Turn Your Back on this State

Joachim Neumann was born in Friedrichshain in 1939 and grew up in Berlin. He moved to Cottbus to study civil engineering. When the students had to partake in marching and shooting, he would regularly play hooky. After the Wall was built, when he and his fellow students had to sign a document agreeing to defend the state using weapons at any time, he began to think more seriously about fleeing to the West. Carrying Swiss paraphernalia including a movie ticket, change and transportation tickets, he was able, with the help of West Berlin students, to flee through the Friedrichstrasse station in December 1961. With his dyed blond hair he looked a lot like the young man in the passport picture, but if he had had to speak with a Swiss dialect at the checkpoint, he would have given himself away. He continued his studies in West Berlin at the Technical University and sought contact with escape agents. They wanted to work together to help relatives and friends flee to the West. Over the next few years Joachim Neumann tried to help his girlfriend escape.

He first participated in excavation work for a project known as Tunnel 29. In April 1962 they began working in groups of four or five in day and night shifts. When the tunnel was almost 40 meters long, water suddenly leaked in. Efforts to pump the water out failed. They assumed that a pipe must have burst and reported it to the public works agency – the pipe was repaired in a short time. The success of the operation was later threatened by other water leaks on the east side of the city. This led them to move up the date for the opening, which meant ending the tunnel beneath Schönholzer Strasse. Unfortunately Joachim Neumann’s girlfriend was on vacation at the time and he was unable to inform her of the earlier date. Twenty-nine people were able to escape on September 14/15.

A short time later the group began working on another tunnel. They reached the basement of Brunnenstrasse 45 in February 1963. When they opened the tunnel the East German secret police agents were waiting in the basement. Several people were arrested in East Berlin, including Joachim Neumann’s girlfriend. After being held in a remand prison for eight months, she was sentenced to two years in prison. His mother was imprisoned for two years for allegedly encouraging escape from the republic.

Joachim Neumann had to focus on his studies, but he didn’t want to stop assisting in other escape projects. He participated in other excavation operations, from a bakery at Bernauer Strasse 97 to Strelitzer Strasse 54. The tunnel ended unexpectedly at a coal storage area instead of in a basement. This meant that the tunnel opening was in clear view and too dangerous to use for an escape operation. But three women succeeded in using this tunnel to escape to West Berlin because the courier, who was supposed to inform them that the operation had been cancelled, hadn’t reached them in time. The next day the escape agents were discussing how they should proceed when a large bang was suddenly heard from within the tunnel and a powerful blast hurled them backward. Someone on the East Berlin side had thrown an explosive with tear gas into the tunnel.

Joachim Neumann’s girlfriend was still in prison which is why he stayed in contact with the group that was planning escape operations. He helped again from April to October 1964 on a tunnel that ran from Bernauer Strasse to Strelitzer Strasse 55 and later became famous as “Tunnel 57.” The escape operation was supposed to begin on October 3, 1964. But Joachim Neumann had to take an exam that day. When he returned to his apartment, he found a letter from his girlfriend. She wrote that she had been released early from prison and was back in Berlin. Joachim Neumann had to be at the opening to the tunnel in three hours and wasn’t able to find a courier on such short notice. He asked his friend to help and rushed to Bernauer Strasse. It was his job to greet the people escaping on the East Berlin side. It was quite late when his girlfriend appeared before him. She was one of 57 people who were able to escape through this tunnel during the course of two nights.

Joachim Neumann and his girlfriend married in 1965. Finally, he was able to think about his professional career. He worked in transportation construction in a supervisory position and planned sixty tunnels as a civil engineer specialist. His biggest project was the tunnel beneath the British Channel.

Anna von Arnim

Joachim und Christa Neumann 1965

Joachim and Christa Neumann 1965, photo: privately owned


Joachim Neumann speaking about the tunnel at the coal storage area

The “Tunnel 57” and his wife’s escape

From an interview on May 8 and 10, 2001, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)


Thomas Henseler / Susanne Buddenberg: Tunnel 57 - A True Escape-Story (comic)
Berlin 2013, Ch. Links Verlag