Manfred Matthies

* 1941  

  • “So you could basically take the regular passenger train and take a ride to Berlin – I believe it went via Brandenburg-Potsdam, or you could go via the outer ring at that time. I think back then it was built around the outside of West Berlin and you could go somewhere to Lichtersberg or something like that. Then you could get out in Potsdam, take the S -Bahn and say you wanted to go to the Ostbahnhof Railway Station and from there take a train to Greifswald. We wanted officially to Greifswald because my brother lived there. Then you had policemen running around and asking: ‘do you have your train ticket?’ And of course we had it – there was no problem with that. We had everything and so we didn’t raise any suspicion, I’d say. It was quite plausible to go on vacation there and also to take a suitcase with you. That was altogether fine. And so we got from Potsdam, got on the S-Bahn and later hopped off in Wannsee. It must be noted that the S-Bahn belonged to East Berlin. I mean the Reichsbahn was under the administration of East Berlin and although the territory was already in the West, it was better to leave the train at the first station in the West and take a bus instead because the bus was completely secure and nothing could happen to you anymore. Back then there were an awful lot of kidnappings in West Berlin by the Stasi. There were horror stories being told about people being stunned in West Berlin and taken back over the border to East Berlin. Fricke, for example, was a famous case. He later on served his term in Bautzen with some others. So, the whispering campaign went like this: ‘get out of the train and onto the bus’. Then you had to pass through the reception center in Marienfelde. Uh, it still exists, that reception center. That camp was quite terrible, established in some old factory buildings in Reinikendorf. One has to imagine the old days there. 3000-4000 people would come here daily. It was an incredible rush. And these were some old factory buildings. There were four bunk beds in each room and the compartments were formed by two times four bunk beds in a row. Four bunk beds on each side, the compartments were divided in half by a canvas. Those were, basically, the cells where some had lived for ages. Since they had been pre-sorted, yes. So, I’m not going to say that they always knew ‘aha, so these are the ones who always run away and then come back again, back and back and forth’. And some of them had already taken roots quite solidly there. Some of the women had their business, the oldest profession, well established there. I mean, somebody should actually make a movie about it, it was really a Fellini-like setting, quite terrible. These food pots were then placed there in the aisle, and the inmates could take their food. And the people were so depraved that they poured it back in and said: ‘I’m not eating this shit’. Well, simply people who had really hit their personal bottom. Absolutely terrible. Well, and this facility served for the pre-sorting of the detainees. We then immediately came to another tract with single rooms and this sorting, this social stratification, lasted all the way to West Germany. The better families, middle-class families, were transferred to Salzgitter into a reception center located in a former manor house. It was vast, almost like a castle with a large former agricultural barn which had been turned into housing compartments for these detainees. And the proletariat was placed in the factory.

  • “Once there was this woman who wanted to escape to the West together with her child. She allegedly had a fiancé or at least that’s what she told us. She was still married to a man in East Germany but according to what she told us they were living separated. I don’t know if that was true but there was no way to find out whether she was true or not. So the so-called fiancé wanted to drive. We set the whole plan up for the time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, because that was the most frequented time with the biggest traffic at the border which was the most suitable time for such an undertaking. However, one day before the operation, he called me and said that he wouldn’t make at as he had suddenly fallen ill. He said that he had severe stomach problems and was basically tied to the bed and toilet. He couldn’t leave his flat. I had gotten a pass to the East as well because I wanted to keep an eye on the operation myself so I told him that it was alright, that I’d drive myself – we would not blow up the plan because of this. However, his girlfriend in the East was being spied on, as I later learned by being allowed to take a look at her file. Her husband – as I’ve said she was still married at that time – revealed her intention to run away and reported it to the East-German secret state police. He basically gave them a hint – ‘she’s gonna run away at some point so you better watch her’. So I basically fell into this trap. I’ve never seen her western fiancé ever since. After I came back from prison he was nowhere to be found, he had simply disappeared. So I’ve actually never found out whether that was some sort of a plot or if he had just gotten scared. But I wasn’t really that important in the whole story as I was soon to discover. It was mainly about that girl as her husband turned out to be a quite important figure – a high East-German political functionary. He was important in sports and I don’t know what they did there with drugs and doping, but I have a feeling that the GDR was really not keen on it to leak to the West. So they had a strong interest in not letting her get away. There was definitely something bigger in the background, some connections and state interests were involved. She was no ordinary girl from next door – it was an important case fort he Stasi. I was accused of assisting her to flee the country but she was sentenced to six years herself and she served those six years. I was sentenced to thirteen years and served four years. At the border checkpoint, it worked like this: You showed them your papers, an official would take them and bring them to a counter where they were stamped and brought back. That was a sort of a ritual at the border. But this time, it was different. The official took my papers and walked away with them. At that point I already knew that I was in trouble. He came back with four armed soldiers who pointed their machine guns at me. I was told to drive the car into a garage that was right around a corner and when I arrived there the door was closed behind me. They told me right away that I didn’t even need to try to talk myself out of it because they knew that there was somebody hidden in the car. I told them that I didn’t know what they were talking about and invited them to see for them self, to take the car apart if they wanted. But they were absolutely sure. They knew it. They even told me her name. He told me that there was no point in denying it and that I should make it easier for me and show them the hiding place. I mean what can you say in such a situation? So I loosened a few screws and told her to get out. I said that unfortunately we had to give up and this was the end.”

  • “In the beginning, it was hardly more than barriers, sort of a temporary fencing made of wire and rows of posts erected across the road. At certain focal points, such as the Brandenburg Gate for example, they erected concrete slabs right behind the wire fence. So these slabs actually became the first segments of the Berlin Wall. It was these thick things where you can take a tank and roll against it. And in the Bernauer Straße there was also merely wire fencing with a chain of guards patrolling next to it. But these were still the early days and you could still cross from one side to the other and freely talk to people on the other side. People were excited, the local residents had no idea, and nobody informed them about what was taking place there. They were chaotically running around the quarters and talking to the guards, trying to find out what was going on. And many of them took what later turned out to be the last opportunity to get out of there. They simply disappeared to the West because they had absolutely no chance to handle it so tight to prevent people from escaping. I mean in the early days of the formation of the wall it was all very chaotic and even the guards who stood at the fences didn’t really know so well what they were supposed to do there. Those men were themselves fathers of families, members of these battle groups. So in the first few days, their slogan was: ‘we have to protect our State’. Then of course the reply came: ‘but who’s damaging your state? You’re doing it yourself. You hardly have something to eat over there. Why don’t you come over here?’ ‘Well, but it is so expensive in the West’. Indeed, the exchange rate was not in favor of those from the East. A West-German mark was twenty-five East-German pennies, so the rate was 1 to 4 or something like that. So this was the kind of situations that were happening. It was rather calm at first, nothing had to be solved with guns back then, even though they had rifles strapped around their shoulders. But it only took a few days for the arrival of the real soldiers and that completely changed the situation already. The proper soldiers already strictly kept their distance, you clearly noted the difference in attitude. Then came the masons and the wall went up quickly. At first, it would reach your chin, so it was about at your eye-level. Then they put on a few more bricks and then they put a ladder to the wall in the west and it went up high into the air. But at the moment when the masons came, then of course the contacts between the people from the two sides were over. I believable this was on August 20. Then they set up a cordon around the emerging wall and kept the East-Berlin population away from the border. In the first few days you had the combat troops and the people from the East standing directly behind them, and the Westerners stood in front of the combat forces. It was as if the people would meet at a corner. But in the next few days this changed and the Easterners were pushed some 50 meters back. They had to stand behind the crowd control barriers that were controlled by soldiers as well and so it slowly progressed.”

  • “The citizens of the FRG – being Western citizens – were free to enter East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. They were issued such an entry permit. This was the time when the first escape-assistance situations were being organized and carried out. The permit had been smuggled back to West Berlin by 9 o’clock, by 12 o’clock it had been already copied and then, of course, you need the appropriate papers for the person that was supposed to be brought in. Since the entry stamp was on the permit, you had to leave East Berlin through the same border checkpoint where you had entered it. Then you also needed a passport where you’d paste the original photograph with the photograph of the person to be evacuated. Of course, you didn’t have to do that if that person resembled the owner of the passport quite a bit. So you’d go out on the streets and ask all your friends and relatives: ‘could I borrow your passport for my friends’. This worked for quite some time. And that was also the time when all these organized student groups came into existence, as I told you about these actions, the first organized groups were consolidated around this time. Every university had such a group that was involved in assisting fugitives from the East. Partly, the members of these groups were properly elected by the other students who were concern about the situation and therefore the zeal and enthusiasm of the members of these groups was very real. Because only those who really cared about the eastern fugitives were involved in these missions so you could rest assured that there were no rotten eggs in the basket. It went all far too quick for the Stasi in the beginning and thus it took some time for the East-German security service to wake up. The infiltration of spies into the assistance groups only happened much later, after the Stasi actually had noticed that instead of going down, the flow of refugees from East Germany was actually going up steadily. At the vocational school where I was taking my apprenticeship, there were dozens of people who had direct family relatives sitting in East Berlin and for us - my brother and I – this was a major source of motivation as we had only left the East two years earlier and at that time we still had the privilege to leave in an elegant way. So of course we knew very well what it meant to be cut off there, without any possibility to get out. And maybe it was also this fascination with adventure that was making it so exciting to take part in an undertaking like that. You also have to take into account this playful moment where one can outsmart and ridicule an entire apparatus. That's simply something great that had continued to develop and expand to vast proportions. It started out with that entry permit activities that I’ve told you about and then it came to encompass other things and ideas as well. For example, we’d take advantage of the sewers; piping in 60 people through the sewage system, the bars below the water surface being filed off – the work of a skilled locksmith – and people would use it to get out of East Germany. Then the tunnels, cooperating in the construction of tunnels, afterwards converting and rebuilding cars for smuggling people. We’d use these cars at various border crossings in a number of countries of the eastern bloc. We were, for example, in Hungary where it worked quite well. The system worked like this: when you brought someone over, or assisted someone who came over, he was guaranteed to have a girlfriend or a boyfriend left behind on the eastern side who wanted to follow suit. So you had basically a constant supply of customers, if you like to call it that way. From the western point of view, the situation was totally confused as hardly tell who was clean and who wasn’t. That’s why you always needed somebody who backed up the person you intended to smuggle in. Because you could never know what kind of a person that person was. So you needed somebody to give you a guarantee of that person. And if you helped someone get out of there, the guarantee given by that person was just the best thing you could get. If he said: ‘yes, that’s a good friend of mine whom I’ve known for years’, chances are that person is going to be clean. I found and rebuilt this getaway car and the escape route that we had tried before and that was safe. Then the driver had to be directly involved in it, because you didn’t need a stranger participating in this kind of operations, who might… under circumstances where you don’t know from he comes from. This worked alright for maybe 10 years. It worked till 1971, 1972, when I was arrested. Until then, I kept sporadically doing such things.”

  • “When the demonstrations started in the GDR – in Leipzig and every other East-German major city – and when they were showing it on the TV, I couldn’t help but think that the tanks would be there any minute. I just couldn’t keep myself from thinking: ‘where are those tanks?’ I wasn’t capable for a second to account for the possibility that there would be no tanks. Because all my experience up to that point was telling me that it was a necessity that the tanks would come. It was in the logic of things as they were in the East. It simply wasn’t possible otherwise in the eastern bloc. But they wouldn’t come and they wouldn’t come and they wouldn’t come. Then you had these demonstrations at the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Republic. In the front, the blue helmets were filmed cheering but behind them, you could see the crowd shouting ‘Gorbi, Gorbi’. Again I was amazed: ‘where are the tanks?’ But again the tanks wouldn’t come. I was completely amazed. How was that even possible? What was happening? The developments paced ahead at a dizzying speed. I ran back to the Wall, which had already begun to shake and crumble. Indeed, the holes were getting bigger and bigger. Near Kochstraße, there was this barren site adjacent to the Wall where people had already begun to pass cigarettes across the Wall. The members of the border patrol were standing by indifferently, doing nothing to prevent it. Immersed in their chat, they even left their rifles in the unoccupied watchtower. I said to myself that this just can’t be true. Something would happen - that I was sure about. Well, at the Brandenburg Gate, on top of the Wall, there were people standing and so slowly you began to realize Schabowski who was only shown later. First, the rumor was spreading that they had opened a border crossing at the Bernauer Straße and that they’d all come over. And then, this huge convoy of Trabis shrouded by smoke passed through West Berlin. It was an endless line of Trabis, a massive feast, everybody was honking and clapping on the roofs of the cars and they all drove down the main road. They wouldn’t even dare to drive to the side. And then the next one was opened on the Sandbrücke Bridge, where they had arrested me and then let me go again. They removed the barriers and they flocked into West Berlin across this border crossing as well. That was the first time when I thought that the events had developed so far that maybe they’d really open the Wall. I thought that maybe they’d remove some tiny segments in order to enable people to travel out of East Germany so as to ease the pressure off it a little bit. But still, I wouldn’t believe that the Wall could ever disappear completely – be gone completely. I still wouldn’t believe it even as they were taking out the first elements out of it, basically dismantling it, right at the Brandenburg Gate where the first three were indeed taken out thus allowing people to pass through. Even then, I still couldn’t believe that they’d take apart completely this protective barrier that had separated us from each other for decades. I thought it was impossible to take away this infamous and incredible bulwark and let people leave the country in an uncontrollable way, back and forth. If this was to happen, there could only be one possible outcome, a single logical conclusion: the reunification of Germany. It made absolutely no sense other than to reunite the countries if you removed this structure that no longer served any purpose.”

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    Berlin, 06.01.2014

    (audio)
    duration: 03:41:25
    media recorded in project Iron Curtain Stories
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Of course we knew what it meant to not be able to come back from there anymore

Photograph, January 2014
Photograph, January 2014
photo: Pamět národa - Archiv

Manfred Matthies was born in 1941 in Magdeburg. He grew up in a bomb-wrecked city which he perceived as a giant playground with no boundaries at the time. His father had died shortly after the end of the war and his mother had to raise Manfred and his two siblings on her own. Manfred passed an apprenticeship as a shipbuilder. In the early days of the GDR, he didn’t become politically engaged. However, he did put up some opposition when he had to take part in the cultural activities of the Youth Union. Despite his acts of resistance, he hadn’t registered any difficulties. In 1959, Manfred – at the age of 18 – fled with his mother and sister from Magdeburg via East Berlin to West Berlin. It was only later when he learned that his mother had already been under the surveillance of the Stasi because of her contacts to the West. From West Berlin the family was sent to North Rhine- Westphalia, where Manfred subsequently worked for several years. At this time, he was also able to make his dreams come true and travel Europe. In 1961, he left West Germany and went to study in West Berlin, where his older brother had already been studying for some time. There he witnessed also the construction of the Berlin Wall. In the ensuing period, a large part of the West-Berlin population privately began to assist fugitives from the East, as most families had personal contacts with the people of East Berlin. Manfred and his brother were no exception to this and they became engaged in this sort of activities, becoming members of a student group supporting and assisting East-German fugitives. Manfred gradually tried the complete repertoire of escape-assistance methods: forging passports, tunnel excavations, fleeing through the sewers, border crossings in specially modified cars, getaways in a car across the Hungarian-Austrian or Yugoslav border. He even took fugitives in a sailboat from Poland to the FRG via the Baltic Sea. At the end of December 1972, however, he was arrested at a border checkpoint when he tried to smuggle in some fugitives in a converted car to West Berlin. For 9 months, he was held in custody in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and was eventually sentenced to 13 years in prison. He served a part of his term in the Bautzen II prison. The period of his incarceration was characterized by forced labor, a lack of privacy, forced communion with the other inmates and the constant hope of an amnesty. After three years, in March 1976, Manfred was released from prison after an intervention by the West-German government. He went back to West Berlin, where he married for a second time and had two daughters. He was no longer suitable for helping the fugitives from the East, as he was no more a stranger to the Stasi agents. The collapse of the Wall in 1989 came as a complete surprise to Manfred. The night the Wall came down, Manfred was with some of his friends at the Brandenburg Gate. After Christmas 1989, he travelled for the first time since the 1970s to East Berlin, where the sight of the decaying old quarter came as a shock to him. Today, Manfred works as an employee of the Bautzen Memorial. He feels obliged to pass on his experiences to the younger generations in order to preserve the memories of his generation.