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Siegfried, the war, the Wall and the Stasi

Meet Siegfried Strehlow, who tells us about his plucky escape from the GDR through daring rescue tunnel, Stasi-monitored romance and more.

Image for Siegfried, the war, the Wall and the Stasi
Photo by Iryna Sylinnyk. Siegfried Strehlow has known Berlin before the Wall – and both sides of it.
It doesn’t take an ostalgic mind to notice that the GDR lives on. We have our own Plattenbauten right in the middle of the city – and the neighbours who come with them! Meet Herr Strehlow, the man who’s been treating us to bread and stories since he moved into our building two years ago. The Exberliner headquarters are located in a public-funded prefab building, where the original “seniors” it was intended for have mostly boozed themselves extinct, slowly being replaced by a new breed of younger tenants relishing downtown Mitte life at Plattenbau prices. This month’s celebrations were a unique opportunity to pay homage to the few remaining Ossis who still populate Max- Beer-Str. 48 – and one in particular: Siegfried Strehlow. Siegfried was born in Lichtenberg in 1938. He has known Berlin before the Wall – and both sides of it. He escaped the GDR at the age of 23, dug a rescue tunnel back across the border and had an East-West love affair that landed him on the Stasi’s watchlist. En­gineer, chicken smuggler, wall jumper, hote­lier… Now back in his native East Berlin, the 81-year-old hasn’t lost any of his resource­fulness. His current occupation? Delivering the leftovers of hip neighbourhood bakeries to a handful of recipients blessed with his philanthropic whim – among them an office filled with bewildered expats forever grateful to have discovered in Siegfried Strehlow (aka Brötchen-Opa) far more than a neighbour. Is it true that you fled on the first day the border got closed? How did you manage? Yes, at lunch time on August 13. There was a chain of soldiers protecting the border on Pariser Platz. I put on my FDJ shirt and pinned all my merit badges on it, went to Brandenburger Tor and started telling the crowd there: “Dear fellow GDR citizens, we are running an anti-imperialist drill” – I was always good at talking, dialectical materi­alism and such. I told them it was only a drill and would be over the next day and that they should go home. As I was talking, I walked backwards, at some point I thought, now you’d better hit it, and I ran. Border guards came after me from left and right, but I was already on the other side. It was that easy. On the West side, people were clapping. Was that not dangerous? Were the guards not armed? They were, but at that time they didn’t shoot. The first six or seven days they didn’t shoot. And here I was in West Berlin! My friend Günther also tried to get across, but failed, even before the border was completely sealed. He later managed it by climbing over the Wall in Bernauer Straße – before it had the death strip and all that. We were in our early twenties, and he was already married to a beautiful DEFA actress and they had a bunch of children. So he wanted to get his family over too, but it took us a while to figure out how. He said let’s buy American uniforms. I asked: “Can you speak English?” That was that. Our Russian wasn’t good enough either. So we bought passes off an Austrian family, but they told on us and we got arrested. We spent a day at the police station but luckily were never taken to court. Then, in 1962, I read a story in Der Spiegel about tunnels around the Schönholz S-Bahn station. That’s how you got the idea to build your tunnel in Schönholz? Yes, we found an empty building in the area, a former spice shop, and started digging. I’d organised a car battery so we had light down there. We worked day and night for 20 days to dig the 20-metre tunnel, two metres deep and just wide enough to crawl through. There were 10 to 15 people helping us. I was doing more the logistical work, getting food and new bat­teries and such. You should look at my Stasi file, they attested to my exceptional organisational talent! How did the escape work? We had aimed well. We came out in between two tomb slabs in the Pankow graveyards across the border. It was my friend’s wife’s birthday, December 29, 1963. They were carrying a wreath as if they’d come to mourn and made sure they reached the grave at a time the cemetery guard wasn’t there. First it was my friend’s family, but all in all, 24 people managed to use our tunnel before, about a week later, one border official stepped on the wreath that was hiding the entrance and was suddenly in the hole up to his neck! Were you still working at Schindler back then? No, by then I’d saved a lot of cash and a small inheritance, which I invested in a little hotel on the corner of Heinrich Heine Str. and Prinzenstr. It only had 10 rooms, but it was really good business because the border crossings were right there. There was always a one-kilometre traffic jam and people had to stay somewhere on their way back, so I was always fully booked at 11am and would go for a swim in Prinzenbad. My aunt Anni did the rooms and brought friends who I paid a little and everyone was happy. I later had a few more hotels, the most profitable one was Hotel Gotland on Spreewaldplatz. What did you do with all that money? I lived well and went on many nice holidays: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and so on. I had a daughter from my first mar­riage and took her to Gran Canaria 15 times. I was married to a West Berliner but then got back in touch with a woman I knew from church in East Berlin. We started an affair there on the other side of the Wall. I was able to bring her nice things, whole trays of cake from the KaDeWe top floor – she loved it. And it was this romance that got you on the Stasi’s watchlist? That’s what I suspected – and it was confirmed when I finally received my Stasi file. They thought I would try to illegally bring her to the West. We got engaged in the late 1970s, after which I got banned from entering East Berlin, so we went on trips abroad. In the summer of 1979 we met on a campsite in Poland, which Stasi informants reported under the subject line: “The attempted smuggling of GDR citizen Erika B. and her son by citizen Strehlow, Sieg­fried, from the territory of the People’s Re­public of Poland” (laughs). We also travelled to Bulgaria and again the Stasi were there. We’d befriended a couple who ran a travel agency soon after we arrived. They were stationed there by the Stasi and spied on GDR citizens for them. They were extremely friendly, brilliant, open-minded people, invit­ing us out for dinner and showing us the best places to go dancing. They’re in a lot of our holidays snaps – I still can’t believe it. One night we were out partying and Erika and her cousin got so drunk they peed on the dance floor. Believe it or not, it’s all in my Stasi file – they recorded absolutely everything. Back in West Berlin you were also under Stasi surveillance, right? There was this one guy who hung around the hotel who I was sure was a spy. Later my Stasi files confirmed it. But I always did my private phone calls from my desk in the lobby, I had nothing to hide. We applied for family reunion and I’d freely speak to my lawyer and my future wife’s lawyer in East Berlin. Erika was heading a department of 50 typists there at publishing house Die Wirtschaft. Nine months later she was with me. The GDR let people go for money, which West Germany paid, that’s how the state got cash. For Erika’s son they paid 60,000DM, for her 40,000DM. The boy was only 15 and had 35 to 40 years of professional life ahead of him. That’s why he was worth more. Erika and I got married and settled down in a nice house with a garden in Lankwitz. You were born over eight decades ago in Berlin. What are your first memories? I remember there being massive bombings and I was crying a lot. When I was four we evacuated to my grandparents’ in Templin. One day, it was very early in the morning, we brought father to the train station there. He departed with his rifle and I could feel the trepidation of that moment. We never saw him again. He went missing as a soldier somewhere in Ukraine. What was it like returning to Soviet-occupied Berlin as a seven-year-old in 1945? Our house in Kadiner Straße, near Frankfurter Allee, had been bombed, so a friend of my father’s got us a place in Simon-Dach-Str. 23. It had a hole in the wall instead of a window, and it was a freezing winter – minus 30 degrees that year! – so we’d sleep wearing everything we had and three blankets on top. The Russians gave us coupons which we children would take to the stable to pick up half a litre of milk every day. At the time Berlin had a lot of cow stables; almost every third house was a stable! Do you remember what the city looked like then? Well, it was all rubble. We chil­dren were given small hammers and sent to Stalinallee where the Trümmerfrauen were passing along buckets of the debris. Our job was to pick away the old plaster. Then the bricks were stacked up on an open train wagon and carted back for rebuilding – the masons were always yelling for more bricks. I was also busy getting some money or extra food. I had a little aluminium cart and trans­ported goods from Warschauer Brücke train station, where a lot of people arrived with bags of leftovers from harvested fields around the city, to places around West Berlin in exchange for a handful of potatoes or carrots. I think my mother must have traded her al­cohol ration cards for that little cart. She was religious and didn’t drink alcohol. When I was about 15, I started my smuggling career… Smuggling what? First, eggs. I would cycle to a bunch of Konsum, HO and private shops, and buy 10 to 15 eggs. When I had 500, I went to Mahlsdorf, the last stop of the S-Bahn. I had got myself a key to a compartment under one of the seats on the train, it was where they kept the fire extinguisher, and hid the eggs in there. Then the train would go back and cross over to West Berlin at Friedrich­straße. My aunt sold the eggs in Charlot­tenburg for West currency. I also smuggled chickens and ducks, and when that became too boring, I did bigger things, like binocu­lars and Praktica and Exakta Varex cameras. As a teenager I’d always have wads of cash! That was before the border was closed, and you could still just take the S-Bahn to West Berlin, right? My best friend Günther and I worked as precision mechanics for Schindler in West Berlin. There were 40,000 East Berliners working in the West because there wasn’t enough work in the East. One day a neighbour rang my doorbell and told me they’d closed off the border. I didn’t believe him, but he said go look for yourself, you can’t cross any more. He was right, but I fled right away, at Brandenburger Tor. How did you experience the Fall of the Wall? My wife’s brother called me from East Berlin. At first, I thought he was joking, but then I went with his son, who had fled to the West, to Brandenburger Tor – there were thousands and thousands of people. We then crossed the border at Bornholmer Straße. It was 3 or 4am when we rang my brother-in-law’s doorbell in East Berlin. The air was on fire. We had taken hammers with us and I broke off a small piece of the wall that night. I still have it somewhere. We were Mauerspechte! How did your life change after the Wende? Well, in 1991 the owners of my hotel on Spreewaldplatz wanted me out in order to modernise the building and they ended up buying me out for 275,000 DM. With that money I got myself my fifth and last hotel, Hotel Gotland in Lankwitz. I retired at 63 and bought a 15,000sqm piece of land in Templin, in the middle of the woods. I lived there with my wife for years, but she became very reli­gious and we didn’t get along any more. Now I live in a one-room flat, on minimum state pension – I’m a poor man! (laughs) But I am very happy here. Always busy, and people know me and respect me in the neighbour­hood. And I’m very fond of my neighbours too – many people from Russia, Hungary, all over! And now the old ones are dying out, we have new young faces. It’s very good.