Looking back: East Germans relive fraught flight to freedom

Looking back: East Germans relive fraught flight to freedom

21st August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a few East Germans remember their perilous fight to freedom.

In the summer of 1989, as the winds of change were slowly sweeping away the Iron Curtain, tens of thousands of East Germans fled the oppressive communist regime for a new life of freedom in the west.

Now, 20 years after the Berlin Wall was finally yanked down in a peaceful revolution, two of those desperate refugees relive their fateful journeys, one passing through Hungary, the other through what is now the Czech Republic.

Crammed into their Trabant car en route to Hungary, Gabriela Boenisch, her husband and their two children, two and four, had no idea they were writing a page in the history books.

As they set out on August 24, 1989, leaving everything they had behind them, they were gripped more by a sense of fear than of fate.

"We hid 1,000 marks in small denominations in a tent peg: Everything else we left behind," said Boenisch, 39. "We closed the door of our apartment behind us and not even our family knew what we were up to."

A small chink

On May 2, 1989, the Hungarian authorities began dismantling the barbed wire borders, prompting a flood of refugees to pour through the first small chink in the Iron Curtain.

German citizens Dr. Thomas Kohler, Sandy Kriltz and Andreas Reichel, former citizens and later refugees from the Communist Germany are pictured in front a Czech artist David Cerny Walking Traband sculpture

Twenty years later, Andreas Reichel, 50, remembers as if it were yesterday the day he decided to flee his home in Dresden, where "we lived like prisoners" to Karlsruhe in the West, where he has lived with his family ever since.

"We had spent our summer holidays in Hungary but we couldn't get into the (West German) embassy in Budapest, so we came back," he said.

But as he heard more and more stories of the exodus towards the West on the radio, Reichel decided to have another shot at freedom.

On September 30, "I went to work like any other day but I was determined that it would be my last working day," he said. "At 3:00 pm, my wife came to pick me up to do our weekend shopping. That was when I told her of my plan.

At 5:00 pm, we hit the road to freedom in our old banger."

With their two sons, five and nine, they stopped this time in Prague where they managed to get into the West German embassy as the gates opened to let in a delivery van.

"I took my eldest son in my arms and my wife took the youngest,” recalled. “We ran as fast as we possibly could."

A few seconds later, they found themselves in the bosom of the embassy, which had already been invaded by a small army of refugees, with beds hastily installed in the corridors and stairwells.

‘Finally free’

Meanwhile, at the West German embassy in Budapest, Gabriela Boenisch was less lucky. Access to the embassy was blocked off and the family found itself huddled under a tent at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital.

"It rained solidly for nearly two weeks and there was no sanitation," she recalled.

But on September 11, she received the authorisation to enter West Germany with her family.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) speaks to the media during the 20th anniversary of the 'Paneuropean picnic', in Sopronpuszta, some 220 kilometers from Budapest, on 19 August 2009

"We left in our Trabant, we passed Vienna, Linz and finally ended up in Passau (in southern Germany)" she said. "We were welcomed with infinite kindness." She still lives in the region.

Around the same time, Andreas Reichel also received his pass to freedom.
"We had done it, we were free, finally free,” he said. “It was incredible. Even today, tears well up when I remember it."

And in a historical irony, the path to West Germany took Reichel very close to his former home in the communist east.

"We were about one kilometre (mile) from our old flat as the crow flies," he said. "It was very moving. And then came the moment when we finally arrived in the land of freedom. West Germany.”

A few weeks later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. And the world changed forever.


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