Tunnel 57

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Five steps to keep in a defecting population. Step 1. Build a 12 foot reinforced concrete wall.

Ralph: There was a wall.

Daniel: Step 2. Build a second wall right next to it creating a no man’s land in between.

Ralph: Then there was a 10-20 meter wide stripped off land which there was absolutely nothing.

Man: That’s no man’s land

Ralph: That was sprayed with chemicals that not even grass could grow. And it was raked everyday that you couldn’t see the slightest clue that there was a, an escape attempt.

Roman: Step 3. Build a narrow road for vehicles of the secret police.

Daniel: The Stasi.

Roman: Step 4. Add electrified barbed wire. And also…

Daniel: Step 5. Signal wires.

Ralph: Signal wires, that if you touch it. Immediately, in one of the watch towers. There was the alarm ringing.

Roman: At it’s peak the Berlin wall was a hundred miles long. Today only about a mile is left standing.

Daniel: Compared with other famous walls in history. This wall had a pretty short life span. The Great Wall of China has been around for 2,500 years. So have the walls of ancient Babylon although, it’s most famous part, the Ishtar gate is actually in a museum in Berlin.

Roman: This is Daniel Gross.

Daniel: But even though the wall dividing Berlin into East and West was only up for 30 years, it had a huge impact on the psyche of the city. It broke families in two. Now, let’s remember how we got here. In 1945, Berlin was the fallen Nazi capital. The weary victors could agree on two things: One, Hitler was bad. Two, Germany needed a big change. After that, they did not agree on very much.

Roman: Berlin was carved up into two sectors. With western countries controlling the west of the city and the Soviet Union controlling the east. West Berlin had a booming post war economy but life was tougher in East Berlin.

Daniel: So, In the decade that followed, more than 2 million people fled from East to West. East Germany was losing it’s most skilled workers as they sought jobs and to reunite with their families across the border. And East Germany was losing face with every East Berliner who chose to defect.

Roman: And that’s why, in 1961, East Germany closed it’s border to West Berlin with a wall. But this isn’t a story about the design of the Berlin Wall. This is a story about one design to get through it– or really underneath it. Ralph Kabisch was there.

Ralph: With the total headed diameter of less than one square meter. We had to save space. Yeah, the less we excavate, the better it was. You couldn’t sit. You were laying on your back or on your front and with the feet we were driving the spade into the front face. You couldn’t dig for more than two hours then you are really dead.

Daniel: Yeah.

Ralph: Yeah.

[background music]

Roman: In 1964, Ralph was 21, a student at a free university of Berlin.

Daniel: Ralph was studying Civil Engineering. At school, he made a lot of models and did a lot of Math. But he hadn’t really ever built anything.

Roman: And like virtually everyone in West Berlin, Ralph knew and was related to people in East Berlin.

Ralph: Parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, classmates. How could they get to the rest? They couldn’t jump over the wall. They couldn’t fly over it. And what’s the only way? Dig a tunnel.

Daniel: In 1964, Westerners could still visit the East if they were in good standing with the East German government. That year, Ralph took a trip with his parents and sister from the West to the East to visit extended family.

Ralph: My cousin approached my sister and me and said “Can you do something for me? I must get out of here.”

[background music]

Roman: Rumors had been going around of tunnels popping up beneath the city.

Ralph: So when I get back to Berlin. I had an idea who was involved here and I approached him. We were living together in the student’s dormitory. I approached him. I asked him and four days later I was in the tunnel.

Roman: Now to be clear, the kids were tunneling from west to east. They were tunneling into Communist East Berlin.

Daniel: Ralph was led to a defunct bakery along the border. It had closed because too many of its customers were stuck in the East. Near the bakery’s entrance, you could actually see East German guard towers looming over the wall. And in that bakery, young Berliners were tearing into the ground trying to dig a tunnel under the wall and then to East Berlin.

Ralph: We were digging vertically down until we got to the ground towards the water table.

Roman: You don’t want your tunnel to flood. Stay above the water table.

Ralph: And from there, we said ” Okay, half meter above the ground water table.” We dig forward, straight forward horizontally. Very simple.

Roman: Very simple in theory.

Daniel: In practice, Berlin is a nightmare underneath the surface. The city is a swamp. The ground is so wet and sandy that to this day, construction workers have to pump water out of Berlin’s soil in order to build new subway tunnels. They even used mobile refrigeration units to freeze the ground solid in trouble spots. But the soil over by the bakery happened to be perfect for tunneling.

Ralph: Because here was, the geologic soil is consisting mainly of clay. That means if you dig there a hole in it, it is self-supportive whereas sand collapses. And this is one of very, very few areas in and around Berlin that you have such a soil formation. That made it for us so interesting. Of course, Stasi knew it.

Roman: So from an engineering perspective, this bakery seemed like the perfect place to dig a tunnel. But strategically, it seemed like a terrible choice.

Daniel: This was the spot where right after the war was built, some Germans in the East tried to jump out of their apartment windows into the West which made the Eastern government extra careful about security. During the life span of the wall, five people died on this stretch of border.

Roman: So we’re talking about a bunch of 20 something’s digging a tunnel, the length of one and a half football fields.

Daniel: With a garden spade and a wheelbarrow.

Roman: Under one of the most fortified borders on Earth.

Daniel: Ralph was actually joining the second tunnel but the strip was dug. The first tunnel that stretched nearly 500 feet, a six-month effort. The day they reached the backyard of an apartment building in the East, it was snowing. And because the air inside the tunnel was warmer than outside, it left a small circle of melted snow.

Roman: Which basically told the Stasi “Yoo-hoo, there’s a tunnel over here.” Within a few hours the Stasi found out and flooded the tunnel with water.

Daniel: But Ralph Kabisch says that being 20 years old in free Berlin, they were all naive enough to try again. One of the student leaders Wolfgang Fuchs proposed a bit of reversed psychology.

Ralph: Wolfgang, he was really smart guy, said you know “The Stasi, we fool them, they would not even dream about that we use the same location for another tunnel.” So idiotic, nobody could bait and it worked.

Daniel: And that was the tunnel Ralph started working on in the summer of 1964. The bakery where the tunnel started was in the basement of an apartment building, full of retirees. A group of 20 or so students going in and out all the time would’ve been suspicious. So they had to be stealthy. They could only come in and out every couple of weeks.

Roman: In other words, they had to live there.

Daniel: The bakery had become a make shift home. They slept in military cots and warmed up canned food on a little electric stove that ran on borrowed electricity.

Ralph: Of course, we needed more at power than a retired couple is using normally. And the most stupid man of the power company would say “My goodness, normally they’re paying, what do I know about 20 dollars a month, yeah? And now they consume for 200? No, how come?” So one of our friends managed to get to the power supply cable before it went into the distribution board. Before the power was metered and registered to the various apartments.

Daniel: The windows are painted white on the inside to minimize suspicion but maximize lighting. In the bakery storage room, flour and salt and sugar had been replaced with heaps and heaps of dirt and when they needed fresh supplies like tools, baked beans, spare parts, tape, soda that was where Ralph came in.

Ralph: I had a job as a student on the weekend to deliver drinks. Home service, yeah? I had a small Volkswagen Bulli, like a bus or station, the biggest station wagon. And that was of course, perfect camouflage, for bringing in tools, spare parts, cans, breads, drinks in these boxes where normally the bottles where.

Daniel: How much soil do you think you moved in total?

Ralph: The shaft going down that had the size of 2 x 2 meters. 12 meters, that is, [foreign words], that’s already almost 50 cubic meters. Yeah, and then 145, I never thought about it. Never thought about it. Could be close to 200 cubic meters. Yeah [laughs] Craftsmanship. [laughs]

Daniel: An 18-wheeler truck can haul about 50 cubic meters. So wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow through the summer and into the autumn. Ralph and his friends scraped and craved and heaved enough dirt to fill four, 18-wheeler big rigs. All the while worried that Stasi would spot them coming in and out or detect them with special acoustic sensors.

[background music]

Roman: Fall, 1964. They finally reached the East.

Daniel: They’d aimed for a basement. Just like last time but again they miscalculated.

Ralph: The one who was on duty on the front face of the tunnel came back with a little plant. He saw, oh that roots and that was grass.

Daniel: They hadn’t noticed that the border zone sloped slightly downward.

Roman: Which is forgivable given the fact that they couldn’t properly survey the land.

Daniel: But this time, they were lucky. They had come up inside an abandon shed.

Roman: Soon after the tunnelers left the shed, they sent a crew of messengers above ground legally into East Berlin to alert their friends and relatives of the imminent escape.

Daniel: The message included a time, a place and a password.

Roman: At the time, the radios were buzzing with the news of the recent Olympics.

[background music]

Male Voice Over: Tokyo is dressed in her Holiday best for the opening of the 18th Modern Olympics.

Daniel: And so the password was Tokyo.

[knocking on the door]

Male: Tokyo.

Daniel: Ralph and his friends took turns standing watched in the East, holding pistols they hoped they wouldn’t have to use. Back in the West, another student stood watch on the roof with a walkie-talkie.

Male: [foreign words]

Ralph: But yeah, we had, of course, a very precise plan. At 8:20 pm, there’s coming a couple. At 8:30 pm, there’s coming a small family with one child. And with the walkie-talkie, he gave us the information. Oh yeah, “refugee number so and so is coming.” We gave the information to the front man to the tunnel on the east. That our people could prepare to open the door if the refugee comes knocking at the door and is saying “Tokyo.”

Roman: One by one, East Germans entered the shed in the East and came out in the bakery in the West.

Daniel: It was after 10 pm. Ralph was now on duty on the West. He had parked his VW bus around the corner and was going to drive the escapees to their first night of freedom.

Ralph: In this bus, it was so silent. Nobody talked to the other. Just sitting there like, like an ice block. And then I heard one whispering to his neighbor “Who knows, whether we are really in the West or is it another trap of the Stasi.” When I heard that, that was like an electric shock for me.

Daniel: These are East Germans who have just crawled to freedom through 500 feet of mud. But freedom had been out of reach for so long that they didn’t believe it when they saw it. So, Ralph decided to take a quick detour. He thought himself.

Ralph: You go with them not the shortest way. You go through Kurfurstendamm. That they see it with their own eyes

Daniel: Kurfurstendamm was the center of West Berlin. Site of the second largest department store in Europe. It was covered with neon lights and advertisements for Coca-Cola and Marlboro which you’d never see in the East.

Ralph: Out of a sudden, they were chatting, they were joking. Yeah, laughing. We made it. As if had been yesterday, it’s still in my head.

Daniel: The tunnel operated for two nights. But among the students was at least one spy. At the end of the second night, two plain-clothed policemen knocked on the apartment door in the East. Tipped off by one of the spying students, they did not know the password, Tokyo.

[knocking on the door]

Daniel: One of the students standing watch, opened the door. A moment later, an East German soldier appeared, pushed his way into the building and cornered the student at the door with a Kalashnikov. Then another student fired a shot. All of them sprinted to the backyard and into the shed while the East German police fired shots after them. By the end of the night, one East German soldier was dead. The tunnel had been destroyed with grenades and 57 people had escaped.

Roman: And so the tunnel became known as tunnel 57.

Daniel: But the one person Ralph was trying to get out, his cousin, was not among them. After the tunnel was destroyed, East German newspapers wrote about West German gangsters who had tunneled in and killed one of their soldiers. The East German government installed a plaque where the escaped had occurred, condemning this violent assassination. The western students sent a letter over the wall using balloons. It read–

Roman: “We speak on behalf of our group, which over the last half year built a tunnel through which 57 fugitives fled and at the entrance to which your son was shot. First we would like to express our sincerest sympathies for so heavy a loss.”

Daniel: They were taking responsibility for the death of this Eastern soldier. But the letter went on.

Roman: But the real murderer is the system that addressed the massive flood of it’s citizens not by removing the cause of the problem but by building a wall. In giving the order for Germans to shoot Germans.

Daniel: The story persisted for exactly 30 years. Longer than the wall even existed. The story that in helping 57 people escape, Western tunnelers killed an Eastern soldier.

Roman: Years after the wall came down in 1989, Stasi records revealed that the Eastern soldier was actually killed by friendly fire in all the confusion.

Daniel: The sixth step to controlling a defecting population: Build a wall around information and preserve the regime’s reputation.

Ralph: We destroyed the wall down to its roots. And only a year later was- said, “Oh what have we done with our own history?” No clue, only here 100 meters and there’s a little bit left here and that was unpreserved. You must understand that from situation. The Berlin, the West Berliners, they were, let me say they were fenced in. Yeah, they were like prisoners in the free garden. There was such hate. Such emotion. Yeah, turn it down, destroy it and never never never ever again.

Daniel: This is kind of the paradox of the past in Berlin. Destroy it but never forget. This is a city with layers and layers of history. And yet much of it is gone. The bunker where Hitler died for instance, was mostly demolished. For decades it was totally unmarked, to prevent it from becoming a symbolic site for Neo-Nazis. The government finally installed a plaque in 2006. Even the largest remnant of the wall, the East Side Gallery which is covered with paintings from international artists is slated for partial demolition to make room for luxury apartments.

Roman: Ralph Kabisch became a Transportation Engineer. He digs tunnels for a living.

Daniel: How many tunnels have you helped build in your life?

Ralph: Oh, several. Subway tunnels. Korea, China, Thailand.

Daniel: Ralph spent his entire engineering career digging underground. When he finished school, he got a job with the German engineering company that worked on railroads. They made him an International Engineering Consultant on underground train systems all over the world.

Ralph: Taipei Railway Tunnel, Taipei Subway Tunnel. Athens, Two Metro Lines, Complete Metro Lines. What else?

Daniel: These tunnels were way, way bigger than the scrappy tunnel he dug with friends under the wall.

Roman: But for Ralph, all those tunnels lead back at least with his mind, to tunnel 57.

Ralph: Let me say it a little bit like a joke. It was our apprenticeship. [laughs]

Female: Tokyo.

[background music]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Daniel A. Gross, with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars.

  1. You have inspired me to rewatch “Night Crossing,” a (Disney!) film I haven’t even thought of since it came out in 1982.

    TL/DR: 2 families build a balloon to carry them from the East to the West.

  2. I took an Urban Planning class in Berlin a few years ago… the sandy soil is no joke. Most new buildings – especially ones built in the empty space left bey the wall – are basically boats that float in the quicksand.

  3. Jim Shelley

    I am a docent at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, NY, the site of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969. I am always surprised at how many guests from outside the US visit the site. A recent conversation with a German couple who grew up in East Berlin taught me that for those trapped there Woodstock meant more than music and mud. It was a beacon of freedom they said. This wall story is something I will tell on my future tours. Thank you

  4. Hi there,

    I’d like to give some feedback about the radioshow in general _because of_ this episode. tl;dr: I can now relate to the program again, so how can I give you my money?

    I am a listener of the podcast from the very beginning and supported season 3 via kickstarter. I like the show because of the general idea of showing fascinating stuff in design and architecture that might not be obvious to us in the every day life, and because of the technical and artistic realization of the podcast.
    But in the last couple of episodes, especially season 4, I felt like there was a shift from “beauty in design and architecture in the world” to “beauty in architecture in the U.S.”. Don’t get me wrong, the buildings and architectural designs you talked about where kind of interesting, but I could not relate to the topics that much anymore. I started loosing interest in the episodes.
    But with this episode (and episode 102)…boom. The story, the drama, the images in my head… thank you for creating this episode and sharing it with us. Now I relate to the stuff you are talking about again and can’t wait for the next episode(s). Now I want to hear more and would like to trow my money at you.

  5. Brian

    I was excited to listen to this but had to stop when I heard the narrator say that, in 1945, Berlin was “carved up into two sectors.” This is a pretty significant error that you should probably go in and re-track and also fix in the copy over at Slate.

  6. My grandfather (who’s Belgian) actually helped people getting from East Berlin to West Berlin through tunnels. He doesn’t talk about it, though. I think he just doesn’t like talking about it, so I don’t know the details, sadly.

    Nice to hear this story, though. I can now more or less image what it must’ve been, back then.

  7. Bret C.

    This episode was fantastic! In fact, episodes 1-104 have been great and I can’t wait to listen to 105+! Thank you.

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