We didn’t Want to be Locked Up

Dr. Renate Werwigk-Schneider was 23 years old and had almost completed her degree in medicine at the Humboldt University in Berlin when the border in Berlin was sealed off between the East and West on August 13, 1961. Her father helped her brother flee to West Berlin from the southern edge of the city on New Year’s Eve 1963. Once in the West, her brother began to ask around about a way to get his older sister and parents out. One day they received an ambiguous message suggesting that something was going to happen. They remained in standby mode for almost half a year, waiting for further information. Meanwhile, in an old factory on the west side of Bernauer Strasse, students were digging a tunnel to Brunnenstrasse 45 in the East.

When the tunnel was finished and the escape operation was about to begin, Renate Werwigk-Schneider and her parents drove in their old VW to Wilhelm-Pieck-Strasse near the border. They were supposed to walk from there to Brunnenstrasse 45, enter the basement and identify themselves with a password. But when they didn’t receive an answer to the agreed upon password, they reluctantly left. When they reached the car they were shocked to find a sign on it advertising a cosmetics shop. The sign had been placed there by escape agents. They had concealed within the advertisement brochure the site of the escape so that others intending to flee could find it. They had been told where the car was parked and were supposed to go to house number 45 on the street that was encoded on the sign. Her father was anxious, he tore the sign up and drove back home with his wife and daughter. Four days later they were again informed that the escape operation was now really going to begin. But when they reached Berlin they received the news that the tunnel had been betrayed.

Two days later, in February 1963, Renate Werwigk-Schneider’s father was arrested at a gas station. She was arrested at home and brought to the pre-trial detention prison in Potsdam. From there she was transported to the MfS remand prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. A group of interrogators from the East German State Security Service tried to learn details about the planned escape. The investigation began with statements that had been forced from the couriers who had already been arrested.

Renate Werwigk-Schneider was found guilty of attempting to escape by the Rostock district court and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Her father received three years and her mother one year. After the trial Renate Werwigk-Schneider was transferred to the Frankfurt/Oder penitentiary where she had to work as a prison doctor.

After she was released from prison in summer 1965, she worked as a medical assistant and acquired the further qualification as a medical specialist in the children’s clinic in Rangsdorf. Two years later she sought out the attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who served as the East German mediator in the negotiations to have prisoners released for payment by the West German government. With the help of her friend, she risked escaping a second time. She was arrested with a fake passport in Bulgaria on the Turkish border and held in a state prison in Sofia. On the basis of an agreement between East Germany and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, she was flown to East Germany and transferred once again to Hohenschönhausen. In December 1967 the court in Potsdam sentenced her to another three and a half years in prison. A year later her release was purchased by the Federal Republic of Germany. The terms of the border transfer between Bebra and Wartha had been regulated by the East German attorney Vogel and the West Berlin attorney Stange. They handed her a large bouquet of flowers sent from her parents and several documents, files and papers. Renate Werwigk-Schneider recalled that “afterwards they were carrying a briefcase full of cash. Suddenly a black Mercedes from the West German government drove up with four men in black suits. It was picture-perfect. I had to walk back and forth until they said ‘it’s her.’ Then the briefcase with the money in it changed hands.” She was allowed to visit her parents in East Berlin for the first time two years later.

On November 9, 1989, Renate Werwigk-Schneider heard the news on television that the Wall had fallen. A short time later friends and acquaintances from Treptow and Prenzlauer Berg were at her door. A total of eight or nine people spent the night at her home that night. They watched television together and ate pizza. The next day she joyfully attended the special concert of the West Berlin conductor Daniel Barenboim that was held spontaneously in the Philharmonic concert hall for the East Germans.

Anna von Arnim

Dr. Renate Werwigk-Schneider

Dr. Renate Werwigk-Schneider, photo: privately owned


Failed escape attempt through the tunnel on Brunnenstrasse

Report on the release from prison, paid for by West Germany

From an interview on October 18, 2000, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)