younger refugees. I arranged meetings with games and talks for them in the nearby "Foyer Cimade", a facility of the French welfare organisation. Thus we established ties quickly.

I was also involved in the "consulting hours", which offered newscomers the possibility of consultation and getting things off their chests.

Some of them had expected or feared the construction of the wall. However, it had taken most of them by surprise, for it took place during the holiday period - with good reason. Thus, within the first few weeks many of them fled on impulse.

At the beginning most parts of the border consisted of wire fencing, so in order to escape one just needed to be equipped with a pair of wirecutters and remain unobserved for a moment. Unfortunately, such escape possibilities were foiled by the sensation-seeking media reports that brought them out into the open.

I can remember clearly several personal tragedies of these first few weeks, for example a young woman, sitting in front of me covered in cuts and scrapes, who wasn't yet aware of the fact that she was in the West. Friends had cut a hole into the fence for her. She had raced over the border at full speed without even looking back. A newsreel had filmed the scene, so you can still watch it today in various memorial programmes.

Everybody remembers the young excavator driver who had mown down the fence on a sudden impulse when his guard had looked away for a second. While he was talking to me, he ate the sandwich his mother had given to him in the morning, without knowing that she could see him only from a distance for many years.

The higher the wall became, the more difficult resulted fleeing. In the course of the numerous flights through the sewage system some wonderful things happened. A refugee, for example, cautiously lifted the manhole cover and heard somebody saying with a strong Saxon accent: "There are still 100 metres to go!" - a soldier of the National People's Army proved humane. But these were exceptions.

It is commonly known that some refugees died when they tried to flee through the rivers Havel and Spree. The order to fire, that had actually never really been documented, had the desired effect. Fierce discussions in the camp were, of course, aroused by incidents like Peter Fechter's death. I witnessed enormously moving conversations about that.

Christmas 1961 was terrible. Some people realized only then the consequences of their flights. Some refugees went to the border on Christmas Day to say hello to their relatives. This was hardly possible any more. Screens already obstructed the view. The border became more and more invincible. Only some escapes here and there resulted successful. An engine driver, for instance, managed to divert an entire passenger train onto a track between the zones and reach Staaken in West Berlin. One of the passengers was the oboist of the Komische Oper Berlin, together with his family. He then played in our Christmas church service.

The flights on coal ships or by diving underneath a sluice was adventurous as well. The movie "tunnel 29" has recently recalled the troubled time back then.

That was all long ago, fourty years now. But for those who were together in Marienfelde back then, it was an unforgettable time, and the reunification as well as the fall of the wall ten years ago seemed like a wonder to them.

Franz-Gerhard von Aichberger
written down on 9th of August 2001