The Babendererde case. In 1972, a German teacher was shot dead at Jimbolia, in front of his wife and child

Timp estimat de citire: 13 minute

About 800 East-German citizens attempted to defect to the West via Romania. Some 250 of them succeeded; and at least three died trying. Or so we managed to find out so far.

The rationale for murder

The case of the East-German citizen Rudolph Babendererde, 41, a chemistry teacher and writer from Rostock, who was shot dead at the Romanian border in front of his wife and young child, brought to the fore not only the violence the communist regime exerted against its own citizens, but also the evil brought up in people, in its depersonalized form, of shared bureaucratic language and rationale to justify murder.

To Romanian and East-German officials alike, the murder of a fellow citizen, another human being, was fine; though his only crime was wanting to live in another place on Earth than a communist country.

Not one of the officials mentioned in the Babendererde files looked in the eyes of the 9-year old child, who saw her father agonize for 20 minutes, after being shot. In fact, they refer to the child as to one of the criminals attempting to illegally cross the border.

His wife’s brother had fled to West Germany, via Romania too

According to documents originating from the former East-German secret service (MfS, BStU BV Rostock AU 160/73 HA Bd.I and II), Babendererde’s brother-in-law, H.B., was the one convincing him and his wife to defect to West-Germany, via the Romanian route (BStU 00037).

H.B. attempted to flee the communist camp from the port city of Constanța, Romania, where from he mailed a card to his sister on June 30, 1971. One year later, in July 1972, he managed to phone his sister and tell her that for the past year he had been imprisoned in the Romanian western city of Timișoara, for attempting to cross the border. He had been released on condition to present himself within three days to the Democratic Republic of Germany in Bucharest.

H. B. and a Czech friend he had made in prison decided to flee to Yugoslavia, instead. They stayed low, for a whole day, in a corn field near the city of Jimbolia. They crossed the border at night, and managed to get to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Belgrade. They got there provisional passports and arrived in West Germany.

H.B. settled in Hamburg, and told his sister, in July 1972, to use the same route that he used to defect to the West. He told her the only thing they should be careful about was the sensors in the barbed-wire fence, that could alert the border-guards, who otherwise are not very present; and that the border-guards did not use their fire-arms to stop defectors.

He knew nothing; he had just been lucky.

Escape plans

The two Babendererde, husband and wife, do not waste any time; they get entry visas to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, stating that their final destination was to vacation in Bulgaria. They are accompanied by their 9-year old daughter.

On August 5, they leave the DRG for Bulgaria, when in fact their intention was to reach the Romanian-Yugoslav border. On August 11, they reach Romania, and five days later they were scouting the border, to find the best place to make their jump. They had maps, binoculars, compass, utility knives, and other items useful for such an endeavor.

What really happened on that August 1972 night, at Jimbolia?

From this point on, it follows the words of Babendererde’s wife, 36, as translated by soldier M. Ion, and recorded by Romanian prosecutors, to be shared with their East-German counterparts, and entered as document no. BstU00093, in the archives mentioned before.

“On the night of 17 to 18 of August, I, along my husband Rudolph Babendererde, and our daughter,  attempted to illegally cross the border to Yugoslavia. There we were to meet my brother, who lives in Hamburg. We planed this meeting in our phone conversations, while in Germany.

From the DRG we crossed to Czechoslovakia, then to Hungary, and finally to Romania, which we entered via the Nădlac border-crossing point, on August 11, 1972.

On August 17, 1972, we drove from Timișoara to Jimbolia; we got out of the car before reaching the town. My husband drove away and went to park the car; then he walked back to us. We stayed low, in the corn fields, and waited for the night to fall.

At night, we walked towards the border with Yugoslavia. At about 00:30 we arrived close to the actual border line. After we got out of the corn fields, we continued crawling towards the border. We accidentally touched a wire and a sort of bell started to make noise. Immediately some soldiers reached us, and started to shout at us, but we did not understand what they were saying.

We stayed lying on the ground! The soldiers fired a few shots in the air, and then they started shooting at my husband, who was lying on the ground. The soldiers prevented me and my child to stay close to my husband, who was fatally wounded. He died with no medical help and no comfort after about 20 minutes,” stated Babendererde’s wife after her arrest.

Report of the in-situ investigation

Major Covei Gheorghe, of the UM 02914 Jimbolia military unit, wrote in the August 18, 1972 report, after an investigation on the site of the events (document no. BstU00089):

“A border-guard apprehended three people who were attempting to illegally cross the border with Yugoslavia, in the area of the Jimbolia town. Soldier I. Ioan, while patrolling the border and after being alerted by a warning signal triggered in the border area, noticed in the light provided by a lightning storm, three shadows crawling on all fours towards the border.

He called and asked them to stop, then fired the warning shots into the air. At one point he did not see them any longer, but then, when other lightnings lit the sky, he noticed them again. Once again he warned them verbally and with gun shots fired into the air. Seeing they did not comply, he shot at the person who seemed to be the closest to the border line.”

How many bullets, exactly, had the border-guard fired?

The report of the forensic doctor Crișan Traian, performing the autopsy (document no. BstU00040), provides more questions than answers:

“The death of Babendererde Rudolph was a violent one. The cause of death was severe internal hemorrhage due to the rupture of the liver by a fire-arm projectile. The entry point of the deadly bullet is at mid-torso, on the left side, at the back, at the arm pit level.

The bullet crossed the torso, the diaphragm, the stomach and the liver. It exited on the right side, under the rib zone, and at the front. The wounds at the left shoulder and left arm are caused by at least one bullet which brushed closely these areas.

The firing of the weapon was not at close range, since all the signs accompanying a wound made by close-range shooting were missing. When he was shot, the victim was having his back at the shooter, and presented towards the latter his left side. The trajectory of the bullet which caused his death was almost horizontal.”

The statement of the soldier called as witness in the investigation

The border-guard soldier was called as a witness in the investigation, and he gave the following statement in the UM 02914 military unit, in file no 156/18.08.1972 (document BstU00099):

“While on guard at the border, I heard a noise, and then, in the light from the lightnings, I saw three shadows. I called and asked them to stop. Then I lost them from sight, since it was dark. But then, another lightning made them visible again.

I again called and asked them to stop, and managed to apprehend them. I signaled my colleagues, and I handed over the two persons to the escorting team. After I returned to the military unit I found out that they were a mother and her daughter, who wanted to cross the border to Yugoslavia. I also found out that they were from the GDR, that they were GDR citizens.”

It is obvious that the soldier’s account of events leaves out the man he had just killed; or that half of his statement refers to what he found out once back at the military unit, and not to the actual events at the border.

A criminal investigation opened against the wife of the victim

The two survivors of this encounter with the Romanian border-guard were taken into custody for 24 hours, at the military unit. The case made it the next morning to the Prosecutor’s Office in Timișoara, which indicted Babendererde’s wife with criminal charges for attempting at illegally cross the border.

In the statement Babendererde’s wife gave to the Prosecutor’s Office in Timșoara, on August 19, 1972, she said her brother was waiting for them in Yugoslavia, at Kikinda, to take them by car to the Federal Republic of Germany. She also stated that there were four soldiers present, at the moment of her arrest. But she took back all these details, when she was questioned by the East-German prosecutors, in Rostock.

Romanian prosecutor Corfariu Alexandru ordered the woman’s arrest for a further 5-day period, for attempting to illegally cross the border – a crime carrying a 3-month to one and a half year prison time sentence, in the communist Criminal code, under Art 20,21-245. His recommendation was for the punishment to exceed three months, since she was caught in the act.

Romanian prosecutor Radu Brădiceni made the following notes in the file, no 2541/B/1972 (document BStU 00041 and  00042).

“On the night of August 18, 1972, at 02.20 hours, the accused, along her husband and daughter, attempted to illegally cross the border between the Socialist Republic of Romania and the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, close to the Jimbolia town.

When they were some 400 meters from the border line, they touched the sensor of an alarm system, which went off, so the border guards were alerted to their presence in the area. As a result, one border-guard discovered them and hailed them twice to stop, according to the regulation, firing six bullets into the air.

As they did not comply, the border-guard soldier shot the person closest to the border line and fatally wounded Babendererde Rudolph. Following this, the border-guards took into custody his wife and daughter, at the border-guard tower.

The wife was placed under an arrest warrant on August 18, 1972, and was handed over to the representative of the GDR in Bucharest, on August 22, 1972”.

The case of the East-Germany citizen Rudolph Babendererde, 41, a chemistry teacher and writer from Rostock, killed at the Romanian border in front of his wife and 9-year old girl, is but one of the many personal tragedies taking place there.

The first part of this article dealt with the details of how the Babendererde family came to the decision to flee the GDR to the Federal Republic, via Romania and then Yugoslavia, and the advice they received on the best course of action. We also dealt with the details of the killing of Rudolph Babendererde in front of his wife and nine-year old daughter. While the man’s body stayed in Romania, for the mother and daughter the nightmare unfolded further.

Mother and daughter were held in custody by Romanian authorities, and eventually sent to East-Germany. But first, here are the details of what happened to them after the first inquiry the woman was subjected to in Jimbolia, where her husband was killed on the night of 17 to 18 August 1972, while attempting to illegally cross the border to Yugoslavia.

Comrade to comrade talks

On the morning of August 18, the information that an East-German citizen had been shot dead at the border was sent to Bucharest, and Colonel Petre and Major Rebegeanu introduced themselves to the GDR in Bucharest (according to document BstU000138, with the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic, or BStU) to give assurance to the East-German General Richter that the Romanian State is sorry for the turn of events, and that the Prosecutor General would pass on the results of the pending investigation.

The comrades’ rationale for killing

“The strict regulation of the Romanian borders leads us to believe that the Romanian comrades who used fire-arms to block the defectors acted lawfully and in compliance with the regulations.

Besides, any defector should take into account all the possible outcomes when attempting to force one’s passage through a State’s strictly regulated borders, and in spite of verbal commands to stop his or her action,” was the stance put forth by the representatives of the East-German State.

Colonel Petre answered that the Romanian State did not wish to bring this case to the public, and that Babendererde’s wife made a request to have her husband’s body transferred to the DRG (according to document BStU000139).

„B. betrayed his country and we have no interest in getting his body back home”

General Richter obliged: “I told (Colonel Petre) that B. betrayed his country and we had no interest in getting his body back home; I also asked him to give mandate to the authorities in Timișoara to inter the body there, the Romanian law permitting.

I also asked him to pressure the wife into giving up this request she made,” Richter reported to Berlin. The Romanians agreed to having the two persons indicted and their car returned to East Germany. (The car was used by the family to get to the border and was in Jimbolia, ed. note).

The money to care for the grave? Not in a million years!

On August 22, the wife of R.B. had the opportunity to meet the representatives of the GDR in Bucharest, at the Otopeni Airport (document BStU 000140-142).

They informed her that she was not allowed to leave Romania with any money on her; so, she handed them 1,000 lei, asking them to pass the money to the person or persons who will take care of her husband’s grave; they replied that the money would be used to offset the expenses made with trying to prevent their attempt to defect.

She asked for her husband’s body to be exhumed and sent to Germany, saying that she was not even told where was he interred, or provided with a death certificate. She was told that their car was confiscated by the East-German State.

„Why did he shot him four times, while we all stood still?”

She asked the German officials to investigate why the border-guard shot her husband four times, though none of them moved to flee, when he summoned them to halt.

“The dirtiest of the Gypsies in Yugoslavia has more freedom of movement than the people in the GDR and Romania. Were GDR to give its people the same opportunity nothing of the kind would happen,” reasoned the woman, to the dismay of the GDR official representatives.

On August 22, mother and daughter were taken in custody by the East-German STASI and were put on a GDR plane leaving from Otopeni. Once arrived in Rostock, the nightmare was to continue with endless inquiries, searches of the home, persecutions of all kinds, targeting all family members.

The wife of Rudolph Babendererde, a dentist, was convicted to serve a two-year prison term for the ”attempt to leave the GDR” and was sent to the prison in Rostock, where many defectors did time. She and her daughter live now in Hamburg.

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About Marina Constantinoiu Istvan Deak
Marina Constantinoiu și Istvan Deak sunt autorii unei serii de producții multimedia dedicate fenomenului frontierist, cu care s-a confruntat România în anii comunismului. Fenomenul, care a marcat o lungă perioadă, între 1948 și 1989, reprezintă o pagină de istorie recentă prea puțin sau chiar deloc cunoscută multora dintre români.

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