Communism's Tragic Twilight The Forgotten Last Victims of East Germany

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Part 3: 'It's Far too Late'


The pastor who spoke at the funeral in Thale remembers being "surrounded by people who were so excited about the prospects of traveling that they could hardly contain themselves." In her eulogy, she said: "It is little comfort that now -- far too late -- some of those who were partly to blame for so many people leaving the country are now being called to account and punished. It is too late for Frank Bethmann and for many others who, in the midst of apparent peace, lost their lives at the border."

Many Germans in both the East and West felt -- and still feel today -- that refugees who were killed had only themselves to blame. After all, everyone knew that it meant risking your life. Most of the would-be escapees were young men. About two-thirds of those who died trying to flee to West Berlin were male and 30 or younger.

One of them was Dietmar Pommer, who was 21 in the fall of 1989. He was from the town of Ludwigslust in the northeastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania region, where his older brother still lives today. Bernd Pommer, a former roofer who went into early retirement after suffering a stroke, spends his days in his garden or in his favorite pub at the train station. "Dietmar didn't come up with the idea of leaving on his own," he says repeatedly.

He refers to his youngest brother, who was still living with his parents, as the "baby of the family." Dietmar completed a farming apprenticeship and was working at an agricultural cooperative near Ludwigslust. He was tall and strong, and he always had something clever to say, says Bernd Pommer, who is convinced that his little brother fell in with the wrong crowd. "Kiefer got him involved with those people," he says. Gerd Kiefer was known throughout the city as a petty criminal. On Oct. 12, 1989, Dietmar Pommer came home from work at his usual time and changed clothes. "I'm going out again," he said, taking an apple with him. His mother stood at the window and watched him walk away.

Recklessness or Desperation?

Two men were waiting for Pommer downstairs. The mother recognized Kiefer, but she had never seen the other man before. It was probably Uwe Petras from Heinrichswalde in Western Pomerania, a metalworker originally from Berlin and with several prior convictions for theft.

Bethmann, Kiefer, Petras and Pommer weren't the only ones who wanted to cross the Oder River to Poland at the time and, from there, make their way to West Germany via the West German Embassy in Warsaw. In the space of four weeks, soldiers at the German-Polish border arrested roughly 2,000 East German citizens attempting to escape.

Many underestimated the currents, the treacherous eddies, the width of the river and the autumn winds. No one knew when and exactly where Pommer and Petras went into the Oder. At the spot where they were found, the river is about 120 meters wide and has a flow rate of about one meter per second. Even strong swimmers are unable to fight such a strong current for long. In October 1989, the water temperature was between eight and 12 degrees Celsius (46 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit).

In a letter to Pommer's parents, a medical examiner with the Charité Hospital in Berlin wrote: "The death of your son was likely caused by drowning, abetted by the cold water and the fact that he was fully clothed and carrying luggage." Every child knows that even a wet sweater is heavy. What could have led the men to step into the river fully clothed? Recklessness? An exaggerated opinion of their abilities? Desperation?

The files only reveal what happened to Petras and Pommer after their lifeless bodies had been pulled from the river. An employee at the East German consulate in Wroclaw, Poland, noted: "Both bodies were buried by Polish officials in the Republic of Poland without the consent or request of the family or the applicable General Consulate in Wroclaw."

The district attorney's office in Krosno Odrzanskie ordered the suspension of the investigation "in the matter of the sudden death of Dietmar Pommer." The document is dated November 9, 1989 -- the day the Berlin Wall came down.

Together with the death certificate, Pommer's parents received their son's identification card, his social insurance card and the jacket he was wearing. They had his body exhumed and reburied at the cemetery in their town. The obituary read: "It was too early, but fate can be cruel." For many years, they visited his grave every day.

Pommer's friend Kiefer disappeared without a trace in October 1989. His sister, who now lives in Ludwigslust, never heard from him again. His body was never found.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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