Escape From a Border House on Bernauer Strasse

When she had to pass by the border policemen on her way to school, the ten-year-old Elke Mathern often had chocolate, a pair of nylon stockings, a bit of coffee and sometimes even a Micky Mouse magazine hidden in her school bag. “I learned to be a smuggler early in life,” she recalls. She was scared by the large wall panels and posters in the S-Bahn stations showing photographs of people who had been caught with western money or smuggled goods on them. She almost felt like a criminal.

The Mathern family lived on the side of Bernauer Strasse that belonged to East Berlin. The sector boundary here ran along the front of the buildings where the sidewalk was already part of West Berlin. When Elke Mathern walked out of her apartment building at Bernauer Strasse 11, she had no choice but to step foot into the West. She attended the Max Planck Upper School on Auguststrasse in East Berlin, which is why she had to pass the sector border at least twice a day. During recess the children were only permitted to walk around in a circle in the school yard and they regularly had to line up for roll-call. Elke Mathern didn’t take all the honors and award ceremonies very seriously and she didn’t feel very comfortable in the FDJ, East German youth organization. Although confirmation class was frowned upon, she was confirmed in the St. Elisabeth Church, but also participated in the Jugendweihe, a secular youth initiation ceremony in East Germany.

Nordbahnhof was the closest S-Bahn station to her house. Sometimes it was pretty late and already dark when she walked home from there. On her way home she would pass the Reconciliation Church. The large figure of Jesus with hands giving a blessing over the church door always amazed her. “As a child, I always thought, when I pass through there he will bless me.”

On August 13, 1961 she was with her family at their weekend house in Falkensee. All of a sudden she and her sister were told to finish breakfast quickly and gather their things together. They had to take a lot of detours on their way back to Berlin. The subway line to the Bernauer Strasse stop was not in service anymore so they had to walk towards the border. During an ID check they had to present their identity cards which showed that they lived at Bernauer Strasse 11. They were allowed to return to their apartment and rarely left their home over the next few days because to do so they had to enter West Berlin territory. It was a very disturbing but also exciting time during which little was discussed. Crowds of photographers, reporters, journalists and policemen had gathered on the west side of the street. Her parents were quick to realize that this time the border was not going to be reopened. They watched as the first neighbors fled across the street.

Four days after the border closure, on August 17, 1961, Elke Rosin saw her mother and grandmother pulling open drawers, searching for papers, and packing clothes. She took this opportunity to get rid of her blue FDJ shirt that she had never liked wearing. Sensing that other people were going to come into her apartment, she hung it conspicuously outside her closet. In her excitement, she only got her pet parakeet ready. She had to leave everything else behind. They were still able to exit to the street through the front door, but a short time later the doors were sealed from the inside. Her father remained in the apartment and passed the bags and sacks of clothes out the window. They carried them to the other side of the street. They had to move quickly because they had been warned by neighbors that the police had already entered the back courtyard and were approaching. It was at this moment that Elke Rosin realized just how dangerous the situation was. If her father had left through the front door he would have been caught. So he jumped out the window of the apartment on the elevated ground floor. The border police arrived in the apartment just moments later. The windows and blinds were closed. Together with her parents, sister, grandmother and parakeet, and with the help of other residents, the Mathern family was able to leave Bernauer Strasse. A few days later they watched from the west side of the street as the windows of the apartments on the lower levels of the border houses were sealed up.

Anna von Arnim

View out the window, Elke Rosin with her grandmother, 1960

View out the window, Elke Rosin with her grandmother, 1960, photo: Berlin Wall Memorial

Fleeing from the building at Bernauer 11 to the west side of the street, August 17, 1961

Fleeing from the building at Bernauer 11 to the west side of the street, August 17, 1961, photo: Landesarchiv Berlin

The building with walled-up windows and doors

The building with walled-up windows and doors, photo: Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer


Elke Rosin speaking about her memories of the Reconciliation Church

From an interview on March 9, 2001, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)