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Digging beneath
Bernauer Strasse

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THE BERLIN APARTMENT

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While Uli’s tunnel in The Berlin Apartment is fictional, there were several remarkable tunnels dug between East and West Berlin during the early years of the Berlin Wall’s existence: most notably, Tunnel 29, a remarkable real-life escape route which was dug by a group of students at the Free University of Berlin.

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A DARING IDEA

 

Uli shook his head, the plan revealing itself to him step by step, even as he spoke. "The sewers have been blocked," he replied slowly, "and the Spree is too dangerous..."

Jurgen looked up. "A tunnel?"

Uli smiled. "A tunnel," he replied meeting Jurgen's gaze with sudden conviction.

The mastermind behind the tunnel was Joachim Rudolph, a 22-year-old East Berliner who’d already escaped from the GDR; however, in October 1962 he joined forces with two Italian friends who were determined to get their friends out of East Germany. Like Uli, they dug their tunnel beneath Bernauer Strasse, from the basement of a cocktail straw factory to the basement of a friend’s flat on the opposite side of the Wall. The group allied with other students so they could dig the tunnel in shifts; however, their tunnel was soon beset by flooding, and they had to abandon it.

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A DEVASTATING SETBACK

"So we have a hypothetical entrance, a non-existent exit, and a possible need for bribery." Wolf squeezed Jurgen's hand with a resigned sort of laugh. "Have I just about covered it?" 

By July of 1962, Joachim and his fellow diggers had been flooded out of the tunnel under Bernauer Strasse; however, they caught wind of a second tunnel, destined for a cottage in East Berlin and in need of diggers. They agreed to help, but unbeknownst to them all, this new group of students had a mole in their midst: Sigfried Uhse, an East German plant who betrayed the location of the tunnel’s entrance to the Stasi. Luck alone was the reason Joachim and his friends weren’t arrested: as they broke through to the East, into a cottage where the Stasi were waiting on the other side of the door with Kalashnikovs in hand, one of them made mention of a machine gun, which gave the Stasi enough pause that Joachim and his friends were able to scurry back to the West – leaving behind dozens of would-be escapees now in the hands of the Stasi.

Though they’d been foiled a second time, Joachim and his friends hadn’t yet given up their dream of reuniting with friends and family from East Berlin. By now, their original tunnel had sufficiently dried up enough for them to resume work, buoyed by the support of NBC news, who’d offered the diggers financial compensation in return for allowing them to film the eventual escape.

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A SUCCESSFUL ESCAPE

"What do we do if things don’t go according to plan?”

Wolf was voicing a concern they all shared, but to Uli the question seemed dangerous, somehow: as if to ask it risked courting the peril they all hoped to avoid.

Uli spoke up. “We’ll be in a tunnel. What else will we be able to do but retreat?”

On the evening of September 14, 1962, the diggers finally broke through to East Berlin. With one of the diggers’ girlfriends acting as a courier in East Germany, refugees began to arrive at the tunnel’s entrance, in an apartment block on Schönholzer Strasse; quickly, quietly, families began sliding beneath the feet of the Stasi into West Berlin.

The entire escape, remarkably, was captured by the NBC film crew, who’d stayed behind in the basement of the cocktail straw factory to film the escapees as they emerged into West Germany. The footage is undeniably moving, particularly when we watch Claus, one of the tunnellers, reunite with his wife, Inge – and his five-month-old baby, whom he met for the first time that very night.

All told, Joachim and his friends rescued 29 people that evening – including Eveline, Joachim’s future wife, the very first person who’d emerged from the tunnel.

To learn more about Tunnel 29, I invite you to read Helena Merriman’s remarkable account of the escape, or to watch The Tunnel, the NBC’s resulting documentary which, it’s said, reduced JFK to tears.

Rave Reviews for Turnbull's Latest Novel

"Star crossed lovers fight to get back to each other as a literal and figurative wall is built between them. Bryn Turnbull brings the turmoil and beauty of 1960s Berlin to life in this captivating look at how the city became divided, forever changing the lives of the people within. I loved it." 

KERRI MAHER

New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Bookseller

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