Leaping out of the window to freedom

On 23 May 1962, 14-year-old Winfried Tews was running for dear life. He scrambled over two walls, and leapt into a canal. East German border guards opened fire – and hit their target. Tews was shot in the lungs, but kept on swimming. West German police gave him covering fire. Tews struggled to the western canal bank. He survived severely injured, hit by 17 bullets. An East German guard was killed in the crossfire.

No one knows how many tragedies were the result of the Berlin Wall. The statistics say that at least 136 people lost their lives trying to escape, while 5,075 managed to cross into the West. East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED) claimed their 160 kilometre-long “anti-fascist protective rampart” kept their country safe from capitalism. In fact, they sealed off West Berlin to stem the flood of their own citizens to the west. For nearly 30 years, the Wall was a death trap for anyone trying to escape the east’s socialist dictatorship – and ultimately it became the world’s best-known symbol of the Cold War.

In June 1961, East German leader Walter Ulbricht stated: “Nobody has any intention of building a wall ...”. Under Soviet pressure, work on the Wall started just two months later. In Bernauer Strasse, the site of today’s Berlin Wall Memorial, the border ran directly past East Berlin apartments blocks, but the pavement outside was in West Berlin. 77-year old Frieda Schulze escaped by jumping from her second-floor flat into a rescue net held by West Berlin fire fighters.

That same year, the face-off crisis between Soviet and US tanks outside today’s Mauermuseum – Haus am Checkpoint Charlie only just ended peacefully. In 1975, the Wall was given a “makeover”– rebuilt from 45,000 pre-cast concrete slabs. Thanks to the fall of the Wall in 1989, the planned high-tech “Wall 2000” never happened. Today, parts of the Wall are scattered all over the world, but the longest surviving section is still in Berlin, at the East Side Gallery.

Read more stories about the Berlin Wall in the brochure Berlin Wall by visitBerlin. Read more