Wilfried Elsner

* 1951  

  • “The braking point for me really was the event with Wolf Bierman, who gave a concert in Cologne in 1976. We were listening to the radio all night long and we taped his concert because, of course, we found it tremendously exciting. We found that his songs were more about a gradual change of the DDR, not really arguing against the GDR as such. He wouldn’t even sing about a German reunion. His songs were about the improvement of the state of affairs in the GDR as a country. Maybe he even wanted the GDR to become the better Germany. It was something we could identify ourselves with. The difficulty was than that the leadership of the school circulated a petition at the school and demanded all of us to basically agree in that document with the expatriation of Bierman. I refused to sign, on the grounds that I would like to first see the lyrics. Their reaction was along the lines of: ‘if we say something as the party then you have to believe us. Or do you question the veracity of the party?’ I didn’t sign it anyway and that meant that I was not allowed to return to the university anymore. Before that incident, they had actually planned to give me a job there. I only found out about it half a year later. I called them in the period in which the university should have let me know and got the answer: ‘with the assessment we have on you, you have no chance to graduate from our institution’. Having gained this sort of self-understanding, I found myself in the situation where I asked myself: ‘What am I still doing here? What is the alternative for my life?’. I was 30 years old and at that age you want to know where you’re going. In principle, that was the point when I began to conceive my escape plans to the West.”

  • “In 1981, I had arranged to meet with my cousin in Budapest, where we wanted to start the escape action. Our intention was to go from there unchallenged somewhere close to the Yugoslav border in a car with a Düsseldorf vehicle registration plate. My plan was to wait for a suitable opportunity and then cross a little border river to get to Yugoslavia. My cousin would officially leave the country and enter Yugoslavia. She would then pick me up again and we would go to Zagreb, where we wanted to contact the German Embassy or a representative to get a passport for me. With a West German passport, I could have easily gotten to the Federal Republic via Austria. However, it didn’t work quite the way we intended it to because we were very naive. In principle, five kilometers before the actual border, there was a checkpoint. Two soldiers patrolled there, checking every car passing there. Of course they stopped us as well. They initially were quite friendly to the four of us sitting in the car. It was me, my cousin and friends of us who were a couple. They were also from near Dortmund. The three showed their passports and that was all Ok. The soldiers were friendly to them. But when I took my blue GDR passport out of my pocket, it was immediately less friendly and they arrested us on the spot.”

  • “I was pretty sure about it. All the people who had not been bought out were bearers of secrets. They held important posts in vital sectors of the national economy, had payment obligations or were involved in some form of criminal activity. All those who were just trying to escape the country and did not fall within one of these categories were to my knowledge all bought out. There were, of course, exceptions to the rule. I can still remember one of them. It was a young man who had been arrested also because of a flight attempt from the republic. He was together with me transferred to Chemnitz. They would try, of course, until the very last moment, to talk people out of leaving the country. They tried hard especially in those cases when people seemed to be hesitating and not entirely sure that they really wanted to leave. They tried to turn them around on the correctness of their flight, so to speak. Since they managed to reverse that man on his decision in Chemnitz, he was released back to the GDR. That would be another case of a non-ransomed prisoner. So as I’ve said, I was relatively sure that they’d buy me out. The only thing I had always been a little afraid of was that it would stop shortly before it was my turn. It wasn’t so that the political situation, the conversations or communications between the two German states became so disturbed that they would have said: ‘No, we’re no longer doing this’. Rather, we hoped that the GDR remained in constant need of money and would thus be interested in the ransom.”

  • “At the moment when we crossed the border, there was only one thing for me to do and that was to cheer out loud. I felt a tremendous relief and the need to scream out all that silence, so to speak. From there, one had his nose squashed to the window. I still remember that for the first few kilometers the highway was still quite empty. This highway - at that time - did not exist. This connection of the A4 from Eisenach to Frankfurt at that time was just a regular motorway. So we drove on the national motorway across the border, on what was then simply an unfinished highway. There was no reason for completing the highway because the east- west traffic was pretty much non-existent. After we had passed Herleshausen, we drove on the existing highway. In the beginning it was pretty empty as well. All of a sudden, we were taken over by a Porsche. I remember as if it was today that somebody said ‘a Porsche’. And everybody looked to the left saying ‘oh!’ We were absolutely amazed by it. In the beginning, it was pretty crazy and the first day in Gießen was also really impressive. We were very received and treated very kindly, got new clothes to choose from. Because we were still in the same clothes that we wore on the day we were arrested. So we had the same clothes for all that time in prison and at the trial. This really wasn’t the most elegant clothing you can picture. There, we got the chance to dress in a fairly modern way for the first time. They would also organize various events in Gießen for us. I don’t remember exactly anymore what it all was. So it was very nice overall. As I’ve said, the decisive moment was the crossing of the border.”

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    Mainz, 20.06.2013

    (audio)
    duration: 01:16:01
    media recorded in project Iron Curtain Stories
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The way I see it, these were eight years that I had won

Wilfried Elsner
Wilfried Elsner
photo: Privatarchiv Melanie Isenhardt

Wilfried Elsner was born in 1951 in Schneeberg in the Erzgebirge Mountains. He lived through kindergarten, school, military service, university studies and gained first work experiences in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). When working as a teacher in East Berlin, he turned against the regime of the GDR during a signature campaign and was subsequently persecuted in his professional career. In 1981, together with his West German cousin, they tried to cross the border between Hungary and Yugoslavia. However, he was arrested and ended up in a GDR prison. In the beginning of 1982, the Federal Republic of Germany paid for his release from East Germany.