Historic escape: The students who dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall


Three memorial pillars located in Berlin, between Bernauer Strabe and Schonholzer Strabe, tell the story of Tunnel 29. Photos: Annette Riedl/dpa

The woman slides into a dark hole, then crawls on her knees through a muddy tunnel in a Dior dress.

She wore her smartest clothes for the escape to the West. Another person in the group has a baby with her and her young daughter. The child is frightened and reluctant but somehow all make it through the cramped tunnel.

On the other side, all 29 members of the group climb up a makeshift wooden ladder towards daylight.

They had made it, escaped from the German Democratic Republic and made it to West Berlin that autumn night in 1962.

Sixty years on, their journey seems almost unbelievable, but the architects of the secret tunnel have told their story at last.

In need of some money, the men who spent 128 days digging the escape route sold the film rights of their incredible story to US broadcaster NBC. A film crew came to meet them and find out more about the tunnel that came to be known as Tunnel 29, dedicated to the number of people who made the journey through it.

Burrowing through 135m of earth to reach the frontier between East and West Germany, below the Berlin Wall, their work was carried out in the utmost secrecy.

The story began with two Italian students, Gigi and Mimmo, who wanted to help their friend Peter and his family escape to the West from East Berlin, a journey deemed illegal at the time.

Peter had studied with Gigi at the University of the Arts in West Berlin but when the Wall was built on Aug 13, 1961, he could no longer commute between East and West. Him and his wife often dreamed of fleeing with their child. And so, the two students who lived in the West, Gigi and Mimmo, tried to work out how to dig a tunnel.

The tunnel was built by budding civil engineers with a roster to organise the many people involved in digging the escape route from West Berlin to the GDR. The tunnel was built by budding civil engineers with a roster to organise the many people involved in digging the escape route from West Berlin to the GDR.

After all, they thought, others had managed in the past.

In Dec 1961, some had managed to escape through a tunnel in the Pankow district of East Berlin. Others tried to dig a tunnel on Wollankstrasse, though it was discovered before they could complete it, in early 1962.

This didn't seem to scare Gigi, Mimmo and their helpers, though.

The students from West Berlin began to spend their days spying on houses near the Wall on the West side. After extensive background work, the group chose to use an old factory building on Bernauer Strasse as the starting point of their route into East Berlin.

The students' undertaking was less far-fetched than it sounds now, said Jochen Staadt of the SED State Research Network at the Free University (FU) of Berlin.

"A third of the students at the FU before the Wall was built were students from the East, refugees or living in the East Sector," says Staadt. "They all knew each other."Once the Wall was built, students from the East were suddenly cut off, unable to go about their daily studies and activities.

The desire to help people escape from the GDR was met with a lot of sympathy in West Berlin, according to Staadt.

"They really wanted to help."To give an idea of just how many wanted to help, there were at least 12 attempts to build escape tunnels on Bernauer Strasse alone, according to the Berlin Wall Memorial. Most of the escape routes were never completed however, due to various reasons – informers, investigations by the notorious East German secret police, or simply construction issues.

Three tunnels along the street which lay temptingly close to the border, including Tunnel 29, were however successfully completed.

Some of those involved in the planning and digging of Tunnel 29 were students of civil, mechanical or electrical engineering, including Mimmo, whose real name is Domenico Sesta.

The aspiring students devised a solid structure supported by thick wooden rods. They also inserted a guide rail along the ground, an electric winch to transport the soil they were digging as well as installing a field telephone for communication. A roster was devised to split up duties equally.

"The digging was quite well organised," recalls Joachim Neumann who was involved in the construction, in an interview carried out by the Berlin Wall Memorial organisers. But he added that the task seemed never-ending.

"If everything went well, our goal was 2m a day."The project was suddenly brought to a halt when a pipe burst close to the tunnel on the West Berlin side of the border in May 1962, causing flooding underground. After some time deliberating, the students went to the local authorities, pointed out the damage to the pipe and asked for it to be fixed – at least that is how they tell the story in the documentary.

Bizarrely, the West Berlin construction authority likely did send a crew to fix the pipe, as historical images also imply.

This begs the question: How much did the city authorities know? After all, the West viewed the construction of the Wall as illegal.

"Egon Bahr knew," says Staadt, referring to a senior politician who was also a confidant of then governing mayor Willy Brandt.

"Now you can't do anything about people who want to circumvent an illegal measure," Bahr told the documentary makers. He also said he assumed that the US Central Intelligence Agency knew what was going on.

"This was covered by the Americans, one had to assume that."According to Staadt, some German government agencies, such as the Bonn Ministry for All-German Affairs, also provided funding for those helping people to escape, through "covert channels".

The builders of Tunnel 29 were not included in the funding, however. After a few weeks, the students ran out of money, which led Gigi and Mimmo to sell the film rights to their story, allegedly for 50,000 Deutschmarks, which roughly equates to €25,000 (RM119,220) nowadays. Only very few people were told about the documentary.

Film crews were on site when the escapees climbed the ladder into the West. Many who emerged from the tunnel that night were shocked by the bright lights shining on them as they clambered out. This is how the documentary The Tunnel - The True Story came about.

Ultimately, it was a success story with a quick ending.

Renewed flooding soon made the tunnel impassable, making the 29 people who escaped East Berlin that night the only group to ever make use of Tunnel 29.

"This is actually the most intense situation in my life that I have ever experienced," says Joachim Rudolph, in the documentary. It somehow "compensated for everything", he said.

Only one man came to regret the whole ordeal.

Following the escape, Peter Schmidt-Vogel's wife left him for Joachim Rudolph.

Schmidt-Vogel watched in shock as he suddenly realised, "now it's all over". – dpa

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