December 13, 2016
In recent weeks on this site I have offered excerpts from The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown), but they were all quite brief. Now, for the first time, here is an entire chapter.
It happens to be chapter two in the book, finding us in late-winter and early spring 1962, when the era of tunnel digging under the Wall has just begun. We meet the three creators of the main tunnel explored in the book (in photo above, see Gigi, Mimmo and Wolf); the NBC correspondent at the center of their, and my, story; along with the greatest threat to the project–a certain young Stasi informer. More on the book, early reviews and to order, here.
News of Harry Seidel’s tunnel project rocked the insular fluchthelfer community, provoking both fear and hope. The shooting death of Heinz Jercha was chilling, to be sure, but it had come after several nights of incident-free escapes, with dozens rescued. Since the Wall had risen there had only been two wholly successful tunnels, each with a risky entrance or exit above ground. The Heidelberger Strasse tunnel showed it could be done basement to basement.
Among those taking heart were two students from Italy rooming together in a dorm at the Technical University, or TU, a hotbed of escape activities located near the Berlin Zoo. They were Luigi “Gigi” Spina and Domenico “Mimmo” Sesta. Physically they made an unlikely pair—Spina tall and dark with a bit of a belly; Sesta short and fair, with muscles built for labor. The two had known each other since high school in Gorizia, not far from Venice, and shared wide-ranging interests: philosophy, literature, politics, economics. Gigi, after completing military service in Italy, had enrolled in an arts college, Hochshule der Kunste, in West Berlin and urged Mimmo to try the engineering program at TU next door.
Re-united in Berlin, they made friends with a 24-year-old arts student named Peter Schmidt, who had grown up partly in Italy and spoke Italian. He lived in the East with his wife, Eveline, and new baby. When the border was sealed on August 13, 1961, Peter could no longer commute to the West. One week later, Gigi and Mimmo visited Peter (entering the East courtesy of their Italian passports) and urged him to consider fleeing with his family while the new barrier was still fairly porous. Peter declined. He thought the Wall would never last—East Berliners were so against it.
Of the two Italians, Mimmo Sesta was closer to Peter Schmidt. Both were orphans. Schmidt’s father, from Spain, had competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he met and later married a German woman. Her family never recognized the match and was scandalized when she bore a child. They forced her to give up the baby, Peter, for adoption. Sesta’s father had died in the Spanish Civil War, his mother only a few years later. The two young men developed a profound, familial bond. In the months after the Wall rose, Mimmo often visited Peter at his modest country home on the outskirts of Berlin, talking up the need for an escape plan. Mimmo would play with the baby while Peter strummed his guitar.
Until the morning the Wall went up, it seemed to Peter and Eveline that they would be able to build a comfortable enough life for themselves in East Berlin, in spite of the scarcities and hardship. Peter was a freelance graphic artist. Eveline liked her job in the library at Humboldt University. Once a year she bought a new pair of shoes in West Berlin from money she had saved. Their small wooden cottage had an outdoor toilet, but the two felt fortunate to have a house at all, as well as jobs involving little political pressure, as they waited for inevitable dismantling of the Wall. But as the barbed wire tangle morphed into a concrete barrier in more and more places in the autumn of 1961, the sense of imprisonment grew oppressive. At Christmas that year, Peter said, “I can’t take it anymore!” The search for a way out began in earnest.
After discussing various methods in the following weeks, including stealing a helicopter, Spina and Sesta decided that only a tunnel would suffice. A strong young man might squeeze under barbed wire, jump from a train, even scale the Wall—he might find an open sewer pipe, swim the Spree or hide under the back seat of a car—but what about a woman and child? Peter’s adoptive mother also wanted to escape. Unlike Harry Seidel, Peter had no desire to flee to the West ahead of his family. They would exit together or not at all. Adding to the urgency: Schmidt was scheduled to enlist in the East German army before the end of the year.
Despite its thin track record, tunneling was coming into vogue. Mimmo and Gigi were inspired that winter by a nervy project that hadn’t achieved even partial success. A group of West Berlin students had started a tunnel under a remote section of the Wollank S-Bahn station, more sophisticated than earlier efforts in its use of tons of wood and iron for supports. Unfortunately, passing trains loosened the earth. A small depression in a platform was spotted by police, who exposed the tunnel, producing wide media coverage on both sides of the Wall. But the students’ steady progress to that point—nearly 100 feet of burrowing—and knack for fundraising suggested that success elsewhere was plausible.
Now, in March, and united in purpose, Sesta and Spina set out to find a site to launch their own tunnel. They would follow the Harry Seidel model at Heidelberger—basement to basement. Looking ahead, they knew they would need additional help. Neither was fluent in German and they expected that negotiations with local police, city officials and maybe intelligence operatives would arise. Also, Sesta was far from ready to handle the engineering duties.
A neighbor in the dorm, a twenty-one-year-old advanced engineering student from Wittenberg named Wolfhardt “Wolf” Schrodter, seemed a perfect fit. They felt Schrodter could be trusted. He had fled East Germany for political reasons four years earlier—something always deserving respect in escape circles. Schrodter was also friendly with an organizer of the now-defunct fake passport scheme. Dozens of students in the West who had risked their freedom in that endeavor were now looking for other ways to extract friends and families from the East. They might be ready to roll up their sleeves and wield a shovel.
Even before the Heidelberger tunnel drama, Piers Anderton had issued a call for tips on any digging under the Wall. Anderton, NBC’s Berlin correspondent, had covered all the escape methods favored in the first months after August 13, 1961—cutting wires, wading through sewage, swimming across rivers, using fake IDs–and knew that each method was becoming ever more difficult to pull off. He needed to stay on top of the latest escape options.
Encouraging Anderton was his boss back at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, Reuven Frank. He had helped create, and now produced, the Huntley-Brinkley Report (the top-rated evening newscast). Frank had come up with one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the medium, a sign-off for Chet Huntley, who was based in New York, and David Brinkley, in Washington, D.C., for their nightly report: “Good night, Chet…And good night, David.” He had also picked their much-admired theme music, an excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Born in Montreal to Eastern European parents, Frank had attended college in Toronto, arriving at NBC in 1950 after a stint with a Newark newspaper. Within a decade he helped create a model for political convention and election night coverage, marked by quick shifts between an anchorman and correspondents. He was among the new breed of television producers who, having never worked in radio, placed a higher priority on moving images than on the simple act of reading or reporting the news on camera. One of his pet quips: “That’s why they call it tele-vision.”
Frank happened to be in Berlin with Brinkley on August 13, 1961. A few days later he instructed Anderton to follow the public mood in East Berlin closely, knowing that this could be the story of the decade. “Give us anything you find on refugees trying to get out under this new repression,” he told Anderton. “Don’t worry about getting permission. Go ahead and do it. I’ll pay the bill.” It was more a demand than a request—Anderton would liken it to an ukase.
Piers Anderton embraced the challenge. He was, in an era of less-than-photogenic TV correspondents, one of the most unusual looking. His black hair, swept back, was turning grey in broad strokes and only in front. He had unusually sad eyes and thick lips, and was one of the rare network faces with a moustache (a bit curled at the ends) and beard. He looked like an aging beatnik, minus the poetry, the pot and the bongos.
A native of San Francisco, Anderton was, at forty-three, a year older than Reuven Frank. His middle name, Barron, reflecting his lineage back to Edward Barron, who had made a fortune in California’s legendary Comstock Lode silver mine in the 19th century, and other investments. After graduating from Princeton, Anderton had served in the Navy during World War II, then worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and Collier’s magazine and attended Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. At NBC he drew Reuven Frank’s notice while writing scripts for Chet Huntley specials, then became a foreign correspondent. Frank felt he displayed an unusual combination of versatility and competence. He was also aware of Anderton’s temper, which had once (briefly) caused him to resign over network meddling in one of his reports from Spain.
Anderton didn’t suffer fools gladly. He had even challenged President Kennedy at the White House back in January when, as part of a delegation of NBC reporters, he was granted an off-the-record meeting with the President. When Kennedy criticized some of Anderton’s reporting, the correspondent defended his work. Then he took the President to task for his first-strike nuclear policy in Europe. “Would you really start a nuclear war over Berlin?” he asked, impertinently. Kennedy said he would, if necessary.
His work in Berlin was more than competent, though he had not yet won any awards. There were maybe a dozen full-time English-speaking journalists in Berlin, but NBC boasted that it had the only fully staffed bureau. For one Frank-produced program, The S-Bahn Stops at Freedom, Anderton covered the flight of East Berlin professionals to the West via the elevated train line. For another he narrated a report from inside a sewage tunnel through which East Germans had escaped, evoking the ending of the classic film The Third Man.
On at least one occasion, Anderton had directly aided an escape plot himself.
Two fluchthelfer had shown up at the NBC office and asked Anderton to lend them a pair of Japanese-made walkie-talkies. Anderton obliged, but insisted on accompanying them on their mission. This would be quite a scoop. One foggy evening, Anderton was driven to an out-of-the-way border zone divided only by barbed wire. Across the barren “death strip,” refugees were supposedly waiting in bombed-out buildings. An escape helper would cut a path (or “river,” as he called it) through the wires, creep to the building, and lead the refugees to the West. Anderton watched as one of the men, named Klaus, grasped a walkie-talkie and wire clippers and crawled out to the border. Klaus disappeared into the darkness but sent back scratchy updates via the NBC radio: “I’m through the wire….Going down the slope…Hut on the left…Lying in a trench until the patrol passes.” Then: nothing. The other man whispered into his device: “Klaus, speak…Klaus, come in…We cannot hear…KLAUS SPEAK.” For half an hour they waited for a response but, except for periodic static, silence endured. Anderton never did learn the fate of “Klaus.”
By the spring of 1962, Anderton and other Berlin correspondents had heard that tunneling—the only escape method that kept both helpers and refugees out of sight—was gaining favor, but as yet no journalist had gotten in on the (muddy) ground floor. Anderton knew that Reuven Frank would love to sink budget resources into one. Now, in March, he asked a part-time NBC staffer named Abraham “Abe” Ashkenasi to see if any of his student friends knew anything about a tunnel, or plans for one.
When the final March edition of Der Spiegel hit the newsstands it was clear the shadowy fluchthelfer community of West Berlin would never be the same. The cover line read Flucht Durch Die Mauer (“Escape Through the Wall”) against a black-and-white image of a stern VoPo studying the West through strands of barbed wire. The article opened:
In adventurous ways, partly above and partly under ground, since August 13 have fled around 5,000 East German citizens past Ulbricht’s wall border to West Berlin. One in eight made it into freedom only by means of a West Berlin student group that selflessly devoted itself to this. Der Spiegel reveals first details on the escape routes and the functioning of the western smugglers who dug tunnels after August 13, opened sewers, and forged passports in order to perforate the wall.
Students from almost every country in the West had taken part, with 146 arrested so far, including two Americans.
The architect of all this was West Berlin’s leading escape organization, known as the Girrmann Group or Unternehmen Reisebüro (“Business Travel Agency’) in Spiegel’s wry christening. The Girrmann Group revolved around three activists/administrators at the Free University (FU), a West Berlin institution founded in 1948 by GDR defectors. Two were law students, Detlef Girrmann and Dieter Thieme, and one a theology student, Bodo Kohler. All were in their early thirties and each had escaped the East as a political fugitive years before. Aided by, among others, two American students from Stanford, they focused on FU students trapped in the East before broadening their scope.
The group had operated mainly out of sight since its founding just days after the Wall went up. And no wonder. It was hard enough to carry off hundreds of escapes via checkpoints and sewers, in rafts or by way of Scandinavia, without the press blowing your cover. Until now most in the media recognized this and held back what they knew about the Girrmann operations, encouraged by city officials who demanded discretion.
After six months of secrecy, however, the organizers decided to go public. One reason: They had less to hide, since their early initiatives were now defunct, blocked by East German counter-measures. More urgent, however, was that after months of rescue operations they had run up huge debts. Der Spiegel was happy to pay Girrmann, Thieme and Kohler for information leading to the first inside story on escape work. The trio had expected a fee of 10,000 Deutsche Mark (at the time four DM = one U.S. dollar) but received only 6000 DM because the editors found their cooperation less than complete. That payment would at least keep the group going for awhile.
In a front-page story, The New York Times covered the Spiegel bombshell under the headline, “Foreign Students Aided Escape of 600 East Berliners to West.” It referred to “Scarlet Pimpernel raids” and a kind of “underground railroad.” No names were revealed in either Der Spiegel or the Times, but it seemed that everyone in West Berlin knew how and where to contact the organizers. Their headquarters, a villa in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district that looked like a miniature castle, even had a catchy name: Haus der Zukunft (“House of the Future”). Besides providing office space, it served as hostel for students from abroad, many of whom were then recruited as escape helpers. Admiration for these fluchthelfer was strong following the Spiegel piece, but not universal. On March 31, the rector at the Free University dismissed Detlef Girrmann as a director of the Student Union, charging that his escape work put the school in a sensitive political position. Even in the West.
One of those newly interested in chatting with Girrmann organizers was a young West German who had left the East four years earlier. His name: Siegfried Uhse. Barely twenty-one, he was a hairdresser by trade. He had a thin face and build, light-colored hair, and he dressed neatly. Slick from head to toe.
Uhse first visited the House of the Future just as the Der Spiegel piece appeared and managed to speak with the man in charge there, Bodo Kohler. He told Kohler that he wanted to get his mother and girlfriend out of East Berlin, a common request. The next day Uhse described the visit to an associate in detail: “I noticed that I was speaking to the right person. The manager told me they were not working at the moment because their last business blew off in February. Kohler wanted to know if I was West German and I said yes. We had a small chat about escape routes and I offered him my help if he needed it. He wrote down my name and address, as well as a description of my girlfriend and her address. He said he would contact me if there was anything new, but he also wanted me to tell him when I would get a new passport.” Kohler, he added, “looks like the eternal student. He wears glasses with black rims. His hair is dark blond.”
In the same conversation Uhse remarked that he had spotted a help wanted ad for a hairdresser in the PX barbershop at McNair, a major U.S. Army base in Berlin. “I will try and get a job there,” he added.
The person he told about all this? His handler at the Ministry for State Security (MfS) in East Berlin. And that story about his mother and girlfriend? A lie.
Uhse had served as a paid informer for the Stasi since the previous fall after he was arrested trying to smuggle 112 cigarettes to the West at the Friedrich Strasse checkpoint. An official report claimed that Uhse planned to deliver them for a weekly “homosexual and lesbian orgy.” The Stasi had been tailing him, probably aware that he had been arrested and sentenced to probation across the border in Baden-Baden on suspicion of being homosexual, which was against the law even in West Germany. They also discovered that he had plied an East Berlin woman with cigarettes and wine from the West so that she would let him spend evenings in a room she rented to one of his male lovers. (Black market cigarettes from the West were practically hard currency at the time.)
The young man, who had once hoped to work as a librarian, was not much interested in politics. Uhse had left East Berlin for Baden-Baden in 1958 to join his widowed mother, who worked as a kitchen aide at a sanitorium, before moving to West Berlin in 1960. He now lived in a well-furnished apartment and spent nights at lounges and jazz clubs with names like the Dandy Club, Eden Saloon (favored by American tourists) and Big Apple, where he drank liberally and cultivated friends from a higher social class. He spent money beyond his means, often offering to pick up the check to impress others.
Detained by the Stasi, Uhse was a prime candidate for undercover work on several levels. He probably still resented the West Germans for his arrest in Baden- Baden, while fearing further exposure by the MfS. Temporarily unemployed, he remained attached to a costly lifestyle. Now he faced a smuggling charge in the East. The Stasi felt that, in recounting his adventures, Uhse showed promise as a spinner of false tales. After two days of detention, a tasty breakfast, and the promise of a regular stipend, he agreed to work as a low-level informer based in the West.
Like other Stasi recruits, Uhse had to submit a “letter of commitment” for the files. On September 30, 1961, the day after his arrest, he wrote by hand:
I, Siegfried Uhse, voluntarily consent to actively support the security forces of the GDR in their righteous fight. Furthermore, I pledge to maintain absolute silence to everyone about my cooperation with the forces of the Ministry of State Security and all related problems. I was informed that if I break this commitment I can be punished according to the current laws of the GDR. For my cooperation with the MfS, I choose the code name: “Fred.”
Uhse, listed in Stasi records as “blonde” and 1.69 meters tall (or a little over 5’6”), immediately started monitoring the West Berlin homosexual scene, but he was slow to crack fluchthelfer circles. It was true that a Stasi informer had wrecked Harry Seidel’s tunnel, but that had been pure luck—he just happened to live above its entrance. Uhse would have to go hunting for trouble. His big break came one night at a club when he chatted with a man who told him that a student hangout called Berliner Wingolf was a center for human smuggling. Uhse visited that club, where he was referred to the House of the Future, inspiring that fateful first meeting with Bodo Kohler.
Now, after Uhse’s latest debriefing in March, his Stasi handler ordered him to grab that job at the U.S. base, adding in his report: “Uhse is sure that the manager of Haus der Zukunft is working with a bigger group in trying to get GDR citizens out of the country. The manager would be interested in Uhse because he has a West German passport.”
They didn’t yet have funding or supplies, but the three students—Spina, Sesta and Schrodter—were anxious to break ground. First they had to settle on a site for their tunnel to begin in the West and a target point across the border. The crucial considerations: Would the entrance and exit be well hidden? How distant were these two points? Was the soil loose and sandy (easier to shovel but requiring ceiling support) or hard clay? How deep was the water table?
Proceeding carefully in their dorm, the three plotters pored over the detailed Berlin maps obtained from sympathetic city workers, with each building numbered and underground pipes outlined. They checked out the area around the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag—the Stasi might not believe anyone would dare dig near the busiest tourist spots—and three other sites. Each had advantages and drawbacks relating to distance and security. There would have to be enough room in a basement to store tons of extracted soil, or well-concealed courtyard in case they had to dump it outside or load it in trucks. From another municipal office they secured maps showing the varying water table in Berlin and learned that the area around Bernauer Strasse offered more room for error. But under which building to open a tunnel?
To their surprise, the trio pinpointed a breakthrough site in the East before they found a home in the West.
It happened by pure chance. One of Spina’s friends knew someone who knew an engineer from Bulgaria now living on Rheinsberger Strasse. This was the second street just across the Wall in the East, parallel to Bernauer. The two Italians visited the Bulgarian to say hello and managed to wrangle an invitation to his birthday party a couple of weeks later. On that day, while Spina distracted the host, Sesta lifted off a hook a key to the basement. Exploring the cellar, he found it suited their purposes. Mimmo recalled American crime movies where keys were stolen and impressions made in soap or modeling clay. He found a store nearby that sold plasticine, pressed this key in the sample, and returned to the apartment. The ploy worked. A locksmith in the West soon produced a working key.
With the target chosen, the options for an entry site in the West were narrowed to the stretch of Bernauer directly across the border. One site jumped out: a hulking five-story factory at Wolgaster Strasse, half of which had been bombed in World War II and neither restored nor leveled since. Behind it was a courtyard out of sight of both Western passersby and the VoPos.
Entering the factory, Schrodter and Spina discovered that a small section upstairs was still being utilized to make swizzle sticks, the thin, plastic cocktail straws. They located the owner, a heavy-set, middle-aged man named Muller. Schrodter did all the talking because Spina’s German was limited. Could they use the first floor and basement as rehearsal space for their jazz band? “Do not tell me such stories,” Muller scoffed, before granting them permission to use his building for their tunnel so long as they cleaned up afterward. “I come from Dresden,” Muller told them, by way of explanation. “My small family porcelain business was seized by Communists. What you see here in the factory I had to start from scratch.” He would not charge rent, and they could tap into the structure’s electrical grid for free.
As Schrodter and Spina explored the space they got even more excited. There were rooms where they could sleep, hang up dirty clothes, or drink a beer, and large corners of the basement where dirt could be dumped.
There was just one problem. The factory was set back from Bernauer and the Wall, requiring the longest dig of any they had considered. They would need to excavate at least 100 feet under the factory grounds and Bernauer—which was closer to a busy boulevard than a mere strasse—before they even reached the boarded-up apartment buildings at the border. Then they would have to toil under the block-wide “death strip” before finally, they hoped, breaking into that basement on Rheinsberger. The students calculated this would require digging over 400 feet—four times longer than any previous escape tunnel. And about three-quarters of it would be in the East. They figured it would take at least two months, during which they would have to curtail or quit their university studies.
While they recognized the added risk of water leaks and cave-ins at that length, they rarely talked about that. They were young and blessed with the corresponding bravado and sense of indestructibility. A tunnel seemed the only way to retrieve entire families such as the Schmidts. Avoiding VoPos and soldiers by burrowing under them like moles felt safer than trying to trick them at a checkpoint or hiding in a truck, or cutting through wire with armed guards and attack dogs nearby.
Now all they needed were a few more devil-may-care diggers to join them. Ample supplies, including a large amount of lumber. A van to transport them. And a healthy chunk of funding (they only had 1500 DM, or about $375, among them). Plus, a few firearms. Because: You never know.