The story of East-German Eike Radewahn, whose dreams of defecting ended at the Danube River

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Public opinion in Germany was paying more attention to the East-Germans being killed at the Berlin Wall – which do not exceed 200 – than to those who attempted to defect via Romania, Hungary or Bulgaria, and whose aggregate number goes over 11,000.

According to data provided by the German office in charge with the STASI archives, BStU, the East-Germans fleeing West at the Romanian borders were 800, at the Bulgarian borders were 2,500, and at the Hungarian borders were almost 8,000.

Showing faces, instead of stark numbers

In 2011, the attempts to escape the former Democratic Republic of Germany finally named names and showed faces, to represent them to the world, in the exhibition titled “Escape to the West.” It opened in the building of the former prison in Potsdam, on Lindenstrasse 54/55, which was turned into the Gedenkstatte Lindenstrasse Musem. Five of the cells at the second floor in the former prison tell seven different stories of the East-Germans who attempted to defect. Some of them made it to the West, some did not, some were killed trying. One of these cases brought to the world-attention was that of Eike Radewahn.

The former prison in Potsdam, now a museum; by Istvan Deak

A guest to the opening of the exhibition

Eike Radewahn was invited to take part in the 2011 opening of the museum. Standing in the very cell she was locked in, on December 1, 1984, she told what happened to her on that cold night and afterwards. Today, a cell – as cold as it probably was back then – carries a sign with her name, and two pictures of her: one of before, and one of after her imprisonment. A little bit too little, though.

The prison cell in the Potsdam prison; by Istvan Deak

She dreamed of traveling the world

Eike Radewahn was born in 1964, in Magdeburg, then part of the former Democratic Republic of Germany. She graduated from a school for professional nurses and got employment with the hospital in Magdeburg.

When she was 12 years old she already had decided: she was going to reach the United States. When she was 18, she met Werner K., 39 years old at the time, while on a trip in the Rila mountains, in Bulgaria. They fell in love and decided to defect to the West via the Romanian-Yugoslav border, swimming across the Danube River. The currents were treacherous, but Eike was an experienced swimmer, while Werner K. was intent on training more.

They trained for a year

For one year they trained and prepared themselves for the border jump, setting in place the finest details of their escape to the West. They filed for a trip request, to travel to Hungary and Romania.

The two of them decided to partner with Frank S., 23 at the time, a friend of Werner’s. Eike and Werner got their travel permit, but Frank did not, since he had a pending request to emigrate from the Democratic Republic of Germany.

But Eike and Werner did not want to leave Frank behind, so Eike went to the police in Magdeburg and stated that she had lost her travel permit. A copy was issued for her, and Werner forged this document to give Frank a travel permit too.

On November 25, 1984, Eike flew to Budapest. She had two neoprene suits in her bags. The two men traveled by car. At the Czech-Hungarian border no one noticed the forged document.

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In the motel at Drobeta Turnu-Severin

On November 29, 1984, the three of them left Budapest by car and headed for Romania. One day later they checked-in at the Iron Gates motel, located on the Danube River bank, in the city of Drobeta Turnu-Severin. They immediately started their preparations. They wanted to defect that very night. They took warm clothes and put their documents in containers, which they hang around their necks; they also decided to connect each other by a rope.

At about 2 a.m., they lowered themselves out the motel window and started to crawl; they had rubbed grease all over their bodies, to offset the freezing temperatures. The Danube River bank was just 25 meters away. On the other side of the river they could see the glittering lights. They knew Yugoslavia did not return defectors any longer, so their destination of choice was the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Belgrade. They chose to make the crossing in an area where three small islands dotted the distance between Romania and Yugoslavia. Werner had given each about 2,000 Deutsch Marks, to have on them, just in case.

One of the little islands in the Iron Gates section of the Danube River, by Bogdan Constantinoiu

The first gun-shots

The two men went into the water up to their necks; Eike was behind them. Then they heard the first gun shots. The bullets came closer and closer. It was dark; they had no idea where the shooting came from. They decided to not take any more risks and turn themselves in. They realized it was only one border-guard, who was also in a panic and acting accordingly. He first asked them to lie on their bellies, then to walk in front of him, one meter apart from each other. He also torn their neoprene suits and took away their IDs, watches, jewelry, money.

Abused, hand-cuffed, beaten-up

”He told the two men to walk in front, and started to grab my breasts and private area. All this time he was shouting and shooting. We were cuffed and taken into an army vehicle. We were kept at gun point and constantly kicked with fists and boots. We were taken to a border-control point. It was December 1st, it was extremely cold, and we were wet, bare-feet and only with the neoprene suits on our backs.

They put us next to a barbed-wire fence and kept us there for several hours. From time to time, soldiers came to grope me all over. When Werner and Frank tried to stop them, they were kicked over the head, in the kidney area, and on the legs”, Eike recalls.

On the way to the army barracks they were constantly beaten and insulted. Eike was sexually harassed. ”In the wee hours of the morning we were introduced to a group of villagers, who called us Nazis, spit on us, and started to kick us and through water, garbage and feces at us”, Eike says.

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She had a criminal record, with prior attempts on it

In the morning she was stripped and raped by two soldiers. In the evening they were taken to the railway station and sent to Bucharest. Eike was a multiple-time offender. In the last four years she had attempted to flee West via the Bulgarian-Turkey border, and via the Bulgarian-Greece border, respectively.

In the police office at the railway station in Bucharest they witnessed the beating to death of a 12-year old boy.

“It was a detention center for the homeless, for street children and mentally sick people. Old people and children were tortured in unimaginable ways. I witnessed the beating to death of a 12-year old boy. I tried to help him, but they started to hit me too”.

From the railway station they were transferred to the airport. “We thought to jump out the car and run away. But we were handcuffed, so that was not a real option.”

„They stole all our valuables”

The room they were kept in, at the airport, had abysmal conditions.

”They had brought our luggage from the motel in Drobeta Turnu-Severin. They had stolen all our valuable items. They left us a little bit of money. This is how we bribed the guards to let us use the toilet once a day, and buy us some food”.

Eike managed to spot five West-German citizens at the airport and sent them a written message, with their names and complete addresses in the Democratic Republic, but also with details of the treatment they had been subjected to in Romania.

The West-Germans promised to take their message to the media, but also to inform the Federal Republic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to start an inquiry into the matter. Frank told them, in his turn, that he had a sister in Stuttgart, and asked them to inform her of what happened to him.

The East-German plane collecting the defectors for their return home

The three of them boarded a plane sent by STASI to get defectors back to the Democratic Republic.

Photo caption: Airplane with the East-German Interflug carrier

When they boarded it, they saw already six people inside. They were defectors picked up from Sofia, Bulgaria; after the Bucharest leg of the trip, the plane was to make similar stops in Budapest and Prague.

“I started to sing. Above the clouds freedom probably is border-less. The STASI guard asked me to shut up and, since I refused, he started to hit me. I was crying, but felt no pain. My life had ended”.

Once arrived in the Potsdam arrest, Eike was raped again – this time by the East-German guards. She was forced to make a written confession of her crimes.

A copy of this confession is in the archives cared for by the BstU.

 “Since I was 12, I started to be interested in how life was outside the Democratic Republic. In 1981, 1982 and 1983 I tried to reach the Federal Republic via other socialist countries; my last attempt was in 1984. In future I want to live and work in the Federal Republic. Based in that country, I want to travel the world as much as I can; as a Democrat Republic citizen I am limited to visit only socialist countries.

In November 1982, I considered filing an application for emigrating to the Federal Republic. But I gave up that idea because that would have meant having taken away from me the likelihood of visiting any country in the near future, socialist included. And those socialist countries were my spring-board for defecting to the Federal Republic.

The emigration procedures would have taken years I did not want to spend living in the Democratic Republic. I do not give up my wish to live in the Federal Republic, and I will file an application to emigrate there as soon as my prison-time will end. I stick to this idea, and I would never give it up. For me it is extremely important to travel the world,” Eike was writing in the STASI office, on February 26, 1985, as quoted by Magdeburger Volksstimme.

The arguments for the criminal ruling, in the BstU Archives; from the personal photo archive of Eike Radewahn

The ruling

On May 3, 1985, after five months in police arrest, the Potsdam Court found her guilty of “illegal association” and “illegal border crossing”, and gave her a three-year prison term. Frank got the same prison-time, while Werner got two months more, as he was deemed the head of the criminal group. The court found Eike’s deeds to be very serious, on account of her success to contact the West-German citizens on the Bucharest airport, and share with them their failed attempt to defect and the appalling imprisonment conditions in Romania.

Eike was transferred to the Hoheneck women prison. On December 13, 1985, Eike’s freedom was bought by West Germany with about 50,000 Deutsch Marks.

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She refuses to forget
Eike never fully recovered from the trauma she suffered during her last attempt at escaping to the West. For 56 months she was unable to work; when she reached 46 years old, she was allowed to retire early, on account of her illness. Her work capacity was cut by 40%, due to her time in prison. She receives a small pension, as a victim of the socialist system.

Eike is not ready to forget what happened to her. “I want to tell my story and deliver my message. Injustice committed by the regime in the Democratic Republic should never be forgotten. I am one part of that big story, That should not happen again. Freedom must stay an obvious and easy to enjoy right. Always.”

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Eike Radewahn lives now in Allgau, close to the Austrian border.

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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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