They were West German teenagers on a school trip. He was a young man desperate to escape from East Germany. Thirty five years later, they tell their story
Its December 1984, a week before Christmas. Tina Kirschner and Barbara Kahlke, two 17-year-olds from West Germany, are sitting on a creaking red bus headed for the socialist part of their divided country. Theyre on a school trip, and the mood is boisterous: almost 40 teenagers singing along to Duran Duran. But once they cross the heavily guarded border, reality hits. The world theyre entering feels alien and forbidding. All around them, slogans celebrate the glorious achievements of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Yet as they pass through the crumbling town centres, the shops are empty. Here, only a couple of hours from their little hometown of Marburg, people have been queueing for basic groceries.
In a carefully staged encounter with local students, the girls are told that their impressions are wrong, that life here is good. When the East Germans insist that even their version of Coca-Cola is better than the wests, the planned rapprochement descends into a battle over soft drinks. Tina and Barbara are unsettled by the constant propaganda, the oppressive atmosphere. Its almost like visiting an open-air prison; after all, the people around them cant leave. Most of those who try to escape to the west are arrested and jailed. Some are shot, or blown up by mines in the death strip.
One day, the teenagers visit the medieval city of Erfurt for a sight-seeing tour. As some of them mill around the bus, a tall, gangly man in his 20s approaches, introducing himself as Bernd Bergmann. The girls are astonished to learn he was born in Marburg, before his mother took him to the GDR as a child. When he spotted their Marburg number plate, he wondered if they might know a friend of his.
The girls are hesitant at first, unsure what to make of him. But they are also curious, and Tina and a couple of others arrange to meet him in a cafe later in the day. Bernd tells them hes desperate to join his friend in Marburg. He has applied for an exit permit many times, but has always been rejected. Now hes considered a troublemaker. Hes lost his job, and is being harassed by the Stasi, the East German secret service. Tina is outraged: how can a government just lock its people up? The friends agree to meet Bernd again in the evening, in a noisy underground bar where they can talk more freely.
Later, the girls climb into the empty bus. Someone says, half joking: what if we take him across? For now, its just a thought experiment, almost a game. They look around the bus and notice a half-broken seat in the back row that can be tipped forward. One of them crawls into the space behind it. The others walk around the bus and check that she cant be seen through the back window.
Yes, they think this could work. At least, in theory.
It sounds like a cross between a John le Carr thriller and the Famous Five: the schoolchildren who tried to breach the iron curtain. I stumbled across their story by chance, because I also grew up in Marburg, a quiet university town on the banks of the river Lahn. My brother went to the same school as Tina and Barbara. Through old letters and school reports, and Stasi records, I pieced together what happened how their giddy mission turned into a cold-war drama, triggered a small war at their school, and ended with their teacher being put on a secret service watch list. I tracked down that teacher, the schoolgirls, and the man ready to risk everything to get out.
It might seem odd, to arrange an outing to a dictatorship, but at the time of the school trip, east-west relations had been thawing a little. It reflected the contradictions of that era the desire for a rapprochement despite the intense rivalry, and the fact that many Germans had personal ties to the other side.
Barbaras father, for example, was a refugee from the eastern German provinces that are now part of Poland, arriving in West Germany at the end of the war. Her mother was from East Germany, but left before the border was sealed. They abhorred the division, but there was another factor that pricked Barbaras conscience. Like all German teenagers, shed learned about the countrys Nazi past at school, and the importance of moral courage. Indeed, the school trip to the GDR included a visit to a former Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald. Barbara often wondered what she would have done back then: look away, or resist?
When I talk to her at her home near Hamburg, she tells me she had a clear sense that helping Bernd was the right thing to do. I think we just saw this amazing opportunity, she says. She describes the students determination: Were doing this, were going to pull this off.
Later that evening, the girls sneaked out of their youth hostel and into Bernds waiting Trabant. Barbara remembers being intrigued by the idea of the underground bar, and thinking that they might dance a bit. But in the car, the mood turned serious. Bernd signalled to them not to speak, in case the Trabant was bugged.
In the bar, they huddled in a corner. The girls told him about the hiding place. The more they talked, the more certain they were about the plan.
The next day, pretending simple curiosity, the girls asked their guides about border checks. They were told there were no heat sensors or dogs at the checkpoint they would be using, a rural crossing at Wartha-Herleshausen. Reassured, they sent Bernd a telegram from a post office: a Christmas greeting, a prearranged signal that the plan was on. As a precaution, they then burned their note with his address.
By now, their little group had grown to almost a dozen people; other classmates had got wind of the plan. That night, there was a heated discussion about the risks, and the girls decided to call it off. They would have to let Bernd down that morning, in person.
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