Marriage is dead in the west

Dead or alive: escape from the GDR republic via Bulgaria

The old country road leads right through the Strandzha Mountains: It is the old route from the coastal town of Burgas, via Malko Tarnovo, the small town on the Turkish border, to Istanbul. Until 1994 it was the only trunk road in the southeastern part of Bulgaria that led to the neighboring country. Today it is rarely used, only the few inhabitants of the surrounding villages still use this old route.

"Two thousand kilometers away from the GDR, that was one of the considerations, you will dress well, so west, then we will stand on the road from Burgas to Istanbul: Turks without end, highway, four lanes and any Turk would take you with us" , thought Hendrik Voigtländer back then. But the reality is different ...

Remains of the old barrier on the Bulgarian-Turkish border

Just gone - to the west

Hendrik Voigtländer actually has a good life in the GDR: He works as an electrician and uses every opportunity to travel. Poland, Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria - he's seen it all. One day he submitted a travel application to the FDJ district management. He wants to go to Cuba. It doesn't take long before the rejection comes.

The reason: He did not take part in all FDJ afternoons. "But when you went there, the director would tell you how nice it was in Amsterdam at the airport. He is allowed to go there. We are not allowed to go there. It's a strange system. If I had asked those afternoons, why he is allowed to go there and we are not, then of course they would have thrown me out. So I left the question ", remembers Hendrik Voigtländer.

It was in the beginning of 1988 when a school friend asked him if he would like to travel to Bulgaria with him. But Bulgaria should not be the end of their journey. They want to flee - across the Bulgarian-Turkish border to the west.

Bulgaria is a popular travel destination for German tourists - then as now

Bulgaria - a travel paradise for some, the gateway to freedom for others

Long coastline, delicious food, hot summer days - especially the golden sands in the north and the position of the sun in the south of Bulgaria attracted many vacationers from the former Eastern Bloc countries. The number of GDR tourists is steadily increasing. In 1980 there were just under 200,000 GDR tourists, by 1988 over 300,000 were visiting the country on the Black Sea.

Hendrik Voigtländer is one of them. Having landed in Burgas, he and his friend drive to the spa town of Sunny Beach, about ten kilometers away. It's late summer weather, warm and dry. They have a lot of fun, play tennis, make friends with a family from Hamburg, and go out. That's how carefree they spend the first ten days of their vacation.

Until October 3rd ...

It's a monday. A year later the wall will come down, and exactly two years later Germany will be reunited. But at this point in time nobody dares to dream about it. The plan is set. On this day, the two of them get up early - at 6:30 a.m. At the reception they say they want to go for a walk in the mountains. They don't take anything with them, just a bottle of water, gold chains around their necks, and a wristwatch. You are smartly dressed.

"We walked in the direction of Istanbul along the road I had dreamed of. Four lanes, highway, Turks without end. The problem: No Turks drove that way. That was completely the opposite. After an hour on the left - very much interesting - on the left, a sign. On it: Istanbul 350 kilometers. The school friend was a bit overweight. I asked him: 'Fatter you want to walk 350 kilometers with me to Istanbul now - with a drinking bottle, which we are already halfway through have drunk up? ' ", recalls Voigtländer.

Hendrik Voigtländer in front of the memorial for the victims of communist tyranny in the former Hohenschönhausen remand prison in Berlin

After three hours a bus comes from the direction of Burgas. You decide to stop the bus. When asked by the driver where they would come from, Voigtländer replies: From Hamburg. "It was not engraved on the forehead 'DDR'. So the three of us are driving towards Istanbul. I had asked the bus driver twice whether this was the road to Istanbul. We didn't speak Russian so he wouldn't suspect that it was We come from the GDR. He didn't speak English. After about 20 kilometers there was a border house of the Bulgarian army on the right-hand side. They waved us on. I was already beaming like a honey cake horse. Now it's 330 kilometers. After about 40-50 -60 meters, however, the bus driver pulled over to the right. "

Stoyan Todorov was on duty that October 3rd, 1988. He drives through the border zone in a jeep. He gets a signal and rushes to action: 13 km from the border, near the village of Balgare. Hendrik Voigtländer and his school friend - GDR refugees - are standing on the side of the road. Stoyan Todorov and his colleague put bags over the heads of the Germans and put them in the car.

It was his duty, said Todorov. "Because with every successful border violation, i.e. escape where we could not grasp it, the entire team had to answer questions on the red carpet in Sofia: We had to explain why this could happen. And the border guards were sanctioned. That's how it was Law." He did not shoot anyone, "just shot". For 30 years he hadn't spoken about the time before 1989. He's obviously nervous. He doesn't want to reveal his name. Stoyan's name is actually different.

Difficult argument

Border guards like Stoyan Todorov were never prosecuted. Even when the bereaved of German victims who were shot at the border tried to initiate legal proceedings in Bulgaria, the public prosecutor's office did not react.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a rumor in the GDR that the Bulgarian border was easy to cross. Disguised as tourists, many GDR citizens made their way to Bulgaria. The farther south, the bigger the holes in the Iron Curtain, so the hope of many at the time. Some managed to escape, but for most it ended in imprisonment or death, as the Bulgarian border was strictly guarded.

Former prisoners now lead through the Hohenschönhausen remand prison - one of them is Hendrik Voigtländer

The old barrier at the border has no longer served any function since 1989. It was finally dismantled at the end of the 1990s. But in hard-to-reach places in the forest there are still remains - recaptured from the forest, almost invisible to the careless walker. The high border fence was then equipped with a silent alarm. As soon as the fence was touched, a signal was triggered at the next guard post.

In addition, there were control strips on both sides of the fence. This raked arable land was used by the border guards to secure evidence so that unauthorized entry into the area could be easily discovered. If some of you managed to get over the fence, you were far from being free. Because this border installation was about two kilometers from the actual border. Fugitives should be deliberately deceived and easy to catch after crossing the border.

In addition, an area of ​​six to 15 kilometers from the border into the interior of the country has been declared a border zone. Everything was strictly guarded: As early as 1951 and in the summer of the following year, the order was issued that stipulated the use of the weapon, even against people who illegally crossed the state border from a neighboring state. And who did not obey the orders of the border unit.

The new EU border between Bulgaria and Turkey is not far from the old Eastern Bloc border

After the fall of the communist regime, this chapter of Bulgarian history remained unexplored, unread, unwanted. The school books only deal sporadically with the period between 1944-1989. Society does not talk about the torture camps run by the Bulgarian Communist Party.

Hendrik and Stoyan - 30 years later

After the interrogation in the Bulgarian border town of Malko Tarnovo, Hendrik Voigtländer initially ends up in prison in Burgas. After nine days he was transferred to another prison in Sofia, where he spent two months. In a small cell with two other people, in a confined space, with no sewer system. There is fresh drinking water only every few days.

Afterwards, accompanied by Stasi employees, he was transferred to the GDR and there to the prison in Halle. Shortly before the fall of the wall, the Federal Republic triggers it.

Stoyan Todorv is now in his 60s, a short man, about 1.60 m tall, with white hair. He is retired and still lives with his wife in the small border town of Malko Tarnovo. He has two sons: the older one has also become a border guard. He is now guarding the EU's new external border.