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LEO LIS

Leo Lis Leo Lis was 45 years old when he was shot and killed while trying to escape in Berlin-Mitte on September 20, 1969. Born on May 10, 1924 in Beuthen, Upper Silesia, today Bytom in Poland, he lived with his wife and seven children in Hennersdorf in Saxony. He worked there as a dairy milker for an agricultural production cooperative (LPG).[1] It is not known what led him to want to flee East Germany.

Leo Lis left his family and took a train to East Berlin on September 19, 1969. One day later, at about 8 p.m. on September 20, 1969, he entered the border area near the Nordbahnhof station. He managed to get around a dog run, but when he climbed beneath a signal fence, he set off an alarm. A border guard descended the tower to arrest him, but Leo Lis had already moved beyond the signal fence and the guard was unable to find him in the dark. It appears that the guards on the two adjacent towers could see more because “wild shooting” erupted from the towers, leading the guard on the border strip to run for cover under an overturned lorry.[2] One of the guards on the tower also had to take cover when he was mistakenly fired at. “Cease fire!” a border guard cried, but his order went unheard.[3] The other guards continued to shoot until the fugitive, who had meanwhile passed the patrol road, security strip and anti-tank obstacles, remained motionless on the ground.[4] Leo Lis was critically injured in the chest. A paramedic declared him dead before he was transported from the border strip.[5]

The border guards fired a total of 78 shots at him. One bullet hit the window of an apartment building on the West Berlin side, just barely missing a retired couple that was sitting near it, watching television. The senior citizens later filed charges against unknown individuals for “damage to property and unauthorized possession of a weapon.”[6]

A number of residents on both the east and west side heard the shots and watched from their windows. Cries of “murderer” and “you are shooting your own countrymen” were hurled at the guards.[7] On September 21, 1969, as an act of protest against the shots fired at the fugitive, West Berlin teenagers threw stones onto the border grounds with the words “communist pigs” and “dirty swine” written on them.[8] The West Berlin and West German press reported in detail on the events and the reaction of the French city commander, who fiercely condemned the border shooting at the sector border to Wedding and viewed it “as another example of disrespect for human dignity.”[9]

The border soldiers involved were awarded the “Medal for Exemplary Service at the Border.”[10] More than thirty years later, when they had to answer for their actions before a court, the Berlin public prosecutor accepted that they had acted in the belief that the orders they had followed were lawful and the case was dismissed in early April 1997.[11]

Leo Lis’ wife was not notified of her husband’s death until September 27, 1969, after his body had already been cremated. An East German secret police agent, who introduced himself as an employee of the state prosecutor’s office, informed her that her “husband was fatally injured while trying to leave East Germany illegally.”[12] Without further explanation, she was handed the death certificate and a few personal possessions that Leo Lis had had on him when he fled.

She was also required to agree in writing to inviting only the immediate family to attend the funeral service and to refrain from printing an obituary.[13] The Lis family’s mail was examined by the East German secret police regularly thereafter and Stasi informants were asked to record the mood and reaction of the Hennersdorf residents to the incident.[14]

Leo Lis’ ashes were buried in an urn in Kamenz on October 29, 1969. The funeral was attended by his widow and children and by Leo Lis’ stepmother, who traveled from West Germany, as well as his sister and a small delegation from his LPG. The East German secret police noted with satisfaction that no “negative discussion” had taken place.[15]

[Udo Baron]

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[1] See “Information der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den vom DDR-Bürger Leo Lis am 20.9.1969 versuchten Grenzdurchbruch, 21.9.1969,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 7, Nr. 1, Bl. 6.
[2] See “Vermerk der Staatsanwaltschaft Berlin über die Einstellung des Verfahrens gegen die ehemaligen Grenzposten, 3.6.1997,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 70/90, Bd. 2, Bl. 272.
[3] Ibid., Bl. 272.
[4] See ibid., Bl. 270–279.
[5] See “Information der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über den vom DDR-Bürger Leo Lis am 20.9.1969 versuchten Grenzdurchbruch, 21.9.1969,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 7, Nr. 1, Bl. 7.
[6] “Strafanzeige gegen Unbekannt wegen Sachbeschädigung und unbefugtem Waffenbesitz bei der West-Berliner Polizei, 20.9.1969,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 70/90, Bd. 1, Bl. 57.
[7] “Bericht des MfS/HA I/SKB Abwehr/UA 1. Grenzbrigade/Op.-Gruppe GR 33 über einen versuchten und mit der Schusswaffenanwendung verhinderten Grenzdurchbruch DDR-WB einer männlichen Person am 20.9.69 im Grenzabschnitt Nordbahnhof, 20.9.1969,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 7, Nr. 1, Bl. 3.
[8] See ibid.
[9] “Flüchtling wurde brutal niedergeschossen,” in: Die Welt, 22.9.1969; “An der Mauer niedergeschossen,” in: Berliner Morgenpost, 21.9.1969; “Neuer Beweis von Menschenverachtung,” in: BZ, 22.9.1969.
[10] See “Vermerk der Staatsanwaltschaft Berlin über die Einstellung des Verfahrens gegen die ehemaligen Grenzposten vom 3.6.1997,” in: StA Berlin, Az. 27 Js 70/90, Bd. 2, Bl. 271.
[11] See ibid., Bl. 281.
[12] “Schreiben der BVfS Dresden/KD Kamenz über die Benachrichtigung der Frau Lis vom Tod ihres Mannes an die BVfS Dresden/Leiter der Abt. IX, 29.9.1969,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 7, Nr. 1, Bl. 53.
[13] See BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 7, Nr. 1, Bl. 55.
[14] “Vermerk der VfS Gross-Berlin/Abt. IX über die Sprachregelung gegenüber der Ehefrau von Leo Lis, 26.9.1969,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 7, Nr. 1, Bl. 51.
[15] “Aktenvermerk des MfS/KD Kamenz über die Urnenbeisetzung von Leo Lis, 10.11.1969,” in: BStU, MfS, AS 754/70, Bd. 7, Nr. 1, Bl. 81.