Source: Smithsonian

This week in History: 57 People Escape East Berlin Through Secret Tunnel

Although many of us are old enough to remember when the wall in East Berlin was still in place and the whole of East Germany was controlled by the former Soviet Union, it feels so long ago that it almost seems unreal.

In my own childhood, I remember movies and stories about great escapes in Germany as people tried to flee from East Germany to West Germany, which was controlled by the UK, US and France.  

One story in particular caught international attention, in the first week of October of 1964, 57 East German refugees were able to escape through a tunnel dug by a group of students and others from West Germany.  This was the largest and most successful tunnel escape during this era. The tunnel, which according to a wonderful article in the Smithsonian, took five months to dig, started in an abandoned bakery in West Berlin and surfaced in an abandoned apartment building on StreilizerStrasse in East Berlin.

Source: Smithsonian
Source: Smithsonian

Refugees who traversed this 400 meter underground road to freedom had to successfully share a passcode at the entrance to the apartment building. One of the escapees, Hans-Joachim Tilleman, recounted his experience to the Smithsonian. “We didn’t see a light, so we continued to the building,” he said. “There were some people inside, and we told them ‘Tokyo’ and they let us into the hallway where we took off our shoes and tiptoed to the inner courtyard. In a little outhouse in the back, they let us down a shaft, and we crawled through.”

On October 5, 1964, the tunnel was discovered by soldiers and during the ensuing scuffle, an East German corporal, Egon Schultz, was killed by gunfire.  According to a New York Times article written at the time, “The East German Defense Ministry charged, in a statement issued by the press service ADN, that agents and murderers had penetrated into East Berlin from ‘the NATO base of West Berlin’ and that one of these ‘armed bandits’ killed the corporal.”

A different New York Times article, published in 2001, clarified that in 1994, the Berlin district attorney’s office re-investigated the shooting of Egon Schultz, and found that he had been accidentally shot by another East German soldier.

In that same New York Times article from 2001, one of the West German diggers, Wolfgang Fuchs, who worked tireless to free East Germans in several less successful tunnel escapes, said of Tunnel 57, “’The marks of their knee prints in the tunnel floor looked like the ripples on a beach left behind by the receding tide. ‘I will never forget that. That is beautiful.”

To learn more about the Tunnel 57 escape, visit these resources:

The Great Fire of London: Fire and Pandemic, Sound Familiar?

September marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666.  This fire, which destroyed the homes of an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people, raged for nearly five days.

Now, 1666 seems so very, very long ago, but the circumstances surrounding this moment in history are very familiar.  The world had been through a massive pandemic, the Bubonic Plague, in 1665, just the year before, and much of the destructiveness of the fire was blamed on a hesitant and weak politician and foreign actors.

The Great Fire of London, 1666, By Unknown artist , Source:, Public Domain,

That all sounds familiar, right?  We have a pandemic and massive wildfires happening in 2021 and we have our fair share of political problems and blaming.  The one thing history will definitely teach you is that the way humans react to the forces of nature and other crises is fairly similar throughout the generations.

The Great Fire of London started on a Sunday in a bakery on Pudding Lane.  There are many possibilities for how the fire actually got started, but the fact that it spread so far and so wide throughout the city had to do with a couple of different issues.

The first was the architecture and city planning in London at the time. Fire was an issue that people were aware and cognizant of, and even though building with wood and thatch had been largely outlawed, the poorer parts of the city still used these more inexpensive materials as well as something even worse, tar paper, to construct their homes.  

And just like the urban infill building practices that we see today, the city was so crowded that people back then started building vertically with the higher floors being wider than the bottom floors, so much so, that the upper floors of buildings might protrude so far as to nearly touch or kiss the neighboring buildings across the street. There were also houses built directly on the London Bridge, which is interesting and amazing.  I would have loved to have seen that.

This overcrowding, combined with a long, hot, dry summer previously, and a Lord Mayor that was hesitant to act made London a veritable death trap. There were also many foundries, glaziers and other businesses with combustible materials, and to make matters worse, the population had an excess of gun powder, often in private homes, left over from the English Civil War.

The people that suffered the most, not unlike today, were the poorest.  The aristocracy had fled to their country homes during the pandemic (also sound familiar?) to avoid catching the Bubonic plague, and so crowded living conditions were deadly both in terms of health, but also destruction by fire.

Example of the use of fire hooks from 1612, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was an ineffective politician who waited way too long to give the order to start pulling down houses.  During this time in history, they had some rudimentary ways of pumping water to fires, but the streets were so crowded and the fire was moving so fast that this was not an option.  What would have worked, is a fire fighting method that involved using hooks and other tools to literally bring a house down. I am including a picture of this practice.  It was helpful in that it created a “firebreak” or a way to stop the fire.

The Great Fire of London raged on for days and while there are few accounts of deaths, we don’t know if all of those killed- especially the poorer folk- were accounted for.  We do know that camps had to be set up for the survivors.

While King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York eventually overrode the authority Lord Mayor of London and worked hard to pull houses down and fight the fire, the final ending did not come until the fire began approaching the Tower of London on Tuesday where a garrison used gunpowder to blow up houses quickly and stop the forward progression of the fire. By the end of the day on Wednesday, four days after the fire started the previous Sunday, the fire was officially over and London was devastated.

Samuel Pepys, an author and politician, who kept a diary at the time wrote that it was, “…the saddest sigh of desolation that I ever saw.”

In addition to blaming Sir Thomas Bloodworth, many people also blamed the Catholics and foreigners and even spread rumors about the fires being part of an invasion attempt.  I guess fake news is not a new thing!

Monument to the Great Fire of London, Source: Jordiferrer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It took a long time to rebuild the great city of London, but if there is one bright note to this tragic event, some historians believe that the Great Fire paved the way for better and more sanitary building standards in London and issued in a greater focus on new fire fighting methods like creating fire fighting brigades.

There is a monument that was built to remember the property and lives lost in the Great Fire, if you travel to London, you can see it today on Fish St. Hill.

To learn more about the Great Fire of London, please visit these resources:

Gaudí’s Grandeur: The Breathtaking Beauty of the Basílica de la Sagrada Família

Spain is not easily attached to a European tour.  It is out of the way and therefore, if you go there, it must be the destination unto itself.  It was this out of the wayness that had kept me from it all of these years, until a fortuitous business trip corrected the situation. And once there, I immediately regretted not having prioritized a visit sooner.

Barcelona itself is a dream.  The topography, the architecture, the food…all of it are just amazing.  I could write 1,000 blogs on that topic alone.

But experiencing the genius and magic of famed architect, Antoni Gaudí, is an entirely separate subject and what brings us together today. Of course, when I think of Gaudí, I think of the word “gaudy,” which was termed from his work and means “excessively showy.”  And his buildings are just that.  The term is correct, but in my world, we apply that word to mean “too much” or “tacky” and the real structures designed by Antoni Gaudí are certainly not tacky and definitely not too much.

The thing that makes his excessiveness so beautiful, the thing that makes it work…is that he draws all of his inspiration from nature.  Every bit of the immense Basílica de la Sagrada Família is an ode to nature and God. The interior columns are trees.  Ornately carved leaves and vines crawl up the outer doors.  The intense colors in the stained glass windows correlate to the colors of nature.  It’s like the Garden of Eden in stone, wood and glass. Gaudí himself famously said, “Nothing is art if it does not come from nature.”

It’s like the Garden of Eden in stone, wood and glass.

Gaudí took over as chief architect of the cathedral in 1883 from architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, who had begun the work in 1882.  Gaudí’s efforts on the project consumed his life and went very slowly.  He worked on it until his death in 1926 and was still only 25% finished.  Using Gaudí’s plans, construction on the cathedral continues to this day and is projected to finally finish in 2026.  Throughout la Sagrada Família, there is a mixture of old and new…100 year old stone laid next to new sculpture.

In remarking on the slowness of the construction, Gaudí said, “My client is not in a hurry.”

I often wonder about how Gaudí would feel about the use of computers and modern technology in the construction.  I think he would have loved the potential it opened up and the allowances it provides for the sort of detailed work he loved.

Gaudí was a Catalan by birth and a major figure in the Modernista art movement.  He was heavily influenced by the Gothic era.  If you travel to Barcelona, you can not only visit la Sagrada Família, but also, he has several incredible homes that he designed in town.

Gaudí, who never married or had children, had the look of a sophisticated architect in his youth, but as he aged and his obsession with la Sagrada Família intensified, he let his appearance go and was often mistaken for a beggar.  He was struck by a bus on June 7, 1926, and it was days before anyone even knew  that the man who had been hit was Gaudí.

He is buried in the crypt at la Sagrada Família in the middle of his life’s work.  When asked about how it felt to know that some future generation would finish his cathedral, he said, “There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church. I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.”

Here are a few resources to help you learn more about la Sagrada Família and Gaudí: