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East German refugees recall Prague escape

September 29, 2019

Former East German refugees have marked their successful 1989 escape to West Germany at the German Embassy in Prague. The event would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.

East German refugees gather outside the West German Embassy in Prague in 1989
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. John

A ticket to freedom

Hundreds of former refugees returned to the German Embassy in Prague on Saturday to commemorate their escape from the former East Germany via the Czech capital 30 years ago. Accompanied by visitors that included children and grandchildren, many wept as they remembered the momentous day.

Read more: East German refugee eligible for compensation over dramatic escape

"Emotions are welling up," Hilmar Zander, a 65-year-old former refugee in attendance, told the dpa news agency. Zander came to the embassy with his wife and two small children in 1989. "It was worth it," he said.

In commemoration of the day, the embassy recreated the scene from 1989, including emergency tents and large pots of soup similar to the food refugees ate at the time. 

Refugees from East Germany camping outside the West German Embassy in 1989
Refugees from East Germany camped outside the West German Embassy in 1989Image: picture-alliance/dpa/CTK

Desperate measures

Starting in the summer of that year, more and more East German refugees made their way to the West German Embassy in Prague with the goal of emigrating. Many scaled the fence surrounding the embassy to enter. By September, thousands of men, women and children were living in makeshift tents on the property.

On September 30, West Germany's then foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, announced their fate from the embassy balcony. "Fellow countrymen, we've come to you to share the news that as of today…." The rest of his statement ("…your departure into the Federal Republic of Germany is now possible") was famously drowned out by the cheers of thousands of refugees.

Read more: Prague embassy crisis 'a severe blow to the Berlin Wall,' Genscher says

Between September 30 and October 4, 1989, around 13,000 East German citizens traveled by train from Prague to their new home in West Germany.

'First stone to break from the wall'

"That was essentially the first stone to break from the wall," said Rudolf Seiters, a former government minister who had stood at Genscher's side during the announcement, on Saturday. The Berlin Wall, the physical barrier that separated East and West Germany, fell just weeks after the Prague announcement, leading to Germany's reunification in 1990.

Read more: Merkel hails Germany's progress since fall of Berlin Wall

"We can never cast aside the memories of this time," Christian Bürger, a spokesman for the refugees in 1989, told the EPD news agency on Saturday.

"We, too, should offer a hand to people in danger," said former refugee Markus Rind, today the director of the Dresden Symphony, as a plaque remembering the events was unveiled at a Prague train station.

kp/cmk (dpa, EPD)

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