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Remembering Berlin Wall victims

    Gunter Taubmann, whose only son, Thomas, was killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall in 1981, at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Berlin, Aug. 31, 2014.

BERLIN >> It was the morning after the best party ever, the tumult and joy that marked the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. After 28 years, East Berliners were giddy with marvel that they could now visit the West.

Gunter Taubmann felt different, as if, he said, “I am in the wrong movie.” Eight years earlier, his only child, Thomas, had been killed trying to cross the wall, one of 138 people who died at the barrier erected by the Communists in 1961 to stop Germans streaming out of the poor, repressive East.

Now, someone at work had been to the West and back during that magical night, and was telling the tale. Taubmann’s Communist colleagues professed to be exultant over the end of the order they had long espoused. Workmates who had not mourned Thomas at the time of his death were suddenly solicitous.

“I didn’t know what they wanted from me, and then they started, ’What bad luck! Your son could have waited,’” Taubmann recounted, his voice edgy with sarcasm. “I am normally a calm person, but there I got in such a fury. I simply threw them all out. ’Just get out of my room.’”

Once they were gone, “I poured out my heart” to those colleagues who had braved the intimidation of the secret police to attend Thomas’ funeral.

For most of Germany, Nov. 9 is a day to celebrate not just the opening of the wall but what came after: integration of East and West and the rise of a united and prosperous Germany that now helps lead Europe.

But for some Germans it also summons memories of the East Germany that was a state of informers and suspicions, public rigidity and private despair – none more so than the families and friends of those killed at the Berlin Wall, for whom the anniversary of its fall is tarnished by tragedy, pocked with the holes where a child, a spouse or sibling once was.

To trace the victims is to delve behind the glamour and groove that is modern Berlin, deep into meticulously neat gardens and homes where most Germans live their ordered lives. The pain still sears, more than five decades after the first victims died, and a quarter-century after millions of German families divided by the Cold War came back together.

By far the majority of those killed trying to breach the fortified, 96-mile barrier were young men in their teens or 20s. Many more were tempted to take the risk in the first years than toward the end. Contrary to myths of heroism and betrayal attached variously by West and East to each escape, few who fled or tried to had a purely political motive.

Thomas Taubmann was 26, divorced, a college dropout who was drinking too much when, on the grim weekend of Dec. 12-13, 1981, as martial law was declared in Poland and as East and West German leaders met, he tried to scale the wall at a spot where East and West rail tracks ran parallel. His parents, interrogated separately by the police, never heard the exact truth, but Thomas was apparently crushed by a train.

His mother, Elisabeth, a nurse and a lay judge at an East Berlin court where Thomas was due to appear on shoplifting charges, never got over it.

“She was sick at heart, and she died of it,” said her husband, now a sprightly 80.

After his wife’s death in 1999, Gunter Taubmann requested the file of the secret police. Only then did he read the note that Thomas had left for “Dear Mummy! Dear Daddy!” in which the son intuited that his father had the stronger nerves, and implored him “to help Mom over the hump.” Only then did the father know for sure that, without warning, his son had tried to escape.

Marienetta Jirkowsky, another only child, was just 18 when she was shot. Like countless women before and after her, she fell for the wrong guy. Like very few other women, she tried to cross the Berlin Wall.

On what would have been Jirkowsky’s 52nd birthday last August, Falko Vogt stood before the immaculate grave outside a village northeast of Berlin that now contains the remains of Marienetta and her parents.

“Oh Micki, Micki,” sighed Vogt, using her nickname as he told of their flight on the night of Nov. 21-22, 1980.

Vogt, now also 52, was long determined to leave. After troubled years in state child care, he befriended Peter Wiesner and Wiesner’s girlfriend, Jirkowsky, and the trio plotted an escape.

Initially, he said of their bid for freedom, “we had more luck than sense.” After the hourlong train ride to East Berlin from their hometown, F 5/8rstenwalde, they went at night to scout a spot they knew, where the two walls that divided Berlin – one on the East German side, the second on the actual border – were barely 100 feet apart.

They had planned to cross the next night. But now the West was tantalizingly close. Undetected, they stole ladders from a nearby house and made it over the first wall. They crossed no-man’s land without stepping on mines or booby traps. Aided by the ladders, Vogt made it over the second wall, dropping down into West Berlin.

Jirkowsky was supposed to follow. But it was Wiesner who clambered up second as East German border guards approached. It was pitch dark, Vogt said.

“They heard us, we heard them, but neither of us could see each other,” he said.

Atop the wall, Wiesner stretched down, offering his hand to Jirkowsky. Before she could scramble up, she was shot – 27 times. Her boyfriend followed Vogt, dropping down in the West. She was taken to a hospital in the East, where, according to the files of the secret police, the Stasi, she was interrogated before dying hours later.

“Would we have done it if we had known the wall would fall?” Vogt asked now. “I don’t know – it was almost 10 years before,” an eternity at 18.

Her parents, Klaus and Astrid, never saw their daughter again. Two weeks later, they got an urn with Marienetta’s ashes, and an autopsy report with word that, unknown to her family, she had been three months pregnant.

The parents had loathed their daughter’s relationship, even getting a restraining order to keep her from Wiesner, 24, a drinker who was getting divorced (and died young, in 1992, in western Germany).
“He wasn’t much of a future son-in-law,” Vogt said.

The parents are long dead – like Elisabeth Taubmann, Astrid Jirkowsky never recovered.

As to what prompted Axel Hannemann to try, at 17, to cross the Spree River to West Berlin in June 1962, no one will ever know. His farewell note said he would reveal the motive “once I’ve made it.” Fifty-two years later, his only surviving sibling, Jurgen, seven years his senior, still tears up.

“It was completely senseless, what he did,” Jurgen Hannemann mused at his cottage near the family’s hometown, Cottbus. “I just can’t understand. We had a good relationship, and I loved him.”

Axel’s escape attempt occurred when the wall was not yet a year old and an object of Communist zeal. But eventually, Jurgen Hannemann said, the Stasi stopped interrogating friends from work, Axel’s dance lessons and his tennis club. Axel’s daring – jumping on a cargo ship headed for West Berlin, being discovered, then plunging into the Spree and getting shot in view of people on the western bank – receded into history.

The decades have softened the blow of loss, but during interviews over the past two months, each family still nursed bitterness – particularly that no border guard who shot their loved one received more than probation. Legal wrangling over whether there was a shoot-to-kill order for the wall’s heavily armed sentinels has spared the guards, not the victims.

In Berlin these days, visitors engage in “wall tourism.” The American-Soviet border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie has spawned constantly playing movies and a museum. In Bornholmer Strasse, where the wall first opened, an engraving that chronicles of the events of Nov. 9, 1989, is on the bridge over the rails where Thomas Taubmann died.

Gunter Taubmann is not much for ceremony. He is delighted that he and his wife followed her instinct, and reached out after the tragedy to Thomas’ ex-wife and son, Bjvrn, just 5 when his father was killed. This fall, a great-granddaughter started school.

But, as Taubmann pinpointed a date, Thomas was his point of reference. “This year, he would have been 59,” the father noted in passing.

Twenty minutes’ walk away lies the grave of Thomas and his mother. Taubmann visits at least once a year – on July 22, Thomas’ birthday. “I just put a flower on the grave. And then I go to the pub and drink a beer.”

“It is all sad,” he added, “but it was.”

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