Close-up from Berlin Wall Memorial
Framed in a rusty, steel shadowbox are the black and white portraits of people who lost their lives attempting to cross the wall from East to West Germany. Their names, birth and death dates are indelibly etched into the steel beneath each recessed compartment. The portraits are covered in glass in which you can view your own reflection, as if to ask us to put ourselves in their place. Roses had been placed above each name in a gesture of remembrance. Some compartments had only names and dates while others were covered with metal plates as it is inevitable more victims will be added as their stories are discovered. While 130 victims are present on the wall I moved in close to better capture each likeness.

This photo was one of my entries to the 2015 ASMPhilly Focus book. This year’s theme was “Faces.” When I made the image I couldn’t help but wonder who these people were and after learning it would be published, I felt obligated to do some research. Here are some of their stories. Keep them in mind whenever you hear politicians talk about building Walls.

 
Heinz Jercha 

Heinz Jercha, Had fled East Germany before the Wall was built.  A butcher by trade, he lived in West Berlin with his wife and daughter. Jercha joined a group who helped people to escape after the Wall had been built.  He assisted in the digging of a tunnel and then in escorting dozens of escapees to the West. On March 27th, 1962, after successfully leading an elderly couple through the tunnel Jercha returned to assist a young college student, the friend of two students he had assisted earlier. This time when Jercha exited the passageway Stasi agents were waiting for him and ordered him to surrender, but Jercha turned and ran. The commandos opened fire and Jercha was struck in the chest by a ricochet bullet but managed to crawl back through the tunnel. Despite evading capture, he died from his wound a short time later. His last words were “Those swine shot me.”  Documents released by the Stasi after reunification revealed that a friend of the  assistance group had been an informant.

Axel Hannemann 

 

–> Seventeen year old, Axel Hannemann   Jumped from a bridge onto a barge that had cleared customs control and was heading for the West.  The ship captain had seen him jump and refused to take Hannemann with him, instead he stopped the ship and notified the border guards. Hannemann jumped into the Spree River and attempted to swim to the West Berlin riverbank. Two border guards opened fire and just a few meters from his goal Hanneman sustained a fatal shot to the head. In a note left for his parents and siblings he wrote, “I have no other choice. I’ll explain my reasons to you when I have made it. but for now I can say that I have done nothing wrong.”

–> Born in the Soviet sector Siegfried Noffke had moved to West Berlin before the border was closed. His girlfriend Hannelore, lived on the Eastern side of the border. Hannelore became pregnant and Noffke returned to marry her after their son was born.  It is likely they assumed Hannelore and the baby would be permitted to move to the Western side of the city after the wedding but East Berlin authorities refused to grant them exit permits. When the border was suddenly closed they found themselves, separated. Over the next year they could only occasionally see and speak to each other at the newly erected wall. Siegfried and Hannelore were one of many couples that had been separated. Siegfried met another West Berliner who was in the same situation and told him of a tunnel escape project and invited him to join so they could both get their wives and children to the West.  Not aware that her brother was a Stasi informant one of the women planning to escape told him of the tunnel project. Her brother was even present when the tunnel was opened, helping to break through a basement wall. When Noffeke and the others emerged from the tunnel the Stasi were waiting for them. Despite the fact that the Stasi only intended to arrest the tunnel builders one of Stasi men became rattled and began shooting. Noffke and another man where hit. Despite being shot Noffke was interrogated on the spot so as to squeeze a confession from him. Noffke died on the way to the hospital. He was 22 years old. His wife Hannelore and other East Berliners who were planning to escape were arrested and received sentences anywhere from one to nine years in prison. 

The Man in the Cap

Separated from relatives in the West, Ernst Mundt had ridden his bicycle from his apartment to the Sophien cemetery which was situated on the border. When his path was blocked by barbwire he abandoned his bicycle and climbed on top of the cemetery wall despite the fact that it was covered in shards of glass. As he walked the length of the wall toward the border, guards ordered him to get down. Mundt relpied, “I won’t get down, I am on duty. “A warning shot was fired but Mundt continued toward the border. A second shot struck Mundt. His body fell between the gravestones in the cemetery but his cap landed on the West side of the wall. The guard that fired the shots was awarded a medal and the border guards were commended for removing Mundt’s body before Press from the West could arrive. Thirty years later when facing charges, the guard claimed he was only following orders.

Otfried Reck

 Otfried Reck, known as Otti to to his friends, served a sixteen month sentence in a youth prison for being part of a group protesting the border fortifications. Three months after his release he and a childhood friend Gerd, followed underground railroad tracks, known as the “cellar line,” to a ventilation shaft where they hoped to climb up, pry loose a metal grate and jump a train to the West. A border guard heard them trying to remove the grate and reported it to his superiors and a search party was sent out. For whatever reason Otfried and Gerd abandon their escape attempt but were pursued as the fled. They ran to a nearby skating rink that was a popular hang-out for the local youth. A border guard fired at them striking Reck in the back. He died three hours later in the hospital. He was 17 years old. He wanted to be an opera singer.

Philipp Held

 Philipp Held, a nineteen year old electrician and engineering student, lived with mother in West Berlin. Philipp’s mother did not approve of his girlfriend and tensions rose between them. Philipp and his girlfriend, Barbel, drove to the town of Helmstedt in East Berlin, where Barbel had grown up before fleeing with her mother to the West and where her father still lived. When they reached the border they announced their desire to resettle in the East and were registered as a “new arrival” and a “repatriate.” Both Philipp and Barbel had a hard time adjusting to life in East Berlin and the reception from Barbel’s relatives was not as warm as they had hoped. After a short time they decided to return to the West. As she was still a  a minor, Barbel applied for an exit visa  to return to her family but Phillip, who had vocational training, was of full age and had willingly left the capitalist West, it was unlikely he would be granted an exit visa. At the same time East Germany instituted a draft. It was likely he would be conscripted to serve in the National People’s Army after which there would be no hope of returning to the West. Philipp decided to escape. Only Barbel and Philipp’s landlord new his intentions. When a few days passed and the they had not heard from him they assumed his attempt had been successful. Held’s body was found floating in the Spree River several days later. According to East Berlin police no bullet wounds were found and it was assumed he had drowned.

Horst Frank

Nineteen year old Horst Frank, a gardener by trade, and a childhood friend, Detlev waited for the cover of darkness to attempt their escape. Equipped with wire cutters they cut through the interior wall and entered into the eighty meter wide border strip. Rather than running as quickly as possible they crawled on the ground slowly to avoid being noticed by border guards. Their cautious approach allowed them to successfully avoid a trip wire that would have sounded an alarm. Four hours later, Detlev had reached the last fence when he heard shots. looking back he could see that Frank had become entangled in barbed wire. Detlev made it safely through the fence and onto the Western side of the border but Frank had been hit by three gunshots and died a few hours after being pulled from the barbed wire. Detlev later stated his reason for escaping was to meet his biological Father who lived in the West. It is thought Frank’s reason for the attempted escape was to avoid being conscripted into the National People’s Army. His Military Summons was one of the few things he had on him when he died.

Erna Kelm

On July 11th, 1962, a fisherman noticed the body of a woman floating in the Havel River and notified the police. She was identified as 53 year old Erna Kelm by her East German identification card hidden in her sock. Because Kelm was wearing a life jacket under her clothes authorities came to the conclusion she had drowned trying to escape by swimming across the border which ran through the middle of the river. Kelm had lived in the West before the Wall was built working as a nurse’s aid in a children’s home for refugees. She he later moved back to the East German town of Sacrow because she missed her children. Kelm was one of eight women who died trying to escape to the West.

Peter Fechter

Eighteen year old Peter Fechter a bricklayer by trade, became friends with Helmut Kulbeik. also Eighteen who worked for the same company. Both teens had been thinking about fleeing for a long time but neither had devised an escape plan. One day while wandering about they noticed a old building that had once been a woodworking shop, it’s back windows extended almost to the Wall. On August 17th, 1962 while on a lunch break they decided not to return to the job site but to investigate the building instead. They removed their shoes so as not make any noise and made their way to the back of the building where they found a storage room window that had not been bricked shut.  When the boys heard voices they were afraid they had been discovered and both jumped out of the open window and ran in their socks to the Wall which was only a few meters away. When the first shots were fired Helmut jumped to the top of the wall and forced himself through the barbed wire but Fechter was struck in the hip as he climbed. He fell backwards and began leaning on a Wall support. Despite the fact that Fechter had given up, rather than arresting him, the guards continued to fire until he collapsed to the ground. Fechter began screaming for help but East German guards ducked as by now West German guards were pointing their guns at them. West German guards threw him bandages but were afraid to climb over the wall fearing they would be shot at too. The arrival of the West German police, photographers and film crews made the East German guards even more apprehensive to retrieve the injured fugitive. After fifty minutes Fechter’s screaming stopped. Film footage and still photos of Fechter dying were broadcast around the world and became a symbol of the inhumanity of the East German border regime.

 
 

 
–> 19 year old Hans-Dieter Wesa and 18 year old Adolf B. served together as transport police

 
 

officers in Leipzig before being transferred to Berlin to serve as border guards. Both were

Hans-Dieter Wesa

assigned to a “Ghost Station,” a Bahn station where trains passed but did not stop. As they were already acquainted conversation came easily and Adolf thought Hans was joking when he said his sister (who lived in the West) would be surprised when he showed up. Adolf considered Hans to be a reliable comrade but became suspicious after Hans left to turn on lights on the other side of the track and disappeared.  Adolf went looking for him and saw Wesa had just climbed over the border fence and was on the Western side. After Wesa ignored his comrade’s order to come back Adolf fired at Wesa six times. Wesa was struck in the thigh and fell to the ground. Adolf ran up to the fence and fired another six shots killing Wesa. In 1990 charges where brought against Adolf but before he could be tried he took his own life. 

 

–> –>

November 9th 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 96 mile long , 12 foot high concrete barrier completely surrounded The German Democratic Republic (East Berlin), cutting it off not only from West Germany but the rest of Europe as well.  The GDR called it an “Anti-Fascist Rampart” to protect them from negative influences of Western capitalism and culture but it’s true purpose was to stem the mass exodus from East to West in the post war period between 1949 and 1961.
 It began August 12th 1961 as a barbed wire fence and in the days that followed a wall of concrete block was erected complete with sentry towers, searchlights, machine guns and mine fields. Without warning as many as 50,000 families were separated.
 
 

 

 
Just one year after the construction of the wall two East German men attempted to scale the wall, the first successfully climbed over while his friend was shot and left to bleed to death. It’s still not known how many people died trying to cross the wall as East Germany kept it a closely guarded secret. The numbers have continued to climb since reunification to an estimated 1,100. Some were shot, others killed by landmines and boobytraps, some drown trying cross the Elbe River or the Baltic Sea, others died of heart attacks during the escape. A baby died after its parents gave it sleeping pills to keep it quiet during the crossing.
 
 
 Other escape attempts were more successful. Most were simply run as fast as you can and scale the wall hoping there were no mines and that the Sentries could not shoot one of their countrymen. Others escaped in hand dug tunnels or swam or floated on air mattresses till they reached Denmark. The most unusual escapes came in September of 1979 when 8 people flew to freedom in a homemade hot air balloon.  14 people, including 11 children, escaped in a refrigerated truck, hiding under the carcasses of slaughtered pigs being exported to the West.
 
In 1989 as communist governments began to crumble the borders were opened between East and West Germany. The wall was so despised that all but a small section of the wall was destroyed.