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HEINZ JERCHA

Heinz Jercha
Heinz Jercha, a native Berliner, was living with his wife and child in the western part of the city when the Wall was built. In the spring of 1962, the young father, a butcher who had fled East Germany a few years earlier, joined an escape assistance group initiated by a former colleague, Fritz Wagner, who helped people in East Germany escape to the West. They dug a tunnel beneath the barriers at Heidelberger Strasse in Berlin-Neukölln, a street that bordered directly on the East Berlin city district of Treptow. The underground passageway began in the basement of a building at Heidelberger Strasse 35 and came out at the building number 75 on the East Berlin side of the divided city. Since March 21, 1962, Heinz Jercha and the others in the group had helped dozens of East German citizens escape to the West. On March 27, they again risked going to the other side of the Wall to pick people up and bring them to West Berlin. However, Stasi documents reveal that this time Heinz Jercha was ambushed and shot at by Stasi agents.[1] Badly wounded, the 27-year-old crawled back through the tunnel to West Berlin, where he died a short time later. “Those swine shot me,” were apparently his last words.[2]

Escape operations, criticized and prosecuted in East Germany as “human trafficking,” experienced their “heyday of heroism” in West Berlin during the first years after the Wall was built. They were supported by the authorities and the population in many ways.[3] Heinz Jercha was the second person following Dieter Wohlfahrt to be shot at the Wall while trying to help others to escape and his death triggered strong expressions of solidarity and sympathy in the West. After his death, people everywhere demanded that Jercha’s widow and five-year-old daughter be provided for by the Senate and the authorities responded to these demands by granting the family of escape agents who were killed the same status as relatives of someone who died in war: They were henceforth entitled to a small pension.[4] Politicians publicly expressed their recognition of the fact that Heinz Jercha had risked his own life to help others.[5] Representatives of the federal government, the Senate and West Berlin districts paid their last respects by attending his funeral on April 5 at the Wald Cemetery in Zehlendorf.[6]

The circumstances under which Heinz Jercha died remained unclear for a long time. The East German leadership denied any responsibility and kept the files that proved that the escape agent was shot by a member of the Stasi under lock and key.[7] West Berlin police investigations determined that Heinz Jercha was together with Harry Seidel on the evening of March 27. Seidel, along with Fritz Wagner, was one of the key players in the early escape operations. They had joined forces in early 1962 to build the tunnel in Heidelberger Strasse.[8] But unlike Fritz Wagner, who had offered his escape services to East Berliners for money, Seidel acted out of personal and idealistic reasons. Heinz Jercha stumbled onto the operation through Wagner’s broad professional network and helped Seidel with the excavation work.[9] When they completed the tunnel, Jercha and Seidel took on the risky task of picking up the escape candidates at the East Berlin end of the tunnel each evening and leading them back to West Berlin. They acted cautiously, and Seidel later admitted to the West Berlin police that they were armed with pistols for their own protection.[10] Seidel also had contact with an escape operation run by students and, without Wagner’s knowledge, he and Jercha were also using the tunnel to bring other young East Berliners to the West.[11] During one of these operations Heinz Jercha got into a conversation with two East Berlin students to whom he had given a ride in his VW Beetle after their successful escape. They asked him if he would help a friend of theirs who desperately wanted to leave East Germany, and they offered to pay him money. Jercha agreed.[12] The escape tunnel had meanwhile been betrayed by an East Berlin resident who had won Seidel’s trust. Seidel had no idea that the man worked as a Stasi informant under the code name “IM Naumann,” but this was how the Stasi found out about the escape operation on March 24. They developed an “operative plan to liquidate the tunnel,” with the main aim of arresting Harry Seidel, who they believed was the “organizer of the trafficking operation.”[13] On March 25, Stasi agents were on the lookout in the basement of the East Berlin building where the tunnel ended. On the evening of March 27, Seidel and Jercha successfully led an elderly couple through the tunnel unnoticed. Afterwards the Stasi arrest commando was given the order to take action as soon as Seidel appeared. The Stasi officer in charge later wrote “the comrades were to sharpen their knives for this one” and he added emphatically that what he meant was “they were to have their guns ready and if necessary use them.”[14] Seidel and Jercha returned a short time later to carry out the escape operation that Jercha had organized on his own initiative in agreement with the two students. Seidel later put on record that when they reached the East Berlin side, he had waited on the basement stairs while Jercha went upstairs to meet the fugitives in the building corridor.[15] But instead the Stasi arrest commando was waiting for him. According to the Stasi files, one of the men ordered him to surrender, at which point he shone his flashlight into their eyes and without a struggle quickly ran away. The Stasi men opened fire immediately and chased him but they were unable to stop either Jercha or Seidel from escaping through the tunnel to West Berlin. One of their bullets, however, ultimately killed Heinz Jercha. The autopsy found that it was a ricochet shot that hit him in his chest, wounding him fatally.[16]

On the basis of the Stasi files opened after the East German archives were made accessible in the nineties, an investigation was opened against the four Stasi agents who were identified as having shot Heinz Jercha. In this case, however, narrow limits were placed on the legal prosecution because the court conceded that at the time their intention had been to arrest a West Berliner who had illegally entered the territory of East Germany. Given this fact, the use of firearms that led to Heinz Jercha’s death could not be penalized as homicide. The proceedings were dropped without an arraignment.[17] A memorial plaque on Heidelberger Strasse today recalls the fate of Heinz Jercha.

[Christine Brecht]

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[1] “Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Kreisdienststelle Treptow betr. Schleusung in der Heidelberger Strasse 75 am 27.3.1962, 27.3.1962,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 6086, Bl. 146–148.
[2] Transcript of a West Berlin police witness hearing of the resident from whose basement the tunnel was dug, 30.3.1962, in: StA Berlin, Az. 29/2 Js 148/90, Bl. 60–61, here Bl. 60.
[3] For context, see Marion Detjen, Ein Loch in der Mauer. Die Geschichte der Fluchthilfe im geteilten Deutschland 1961–1989, Munich, 2005.
[4] See “Er starb für die Freiheit anderer,” in: BZ, 29.3.1962, also “Schnelle Hilfe für die Witwe von Heinz Jercha,” in: BZ, 30.3.1962.
[5] See “Man liess ihm keine Chance“, in: Berliner Morgenpost, 29.3.1962, also “Lemmer: Ermordeter Jercha ist Märtyrer der Mauer,” in: Der Kurier, 29.3.1962.
[6] See “Abschied von Heinz Jercha,” in: BZ, 6.4.1962.
[7] See “Schüsse in Westberlin. Infame Lüge der Frontstadtpresse,” in: Neues Deutschland, 29.3.1962, also in contrast to this the contemporary West Berlin investigation files, in: StA Berlin, Az. 29/2 Js 148/90, Bl. 1–166.
[8] See Marion Detjen, Harry Seidel, in: Karl Wilhelm Fricke/Peter Steinbach/Johannes Tuchel (eds.), Opposition und Widerstand in der DDR. Politische Lebensbilder, Munich, 2002, pp. 340–350.
[9] On the history of this tunnel escape, see Dietmar Arnold/Sven Felix Kellerhoff, Die Fluchttunnel von Berlin, Berlin, 2008, pp. 72–77.
[10] See “Niederschrift der Zeugenvernehmung von Harry Seidel durch die West-Berliner Polizei, 30.3.1962,“ in: StA Berlin, Az. 29/2 Js 148/90, Bl. 58–59, and the report of the West Berlin police station 215, 28.3.1962, in: PHS, Bestand Grenzvorkommnisse, n. pag. According to it, the pistols were confiscated on March 27 and Seidel was detained temporarily.
[11] See on this “Niederschrift der Zeugenvernehmung eines Fluchthelfers durch die West-Berliner Polizei, 29.3.1962,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 29/2 Js 148/90, Bl. 43–46.
[12] See “Niederschrift der Zeugenvernehmung eines Tunnelflüchtlings durch die West-Berliner Polizei, 31.3.1962,” in: Ibid, Bl. 63–65.
[13] See “[MfS-]Operativplan zur Liquidierung des Stollens Heidelberger Strasse 75, 26.3.1962,” in: BStU, MfS, HA I Nr. 6068, Bl. 142–144, and “Sachstandsbericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Kreisdienststelle Treptow betr. Operativ-Vorgang ‘Krampe,’” 30.3.1962, in: Ibid., Bl. 38–48.
[14] “Bericht der VfS Gross-Berlin/Büro der Leitung betr. Falsches Herangehen bei der Liquidierung eines unterirdischen Ganges und Entweichung eines Verbrechers, 28.3.1962,” in: Ibid., Bl. 138–141, here Bl. 140.
[15] See “Niederschrift der Zeugenvernehmung von Harry Seidel durch die West-Berliner Polizei, 30.3.1962,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 29/2 Js 148/90, Bl. 58–59.
[16] See West Berlin autopsy report, 28.3.1962, in: Ibid. Bl. 10–13, and report of the West Berlin forensic investigative department, 30.3.1962, in: Ibid., Bl. 39–40.
[17] See “Verfügung der Staatsanwaltschaft II bei dem Landgericht Berlin, 27.8.1997,” in: Ibid., Bl. 278–285, also “Verfügung der Staatsanwaltschaft bei dem Kammergericht Berlin, 23.8.1993,” in: Ibid., Bl. 269–275.