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HANS-PETER SPITZNER AND PEGGY SPITZNER ARE THE LAST ONES OUT

“Sorry, no. It is too dangerous.” Those are the words greeting Hans-Peter Spitzner each time he approached a U.S. soldier in East Berlin. But, he did not give up and, finally, on his third day in the hot summer heat he found a soldier — Eric Yaw — who was willing to ferry his seven-year-old daughter and himself across the East/West Berlin border and into freedom.

ASG had the opportunity to speak with Hans-Peter and Peggy Spitzner and have them tell their incredible story of survival.

Hans-Peter Spitzner and his daughter Peggy at a Berlin Wall Memorial.

Hans-Peter Spitzner and his daughter Peggy at a Berlin Wall Memorial.

American Survival Guide: What was life like for you in East Germany?

Hans-Peter Spitzner: I was a 35-year-old textile- engineering teacher living in Chemnitz, Saxony. Our everyday life was quiet; we worked and our child was in first grade. Friends and family could talk freely about the injustices in the GDR, but it was not foreseeable that the wall would come down one day, that’s why many people turned their backs on the GDR.

Peggy Spitzner: As a child it was a good life. I had enough friends and toys, and I remember my fancy washing machine. In Kindergarten we all looked the same and the rules were very strict. We had to sleep on our bellies with our hands under the pillow. The group, as such, was very important and school itself was very practically orientated. I loved my uniform and regularly embarrassed my mom by singing the political songs we learned at school in public. I do not remember knowing anything about the world outside the GDR.

ASG: The Stasi arrested you because you refused to follow party orders in an election. How did you feel during your arrest?

H-PS: I was paralysed and feeble. I felt completely exposed, but I was strong inside and not willing to give up, I had not committed any crimes and did not feel guilty at all, yet still I cannot deny a feeling of fear. I was inferior to all these people; the psychological pressure was enormous.

ASG: Where did you get the idea for your escape, if you would call it that, in a car? What set your plans in motion? What did you think about it all, Peggy?

Conrad Schumann, the first person to escape the Berlin Wall August 15, 1961.

Conrad Schumann, the first person to escape the Berlin Wall August 15, 1961.

H-PS: The idea of escaping in the trunk of a car came to my mind while reading an article in the newspaper Junge Welt. I read that there was an official instruction that said members of the allied military forces were not to be searched. Only the usual passport check was conducted. In the case of a reasonable suspicion of a flight risk the car was surrounded and the occupants forced out. It wasn’t until then that they could be arrested since the inside of the vehicle was de facto American territory.

My wife was already in Austria [it was common practice for the GDR to allow a member of the family to leave briefly so long as there was family left behind, almost as hostages for their return] and this encouraged me to try to escape and not have to expose my wife to the risk. She and my daughter did not know anything specific about my plans. Shortly before I prepared my daughter in a playful way. While on our way to Berlin, I passed it off to her as a kind of hide and seek game.

PS: I do not remember my father telling me anything except that we had to get through this in order to see my mom. For me it felt like an adventure, because in my understanding, I was doing this whole wait-hideseek thing only to be able to see my mum. She was gone and I wanted her back. Actually, you are the first person to ask if I would call it “an escape”. I never thought about the word to use to describe it. On one side it was not an escape in the sense that we had to fear for our lives, but my father wanted to go away because of the threats and fear for his social life if he did not behave the way the Socialist Party wanted people to behave. So, yes, I would say it was an escape.

ASG: Could you explain what it was like in Berlin for those three days while you sought out anyone who might help you cross the border?

Eric Yaw standing at the Checkpoint Charlie sign on the same day he helped the Spitzners escape.

Eric Yaw standing at the Checkpoint Charlie sign on the same day he helped the Spitzners escape.

H-PS: Before the escape, and until Peggy and I were able to leave the car after the successful escape, I felt panic and fear; it was life threatening. I was totally aware of [being caught], but the urge to live in a free country gave me the strength to try it over and over again. I wanted to escape the system and wanted to give it the cold shoulder. I wanted to demonstrate that its power could not keep everybody from leaving.

I wanted to meet a soldier, who was driving a car, and I also tried my luck with bus drivers. Peggy was always by my side, this made me less suspicious; a child was rather unsuspicious to the authorities. I felt powerless and I was sad every time I was rejected. But it was a special kind of challenge indeed, dangerous and special, and this is why I did not give up. I have always been the warrior type who pursues his goals to the end and does not give up that quickly.

PS: Unfortunately, I do not remember much about those three days, merely a few scenes. I remember being in a café on Alexaderplatz. I also remember being in a parking lot and that we forgot my cuddly too in our green Wartburg. I was very sad about that.

ASG: How did you eventually meet with Eric Yaw?

H-PS: I saw him by chance right before I wanted to cancel the whole thing. I saw him parking his car on Karl-Marx-Allee, a central, busy road in East Berlin. I saw a black car with a US license plate and decided to try one last time to find someone by walking over to his car and signaling with gestures that I wanted to talk to the young man, who was wearing a uniform. I recognized that it was a US military uniform. He was hesitant, but to my delight he opened the car window and I could bring my request forward. When he agreed, at first I thought that he maybe misunderstood, because I could not believe that he would take on such a burden, that he would, at the risk of his life and knowing that he was breaching official instructions, help me and my daughter. I was a little confused and very, very excited at the same time.

ASG: What was going through your mind as you rode in the trunk of Eric Yaw’s car and crossed through Checkpoint Charlie?

Eric Yaw’s Toyota Camry, then in Afghanistan.

Eric Yaw’s Toyota Camry, then in Afghanistan.

H-PS: The drive from getting into the car to the border (Checkpoint Charlie) took us approximately 25 minutes, but we got into the car near a park to prevent people from watching us. Until then we had been driving the two cars separately. The drive to the border was not very long, but the tightness, the darkness, the broiling heat, and the black car, which seemed to suck up the shafts of sunlight, made it seem like an eternity.

In the trunk many thoughts crossed my mind. On one hand I did not want to be caught by the border patrolmen, because that would have meant prison for me, and my daughter would have been taken to an unknown place, probably a state community home or to new parents who were loyal to the party. I was scared, anxious, and pictured many scenarios. It was like a thunderstorm in my head, I was unable to think straight. I was shivering with fear. Of course, I knew about the firing orders and the cruel methods the civil servants used against people who tried to escape, everybody in the GDR knew about this.

The Spitzners, reunited in West Germany, a few months after their escape.

The Spitzners, reunited in West Germany, a few months after their escape.

PS: I was not nervous. I even calmed my father down in the trunk of Eric’s car. He tried to talk to me to avoid me getting scared, but I told him that we could not speak or someone might hear us. Of course, I could not estimate the scope of this undertaking, but I knew that it was important to my family and my dad that we got where we wanted to go safely and therefore I had to listen to my dad and be brave.

ASG: What was your reaction once you reached West Berlin?

H-PS: We were relieved, because we could finally escape the tightness and the heat, but also that we were not exposed to the GDR dictatorship regime and the repressions that came with it anymore. We called Berchtesgaden [where Ingrid was staying] after Eric had picked us up from the refugee camp once more. Unfortunately, my wife was not at the guesthouse that day, so I had to rely on the owner of the guesthouse to break the news of our escape to her and that she believed us, after all we didn’t know each other. The next morning I could talk to my wife Ingrid in person and explain the situation.

Eric Yaw and Ingrid Spitzner during Hans-Peter Spitzner’s 60th birthday party.

Eric Yaw and Ingrid Spitzner during Hans-Peter Spitzner’s 60th birthday party.

PS: My first memory is the trunk opening. I saw a big red brick building. Eric had taken us there, because some of his friends lived there. He asked everybody in the building to donate clothes for us, because my dad had forgotten to pack some for me. Later we were driving through Berlin, and while we were waiting at the traffic lights somewhere, a guy came to our open window that was promoting some kind of red strawberry lemonade. He gave one to me for free and this was a completely new thing for me, I was over the moon. Usually, I went to stores with adults and we were waiting in a queue for hours. Nobody just came to you and offered you stuff.

ASG: Looking back at everything, what do you think of the Berlin Wall and everything you went through?

At Hans-Peter Spitzner’s birthday party. The painting was created by Peggy and done with coffee.

At Hans-Peter Spitzner’s birthday party. The painting was created by Peggy and done with coffee.

H-PS: I was glad when the wall came down, that the razorblade in the flesh of the German folk, the wall, had lost its awful effect, and I was happy for the GDR citizens that they could finally be free and would not have to risk their lives, like me and Peggy and Eric, to be able to live in peace. For me this was a very happy day, we celebrated with friends past midnight. I will never forget this day, as well as the day of our escape and I am thankful to Eric and the Germans that everything happened entirely peacefully. The reunification in the German minds will take a little longer, but this is manageable compared to the conditions in the GDR — look to North Korea, people are still held in prisons like animals, look to Iran, where religious groups restrict the freedom of the people. I am happy I get to live in a free and beautiful country.

PS: I admire my dad for doing such a brave thing, he is my hero and I think he is responsible for my strong belief that I can accomplish everything if I really want to. He wanted to give his family the opportunity of a better life. He wanted me to grow up in an environment where I would be able to speak the truth and where the individual is worth something. This was not the case in the GDR. My childhood was good. I was a happy child, but having inherited my father’s persistence and love of liberty, I think I would have thought about escaping later on in my life (given the circumstances would not have changed).

The Wall

At the end of World War II, Berlin became a divided city with the three western Allies — the U.S., Great Britain, and France — controlling the western half of the city and the Soviets controlling the east. Between 1941 and 1961, nearly 2.7 million people simply walked across the border from East to West. Half of these refugees were under 25. The labor and economic crisis that loomed for the East German government had to be stemmed before there was a complete collapse of the East German economy.

Early in the morning of August 13, 1961 temporary barriers of coiled barbed wire were erected along the border between the Soviet and Western sectors of Berlin and the roads connecting the two were torn up. Over the next few weeks, the wire was removed and replaced by concrete slabs. The Wall would divide neighborhoods; houses that impeded the wall were condemned, boarded up, and became empty carcasses ensnared within the labyrinth of the border security.

Construction of the Berlin Wall in 1963.

Construction of the Berlin Wall in 1963.

Ostensibly, the Berlin Wall was not directed at keeping East Germans from escaping but, as East German leader Walter Ulbricht said in the weeks after the wall rose, “we have sealed the cracks in the fabric of our house and closed the holes through which the worst enemies of the German people could creep.”

From its creation in 1961 to its fall in 1989, the Berlin Wall saw four major revisions, but throughout the years it was always being modified and security measures perfected after each and every escape attempt was analyzed.

But the Berlin Wall was only a small portion of the entire “Iron Curtain” that tore across central Europe. Separating East and West Germany was a no-man’s land of barbed wire, minefields, watchtowers and dog runs called the Inner-German border. At nearly 860 miles long, the border ran from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia, where the governments of other Eastern Bloc nations implemented their own security measures. In 1967, utilizing their experiences constructing the Berlin Wall, the GDR modernized the entire barrier. The new system was extremely effective; there were approximately 1,000 escapes per year in the mid-60s to less than 120 a decade later.

The Berlin Wall stood, as Hans-Peter Spitzner described it, as a “razorblade in the flesh of the German folk” for almost 30 years and it would take a mistake for it to ultimately come down. On Nov. 9, 1989, East German Politburo member Guenther Schabowski mistakenly announced that East Germans would be allowed to cross into West Germany immediately. The rush of people caught the GDR border agents off guard, and, without orders to the contrary, began allowing people to pass peacefully between East and West. Official reunification of East and West Germany did not happen until Oct. 3, 1990 and the last vestiges of the Wall were not removed until 1992.

 

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.