In A Nutshell
During the 30 years that the Berlin Wall effectively imprisoned East Germans, only about 300 people managed to escape through underground tunnels to West Germany. In 1964, a group of West German college students planted themselves in an abandoned bakery and dug for five months until they accidentally emerged in an outhouse on the East German side. The East German police were alerted to their plan but not before 57 people managed to escape to the West German side in just two days. Despite the enormous risks, Tunnel 57 was the most successful tunnel escape in the history of the Berlin Wall.
The Whole Bushel
During the 30 years that the Berlin Wall effectively imprisoned East Germans, only about 300 people managed to escape through underground tunnels to West Germany. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, about 20 to 25 West German college students planted themselves in an abandoned bakery near the border in 1964 and began digging another tunnel. They worked in groups of six to eight, so that some members could periodically show up at school to avoid being missed.
One of the students was Joachim Neumann, who himself had escaped East Germany only a few years before the wall was built. He wanted to help relative and friends—including his girlfriend, Christa Gruhle—who were still trapped on the other side. However, he believed his girlfriend was imprisoned because of an earlier tunnel project in which she had been caught by the Stasi.
The students dug a vertical shaft, then tunneled horizontally about the length of a football field. The opening was only wide enough for one person to crawl through at a time. It was tough work, with little air available in the hole. They figured out a way to use a vacuum cleaner to blow air into the tunnel. Still, the process took five months and when they began to dig upward on the East German side, they accidentally emerged in an outhouse.
On October 3, 1964, the men sent instructions to their East German relatives and friends on where and when to meet their West German rescuers who had already crawled through to the other side. After whispering the password (“Tokyo”), each of the East Germans would be directed to the tunnel. The Stasi soldiers were close by. Nevertheless, the rescue began. Old, young, it didn’t matter. One by one, each person went down the shaft in the outhouse for the dark, 15-minute crawl to freedom.
On the second day, Neumann got a surprise letter from his girlfriend, who had been released from prison early and had no idea a tunnel project was happening then. Neumann was able to send her a message, and they were reunited in West Germany.
However, the tunnel didn’t remain open long. The border guards became suspicious and sent two policemen in plain clothes to investigate. It didn’t take them long to figure out what was going on. They called for more police, but another student, Reinhard Furrer, saw them and warned the remaining rescuers. As the students hurried to the tunnel opening in the outhouse, gunfire was exchanged between them and the police. Egon Shultz, a border guard, was shot and killed. The East Germans blamed the rescuers, but it was discovered decades later that Shultz had been killed by a soldier from his own side.
The tunnel was destroyed. In all, 57 people had escaped to freedom in the two days that the tunnel, which became known as “Tunnel 57,” was open. That was almost 20 percent of the people who ever escaped by tunnel in the 30 years that the Berlin Wall stood. Despite the enormous risks, Tunnel 57 was the most successful tunnel escape in the history of the Berlin Wall.
As to the courageous students who made it happen, we know how some of their stories ended. Neumann and his girlfriend eventually married. Kabisch helped others to escape from East Germany for decades more. Furrer became the third German astronaut in space, flying on the space shuttle Challenger’s last successful mission in October 1985. Unfortunately, he died at age 54 in a plane crash.