23 June 1989
Overcoming the Obstacles
Arrival at the Embassy
“‘Hi there, I am Mr. Bürger, I come from East Germany and believe me I am not going to leave this building.’ To me, the words sound so stupid when I write them down. But when I said them that had a real impact. Never before has anything I have said come so completely from the heart as at that moment when I stepped into the West German Embassy in Prague. So here I am lying in my room on the top bunk bed. The room is smaller than my living room was and yet I’ve never felt freer than here.
Because I am still alive. I was not entitled to cross borders on the “PM-12” they issued me with instead of an ID. So unlike most of my fellow refugees – there are around 100 of us here at the Embassy – I had to enter Czechoslovakia illegally. In fact I was completely left to my own resources – no friends involved, which also meant no one who might potentially betray me. My first attempt was rather naïve – I really thought that I could enter the country by train via Bad Schandau. I thought to myself: Hey, the border guards are tired at night, perhaps they won’t check me too carefully. I took my old military ID with me. In East Germany it’s common practice that anybody who shows their military ID doesn’t get subjected to any further checks. But the boys were on the ball, took a proper look, hauled me off the train and carted me off to some shack in no man’s land – the workplace of two guys in dark suits who were evidently happy to at long last have somebody to interrogate again. Six hours it took. But by then I was completely used to the procedure. Which is probably why they were so taken in by the yarn that I spun them – that I had wanted to meet up in Bratislava with my acquaintance whom I had bade farewell to at the station in the spring. They let me go, but told me to report to the authorities. I knew that I wouldn’t be so lucky a second time… When I got home I packed my things straight away and went to Oberwiesenthal. I donned my camouflage fatigues and hid in the bushes near the border. I took my time and carefully monitored how often the border guards patrolled and I did the same with the ones on the Czech side. I was lucky – when I finally dared to make for the hills no one spotted me. I knew it would be dangerous the moment I set off. That I would be killed by a bullet the moment they saw me. Yet I took to my heels all the same. Somehow, I wasn’t afraid. My heart didn’t start pounding until I was safely past the checkpoints and had hidden behind a rock. It was pitch black when I snuck into the nearby forest and crossed through it into Czech territory. It was no easy journey, that’s for sure, but nowhere near as oppressive as it would have been to report to the authorities.
Video Diary Episode 2
OVERCOMING ALL OBSTACLES – ARRIVAL AT THE EMBASSY
This morning I arrived in Jáchymov, a small Czech town. I didn’t notice how tired or hungry I actually was. My euphoria at having made it and my fear that somebody might blow the whistle on me at the last moment outweighed all else. I took the bus to Prague. On the way to the Embassy a couple of West German tourists who seemed much better informed than I was warned me that there were militiamen right by the Embassy carrying out strict checks. This warning sent my adrenaline levels skywards. Sure I was tense but at the same time I was completely focused. The only words that describe it is to say that I felt like a hunted animal. There is only one way out. But at very next corner everything might be over.
In front of the Embassy I was more agitated than I’d ever been in my entire life. I could hear my blood coursing through my veins and my heart beating fit to bust. But to outsiders and I genuinely believe this is some kind of survival instinct I appeared quite calm. As nonchalantly as if I were a tourist, I tried to ignore the militiamen and to take pictures of buildings. In front of the US Embassy, I took pictures of the flags, then the entrances opposite it. Then I trained my camera on the German Embassy… I slowly approached it, lowered my camera, tried not to look at the two soldiers standing on the street smoking not far from me. I’m not sure whether one of them actually moved. But I am sure that the one on the left suddenly took two steps in my direction. I ran. My heart was beating faster, my blood coursing so hard that I couldn’t hear anything else.
Only then suddenly my voice, when I dashed through the doorway and into the Embassy. ‘Hi there, I am Mr. Bürger, I come from East Germany and believe me I am not going to leave this building.’”
CONTEMPORARY WITNESSES – AND WHAT BECAME OF THEM
Hans Joachim Weber, Diplomat
From early 1989 he was responsible for the refugees in the German embassy in Prague. Finally, he also accompanied a train to West Germany and travelled straight back to accompany the second wave of departures.
Christian Bürger arrived at the embassy in May or rather May-to-June, had already tried to escape from East Germany before and had got into real difficulties, but seized the opportunity and said: “I’m now going to …” So he arrived at the embassy, and he came in a big way, as there were no more excuses possible, no beating about the bush, and he simply said: “I. Am here to stay. I am Citizen Bürger and I’m staying. I’m not about to leave.” Well, that was as clear an announcement as it was a statement of fact: He simply stayed. And in… in… He was a stroke of good fortune. We immediately realized: He’s in, he’ll help … for him compassion is everything, and even if he only gets an hour’s sleep, he doesn’t care, he’ll help. And he really was an incredible help to us, he weighed in, he eased our workload, helped all those who climbed the fence, he first brought them to my office, and then we set up a little booth where he jotted down their names and particulars, which he then passed on to me. And he even helped handing out the food and… well practically everything. He was nanny to us all, right? That was, well it was great, and, hmm, without Bürger, I must say, well it’d have been pretty difficult, yes, he really acted as the go-between, didn’t he? It was simply great, and yes, to this day we owe Christian Bürger a huge word of thanks, absolutely.