The Guardian

The schoolgirls who defied the Stasi: 'Someone said, "What if we take him across the border?"'

They were West German teenagers on a school trip. He was a young man desperate to escape from East Germany. Thirty five years later, they tell their story
From left: teenagers from Steinmühle school in Marburg, including Barbara Kahlke (third left) and Tina Kirschner (far right) with East German Bernd Bergmann, in January 1985. Photograph: Horst Kettner/BILD am Sonntag

It’s December 1984, a week before Christmas. Tina Kirschner and Barbara Kahlke, two 17-year-olds from West Germany, are sitting on a creaking red bus headed for the socialist part of their divided country. They’re on a school trip, and the mood is boisterous: almost 40 teenagers singing along to Duran Duran. But once they cross the heavily guarded border, reality hits. The world they’re entering feels alien and forbidding. All around them, slogans celebrate the glorious achievements of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Yet as they pass through the crumbling town centres, the shops are empty. Here, only a couple of hours from their little hometown of Marburg, people have been queueing for basic groceries.

In a carefully staged encounter with local students, the girls are told that their impressions are wrong, that life here is good. When the East Germans insist that even their version of Coca-Cola is better than the west’s, the planned rapprochement descends into a battle over soft drinks. Tina and Barbara are unsettled by the constant propaganda, the oppressive atmosphere. It’s almost like visiting an open-air prison; after all, the people around them can’t leave. Most of those who try to escape to the west are arrested and jailed. Some are shot, or blown up by mines in the death strip.

One day, the teenagers visit the medieval city of Erfurt for a sight-seeing tour. As some of them mill around the bus, a tall, gangly man in his 20s approaches, introducing himself as Bernd Bergmann. The girls are astonished to learn he was born in Marburg, before his mother took him to the GDR as a child. When he spotted their Marburg number plate, he wondered if they might know a friend of his.

The girls are hesitant at first, unsure what to make of him. But they are also curious, and Tina and a couple of others arrange to meet him in a cafe later in the day. Bernd tells them he’s desperate to join his friend in Marburg. He has applied for an exit permit many times, but has always been rejected. Now he’s considered a troublemaker. He’s lost his job, and is being harassed by

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