East Germany, Tunnel 29 and no toilet paper

This is not Tunnel 29. The original YouTube video here has been taken offline and this is the only image I had on file of a tunnel!

A couple of years ago, I listened to a fascinating BBC podcast called Tunnel 29.

Broadcast thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in this podcast producer and presenter Helena Merriman tells the extraordinary true story of a man who dug a tunnel from West Berlin into the East to help friends, family and strangers escape.

The Berlin Wall fell two days before my 18th birthday. I had only just started university at St Andrews. At the time, I recognised the significance of this monumental event, but I understood little of the history of East and West Germany.

I had met a group of East German youngsters a few years before. They had been guests of my half-German parish priest, the youth group of a church run by Fr Kevin’s friend in East Germany. None of them spoke English; we didn’t speak German.

A few weeks before the group arrived, my mum had subtly dropped a German phrasebook onto the desk in my bedroom and gently encouraged me to learn a few key phrases to help make these German youngsters feel welcomed. I did my best and amidst my awkward teenage smiles and nods, I muttered a few welcoming and affirming phrases in my beginner’s German.

On the Saturday, our church youth group (suitably named The Mob) took the group for a hike across the Minch Moor, between Selkirk and Innerleithen. It snowed. In July. Welcome to Scotland! They wondered what we’d led them into. I have a vivid memory of us back at Broadmeadows Youth Hostel, warming ourselves around a roaring fire with my Dr Martin’s boots steaming on the hearth.

The following morning we welcomed the youth group to our Sunday Eucharist at church and later to lunch in our nearly-dilapidated church hall. Nobody had checked the hall—there was no toilet paper.

Which is when my mum’s foresight at encouraging me to learn some basic German phrases won the day.

I strode confidently into the middle of the hall, cleared my throat, raised my arms dramatically and said loudly, “Verzeihung! Es gibt kein Toilettenpapier.”

“Excuse me! There is no toilet paper.”

Two Christmases ago, I received a copy of the book The Tunnels: The true story of Tunnel 29 and the daring escapes under the Berlin Wall by Greg Mitchell. Over the last couple of years, it has slowly crept along my to-read shelf until I started reading it earlier this month.

This prompted me to revisit the podcast—ten episodes of around 15 minutes. I’d forgotten some of the key details, but one that I had missed was that this remarkable escape had been filmed by an American news crew from NBC. Produced by Reuven Frank and narrated by Piers Anderton, the documentary tells the story of the escape effort—the dig, the journeys into East Germany to pass on information and finally to give the final signal that everything was ready.

There was a documentary about it?!

I searched YouTube and to my delight, the full film, The Tunnel 1962, was available. (Sadly, since I originally posted this, the video has been taken down due to copyright infringement.) Compared with our modern 24-hour news rotations and reality TV, it looks and sounds dated, but this documentary changed television.

In 1963, The Tunnel earned three Emmy Awards. It was the only documentary to receive The Program of the Year award. It was also honoured for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Documentary (awarded to Reuven Frank) and Outstanding Achievement in International Reporting (awarded to Piers Anderton).

I wish now that I had known more about the world that these young East Germans were living in when they visited Selkirk in the mid-1980s, only a few years before their way of life changed forever and Germany was once again united. I wish that I had learned a little more German, or that I had been able to ask them of their experiences. But at the end of the day, I am still proud that I was able to stand in the middle of that hall of friends, family and strangers and confidently (if not proudly) announce in a language that was not my own that we were completely out of bog roll.

Speaking of paper, back to the book … the digging hasn’t started yet. We’ve got a long way to go still.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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