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Only people living in those times may fully comprehend the reasons why citizens in the former Communist camp of nations put their lives on the line, in an attempt to illegally cross the borders and flee to the Western Capitalist nations.
Heinz Schmerschneider was born on Novemver 11, 1950, in Oebisfelde, near Magdeburg, East Germany. Though his parents were not university educated, he made it as a student at the Polytechnic University, in Halle. But his dream was to study in West Germany.
I met Schmerschneider in March 2016, in his brother’s house in Halle. He agreed to share with us his experience as a border jumper, who made the attempt to go West via the Romanian-Yugoslav route.
The First Attempt at Border Jumping
“The first thought crossing my mind to leave the Democratic Republic of Germany I had while I was still in high-school. In 1969, together with my friend Hans-Jurgen, we made the decision to flee the country. My worst fear was that East Germany would declare war to West Germany and that I would be drafted in the army and forced to fight against my own kin. We studied the map and decided that the best crossing point would be at the border point shared by Hungary, Austria and Yugoslavia,” Schmerschneider told us.
They even made it to the town of Zalaegerszeg. But, since border patrol units knew that was a soft spot, they had reinforced controls in the area. So, close to the town of Oriszentpeter, the two of them were stopped by border guards. After they claimed to be East German tourists lost on their way, they were returned to the other side of the border, at gun point.
The Second Attempt
This failed attempt did not put down Schmerschneider. In 1974 he was to make a new attempt, this time accompanied by his university mate, Hans-Werner Thiemann. The latter borrowed his brother’s Trabant car, claiming to go on a vacation to the Baltic Sea seaside. In earnest, the two youngsters already had their visas for a two-month stay in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
At the beginning of June 1974, they had reached Ahtopol, Bulgaria. They had several ideas on their mind: to hide inside a ferryboat, or float on an air mattress to the Turkish shores. But their fear of drowning or freezing to death in the Black Sea waters cautioned them against these alternatives, and prompted them to take on the land border, with Greece. They were not successful in that either.
Romania – One Last Route
They came back to Romania, convinced that, that was decidedly their best option for a spring board to the West. The European road was at some points adjacent to the Danube River, which made the natural border between Romania and Yugoslavia. On July 28, they parked their car in a parking lot in the town of Turnu Severin.
“It was 22:30; we had the lights off, and I told Hans to just wait inside the car, to see if anything would happen. In less than five minutes, a border guard came to ask us what were we doing there. We gave him cigarettes, and he warned us that we should leave the area as soon as possible.”
They traveled to the nearby town of Orșova, and in a parking lot there, on July 29, 1974, they set up their escape plan: “I was not a good swimmer, but at my final exam at school I was able to cross a lake,” Schmerschneider recalls.
Their plan was bordering naivete or simplicity: abandon the car with their papers inside it, in the parking lot in Orșova city; cross the forested area on foot, straight towards a rugged area, avoiding to be spotted from the river banks; swim across the Danube River; reach the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Belgrade; ask for provisional passports; legally cross the borders with Austria, and finally making it to West Germany.
They Swam For Two Hours Straight
To not rise suspicions, they planned to make their crossing during day-time, to be able to claim, in case they were caught, that they were just swimming, and the currents made them drift away.
“We walked a lot through the wooded area, and then we made it to the river bank. Children were bathing in the area, and a border guard was on watch in a tower nearby. So, we entered the water and when we distanced ourselves from the shore we started to swim under water, to make as few ripples as possible on the surface, and avoid thus being spotted.
We spent about two hours swimming, and the currents separated us. Hans-Werner went outside ahead of me. But we were safe and free. We asked a child on the river bank where were we, and he confirmed that, that was Yugoslavia. What sheer happiness!,” Schmerschneider recalls.
Then they devised a new cover story: “In case we were apprehended we were to take different names than our own, and claim that we were West German citizens who had their clothes and papers stolen while swimming in the Danube, and give as proof the fact that we were having only our swim suits on us; and we were to ask to be immediately put in contact with the West Germany Embassy in Belgrade, to issue us new identification papers.”
In their attempt to reach Belgrade, they tried to hitch hike, but the cars with West German plates proved to belong to Yugoslavians who were employed in seasonal work in Germany. After a few hours they realized that freedom had a price they were unable to pay, having no clothes, no money, no food. It was going dark, and, under the circumstances, they decided to give themselves in.
At the Prison Camp in Negotin
They were clothed and given dinner; they also received cigarettes. But when the police came and cuffed them to take them at the prison camp in Negotin, it was the moment their blood froze in their veins. They stuck to their story, but no one believed them. So, they were convicted to 10 days imprisonment for the illegal crossing of the border.
“We both started a hunger-strike, and threatened a diplomatic scandal would ensue for our bad treatment, but no one took notice. After two days we abandoned our strike, and accepted the situation, hoping that we would not be sent back to where we came from, that is Romania.
We were not allowed to contact the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, or the UN Representative. The worst thing to our morale was that they shaved our heads clean. We really looked like criminals now … The conditions in the prison were good.
We were preparing our own food daily, and had bread and cigarettes rations. We also went to work, and the supervision was not that strict. While in prison, we met two young Romanians, who also jumped the border. They were a rowdy lot. They were locked inside their cells because one of them tried to jump the prison fence.”
Things Got Complicated: Romanian Border Guards Had Found the Car
Meanwhile, the Romanian border guards had found the car they abandoned, their papers and their clothes on the river bank. The situation was turning bleak for the two of them.
“After the ten days of arrest, we were taken out of our cells and put in a car. When we saw the two Romanians in the same car, we understood that this was our trip back to Romania. At the border check point of the Iron Gates, the exchange of defectors took place.
Hans did not want us to stick to our story, so we admitted that the car and the documents belonged to us, so we were taken into custody by the Romanian border guards,” Schmerschneider remembers.
He was a long time upset with the authorities in Yugoslavia, which did not abide by the UN Convention on Human Rights.
“This is how things work to this day. Not jumping the borders became a corner stone of the UN Convention. Every country is mapped out; every human being is assigned a nationality; every state has its unity forsaken, but the love for the fellow human being it is not. Love thy neighbor does not extend beyond the borders of a nation-state.
One state does not let one get out, the other state does not let one get in. What worth is there in the human rights, if one does not have the right to live anywhere in the world where one pleases?,” Schmerschneider asks himself rethoricaly.
Appalling Conditions in the Prison at Turnu Severin
Quite uncharacteristically, the two youngsters were not ill treated once brought back on the Romanian territory.
“We expected the worst, but they did not shot us dead, nor did they beat us up. But we could hear in our cell how they were beating up the two Romanians. I thought I would rather have taken on my back such beating, and leave after six months of prison-term, than spend years in prison. The situation in the prison at Turnu-Severin was dire.
The conditions were appalling: overcrowded cells, food made of left-overs and sheer garbage. We refused to eat such stuff, but the Romanian prisoners were happy to have our portions, when we gave them up to them. The only good thing was that I was back in the same room with Hans and we put together our story for the East German authorities, so that no one back home to suffer any reprimand,” Schmerschneider recalls.
„Money Would Have Set Us Free”
A long string of interrogations followed. The investigators could not believe that we managed to cross the river, unnoticed, during day-time, in a heavily guarded area.
„It was not long till they started asking us whether we had friends or relatives in the West, that could pay for our release and for the expense we cost the Romanian State with our flight over the border, subsequent apprehension, detention, and all that.
We where in shock to find out that money would have set us free. This was how a Communist dictatorship operated. Unfortunately, there was no one we could think of, that could have helped us,” Schmerschneider explained.
Packed and Delivered – To Bucharest
A few days later the two youngsters were sent to Bucharest, by train. In their compartment were other two East-Germans, who had been apprehended for the same offense: illegal border crossing. They had forged their entry visas into Yugoslavia, but the Romanian border police spotted the forgery and arrested them. At the Otopeni airport, they met other two East-Germans, who also attempted to defect. The six of them were boarded on a plane bound to East Germany, under escort from the STASI.
Hans and Heinz were placed under arrest at the detention center ”Roter Ochse”, in Halle.
The Ruling Sent Them to Two-Year Prison Term
On October 30, 1974, we were convicted to a two-year prison term for attempting to defect to East Germany. They still had hopes regarding the detention center they would be sent to; their hopes were met when they both ended up in Cottbus, also known as ”the defectors’ prison,” since people imprisoned there had better chances to have their freedom bought by West Germany.
“Each and every one had one story to tell there. Some attempted to reach Denmark, via the Baltic Sea, others headed towards Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria or West Germany, via Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria,” Schmerschneider explained.
After the ruling was out, he was advised to appeal it, and hire a famous lawyer, named Vogel. This was only to show that he was still interested in leaving the country. But his appeal was rejected, and Vogel turned him down.
Freedom, at Last
Months passed by, and hope started to fade away.
“It really did not matter any longer. I was ready to spend six more months in prison, if that brought my chances higher to get to West Germany, than have an earlier release and no chance at all. November 5, 1975, was to be the day we got our freedom.
They took us out of the prison in Chemnitz, and prepared us for our release. We were asked to confirm in writing that we want to leave, and then we were handed down the papers to renounce our East German citizenship.
At the border we were met by Vogel, the lawyer, who was mediating these exchanges of people for money, between East and West Germany. We arrived at the Giessen camp, and from there we were sent to live in Heidelberg. I did so, until 1990, when I returned to Halle, while Hans continues to live in Heidelberg,” Schmerschneider said.
One More Trip to Romania
Was it worth the 15-month ordeal? Schmerschneider says yes, and says he would do it again, the same way. Proof of his conviction was the fact that once arriving in West Germany, Schmerschneider helped his mate, the one joining him in the failed 1969 attempt, to reach West Germany too.
Hans Jurgen was in the army, by 1974, and a failed attempt would also have been regarded as deserting the military, hence it carried heavier prison terms. So, Schmerschneider told Hans Jurgen where exactly at Orșova they crossed the Danube swimming, and waited for him in a car, on the Yugoslav bank, and took him straight to the West Germany Embassy in Belgrade, where he had a temporary passport issued. Then they crossed the border to Trieste, Italy, and after that entered West Germany.
In the years after the German reunification, the former East Germany defectors sought their rehabilitation in the courts of law. They got it. Their prison time was recognized as political imprisonment.
Schmerschneider initially received an 8,000 Euro compensation, and now gets a 300 Euro supplement to his pension. Schmerschneider was a lawyer, after 1990, and now he is a retiree who enjoys a decent life style in Halle.