‘Until now it hasn’t been talked about’: Who were the East German victims of the Iron Curtain?

August 19th marks the 30th anniversary of a pivotal event that led to the fall the Iron Curtain. We remember the East Germans who tried to escape via the Bulgarian border in the years leading up to the end of communism.

'Until now it hasn't been talked about': Who were the East German victims of the Iron Curtain?
GDR citizens fleeing during the Pan-European Picnic. Photo: DPA

On August 19th, 1989, 600 East German citizens used “the Pan-European picnic” at the Hungarian-Austrian border, during which a border gate was opened for a few hours, to escape to the West.

This first mass flight was the beginning of the end for the German Democratic Republic (GDR), with the fall of the Berlin Wall following on November 9th.

A symbolic act: Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn (r) and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock (l) cut through a piece of the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria near Klingenbach on June 27th, 1989, just shy of two months before it fell. Photo: DPA

Today many citizens in the countries along the former Iron Curtain still remember the former divide. The is little sign of the border at Brashten, a village nestled in Bulgaria's beautiful Rhodope mountains and only a stone's throw from fellow EU member Greece.

However, 82-year-old resident Shehim Solakov remembers a time when the village was on the frontline of the border that split Europe in two.

Amid the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, some are still struggling to shed light on deadly events on this stretch of that long frontier.

One incident in particular sticks in Solakov's mind — when two East Germans were shot dead as they attempted to flee to the West by crossing the border.

“They loaded them onto a mule like firewood,” Solakov says, referring to the soldiers who later removed the bodies by car to an unknown location.

SEE ALSO: Berlin Wall: Orban invites Merkel to 'Iron Curtain picnic' anniversary

Historians say the total toll is still not known, but there are 21 documented cases of East Germans being killed while trying to escape via the Bulgarian border, including an incident in 1980 which matches Solakov's recollection.

At least 695 are thought to have made it safely across, with more than 1,500 attempts being foiled.

The last known case resulting in a death was that of 19-year-old Michael Weber, who was shot in July 1989 just weeks before the Iron Curtain crumbled for good.

Victims or 'trespassers'?

One of those who failed to make the crossing but survived is Frank Meier, who was also 19 at the time of his attempt in September 1983.

Like many East Germans, he thought that escaping via Bulgaria would be easier than trying to cross the heavily militarized inner-German border.

Claiming that he was going to Bulgaria on holiday, he travelled as far as the town of Dospat, some 11 kilometres north of Brashten, before setting off on foot with only his knowledge of the stars to guide him.

But as he approached the border the next day, he fell foul of a crucial component of Bulgaria's border enforcement — local residents.

The minutes of his subsequent interrogation by Bulgarian border guards reveal that they were alerted to his presence by two local boys who spotted him heading towards the border.

He was then deported to East Germany, detained and interrogated by the Stasi secret police.

The following year Meier had a stroke of luck after a relative in West Germany pressured the authorities there to agitate for his release and transfer to the West.

As for those who weren't so lucky, researchers are still trying to piece together the details of their stories — and to counter the official narrative of the cases.

Stoyan Raichevsky, a historian and co-author of a recent study on escape attempts by East Germans, says that collating information on the deaths is “very difficult, because there is no summarised data in the archives”.

The Stasi archive was often more helpful in this regard, he says.

Moreover, according to Raichevsky, the topic has been virtually taboo in Bulgaria.

“Up until now it has not been talked about, there's silence,” he adds.

“These people are not even recognized as having been persecuted in our legislation because it is a delicate topic”.

Raichevsky says he and colleagues are working on proposals for changes to the law so that the victims are no longer seen as “bandits, criminals and trespassers”.

'Courtyard with no fences'

Metody Slishkov, 75, served for 26 years as a sergeant in the border force, right up until 1989.

His desk at an office of a veterans' association in the western town of Kyustendil may nowadays be adorned with an EU flag, but he still sees the issue of those trying to flee from communism very differently.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets former East German refugees during celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the so-called Pan-European Picnic. Photo: DPA

For Slishkov, who won two “Hero of the Border Army” awards for the 11 “trespassers” he successfully detained — all but one of them Bulgarian — protecting the country's borders was part and parcel of safeguarding citizens' security.

SEE ALSO: Road signs to mark Iron Curtain path in Germany

“We took an oath to guard the state,” he says, adding that citizens along the border sometimes pine for the old days.

He describes the current situation with a Bulgarian idiom: “A yard with no fences”.

Does Frank Meier have any bitterness towards those who thwarted his escape?

Despite nightmares of being back in the prison where he spent years after his failed attempt, he has some understanding for those who caught him.

“I have no personal grudge against Bulgaria or the people from that time,” he says, adding that their thinking was “infiltrated” from a young age by the system that they grew up in.

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‘All you need is love’: How the Beatles brought a couple on two sides of the Berlin Wall together

The Beatles famously sang "All you need is love." For Hans and Uschi Kriz, living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, both love and grit were necessary for starting their lives together.

'All you need is love': How the Beatles brought a couple on two sides of the Berlin Wall together
Hans and Uschi while they were dating in the Seventies. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz

Like many people from Berlin, the lives and love story of Hans and Uschi Kriz were shaped by the Berlin Wall, which fell 31 years ago on November 9th, 1989. I first met Hans and Uschi when I lived with their son’s family as part of a German language program.

I spent Sunday afternoons at their house having lunch, playing games, and exploring their beautiful gardens. I decided to catch up with them recently to learn more about their family history – and how the Beatles brought them together when Berlin was a divided city. 

Journey to East and West Berlin

Hans and Uschi look back fondly on the many photo albums documenting their life together. Photo by author.

Hans Kriz was born in 1949 in Regensburg in Bavaria to German refugees from Poland and former Czechloslovakia who, like many ethnic Germans, had to flee from their homes after World War II. His parents met in a refugee camp near Regensburg and got married shortly after. 

Uschi was born to two German parents in Ahrensfelde in Brandenburg in 1952, an area that was already under control of the then Soviet Union and very close to East Berlin.  

Both Hans and Uschi showed an early disregard for involving themselves in the predominant political movements of their times.  

READ ALSO: Six things you need to know about the Berlin Wall

She was initially the only child in her school class that was not a part of the Junge Pioniere, or the “Young Pioneers,” a subdivision of the larger youth movement Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ). 

Her first-grade teacher then came to her home to encourage her parents to let her join so that she could participate in the many activities run by the organisation at school. Although they were anti-Communist, they allowed Uschi to participate.

This group, similar to scouting clubs and meant for children ages six to 14, was the extent of her political involvement in the GDR. She was six years old at the time: “What did I know of the political side?,” she remembered.

Banner aHans was working as a young adult at the German Red Cross as a paramedic when he was approached by the German army and asked to do the same job as a soldier.  

Hans was working as a young adult at the German Red Cross as a paramedic when he was approached by the German army and asked to do the same job as a soldier.

He did not want to be a part of the military and found a way to ‘flee’ to West Berlin, where the occupying powers did not allow the German army to exist. 

Thus, Hans and Uschi both found themselves in Berlin — he in the West, she in the East. 

A shared love of radio

Uschi had grown up watching Western television at home, and her love of beat music followed. Western beat music was officially banned in the GDR in 1965 and the signal from American radio stations in West Germany was suppressed.  

However, Uschi and many others were still able to find a signal from the BBC and loyally sat by the radio every week to hear the program “Eine Kleine Beatmusik” at 9 pm. 

Hans also listened to the program and decided that he would love to meet young people in the GDR who also loved Beatmusik to learn about their lives behind the Berlin Wall. He wrote a letter to the BBC in London, asking them to broadcast his address and request. They agreed. 

READ ALSO: Berlin Wall fall: 'It was like Easter, Christmas and NYE rolled into one.'

For two weeks there was no answer. Then, Hans received a box full of letters, probably from “everyone who heard it in the whole GDR,” he speculates.

At first he thought he would write back to all of them, but he realised that he must choose a few to answer; Uschi’s was one of the letters he randomly selected. 

“I wanted to connect with a Beatles fan from West Berlin,” she explained.  

Love and music across the border 

Thus began their relationship over a shared love of the BBC, Beatmusik, and the Beatles in 1969. 

The letters they exchanged began as a friendly discussion about music and their lives on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Uschi was happy living in the GDR at the time. She had her friends, her family, a garden, and her education. 

Hans would visit her as often as possible, even though doing so was difficult with the high fees and strict rules to return to the border by midnight.

Hans and Uschi's photo book shows many of the famous sites of divided Berlin. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz. 

Over time, they fell in love and decided to get married. Uschi remembers how risky this choice was for her: “I still had a lot of questions. What was the living situation?…I couldn’t meet his family.” It is “very complicated when one is blind and in love,” she said.   

Hans arranged for a lawyer in the West to help Uschi obtain a pass to leave East Berlin. She was working at the library of the Naturkundemuseum in Berlin when she received an unexpected phone call telling her that her pass was ready and where and when to pick it up. 

“Basically, one could say the GDR practically sold me to the West,” she explained. 

Only four weeks later on July 20th, 1975, she joined Hans in the West. Many dates are blurred in her memory, but Uschi said, “I know this one exactly.” 

They honeymooned in London, in honour of the BBC. 

Watched by the Stasi?

I asked them whether or not they felt the GDR Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, was monitoring their correspondence from 1969-1975.

Hans answered without hesitation: “I have a very thick Stasi file.” 

The file revealed that he was followed by members of the Stasi in both East and West Berlin. 

Uschi said she has also read her file, but much of it was nonsense to her: “I don’t understand it at all.”  

READ ALSO: How Germans are reconstructing Stasi files from millions of fragments 

The Mauerfall 

One of the photos in the Kriz family album shows a view of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz with the barbed wire of the Berlin Wall in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz. 

Hans was near Checkpoint Charlie working the night shift for his job at Axel Springer when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.

He returned to their home in Frohnau and woke Uschi, who like many slept through the surprise “Mauerfall.” She had worked a long day and was so sleepy that she didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until she saw the television coverage the next morning that she realised what had happened. 

Both Hans and Uschi were delighted when the capital of the reunified government returned to Berlin. 

I asked them if they still experience the Mauer im Kopf, or “Wall in the head,” that many German politicians and intellectuals describe as existing to this day. 

Hans immediately answered “Yes,” while Uschi said, “The Wall fell quickly for me.” 

She said that many people still view differences between the East and West very strongly. 

“My neighbour says I’m a Wossi, more Wessi [West German] than Ossi [East German],” she said, “I feel like more of an Ossi.” 

However, Uschi always viewed Berlin as one city, even when the wall still existed. She never thought of it as the capital city of the GDR, regardless of what the state authorities said. 

“I’ve always seen Berlin as one, Berliners together. For me, Berlin was always Berlin.” 

Remembering the Wall 

In Frohnau, right along the border of Brandenburg in northern Berlin, one can visit the Postenweg, the former path of the Wall that has been converted to an open bicycle path. There are still Wachturms, or ‘watch towers,’ standing. 

Hans and Uschi's son helps chip off some of the remaining Wall in Frohnau after its fall. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz.

Both Hans and Uschi wish that more parts of the Berlin Wall were left in place, “Perhaps even in front of the Brandenburg Gate,” said Hans. They worry that young people have no idea where the Wall was and therefore forget the history. 

Hans sighs, then quoted the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.”