8 Creative Ways People Went Over the Berlin Wall

zodebala, istock unreleased
zodebala, istock unreleased

Although the East German government fortified the barrier with everything from watchtowers to guard dogs to beds of nails, a few people managed to slip over the border in amazing ways.

1. On a Tightrope

East German acrobat Horst Klein made one of the most daring escapes over the wall in early 1963. Thanks to his acrobatic skill, Klein was able to turn an unused high-tension cable that stretched over the wall into his route. He moved hand-over-hand while dangling from the cable 60 feet over the head of patrolling guards, then when his arms became fatigued, he swung his whole body up over the cable and inched his way along. Klein’s dismount wasn’t particularly graceful – he fell off of the cable – but he landed in West Berlin.

2. Down a Zip Line

On March 31, 1983, friends Michael Becker and Holger Bethke took Klein’s idea one step further by letting gravity do the heavy lifting for them. The pair climbed to the attic of a five-story building on the eastern side of the wall and fired an arrow tied to a thin fishing line over a building in West Berlin. An accomplice grabbed the arrow and reeled in the line, which was connected to a slightly heavier fishing line, then to a quarter-inch steel cable. Once the steel cable was attached to a chimney on the western side of the wall, Becker and Bethke zipped across the quarter-inch cable using wooden pulleys.

3. Without a Windshield

When Austrian lathe operator Heinz Meixner pulled up to Checkpoint Charlie on May 5, 1963, something must have seemed odd about his red Austin Healey Sprite convertible. Namely, it was missing its windshield. (A closer inspection would also have revealed that his mother was hiding in the trunk.) When the East German guard directed Meixner to pull over to a customs shed, Meixner instead floored the accelerator and ducked. His tiny car slipped right under the three-foot-high barrier dividing the East from the West.

4. With a Passport from Hef

A 1986 Los Angeles Times piece by Gordon E. Rowley described Meixner’s driving escape, but it also detailed a decidedly low-tech method of crossing the border. According to Rowley, some border crossers simply approached the guards and flashed their membership cards for Munich’s Playboy Club. The cards so closely resembled diplomatic passports that the guards often waved them through.

5. On a Speeding Train

These clever escapes all worked, but in the wall’s early days, brute force was an option, too. In December 1961, a 27-year-old train engine driver named Harry Deterling piloted what he dubbed “the last train to freedom” across the border. Instead of slowing down his passenger train as it approached the fortifications, Deterling throttled it up to full speed and ripped through the wall.

The train skidded to a stop in West Berlin’s Spandau borough, allowing Deterling, seven members of his family, and 16 other people aboard the train to remain in the West. The train’s engineer and six other passengers chose to return to East Germany.

6. In a Hot Air Balloon

The escape orchestrated by Hans Strelczyk and Gunter Wetzel in 1979 sounds like it came straight out of a comic book. Strelczyk, a mechanic, and Wetzel, a mason, used their mechanical know-how to build a hot air balloon engine out of old propane cylinders. Their wives then pieced together a makeshift balloon from scraps of canvas and old bed sheets, and on September 16, 1979, the two couples, along with their four children, floated up to 8,000 feet and drifted over the wall to freedom.

7. In a Well-Aged Tunnel

In May 1962, a dozen people escaped from the East by way of Der Seniorentunnel, otherwise known as “the Senior Citizens’ Tunnel.” Led by an 81-year-old man, a group of senior citizens had spent 16 days digging a 160-foot-long and 6-foot-tall tunnel from an East German chicken coop all the way to the other side of the wall. According to one of the diggers, the tunnel was so tall because the old men wanted “to walk to freedom with our wives, comfortably and unbowed.”

8. In a Uniform

Movies tend to portray East German border guards as soulless automatons who were dead-set on keeping everyone on their side of the wall, but many of the guards were just as desperate to escape as their fellow East Germans. One perk of being a border guard was that a soldier could simply wander over the border to freedom, and a lot of them did. Over 1,300 made the jump in the first two years of the wall’s existence.

The most famous of these escapes was made by 19-year-old guard Conrad Schumann on August 15, 1961, just the third day of the wall’s construction. Since the “wall” was really just piles of barbed wire at that point, Schumann jumped over the wire in his uniform while toting his machine gun. A photographer caught Schumann’s flying leap, and the jump to freedom became an iconic Cold War image. Schumann eventually settled in the southwestern state of Bavaria and worked as a machine operator. He committed suicide in 1998.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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