BERLIN - She’ll never know why, on August 7 1970, her father was in the border area near the Berlin Wall. The only thing she knows is that East German border guards fired 177 shots at him. Monika N. was 13 when she lost her father. Her sister was a year older.
The worst thing on that summer day, she remembers, was the uncertainty. Nobody in the West knew that her father, Gerald Thiem had been shot. They only found out 24 years later, well after their mother – who thought her husband had deserted the family – died.
The West Berlin bricklayer is just one of many “Wall victims” whose death was successfully covered up by the East German security service (Stasi, short for Staatssicherheit, literally State Security). By 1989, 136 people hadbeen killed at The Wall, most of them – unlike Thiem – as they tried to flee from East to West.
Thiem’s story is one of five highlighted in a just-inaugurated temporary exhibition at the Berlin education center of the Bundesbeauftragte für die Stasi-Unterlagen (Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives) where records of the feared East German state security apparatus are kept.
Christian Booß, the exhibition’s coordinator, selected the stories to show how the Stasi hushed the deaths up. The exhibits includes items the victims had in their pockets at the time of death – such as house keys that the secret police made copies of to get into the homes of the victims and plant listening devices.
Another victim profiled in the exhibit is Horst Einsiedel, a 33-year-old mechanical engineer from East Berlin. He didn’t want to join the Socialist Unity Party (SED) but felt that not having done so was damaging his career. He missed the West, where his mother and sister lived. Although he had a wife and daughter in the East, he decided to flee – via the cemetery in Berlin-Pankow, which he knew well because his father was buried there.
In the early hours of March 15 1973, he went to the cemetery with two ladders. He successfully used one to climb over preliminary fencing. But as he was leaning the second ladder against the actual Wall, border guards opened fire and he died on the spot.
Two days later his wife reported him missing to the East German police. But the men who showed up to talk to her about her missing spouse weren’t normal policemen, and what they were really trying to ascertain was whether or not she knew about his plans to flee. Although they knew he was dead, they asked for photographs of him in a pretense of organizing a search for the missing man.
Several weeks later, she was informed that her husband’s Trabant car had been found deserted in some woods: In all likelihood, they said, Horst Einsiedel had been the victim of foul play.
But the Stasi weren’t sure the woman believed them. They monitored her mail and phone calls, and discovered that she did indeed have doubts. So after three months they returned with more news: They’d found her husband’s body at a barrier near Potsdam. Very drunk, he had been trying to flee to the West. They strongly advised her not to ask to see his corpse, which they described as heavily decomposed. The truth however was that Einsiedel had been cremated shortly after he was shot.
A conspiracy of silence
As the exhibit shows, the Baumschulenweg crematorium was the last stop for Wall victims, whose cases – and the covering up of their deaths – were entirely handled by the Stasi. This involved faking all documents necessary, such as death certificates, and passing themselves off as police officers when they dealt with family members but also with authorities and crematorium officials.
The Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives discovered that doctors, prosecutors, the police, and employees of various government departments, the crematorium and the cemetery constituted a kind of “cartel of silence” to keep the disposal of the bodies of wall victims a secret.
To this day, researchers have not been able to clear up exactly what happened to the remains of six victims.
Monika N., however, does know what happened to her father. Back in the summer of 1970, she and mother tried every possible lead to find out where he was, talking to friends, his boss, work colleagues. The police, however, were unhelpful, claiming they didn’t have time to deal with “every husband that goes missing.” Meanwhile her mother worked as a cleaning lady to keep the family afloat.
When Monika N.’s mother discovered that her husband’s bank account was empty, she did in fact wonder if he had escaped to the East to make a new life there. So she wrote to East German authorities asking if he might be living in the DDR, and received a reply stating that he did not. In 1981 Monika N.’s mother had her husband officially declared dead: She had met someone else and wished to remarry. But she never stopped thinking that her first husband could suddenly turn up again.
Monika N. says she’s mourned long enough. But even if she is no longer looking back, she can’t forget – and she hopes the exhibit will keep the memory of those shot along Berlin’s and other East/West German borders alive in collective memory.