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Before 1989, Romania was a go-to country for Germans in the Democratic Republic, not only for its Black Sea resorts, but also for its Western border with Yugoslavia. That was deemed one gateway to freedom, by many East-Germans, and presumably the easiest route to West Germany.
And many traveled to the Romanian banks of the Danube, but news of the brutality of Romanian border-guards also made them change their minds.
Three teenagers made their mind too: to flee
In 1984, three high-school boys in the Democratic Republic of Germany made up their minds to flee the country. Instrumental in hasting their decision was the fact that mandatory military service was the next step after graduating, and that was quite scary to them.
On the day they graduated their high-school in Leipzig, they boarded the train and went East, in an attempt to find a breach in the borders of either Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria that, eventually, will take them to the West.
Elian Ehrenreich, currently a journalist with Die Welt daily, was one of the three boys. The other two in the group want their true identities covered under the nick-names of „Walle” and „Koma”. Ehrenreich ‘s own account of the events was carried in the July 23, 2014 issue of the German daily.
On July 25, 1984, the three of them reached Budapest, Hungary. They knew that if they made it to either Austria, Yugoslavia or Turkey, was as good as becoming free men.
They did not consider the fact that the border guards may use their fire arms in trying to stop them. During the few days they spent in Hungary, they felt living was much easier than in East-Germany, and they also gave short interviews to Austrian journalists, speaking of the life young people have in East-Germany, for which they got paid ten dollars each.
The parting of the ways
Koma was the first to leave the group. He decided to try crossing the Hungarian-Yugoslav border, in the area of the Nagykanzsa village. Elian and Walle thought it was too dangerous, and opted to swim over the Danube, at the Romanian-Yugoslav border.
“How was the 1984 Romania? It was a conundrum. It had the same political regime as the other countries in the Socialist camp, but it was a country rife with despair, tribulations and even hunger. People were queuing in front of empty stores, but no food was there to be bought,” Elian recalls.
They got off the train at Timișoara and found lodging with Priest Sebastian Krauter. They also sought information on the behavior of the Romanian border-guards.
“This is when we found out how brutal they were. Who did not make it over the border was either shot or tortured. Almost no one may flee the country led by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu,” they were told at the time.
They got properly scared and discarded their plan. Two days later they left for Bucharest. The train track was at some point right on the river bank. The train cart had its door open. One jump out the door, a 300-meter run to the water, and another 500-meter swim into the Danube, and they would have made it to freedom.
“When will be ever again that close to the border?”, wondered the boys. Still, they decided to not take their chances this time, since they were not fully prepared for such an endeavor.
They made it to Bucharest, and from there, to Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. They decided to jump the border between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. They walked one night for 15 kilometers, and got as close as 500 meters from the barbed-wire fence.
It was full-moon, and the dogs of the border guards sensed their smell and started to bark. The two boys stayed put and abandoned their attempt at crossing then and there.
The last attempt
Two days later they had their last attempt at defecting to the West, on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. They reached the port-city of Ahtopol and tried to pay the boat-owners with as much as 150 Deutsch Marks, for taking them on the Turkish shore; but to no avail.
“No way! It’s impossible”, everybody told them. But one of the people they approached was also an informant to the Bulgarian secret services. The two boys were arrested in a matter of minutes, taken to the local police station where they were savagely beaten, and then locked away in separate cells.
Back to the Democrat Republic of Germany, under guard
Then agents of STASI, the Democrat Republic secret service, arrived to escort them on their flight back home. “In spite of our failed attempt at jumping the border, we were still very lucky to be alive, for about 100 citizens from East-Germany died at the Bulgarian border, between 1961 and 1989, while attempting to flee the communist camp and reach the West.
To keep things in perspective, at the Berlin Wall, during the same period of time, 138 East-Germany citizens had been killed”, points out Elian.
After five months in police custody, the two boys were convicted to 22 months of prison-time. Thirteen months later the Federal Republic of Germany “bought” their freedom and they were extradited to West Germany.
In October 1985, the two of them met their third friend, Koma, in the refugee camp at Giessen; Koma had succeeded to jump over the Hungarian-Yugoslav border.