11 of the 39 clandestine tunnels dug under the city were made on that street

The Bernauer Strasse tunnels in Berlin: underground routes to escape communism

On August 13, 1961, communist Germany began building the Berlin Wall, cynically called the "Anti-Fascist Protection Wall" by that dictatorship.

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A wall to prevent the escape of communist Germany

The wall completely surrounded free Berlin, located to the west and divided into three zones, administered respectively by the United States, France and the United Kingdom. Its perimeter was 155 kilometers, and in addition to the wall itself, the immediate area on the communist side was planted with mines. It is estimated that about 5,000 people managed to flee East Berlin, about 3,000 were arrested while trying to do so, and 200 people were killed while escaping, including 33 who died while crossing the minefield. In reality, the wall did not protect anyone from "fascists", but rather turned East Berlin and communist Germany into a huge prison.

An image of Tunnel 57, built from West Berlin to Bernauer Strasse 97, in East Berlin, between April and October 1964. 57 people managed to escape through it between October 3 and 4, 1964 (Source: Jugend Opposition in der DDR).

The first fatality from the wall was Ida Siekmann, a 58-year-old nurse who died while trying to jump from the fourth floor of Bernauer Strasse 48, where she lived. That street was bordered by the wall on its southern side, completely isolating the Church of Reconciliation, located there and which ended up being demolished by the communists in 1985. Below these lines you can see a recreation of how the wall divided the residents of that street.

11 of Berlin's 39 escape tunnels were made on Bernauer Strasse

As Bernauer Strasse measured 36 meters wide and was divided by the wall, on this street there were several escape attempts through a total of 11 tunnels of the 39 that were built under East Berlin (it is believed that Some 70 were projected, which indicates the high number of failures). Of those 39, 30 were built starting from West Berlin to rescue people from the other side, and 9 were started from East Berlin to escape, the latter being the most successful. Through all the tunnels built in Berlin 254 people managed to escape, four died in the attempt and 200 were arrested. The tunnels were built clandestinely under the buildings and with the permanent risk of being discovered by communist sentries.

The encounter with Freedom. A photo of the lower Tunnel 57 in East Berlin (Source: Jugend Opposition in der DDR).

Of the 11 Bernauer Strasse tunnels, only three of the Bernauer Strasse tunnels were successful. The first of them began construction in a basement at Schönholzer Strasse 7 in the summer of 1962, in West Berlin , reaching a factory at Bernauer Straße 79. The tunnel was about 140 meters long and was built on the initiative of a group of students headed by two young Italians, Domenico Sesta and Luigi Spina. 29 people fled through it, including men, women and children, towards free Berlin, without the wall sentinels noticing. Today it is known as "Tunnel 29" due to the number of people who managed to escape through it. In this video we can see the current state of that tunnel, which is preserved today as a museum (the video is in German, but has English subtitles: they are activated in the bottom bar of the video):

Tunnel 57 that reached Bernauer Strasse 97

The most successful tunnel of all those built in Berlin began to be built in April 1964, starting from West Berlin in the direction of Bernauer Strasse 97. It was the deepest (it reached 12 meters) and expensive of all the tunnels. It measured 145 meters and started in the basement of an empty bakery. Between October 3 and 4, 1964 a total of 57 people fled through it, which is why today it is known as "Tunnel 57". Much of the money the tunnel cost was financed by a secret fund that the government of Free Germany had to help citizens of communist Germany flee from there. The last known Bernauer Strasse tunnel was built in February 1971, starting in West Berlin. Unfortunately this wall failed, and 40 people were arrested.

A sentry from communist Germany inspecting one of the escape tunnels built under East Berlin (Source: Bundesarchiv.de).

Today, in addition to being able to visit Tunnel 29, various plaques on Bernauer Strasse commemorate the tunnels built there and the people who fled through them, as well as those who found death or captivity in his attempt to escape from that totalitarian regime that turned East Germany into an immense concentration camp. The history of these tunnels not only remembers those who sought to escape, but also those who risked their lives helping them in the attempt, in an admirable gesture of solidarity captured in those 30 tunnels that started from West Berlin .


Main image: BTB-concept.

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