“It wasn’t for better wages or fancy taps in the bathroom. I didn’t want a system looking into my life and telling me what to do and what not to do. I can’t even tell you when I took the decision. At some point I just knew.“
In 1975, my father took a plane from East Berlin to Budapest, from where he boarded a train to Romania. On 15th July, under the covers of a new moon, he swam over the Danube, in his swimming trunks 50 West Mark and passport.
His escape route took him 3500km from Schönhauser Allee in East Berlin through Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Austria, West Germany, and ending at Danckelmannstraße in West Berlin, 9km from his starting point. This series revisits the Danube, and his point of no return: the critical point in a decision-making process where one has committed oneself irrevocably to a course of action.
Extracts from the German interview, Danube shore, 15 July 2017 (1/2)
I stripped all the way down to my trunks, without swimming rings, without anything. In my trunks I had my passport and 50 West Mark in a little plastic bag, to bribe soldiers in case they catch me.
We drove to a place where there was a hole. They (his escape helpers) stopped, in the middle of the road. I got out, to the hole, and they kept driving. Then I realised there was no ladder by the hole. So there was nothing I could do but risk it, jump down the hole. While I was mid-air, I thought, you idiot, you have no idea how deep it is, or what’s at the bottom. But nothing happened.
I walked through this pipe which was, I’m 1.75m, it was probably 1m high. And then I was by the water. I got into the water, and I just remember, the first thought I had was,
Oh, it’s so warm.
I swam and swam and swam, and at some point I reached the shore, 30cm deep. I literally swam to the shore like a boat. You see, it was totally black – black-out. The only thing I could see were the cars on the Yugoslav side. So I left the water, my legs shaking, shaking. I walked up, it was going up-hill to the street. I walked, walked, walked, and straight into a bush. It was like in a film. You reach the other side, and walk straight into a bush of thorns. That’s where I loose my glasses. And what happens?
I’ve told this a hundred times. What do you do when you loose your glasses in the dark? Don’t move. Don’t walk. In the wrong movie you walk around and step right onto your glasses. So I crouch down and look for the glasses, find them there. I put them on, free myself from the thorns, keep walking upwards.
The street – I sit and wait for Nettchen and Mehdert. To make sure that I would recognise their car, we had put tape onto one of the two headlights, to form a cross. So I look and look, but no car has this cross. I waited for a really long time. But there was one car that kept coming and going, that was driving slower than the others. It could have been the guards doing their rounds. But I got impatient, so I went up and waived. And it was Nettchen and Mehdert.
We drove straight to Belgrade then. We enter the embassy, and the guy there asks, “Have you come through barbed wire?” And that’s where I look down at myself for the first time – there’s blood and scratches everywhere. Everything is torn and scratched from those thorns.
If you see what Nettchen and Mehdert and I did swimming over there, looking at it now, it takes courage, it takes courage.
You know that if they get you, they’re allowed to shoot. Even just for fun, to see if they get you. That I managed that… I mean, I knew that I could swim for 90 minutes. But in a swimming pool in Lichtenberg you swim without stress. This is a whole different story…