Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story

Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964
Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, East and West Germany competed as one team, under a single flag, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy) their national anthem. But the unity of the “German” team was more of a mirage, as geopolitical realities extended Cold War distance to the athletes.

At the time, the Iron Curtain was a philosophical metaphor for the Cold War, but the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlin was a very real barrier. Only three days before the opening of the 1964 Olympic Games, it was reported that 57 people had successfully escaped from East to West Berlin through a tunnel dug under the wall. As was written in the AP report, “it was believed to be one of the biggest mass escapes since the Red Wall was erected in the summer of 1961.”

During the existence of the Wall, from 1961 to 1989, around 5,000 people escaped in a variety of ways – balloons, tightrope, and tunnels. The 57 who escaped made it through what is now known as “Tunnel 57”.

A civil engineering student in East Berlin named Joachim Neumann was able to sneak past border guards to West Berlin posing as a Swiss student in 1961. And while Neumann continued his studies in West Berlin, he also began to apply his learnings to the building of tunnels under the Wall.

Neumann’s first project was on a team building a tunnel in 1962, resulting in the successful escape of 29 people over two days, September 14 and 15. Neumann had a girlfriend in East Berlin, but was unable to inform her in time of the day of escape. But Tunnel 29, as it is now known, was Neumann’s realization that he would have other opportunities to bring his girlfriend to freedom.

Unfortunately, the next attempt to build a tunnel ended in calamity as the East German secret police uncovered the existence of the tunnel under progress. One of the people arrested was Neumann’s girlfriend, Christina, who was held for 8 months before being sentenced to two years in prison.

Joachim and Christina Neumann
Joachim and Christina Neumann

And Neumann continued to work on tunnel projects from the West Berlin side, including an excavation from April to October in 1964, the very one cited in the AP article above. Here is how the site, Berlin Wall Memorial, tells the rest of the story.

The escape operation was supposed to begin on October 3, 1964. But Joachim Neumann had to take an exam that day. When he returned to his apartment, he found a letter from his girlfriend. She wrote that she had been released early from prison and was back in Berlin. Joachim Neumann had to be at the opening to the tunnel in three hours and wasn’t able to find a courier on such short notice. He asked his friend to help and rushed to Bernauer Strasse. It was his job to greet the people escaping on the East Berlin side. It was quite late when his girlfriend appeared before him. She was one of 57 people who were able to escape through this tunnel during the course of two nights.

When East and West German athletes marched together into the National Stadium under that beautiful blue sky on October 10, 1964, were they aware of the great escape that took place days before? Were they able to tune out the Cold War noise?

Who knows. My guess is that for Joachim Neumann and his future wife Christina, the Tokyo Games were nary a thought.