History student Anita Kraetzner-Ebert was doing archive research for an exam back in 2008 when she came across a name that has stayed with her ever since.
The records at Rostock University, in Germany’s former east, listed Lilli Gruner as a student in 1961, but by 1962, her name was crossed out in all the records.
There was a note saying, “Left the GDR,” Kraetzner-Ebert says.
Now a historian, she checked the files against other sources, including the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police.
Gruner, who lived on Germany’s north-eastern coast, wanted to flee from East Germany in a rubber boat, together with her brother Peter, in August 1962.
Weeks later, her body was discovered floating off Pelzerhaken, in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Her brother was never found.
The siblings’ story touched Kraetzner-Ebert and she has written a book about their fate. “They were simply two very desperate young people,” she says.
Many longed to escape from former Communist East Germany, which was sealed off by the government by the Berlin Wall built in 1961.
So far, however, more is known about those who were shot by guards while fleeing across the land border, drawn by the prospect of life in the West and the promise of freedom and plenty.
Outlandish ways people sought to cross the wall included by zipline, diverting a train or by hot air balloon made of bedsheets sewn together.
Much less is known about those who tried to cross the country’s deadly maritime border, but a research group at the University of Greifswald has found many made the attempt by sea.
So far, her team has found 112 people who died in the Baltic, says researcher Merete Peetz. They suspect some 70 to 100 further attempts also ended in death.
The Rostock team of five, led by Hubertus Buchstein, is searching the archives to gain a clearer picture of those who were lost.
This is the first time such studies have been done, says Henning Hochstein, another researcher. “The land escapes have been fairly well researched.”
It is heart-breaking work. As he reconstructs the events, Hochstein occasionally has to put down his pen and take a stroll, he says.
Family members sometimes wound up watching from the coast as their loved ones drowned.
“It’s not easy,” Peetz says.
The researchers included the Gruner case in their list. The Gruners were actually exemplary GDR citizens who had never wanted to leave.
But some of their friends had tried to escape and they wound up being interrogated by the secret police. The Stasi was known for forcing people to inform on their friends, neighbours and family members.
The siblings saw escape as the only way out. Like many of those who died, they fled only after the Stasi tried to recruit them, says Peetz.
Hochstein is moved by the plight of those who opted to face the forces of nature rather than submit to the regulations of life in the GDR, he says.
There were numerous escape routes. Some tried to swim to the West from the Bay of Luebeck – and a few succeeded.
Further east, beyond the island of Ruegen, more experienced boatmen tried to reach the Danish island of Bornholm.
The waves and winds were not the only threat, as GDR border guards policed the maritime border with the 6th Coastal Border Brigade.
Soldiers carried out patrols by boat or on the beach, while others monitored the coast from towers.
In addition, there was the covert surveillance of the Stasi and their helpers, with local residents also keeping a watch.
The government is funding the research, launched in 2019, until 2022. But Peetz and Hochstein say they need more time as they couldn’t always get to the archives during the pandemic. They hope eventually that people’s stories can be placed online.
A society must put names and faces to those who died, Hochstein says. Otherwise, all that would be left is the trauma their families suffered.
Meanwhile those who knew the victims personally are also extremely important, as they can describe more about the individual and their life, says Peetz. – dpa/Christopher Hirsch