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The Hopes of East German Refugees (August 8, 1989)

On May 2, 1989, Hungary began dismantling its fortified border with Austria, stripping away barbed wire fences and removing detection devices. During the summer of 1989, it became increasingly easy to cross from East to West over the Austro-Hungarian border. At first, the flight remained risky, but as more and more East Germans were allowed to pass – without valid exit visas – others were encouraged and followed their lead. The result was a mass exodus that shook the very foundations of the GDR. In the following article, a Frankfurt reporter describes the arrival of a train from Vienna carrying East German refugees who had escaped through Hungary.

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Special Train from Pankow* with Transfers in Vienna and Frankfurt: Refugees from the GDR, their Route across the Border, and their Arrival in the Federal Republic

On early Tuesday morning, a large billboard with fat white letters welcomes the 100 GDR refugees who had started their trip from Vienna’s West Station nine hours earlier. “Taste the West,” the advertisement encourages. Whether their new lives in the West will really involve “super taste” at a “super price” is something the fresh arrivals have not yet thought about. It is 6:20 a.m.

Express train D222 has barely arrived, fifteen minutes late, on track 3 in the Frankfurt train station, and already the exhausted passengers are being illuminated by television cameras and flashed by photographers.

At first, some of them turn around and flee back into the two “special cars.” “Why are you photographing me and my children? Tomorrow people on the other side [i.e., in the GDR] will know about this,” complained a 28-year-old father of three who had crossed the Hungarian border with his children. Most of these refugees have kept silent for weeks, not even telling friends and family of their planned escape. People assume they are still on vacation in Bulgaria or Hungary. “I didn’t tell a soul, no relatives, no friends.” He says that he wants to tell his friends in the GDR himself.

None of the resettlers [Übersiedler] had gone to the West German embassy in Budapest. “It was basically possible to drive your Trabi from the GDR to the open border in Hungary and continue right into Austria. Some did just that. The cars are parked all around down there,” explains a 25-year-old man from Bautzen. He’s happy to have “left everything behind.” He does not know that in the first half of the year, 56,000 refugees have already entered the Federal Republic; he also cannot know that although the moderator of the Tagesthemen evening news did not say, “the boat is full,” he did say, “it’s getting crowded.” He was referring to the German embassy in Budapest, but he could have just as easily meant the Central Reception Center of the state of Hesse in Giessen, where the 100 refugees were brought on Tuesday: the camp is bursting at the seams.

Away from the large crowd of reporters, a 37-year-old mother is standing with her daughter, son, and a friend of the family. Each of them is carrying a small bag; the 17-year-old daughter also has a yellow plastic bag from a Viennese store. “That’s all we could take with us,” says the daughter, who criticized the lack of freedom of expression in the GDR. The mother explains, “We are active Christians and not held in very high regard over there.” The father is still in the GDR. “He has no idea where we are,” says the daughter.

Officially, the four of them set off for vacation in Hungary on July 23. “Then we looked at the chain-link fence at the border and crossed over the next day. No one was in the nearby Hungarian watchtower and nothing happened.” That’s how it went for most of them. No one is boasting or bragging. They give their accounts hesitantly and in a matter-of-fact tone.

Klaus and Bernd from the district of Halle had already planned an escape in 1986. “But it was too dangerous for us at the time.” When they heard that the Hungarians had dismantled the border fence, their decision was made. “We crossed the border around midday and didn’t even see any border guards.” Others were stopped by Hungarian border patrols, but no one received the now notorious stamp that would have exposed them as would-be escapees back in the GDR; and the second attempt then succeeded. A few married couples have their children with them. One couple waded through the water and reeds of Lake Neusiedl for five hours; they reached Austrian soil at 5:30 in the morning.

* The title of the article refers to a song by German rock star Udo Lindenberg called “Sonderzug nach Pankow.” – ed.

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