The Forbidden Journey How Two East Germans Fled to China to Go West
They were young and in love -- and trapped in an oppressive regime. In 1987, an East German couple traveled clandestinely from Berlin to Beijing in a brazen attempt to escape to the West. Only one of them would make it to freedom.
It would have actually taken just 10 minutes for Jens and Marion to walk the 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) that separated Rykestrasse, in East Berlin, from the western half of the divided city.
But on a day in August 1987, they were somewhere in Mongolia, roughly 7,500 kilometers (4,650 miles) from their street in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. The two students had taken the longest conceivable route from East to West Berlin -- and they were still a long way from reaching their destination. Beijing was still some 1,500 kilometers away, and they had no visa to cross the border into China.
Using a forged invitation, Jens and Marion had made it to Mongolia, which was politically controlled by the Soviet Union at the time. Now came the most difficult part of their trip: China was a forbidden country for citizens of the former East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR). But it was only in Beijing, at the West German embassy, that they could apply for political asylum and acquire the passport that would allow them to live in the West.
Twice a week, a train traveled from the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, to Beijing. Still, it seemed virtually impossible for anyone who was not Chinese to buy a ticket. Soldiers and police were milling around the railway station, and every minute in the vicinity of the ticket counter was dangerous for East Germans without a valid visa. Out of fear of being discovered, Marion retreated to the mountains behind the city and spent the night in the woods in a sleeping bag. Jens anxiously made his way to the Chinese consulate.
In East Berlin, GDR citizens were not granted visas for China. It was a similar story in Warsaw and Moscow. But what about in Ulan Bator? "Nobody in Mongolia picks up the phone to check on something back in the GDR," thought Jens. To improve their chances, he held a few dollars in his hand. The Chinese official gave him a quizzical look and rifled through the documents for several minutes. Then the diplomat took the money and slid the visas across the table. The long march could continue -- along with the debate over whether they wanted to venture the last steps to freedom.
Yearning to Escape the Cage
Jens and Marion have now told their story for the first time. It's the tale of a trip to the East to arrive in the West. Few had dared such a journey in the days when Germany was still divided. Nearly all those fleeing East Germany opted for the short, dangerous route over the Berlin Wall, or they attempted to cross borders within Europe.
"Everyone would say you should go from east to west. But you can simply go the opposite direction and eventually also reach your destination -- it's as simple as that," says Jens. It is now 25 years later. He is sitting in his house in the Spreewald, an idyllic forest and inland delta region southwest of Berlin. His property is surrounded by trees and flowing water, and he can bird-watch from his garden. He loves to imitate their calls, lure them closer and describe their plumage and courtship behavior.
Nature is his great passion -- an interest that had already been kindled back in the days when he studied biology in East Berlin. He longed to explore all climate zones, and the GDR was too small and confining for his dreams. "I wanted to live, I wanted to discover the world," says Jens. "I couldn't accept that aging rulers simply decreed: "'You can't leave the country; you have to stay home in the small cage!'"
Today, Jens writes independent biological assessments on nature conservation projects. He hasn't seen Marion for 20 years. But he has cherished the memories of their forbidden journey, along with photos taken at the time. It was his children who started to ask him what happened back then. "If you want something, pursue it with all your heart," he tells them.
It takes a special kind of person to believe that 9,000 kilometers is not too far to travel to go from East to West Berlin. Perhaps this is the kind of thing you can only come up with if you're 24 years old and in love; if you can put up with not knowing in the morning where you will sleep that night; if the end of the forbidden journey is open; and if you see the dangers along the way as the challenge of a lifetime. And if you seize your freedom, instead of asking for it.
A Dream Destroyed
Marion and Jens met each other at East Berlin's Weissensee School of Art -- in the darkroom. Marion was studying stage design and came along one day as Jens was developing photos from a trip to the Caucasus. The lively young woman was a year older than him. She had a carefree laugh and told him about a wild trip through the countryside. Jens immediately took a liking to her.
That same evening, she went home with him to his one-room apartment in a dilapidated old building on Rykestrasse, right near the old water tower, a landmark in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. It was winter. Outside the building, they stole coal from a trailer and sat on an upturned wooden crate, warming themselves in front of the old tiled stove until late in the night.
Marion soon moved in with Jens. On warm days, she liked to sit on the roof and draw the decrepit chimneys, the ramshackle roofs and the top of East Berlin's TV tower in the distance. Jens paid a monthly rent of 36 East German marks. His neighbors were political activists, artists and punks -- young people who wanted another political system, another life.
Jens, a mountain climber with a long beard, was working in bird sanctuaries at the time. When the zoologist Günter Tembrock accepted him into his class at Berlin's Humboldt University, it was a dream come true for Jens. Tembrock was as popular in the East as Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian zoologist and animal behaviorist, was in the West, and he had compiled the largest animal sound archive in Europe. Jens admired and emulated this great scholar, and he wanted to become a field biologist and explore the animal kingdom.
But, in 1986, Jens was expelled from the university after having been categorized as a "hostile and negative individual." His commitment to nature conservation and his involvement with church environmental groups had incurred the displeasure of East Germany's feared secret police, the Stasi.