In October 1989, a group of young men decided they'd had enough of East Germany and would try to escape across the Oder River to Poland. But before long, they had either disappeared or died. A month later, the fall of the Wall would overshadow their tragic deaths.
On Oct. 16, 1989, an officer with the East German People's Police rang the doorbell of Christa and Kurt Bethmann's apartment in Thale, a town on the edge of the Harz Mountains in what is now central Germany. The officer had come to inform the couple that their 28-year-old son was dead and that his body was at the city hospital of Slubice, the Polish city just across the border from the eastern German city Frankfurt an der Oder.
Christa Bethmann says today: "When your child dies, it's as if he had been ripped from your heart."
A day earlier, a major in an East German border patrol unit had written the following in his log: "The border troops of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were informed by the border units of the People's Republic of Poland that a drowned body was found on the banks of the Oder River near border marker 532, approx. 3,500 meters (11,480 feet) east of Reitwein, Seelow County. It is the body of GDR citizen Bethmann, Frank-André."
Two weeks later, on Oct. 29, a Polish angler discovered the body of Uwe Petras, a metalworker, floating in the Oder near the eastern German city of Eisenhüttenstadt, at border marker 453. The next day, a Polish border guard spotted the drowned body of Dietmar Pommer, a farm laborer, nearby.
Bethmann, Petras and Pommer were the last East German citizens to die while attempting to escape from their country. Ironically, then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had already left the East German communists to their own devices when the three men stepped into the Oder to swim to Poland. With East Germany on the verge of collapse, impatience was their undoing.
Wall Euphoria Overshadowed Deaths
The death of the three men shows that the GDR's border regime was murderous to the bitter end. Their fate was unknown until now, and their names did not appear in any official statistics. In collective German memory, Chris Gueffroy is considered the last casualty along the so-called inner German border. A commemorative tablet marks the spot where East German soldiers shot and killed him at the Berlin Wall in February 1989.
The three men, now presumed to be the last East Germans to die along the border, are not commemorated publicly. Their deaths were overshadowed by the widespread elation over the fall of the Iron Curtain in the summer and autumn of 1989 as well as by the rejoicing of East Germans who managed to escape to the West through the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw or through Hungary.
It was a tragedy that unfolded that October along the Oder River, when Frank Bethmann, a toolmaker from Thale, was convinced that he could no longer take it in this country that was coming apart at the seams. A framed photograph of Bethmann hangs over the dining table in his parents' living room. It depicts a withdrawn and serious-looking young man with large glasses and thinning, dark blonde hair. He is carrying a young boy on his shoulders, his foster son. "I couldn't work for months after hearing about his death," says his mother, a retired teacher.
A police report describes Frank Bethmann as follows: "During the school years, he was actually an inconspicuous, orderly young man with a positive reputation, who had caused no difficulties whatsoever." After graduating from the 10th grade at the local polytechnic high school, he completed an apprenticeship as a toolmaker at the Thale state-owned iron and steel works, the biggest enterprise in the area, where his father had also worked. Bethmann was not a rebel or a hero. He dreamed of the golden West, but that was nothing unusual in East Germany.
Imprisoned For Attempting to Flee
But in Bethmann's case, the idealization of West Germany became an obsession. "He believed that roast pigeons would just fly into your mouth over there," says his father. Even as a young boy, Frank became extremely excited when his uncle and aunt came to visit from Hamburg. He was beside himself with joy when they brought along grapefruits and oranges and gave him presents, such as chewing gum, a cap gun and matchbox cars.
Bethmann was 18 the first time he tried to escape. In October 1979, he and a workmate planned to flee to West Germany through Czechoslovakia, but the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, had been tipped off and arrested the two men on a train.
After spending 10 months in prison, Bethmann gained a foothold again, finished his apprenticeship, got a job at the mill and fell in love with and married a woman at work. She already had a child from a previous marriage, and then she had a second child with Bethmann. They were able to move into an apartment in a new building. For a while, Bethmann lived a relatively content life in East Germany.
But the marriage fell apart after he was drafted into the army and sent to Berlin. At the end of May 1989, Bethmann submitted an application for an exit visa. The Stasi ordered that he be placed under surveillance. As an East German police officer concluded, "the relocation request is probably the result of an urge to escape the growing problems in his life."
In September 1989, when Stasi officers asked him why he wanted to emigrate, he told them that it was because there wasn't enough freedom of expression in the GDR. He also said that he wanted to be able to travel freely the way people did in West Germany.
He had recently been personally affected by East Germany's travel restrictions, having been denied a visa to travel to Hungary. On Sept. 12, 1989, the politburo of the East German Communist Party, the SED, had decided to no longer grant exit visas to Hungary to "endangered citizens." A day earlier, Hungary had opened its border to Austria for thousands of East German citizens.
When Bethmann saw his father at work on Oct. 3, 1989, he confided in him: "I'm getting out of here." The father remembers that he told his son: "Don't do anything stupid." The son responded: "I want to swim across the border." And the father said: "No, don't do that. If you have to do it, go through Czechoslovakia."
A friend bought him a train ticket to Dresden, but then Bethmann found out that the East German government had just introduced a new visa requirement for Czechoslovakia that day in an effort to stem what had become a mass exodus. From then on, East German citizens needed a passport, at the very least, to travel to all neighboring socialist countries. Instead, Bethmann went to the Oder River.
To this day, the father blames himself for not having convinced his son to not go through with his plans. He has kept a document over the years, an invoice from a funeral home in Berlin for transporting and cremating his son's body: 1,476.25 East German marks, payable into an account with the national bank of the GDR.
'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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