Since November 9, 2019 marks the 30thanniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this moment in history has reappeared for a little while in the news. I was a teenager when it came down, but I realize now that I knew very little about this wall. I knew it was symbolic of the horrors of Communist Soviet Union and that President Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” in a speech he made outside the Brandenburg Gate and a boy who liked my older sister gave her a chunk of stone that was supposed to be from the actual wall to somehow get her to go out with him. (It didn’t work.)
I didn’t know that the wall went up in 1961. I assumed it was constructed just after the end of World War 2, when Germany was divided by the conquering nations—Soviets getting the eastern half and America, Britain and France ruling the western half. But the wall was a result of a slow simmering pot of dissatisfaction with the lack of freedom in the east and a controlling dictatorship. The Soviets didn’t like that so many people were leaving their side. Once the wall went up, that pot of unhappiness and misery had to build in intensity until the people could no longer abide the cruelty it enforced.
I have been listening to an interesting BBC Radio podcast called “Tunnel 29” about a group of people who worked to help others escape from East Germany into West Germany. There are heartbreaking stories about families and friends being separated first by barbed wire, then thick concrete walls, trenches and land mines. The wall was heavily guarded and the East German Police employed spies to find those who might want to defect. The people were desperate to get out.
The podcast focuses on one German man in particular named Joachim. He escaped from East Germany and was soon approached by a team of people wanting to dig tunnels under the wall. Joachim was an engineering student, so devising methods for removing dirt and pumping in fresh air and constructing scaffolding was his expertise.
Without revealing the many plot twists and perilous moments in Joachim’s story, one of the most astonishing realizations I made while listening to the podcast is the group’s dedication to the rescue mission. When Joachim escaped, he took risks, but this was to save himself. He was willing to do whatever it took to get out of East Germany or die trying. The tunnel diggers jeopardized their own freedom and possibly their lives, but from the position of safety. They were in West Germany. They were safe. Many of the other diggers were also escapees. They knew what was waiting for them on the east side of the concrete wall, and yet they started digging…digging toward danger.
This mentality may explain why so many social workers were once foster kids. And some medical professionals spent a lot of their childhoods in pediatric hospitals. And sometimes police officers grew up in homes where abuse was common. And the best caretakers to dying loved ones are cancer survivors. So often and contrary to human logic, the people who escape danger are the ones who are more likely to turn around and start digging in the direction of those who need rescuing.