17 August 1989: Of Borders and Yogurt Cups
The plastic is broken. Cracks and cuts vertically splinter the cup; it can barely hold itself together. Age has given it a yellowish tint. Pressed almost flat, the yogurt cup still conserves the 29-year old dirt of the Austrian soil. On the blue ground, written in white letters: Steinfeld. Molkerei Wiener Neustadt. On the 17th of August 1989, two young parents, their five-year-old daughter, and a friend rushed disoriented through the forests between Hungary and Austria - risking their lives to escape the GDR. After walking for hours and climbing over fences bearing the sun that ruthlessly burned on their necks, it was the sight of one dirty yogurt cup that announced they had crossed the border. Cheap plastic unfolded the promise of a successful escape, an unclear but brighter future. They had left the GDR. They had survived.
In 1975, the regime of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, signed the Helsinki Accords, recognizing the people’s rights to movement and migration. Within the GDR, this signature had a reverse impact. Migration appeals were met with discrimination, surveillance, and imprisonment. The workplace in particular proved a fruitful tool for punishment. Peoples’ career options were put on halt, they were moved – sometimes every month, sometimes very far away - and the Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, encouraged fellow employees to psychologically exclude the persona non grata. Yet the numbers were increasing. In 1978, 11,287 citizens wished to leave the East; in 1984, the official numbers rose to 36,699. The suffocating economic and financial situation, and the conflict between the first generation and generations born into the GDR intensified the tensions, and calls for reformation grew stronger.
On the second of May 1989, Hungary began to cut down her fences. The governing political party of East Germany, the SED, believed that the borders continued to remain secure – mistakenly, as the following months would prove. Birgit and Andreas, however, had never planned to escape from Hungary. The two young doctors and their daughter, Julia, lived with Birgit’s mother in the small village of Possendorf, five kilometers away from Weimar. They wanted to drive to Bulgaria, where they would meet the grandfather of a befriended couple, a bear hunter. He would guide them through the Bulgarian mountains to Greece. From there, they would try to travel to West Germany. When they packed their suitcases, her mother could not help but wonder. Why had Andreas bought so many ropes? Why would they need them at Platten Lake? And why did they carry so many of Julia’s toys with them? Birgit and Andreas could not tell her about their plans. They could not tell anyone. The party’s influence may have seemed less evident in the countryside, but the Stasi had channels everywhere. Only Birgit’s sister was informed, as they needed someone to safeguard all the transcripts and certificates. If the escape turned out successfully, Birgit would call her from the West, using the code words ‘We are engaged.’
They left Possendorf in a group of five. Two friends, Sven and Gerrit, traveled with them, unaware of the young family’s plan to leave the GDR for good. At a gas station, Birgit confessed: “We are not coming back.”
The Camping site in Bük-Fürdö, located at the Western border of Hungary, was meant to be a stop on their actual escape route. When they arrived, to their surprise, excitement could be felt everywhere. Rumors about possible border openings in Hungary made their rounds. Apparently, the government was planning to temporarily open the borders on the following weekend for a picnic, eager to demonstrate the openness and progression of the Hungarian state. Would the border controls be looser? Was there a chance to sneak through and move towards Austria? On the campsite, a couple of tents and cars were already discarded. Trying to get a sense of possible options, Andreas engaged in discussion, eventually meeting a Hungarian man. He had lost his grandfather’s company when dispropertied by the communists. His hate for the political regime made him determined to help any East German attempting to flee the GDR.
No sleep at night. Birgit and Andreas discussed for hours. Could the man be trusted? Did the Stasi infiltrate the camping place? Was this a trap? One year ago, they had already made a first attempt to escape. The Volkspolizei picked them up with a very clear warning – One more time and you go to prison. We will hunt you down, and lock you up. Was this a real possibility? Or should they follow their initial plan to go to Bulgaria?
Sometimes life takes unexpected paths. Political fortresses, thought to be infinite, crumbled. Within weeks, maybe within days, a fundamental change erupted, shattering everything connected in an enormous domino effect. If Birgit and Andreas had known that only one week later, on August 25th 1989, the German chancellor Helmut Kohl, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Hungary’s prime minister Miklós Németh, and Gyula Horn would meet, agreeing on an open border between Hungary and Austria from Mid-September onwards, they surely would have waited. On the 11th of September, thousands of people crossed the borders, amounting to numbers of 25,000 at the end of the month. But Birgit and Andreas could not know. And they had no reason to wait.
Andreas agreed to a test drive with the Hungarian partner. The two men went to the border area and back - no complications - and decided: Next day at twelve. Meeting point: Köszek. They would leave before the weekend. Two big bottles of water, each one carrying 500 Deutsche Mark, stuffed into their underwear. A cap on Birgit’s head covered her blond hair. Sven joined their enterprise, but Gerrit decided to stay behind, together with Birgit and Andreas’ car and all their belongings. The Hungarian man drove deep into the forest. No words were exchanged. The air was tense and heavy. All over sudden he pulled over and pointed straight. 4 km from here; you will find the border.
Utter silence and dense vegetation accompanied their walk. The blackberry bushes scratched their legs open, blood and sweat mixed. From time to time, a sudden noise made them throw themselves on their bellies. A fence appeared. Fortunately, a hole had already been cut into it. A four meter band of neatly brushed sand followed. With a running jump, they managed to pass most of the distance. No footsteps on the sand testified to their presence. A success, until they realized that during the jump, Julia had lost one of her shoes.
Andreas rushed back, saved the shoe. Now the relief of his own shoes was clearly visible. The frightful sound of a car, moving closer, broke the silence. They ran forward. Only a hundred meters away they pressed themselves onto the ground, holding their breath. Seconds passed as slowly as minutes. The time felt stretched, artificially slowed down. The driver was now very close. He did not seem to notice - he drove by.
They kept moving, more and more losing their orientation. Why did they decide to meet at 12? Why did they not leave earlier? The sun was at the zenith and of no use as an indicator of direction. The temperature pitched at 30 degrees, the water bottles became empty. All of a sudden, they faced the same fence again, looking towards Hungary. The border has a serpentine shape, they realized, disheartened.
The group turned around and continued to rush into the other direction. After some time, they faced another fence. This one was bigger. There was a previous hole, but it had been fixed. So, they had to climb. But Julia was too small and too tired. Birgit had given her sleeping pills to make sure she would stay quiet. Most of the time, the adults had to carry her, passing her around. It helped that Sven was with them. Standing in front of the big fence, their legs and arms were weary. They had come far. But how to pass this one? How to pass it as a group? One man threw Julia over the fence and another one caught her. Heavy breaths, exhaustion, and uncertainty. Frightful disorientation slowly turned into excitement. Where are we? Have we left Hungary behind?
A small stream allowed them to fill their water bottles. Something in the grass caught their attention. Something white and blue. Letters built the sacred words: Molkerei Wiener Neustadt. Tears filled their eyes and new energy rushed through their veins as the four fell into each other’s arms. The yogurt cup, produced in Vienna, was a clear indication: They had succeeded. They were in Austria.
Shortly after, the noise of car engines grew stronger and they arrived at an asphalt road. A man stopped, looked at the four – tired, agitated, sweaty and bloody. “You don’t have to say anything, I know where you are coming from!” He took the group in his transporter, brought them to a bread & breakfast – Raststätte Waldhof – where they were welcomed with cheering and applause. Beers were pressed into their hands; they showered; everything was overwhelming. “Even their goat was drinking beer,” Birgit recalls to me with a laugh.
Only two days later, the young family arrived in Frankfurt. After three weeks, they moved to Lüdenscheid. Their debut in the West, a personal beginning, was quickly followed by a new political age - the crumbling of the oppressive GDR regime itself. The border openings in Hungary led to 6,000 people going to the German embassy in Prague. On the 30th of September, special trains moved them West. More and more people accumulated at the embassy so that the free transit between the GDR and Czechoslovakia was put on hold. Still, the wave was unleashed, the current of change unstoppable. From October onwards, the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig began to dominate the news. On the 2nd of October, 20,000 people met on the streets, on the 9th, 70,000, and on the 23rd, 30,000 people called for reformation of the GDR. Cries for freedom of movement, for free speech, free elections and the decrease of the Stasi influence filled the streets. On the 7th of October, security forces still employed resistance - the following demonstrations continued without interference from the state police. The so-called peaceful revolution had begun. On the 9th of November 1989, people danced exuberantly at the Brandenburger Tor - the wall was open.
29 years later. The old yogurt cup lies peacefully on the table. It too has traveled a long way. From the Eastern borders of Austria, Birgit brought it with her to Lüdenscheid, a small city in Nordrhein-Westfalen, West Germany. Birgit, Andreas, and their daughter moved to the town, only three weeks after their escape, and have built their life here. In 1993, their son Max was born. We sit down in the spacious, warm living room. Through the large window, we can see the snowflakes dancing. Birgit pours tea into our translucent cups and the scent of Rooibos fills the air.
“I can show you pictures.” Birgit walks towards the shelf and picks up a book. “We went back a year after.” Photographs of the house in Possendorf, their white car, Romantic camping at Bük-Fürdo, the city sign of Köszek. The next picture shows an asphalt street, next to the forest, taken in Austria. The exact route between Köszek and the asphalt street will remain blurred forever. We look at earlier times. Pictures of her youth, the Jugendweihe, the Freie Deutsche Jugend. “You can see, the quality of the pictures is not great, and there are not too many photographs.” Her tone is sober, her face disillusioned.
“I constantly looked out for every possible way to leave this place. They imprisoned so many people, without any restraints. They could just lock you away. This wasn’t life.” Her light blue eyes fixate on mine. “I really do believe, that every big change comes from the youth. All these young people who gathered in 1989, putting pressure on the government – we forced the borders to open. It was madness, but we did it. Never take anything for granted. We have to constantly work on this society, and uphold the values that we want to live in.”
In 1989, people were screaming “Wir sind das Volk” – “We are the people,” “Wir sind ein Volk” – “We are one,” stressing the cohesion of the German people. Nowadays, these slogans are shouted by the radical right-wing, nationalistic movement Pegida. The support for the right-wing AFD party is increasing throughout the whole country, and especially in the East. And so Germany begins to build new, more translucent and toxic walls. Dangerous forces of division infiltrate the quotidian, and more than ever Germans are wondering – what does it mean to be “ein Volk?” And how can one regain the passionate dance for unity, the shouts of joy of 1989 - instead of rage and screams of exclusion?
This article was made possible in part by a grant from the Civic Media Lab.