The teenager who (almost) crossed the Berlin Wall

First-time author Anna Funder has won Britain's richest literary prize for non-fiction with 'Stasiland', her study of East Germany's police state. In this extract, she tells the story behind one attempt to escape
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The Independent Online

It takes less than two hours to get from Leipzig to Berlin, but Miriam had never been there before in her life. Alone in the big city, she bought herself a map at the station. "I wanted to have a look at the border in a few places. I thought, this cannot be for real; somewhere or other you just must be able to get over that thing."

It takes less than two hours to get from Leipzig to Berlin, but Miriam had never been there before in her life. Alone in the big city, she bought herself a map at the station. "I wanted to have a look at the border in a few places. I thought, this cannot be for real; somewhere or other you just must be able to get over that thing."

At the Brandenburg Gate she was amazed that she could walk right up to the Wall. She couldn't believe the guards let her get that close. But it was too flat and too high to climb. Later she learned the whole border paraphernalia only started behind the Wall at that spot. "Even if I had been able to get up there, I could only have put my head over and waved hello to the eastern guards." She waves with both hands, and shrugs her shoulders.

By nightfall the chances were looking slim. "I hadn't found any holes in it," Miriam says. She was cold and unhappy. She sat in the suburban train on her way to Alexanderplatz station to catch the regional line home.

It was dark and she felt as if she were going back to prison. The train sluiced between buildings, travelling high up on its stilts. Buildings on both sides, flat concrete facades with rectangular windows, five storeys high. Some lit, some dark; some with plants, some without. Then the vista changed. It took Miriam a moment to notice it in the dark, but suddenly she was going past high wire-mesh fencing. "I thought, if I am travelling along here, and there's this big wire fence right next to me, then West Berlin would have to be just over there on the other side."

A train line in the West and one in the East rarely met in divided Germany. At Bornholmer Bridge the western railway line still swoops down from the northwest to the southwest, and the eastern one up from the southeast to the northeast. The shape they make on the map is like figures in profile performing a Maori nose-kiss. At Bornholmer Bridge the border ran, in theory, along the space between the tracks. In other places in Berlin the border, and with it the Wall, cut a strange wound through the city. The Wall went through houses, along streets, along waterways and sliced underground train lines to pieces. Here, instead of cutting the train line, the East Germans built most of the Wall's fortifications in front of the train line on the East, letting their trains run through to the furthest barrier at the end of the death strip.

Miriam climbed through and over the fences separating the gardens, trying to get closer to the Wall. She got as far as she could until she reached a "great, fat hedge" blocking her path. She rummaged around in someone's tool shed for a ladder, and found one. She put it against the hedge, climbed up and took a long look around. The whole strip was lit by a row of huge street lamps on poles, their heads bent in submission at exactly the same angle. Overhead, fireworks had started to fizz and pop for the New Year.

The Bornholmer Bridge was about 150m away. Between her and the West there were a wire mesh fence, a patrol strip, a barbed-wire fence, a 20m wide road for the guards' personnel carriers and a footpath. "Beyond all of that, I could see the wall I had seen from inside the train, the wall that runs along the train line. I assumed that there, behind it, was the West, and I was right. I could have been wrong, but I was right." If she had any future it was over there, and she needed to get to it.

She says suddenly, "I still have the scars on my hands from climbing the barbed wire, but you can't see them so well now." She holds out her hands. The soft parts of her palms are crazed with definite white scars, each about a centimetre long.

The first fence was wire mesh with a roll of barbed wire along the top. "The strange thing is, you know how the barbed wire used to be looped in a sort of tube along the top of the fence? My pants were all ripped up and I got caught - stuck on the roll. I just hung there. I cannot believe no one saw me."

Miriam must have come unstuck, because the next thing she remembers is getting down on all fours and starting her way across the path, across the wide road and over the next strip. The whole area was lit as bright as day. "I just got down on my knees and went for it. But I was careful. I was very slow"' After the footpath she crossed the wide road. She could not feel her body, she felt invisible. She was nothing but nerve endings and fear.

Why didn't they come for her? What were they doing?

She reached the edge of the road and they still had not come. There was a cable suspended about a metre off the ground. She stopped. "I had seen it from my ladder. I thought it might be some sort of alarm or something, so I went down flat on my belly underneath." She crawled across the last stretch to a kink in the wall and crouched and looked and did not breathe. "I stayed there. I was waiting to see what would happen. I just stared." She thought her eyes would come loose from her skull. Where were the guards?

Something shifted, right near her. It was a dog. The huge German Shep-herd pointed himself in her direction. The cable was not an alarm: it had dogs chained to it. She could not move. The dog did not move. She thought the guards' eyes would follow the pointing dog to her. She waited for him to bark. If she moved away, along the wall, he would go for her.

"I don't know why it didn't attack me. I don't know how dogs see, but maybe it had been trained to attack moving targets, people running across, and I'd gone on all fours. Maybe it thought I was another dog." They held each other's gaze for what seemed a long time. Then a train went by, and, unusually, it was a steam train. The two of them were covered in a fine mist.

"Perhaps then he lost my scent?" she wonders. Eventually, the dog walked away. Miriam waited another long time. "I thought he would come back for me, but he didn't." She climbed the last barbed-wire fence to reach the top of the wall bordering the railway line. She could see the West - shiny cars and lit streets and the Springer Press building. She could even see the western guards sitting at their sentry posts. The wall was broad. She had about four metres to cross on top of it, and then a little railing to get under. That was all there was. She could not believe it. She wanted to run the last few steps, before they caught her.

"The railing was really only so high," she says, putting an arm out to thigh height. "All I had to do was get under it. I had been so very careful and so very slow. Now I thought, you have only four more steps, just RUN before they get you. But here" - she marks an X, over and over, on the map she has drawn for me - "here, was a tripwire." Her voice is very soft. She marks and re-marks the X till I think the paper will tear. "I did not see the wire."

Sirens went off, wailing. The western sentry huts shone searchlights to find her, and to prevent the easterners from shooting her. The eastern guards took her away quickly.

"You piece of shit," a young one said. They took her to the Berlin Stasi HQ. They bandaged her hands and legs, and that was the first time she noticed her blood or felt any pain. The blood was on her face and in her hair.

"But they really hadn't seen me. No-one had even seen me." She came so close. Meanwhile, in the West, the neon shone and overhead fireworks destroyed themselves in the air.

Miriam was returned to Leipzig in the back of a van. The Stasi officer questioning her told her they had contacted her parents, who no longer wanted anything to do with her.

The interrogation of Miriam Weber, aged 16, took place every night, for ten nights, during the six hours between 10pm and 4am. Lights went out in the cell at 8pm, and she slept for two hours before being taken to the interrogation room. She was returned to her cell two hours before the lights went on again at 6am. She was not permitted to sleep during the day. A guard watched through the peephole, and banged on the door if she nodded off.

"Once in a while I'd look at the eye in the peephole as he was hitting the door and I'd think, 'Why don't you just piss off for a change?' and keep dozing. Then the guard would come in, shake me, and take the mattress off the bench so there'd be nothing left to sit on. They really made sure that I didn't sleep. I cannot explain how kaput it makes you feel." Afterwards, I looked it up. Sleep deprivation can mimic the symptoms of starvation, particularly in children - victims become disoriented and cold. They lose their sense of time, becoming locked in an interminable present. Sleep deprivation also causes a number of neurological dysfunctions, which become more extreme the longer it continues. In the end, your waking hours take on the logic of a dream, where odd things are connected, and you are just angry, angry, angry with the world that will not let you rest.

For the Stasi it was beyond comprehension that a 16-year-old with no tools, no training and no help could crawl across their "Anti-Fascist Protective Measure" on her hands and knees. Involuntarily revealing his admiration, the guard who first took her to the interrogation room wanted to know what sports clubs she was in. She wasn't in any.

But the main point of the questioning, night after night, was to extract the name of the underground escape organisation that had helped her. They wanted the names of members, physical descriptions. Whose scheme was it to go on New Year's Eve, when the night was full of noise? How did she know to go to the Bornholmer garden plots if she had never been to Berlin before? Who had taught her to climb barbed wire? And, most insistently, who told her how to get past the dogs?

"They just could not fathom how I'd got past that dog," she says. "Poor dog."

They were not above spite. Miriam was told that even if she had made it over she would have been sent back because she was underage. She protested. "There's no way the westerners would have sent me back here," she told the interrogating officers. "They won't because I am a refugee from political persecution by you people, which all started when I put up leaflets." Miriam puts her chin out, imitating a cheeky kid who still thinks there is a safety net to catch her.

There was one main interrogator, whom she calls Major Fleischer, but sometimes there were two of them. They both had moustaches and bristly, short haircuts, wearing grey uniforms done up tightly. The younger one was so stiff he could have had a baking tray stuffed down his coat. Major Fleischer had hair in his ears. Sometimes he pretended to be her friend, "like a good uncle". At other times he was threatening. "There are other ways we could do this, you know," he would tell her. Her answers remained the same. "I got a tram from Leipzig, I bought a map at the station, I climbed over with a ladder, I went under on my belly, and then I made a run for it."

Ten times twenty-four hours in which you hardly sleep. Ten times twenty-four hours in which you are hardly awake. Ten days is time enough to die, to be born, to fall in love and to go mad. Ten days is a very long time.

What does the human spirit do after ten days without sleep, and ten days of isolation tempered only by nocturnal threat sessions? The answer is, it dreams up a solution.

On the eleventh night, Miriam gave them what they wanted. "I thought, 'You people want an underground escape organisation? Well, I'll give you one then'."

Fleischer had won. "There, then," he said. "That wasn't so bad now, was it? Why didn't you tell us earlier and save yourself all this trouble?" They let her sleep for a fortnight, and gave her one book each week. She read the first one in a day, then started memorising the pages, walking up and down in the cell with the book to her chest.

"In retrospect, it's funny," Miriam says. "But at the time it was pure, unalloyed frustration. I cooked them up a story I would not have believed myself, even then. It was utterly absurd. But they were so wild about getting an escape organisation that they swallowed it. All I wanted to do was sleep."

Auerbach's Cellar is a famous Leipzig institution. It is an underground bar and restaurant with oak bench tables in long alcoves under a curved roof. The walls and ceilings are covered with dark, painted scenes from Goethe's Faust; Faust meeting Mephistopheles, Faust betraying Margarethe, Faust in despair. Goethe used to drink here. It is a good place to meet the devil.

What follows is the story Miriam told the Stasi.

It all began when she was going to meet a friend in Auerbach's Cellar and eat goose-fat rolls. Her friend did not appear, so she sat down at one of the long tables by herself, and started on the food. The place was full; it was nearly Christmas. Four men came and asked if they could share the table. They sat down to eat. Miriam listened to them talk. One of them had a Berlin accent in which gut is pronounced "yut" and ich as "icke".

Miriam is enjoying herself at this point. She looks at me and her face is bright. She is imagining herself at16 and it makes her happy.

"So I said to the man -- the one who looked like the leader, 'Are you from Berlin?' He said, 'Yes.' 'How is it going in Berlin then?' I said." Miriam's eyes widen and she looks like the cartoon boy again.

"'Fine thanks.'

"'Where do you live in Berlin, then?'


"'Is, uh, is that near the Wall?'

"'Actually, it is... You're not thinking of making a run for it are you?'

"'Yes, I am.'

"'Well, you can't just front up to the Wall and expect to find a spot to climb over! Come with me and I'll give you a tip'."

Miriam said okay. So, her story goes, the five of them left and jumped in a cab. They travelled in a southerly direction, but she wasn't sure where because it was already dark. They went to an apartment on the second - or was it the third - storey of a building? Hard to remember exactly. There was no nameplate on the door, so unfortunately she couldn't say whose place it was. The stranger and his accomplices produced a map of Berlin, and showed her the spot to get over. Then they called another taxi, dropped her back at Auerbach's Cellar and she caught the tram home.

Miriam is laughing. She looks at me as if to say, "Have you everheard such a ridiculous story? Can you believe they swallowed it?" I look back, confused. I try to rearrange my face. What is so improbable about someone offering handy hints on wall-jumping? I feel I am about to have something basic explained to me. My head is cocked like a dog's watching TV; it can't make out what's happening, but it sure is interesting.

Miriam explains, gently, that in the German Democratic Republic it was inconceivable that a person would ask a stranger, a total stranger, whether they lived near the border. It was also inconceivable that the stranger would ask you whether you were thinking of escaping. And it was more inconceivable still that they would then proffer handy escape tips on the spot. Relations between people were conditioned by the fact that one or other of you could be one of "them". Everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence. Miriam could have been denounced by the man for having asked a question about the border and admitting she was thinking of going over, and she could have denounced him in turn for offering to show her how. Underground escape organisations existed in the GDR, but you needed an intermediary to communicate with them. It would never happen so blithely over goose-fat rolls and beer.

Fleischer wanted a name.

"'That I couldn't tell you'," she says she told him. 'I didn't hear them call each other by any name.

"'What did he look like, the leader?'

"'Well, he was about so tall'." She puts her hand in the air above her head. "'And strong looking, well-built, you know'." She is smiling, enjoying her fantasy of a man. "I told him that he was totally bald. Oh, and he had remarkably small feet."

I am laughing myself now, enjoying the child's-eye detail.

"Yep, there you have it. It was pretty much the chrome dome with the remarkably small feet! What's more, I told Fleischer I had the impression he was a regular at Auerbach's Cellar." She laughs too, pulling on a cigarette as she adjusts herself in her chair. Miriam had thought it all through - no matter how many small-footed bald men they found for a line-up, she would fail to recognise any of them.

Two weeks passed before her next interrogation. She was summoned to Fleischer. He had both hands on the table as if restraining himself from throwing it. "'My people'," she says he bellowed, "'have gone and got themselves a case of frostbite on your account. How dare you tell such tales! What could have possessed you to make up such a story?'

"'I wanted to sleep'."

Fleischer said her conduct amounted to deception of the ministry, which was a criminal offence. She would be up for an even longer sentence. And it was going to be bad enough for her, considering she could have started a war.

Miriam thought he must be crazy. Had she jumped over the last railing, he continued, the East German soldiers would have shot at her from behind, and the West Germans would have shot back. She could have been responsible for the outbreak of civil war. Then he softened. She says, "He said, 'But for your sake I will take this little episode out of your file. Never let it be said we didn't give you a fair go'."

Later, Miriam realised he had been protecting himself. Had she been asked in court why she invented such a story, she would have said "because they wouldn't let me sleep". Even in the GDR, sleep deprivation amounted to torture, and torture, at least of minors, was not official policy.

As it was, the judge sentenced her to one-and-a-half years in the women's prison at Hoheneck. And at the end of the three-day trial, he said to her, "Juvenile accused number 725, you realise you could have started the Third World War?"

They were all crazy. And they were locking her up.

Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder, is published by Granta, priced £7.99.