HASSO HERSCHEL

Escape Agent with Prison Experience

Hasso Herschel was just 16 years old when he was arrested for the first time. He was detained for 24 hours after taking photographs of people lined up in front of a kiosk at Platz der Einheit, a plaza in Dresden. Two years later, the high school student participated in the popular uprising on June 17, 1953 on the Dresden Altmarkt. He was picked up in his apartment by the secret police at four in the morning the next day. He was held in pre-trial detention for six weeks in a cell with 20 other teenagers. They were released one after the other. Hasso Herschel was the second to last to be released from the cell. He was never brought to trial.

The eighteen year old was expelled from high school and found a job working as a shunter for the railroad company. At the same time he attended night school in order to complete his high school degree. His application to study psychology and political science was rejected. He attained a stipend and found an apartment in West Berlin so that he could apply to study at the university there. After repeating his high school final exams he finally met the requirements to officially study at the German College of Politics in West Berlin.

But just a year later Hasso Herschel was arrested again – while visiting his parents in Dresden. He was accused of violating the “law for the protection of inner-German trade” because he had sold a typewriter, binoculars and a camera in West Berlin. He had been living off the money he had made. Hasso Herschel was sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly committing economic crimes. He was released early, after four and a half years, and returned to Dresden.

Hasso Herschel increasingly distanced himself from the country in which he lived: “I had been exposed to quite a bit: beatings with a lot of blood, terror and all the trimmings. By then I had really had enough of the whole system.” But he wanted to complete his studies and was pleased to be able to live with his parents again after having been separated for four years. When the Wall was erected in 1961 he decided to flee to West Berlin because as a student of the Traffic College he was expected to sign a statement agreeing to volunteer for the East German army. He made a promise with his friends that whoever got out first would help get the others out. On October 21, 1961, Hasso Herschel crossed the border using a Swiss passport that a West Berlin student had gotten for him. He immediately began looking for ways to get his sister and her family out.

Together with other students he dug a tunnel beneath the Wall from factory grounds at Bernauer Strasse 78 to the basement of a building at Schönholzer Strasse 7. It was also his job to organize getting information to the people in East Berlin who were planning to flee. He set the passwords and signals and organized the procedure. On September 14 and 15, 1962, 29 people were able to escape through this tunnel to West Berlin, including his sister, her husband and their young daughter.

That winter the escape agents dug a second tunnel from the same factory basement at Brunnenstrasse 45. When the group broke through to the other side in February 1963, they were distraught to find that they had come out in a light shaft in a backyard. The hole was covered by grating so that the opening was not immediately visible from the backyard. A courier was sent to the east side of the city to see where they had come out. The tunnel builders stopped digging for a while. The couriers informed the people planning to flee of the delay – but they didn’t know that the first arrests had already been made.

Four days later Hasso Herschel risked breaking through to the east side again -- this time into the basement of the building at Brunnenstrasse 45. He tried to gage the situation by looking for a minute through a small hole. When he heard noises and people, he very quietly returned to the tunnel, “then I shot back like a rocket.” The operation had to be called off. The East German secret police were already in the basement. Several couriers and people planning to escape were arrested in East Berlin and sentenced to many years in prison.

Hasso Herschel continued to help many people escape until 1972. He was engaged in professional escape assistance – with converted cars, through the support of diplomats and using long-distance haulage from Hungary to Austria. He now lives in Brandenburg.

Anna von Arnim

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Hasso Herschel 1962

The escape agent Hasso Herschel, 1962, photo: privately owned

ORIGINAL RECORDING

The tunnel opening at Brunnenstrasse 45

From an interview on September 11, 2001, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)