• U.S.

Berlin: Tunnels Inc.

3 minute read

At the risk of a shot in the back, refugees continued to flee over, through, and under the hated Wall. Two East Germans astonishingly made it into West Berlin riding on a motorcycle; one young West Berliner last week explained how he had smuggled his fiancée out of East Berlin by strapping her to the bottom of his car and driving five miles to the checkpoint. But the Wall has also spawned entrepreneurs who manage to get people out, at the same time lining their own pockets in a fast-growing escape business.

Extricated Friends. The most notorious of this greedy breed is a musclebound ex-butcher nicknamed Der Dicke (Fat Boy). A former black marketeer with many contacts in East Berlin, he got into the tunnel business for almost altruistic reasons—he wanted to help East Berlin friends to escape. While making inquiries about tools and equipment, Der Dicke made the happy discovery that hundreds of West Berlin university students were eager to help him for nothing. On his very first try, he lined up three engineering students who also had friends wishing to escape to the West. Once they had broken through to East Berlin, Der Dicke got his own friends out at a charge of about $250 per head; in return for their digging, the students were allowed to bring their friends out free.

After the East Berlin Vopos discovered the tunnel, Der Dicke started another, again using volunteers. He also lined up six aides, bright young opportunists who wanted to learn the business. Some acted as couriers, others looked for West Berliners who would pay to extricate friends and relatives from the East. Tunnel No. 2 ended tragically: as two couriers waited for expected customers at the eastern end, they were shot down by Vopos.

Undaunted, Der Dicke went on building tunnels and even took “options” on prospective new sites. His most recent tunnel was designed to come out in an East Berlin lumberyard. Der Dicke and his agents lined up nearly 100 customers in East Berlin, representing a total take of more than $20,000. Der Dicke began dickering with representatives of U.S. and British TV networks, proposing to sell them the rights to an on-the-spot filming of an escape. But the tunnel exit missed the lumberyard by several feet and was instantly spotted by the Vopos.

Low-Ranked Diplomats. Tunnel 59, the escape route for 59 refugees before it had to be closed last month because of flooding (TIME, Sept. 28), was not organized by the fat operator, but it, too, had its shady aspects. It was built by the voluntary labor of West German and foreign university students, and reportedly financed, among others, by NBC-TV in return for film rights. According to a widespread report in Berlin, on which NBC refuses to comment, the financing was arranged through intermediaries, two Italians and a German, who paid out what was necessary for equipment and supplies and then pocketed the remainder. Such chicanery tarnishes somewhat the difficult and dangerous work of the idealistic diggers. But any Communists ready to denounce the West Berlin tunnel business ought to know about low-ranking Communist bloc diplomats stationed in East Berlin. Their pitch is also directed at families split by the Wall; since they have diplomatic privileges, they offer to put a refugee in the trunk of a car and drive him west without any trouble. The Reds ask the going price, $250, in advance. Some of the refugees actually get out that way, but most often they are delivered straight to the Vopos.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com