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Escaping from East Berlin 1956

One of most enjoyable aspects of traveling the country is meeting people from different walks of life, different states or even different countries. When we were staying at Bonita Springs we met Ziggy (Sigfreid) and his wife, Ursula.

They were both born in Germany, but from different side of the Berlin Wall. When I questioned Ziggy about life in East Germany, he told me an incredible story. He was a high school senior in East Berlin during the time of the Soviet Union's brutal suppression of the Hungarian national uprising (1956). The people of Hungary were protesting the harsh, Soviet-imposed policies.

As a show of support for the people of Hungary, Ziggy and his classmates decided to stage a protest. At the start of the designated school day, everyone in his class rose to their feet and stood quietly for three-minutes. Even as they were being berated by their teachers, they refused to sit.

It might not sound like much of a protest, but under a communist regime, he said, no dissent is tolerated. The students were quickly arrested and interrogated to find out who was their ring-leader (When I asked if he was the ring-leader Ziggy refused to answer, but the slight smile on his face indicated otherwise).

After hours of intense questioning, the students remained silent. Nobody confessed. Nobody recanted their actions. As punishment for their crime of dissent, the authorities revoked their school admittance. They would not be allowed to graduate from any high school in East Germany condemning them to a future of hard, manual labor.

After the sentence was handed down, the students, twenty in all, gathered at a local soccer field. After much discussion and debate, sixteen of the students decided to flee to West Germany. Plans were made. More secrets were kept.

Now, as explained to me by Ziggy, at that time Germans were allowed to travel (but not immigrate) between East and West Germany for short day-trips and only with the proper papers. So with the knowledge and cooperation of their parents, each student arranged to attend a sporting event at different locations in West Berlin.

At the border crossing, all passenger were searched and questioned about their visit to the West. Anybody traveling as a family, carrying an overnight bag, or an unusual amount of cash, or acting suspicious were usually arrested and dragged from the train. So each student, accompanied by a single parent, took only the clothes on their back and a sack lunch. Each one was stopped and questioned but nothing they did or said drew the suspicion of the East German border guards. Knowing they may never see their families or parents again, each student was turned over to West German authorities and safe housing was found for each one.

Over the course of a few days, the students trickled in and applied for asylum. Media outlets from all over Western Europe rushed to interview the students. They became overnight celebrities with their faces and stories splashed across newspapers, magazines and television.

East Berlin authorities did what they could to bring them back. They threatened their families (who claimed to be completely ignorant of the children's plans), sent fake messages to individual students saying one or both parents had been in serious accidents and on their death beds, and even planned kidnappings (which fortunately never happened).

From time-to-time the parents were allowed to visit their children but only if they promised the East German authorities they were going to "try to talk them into coming home". Of course they agreed, but no student ever returned. Their story was recently made into a movie in Germany titled The Silent Classroom.

Ziggy later immigrated to America. Unfortunately, I don't remember how he met Ursula but it was with tears in his eyes that he related his gratefulness for America and the freedoms he found here. In fact he proudly told me that he has been a citizen for 50 years, 2 months and 2 wonderful days!

It was a heart-warming story and reminded me of how blessed we are with the freedoms we have in this country.

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