Students mark anniversary of last U.S. Cold War border patrol at Point Alpha
April 11, 2012
WIESBADEN, Germany (April 11, 2012) -- After the reunification of Germany, Bernhard Fey stood in front of a large cross made out of birch tree logs and felt sorry for the man the cross memorialized.
The man was said to have died near the site trying to escape from East to West Germany, and Fey, who had tried twice to escape, felt he had a lot in common with him.
It wasn't until later Fey discovered the memorial was for him. U.S. Soldiers at Point Alpha, a former U.S. Army base on the border of East and West Germany, had thought he died after East German border guards had shot him 11 times during one of his escape attempts. Fortunately, they were wrong. Fey had lived.
"He feels to be not a victim of East Germany, but a victor," said Fey through Monika Held, who translated Fey's German into English, at an event March 29 to mark the 22nd anniversary since the last U.S. patrol at the site. "The role of victim he will not play, but the victor he will."
Most of the more than 100 visitors to hear Fey's story that day were German and American high school students who also learned about the division of Germany and discussed German and American stereotypes.
Fey was one of a few people who told their stories during the visit.
James Hamilton, a vice counsel with the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt and a former platoon leader with the 54th Combat Engineer Battalion, served as the temporary officer in charge of Point Alpha in 1986.
At that time, there were between 40 and 60 Soldiers stationed there, Hamilton said, and the post's purpose was to watch the border.
Strategically, Point Alpha was at an important place because it overlooks the Fulda Gap, which officials considered the most likely place an invasion would take place if the Cold War erupted into combat. It was an important place for the Army to watch while keeping military officials in Germany and Washington, D.C., informed.
In the meantime, however, the U.S. Soldiers stationed there had no way of communicating with the East German Soldiers stationed on the other side of the border, Hamilton said.
"It was a very cold relationship," he said.
One misunderstood wave, for example, could have set off an international incident, Hamilton said, so there was no communication at all.
Hamilton said he and the other American Soldiers wondered what the East German Soldiers were thinking, such as whether they wanted to escape or whether they were happy.
"You would have these thoughts as you watched," Hamilton said.
Once, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, then commander of V Corps, visited the post, Hamilton said. He stood in the lookout tower and looked out over the border.
As he did, two East German Soldiers on an old motorcycle drove up to the border and set up a "gigantic" camera, Hamilton said. They took pictures of Powell looking over the border and then left.
Marie-Luise Tröbs brought another perspective to the event. She told a group of students about being 10 years old when East German Soldiers knocked on her family's door one morning in 1961 and told them they had to be out of the house by noon.
The East German government moved the family away from their home in Geisa, which is the town Point Alpha overlooks, and moved them to Ilmenau, located about 60 miles west. She is president of Bunds der Zwangsausgesiedelten, or the Confederation of Forced Resettlers.
Not only did government officials tell her family's neighbors in Geisa that the family moved because they were criminals, they also told people in Ilmenau the same lie, Tröbs said, and that made integration into their new town that much more difficult.
"The family did not know their destiny. They did not know what would happen," Tröbs said. Her father heard at one point that the government might send the family to Siberia, she said.
No one in the family was allowed to say goodbye, Tröbs said, and when Tröbs did slip away to say goodbye to her teacher, her teacher did not know what to say to her.
Along the whole border, the government made 12,000 people move away from the border, Tröbs said.
Fey also gave more details at the event about his second escape attempt, which took place on Christmas Eve 1975.
On that night, Fey and a friend tried to cross the border, but at the last wall, as he tried to boost his friend over the wall, a guard shot him 11 times, Fey said.
He was so severely injured he could not move, and Fey laughed when he recalled that an East German Soldier pointed his gun at him as he lay bleeding on the ground and told him not to go anywhere. There was no way he could escape, even if he tried.
Fey fainted a few times, but was aware that several vehicles passed by. U.S. Soldiers could see what was happening, but could not do anything.
The East Germans took him to a hospital, where he eventually recovered, Fey said. After that, East Germany imprisoned him in the Cottbus prison for a year and seven months.
When Fey got out of prison, he was not allowed to live anywhere near the border, he said, and he and his family had to live well within the border. On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and German reunification followed in the years to come.
Fey heard about a man who had died by automatic firing devices while trying to cross the border near Point Alpha, and he wanted to visit the site. He considered himself lucky; he only had 11 injuries.
That's when Fey visited the cross.
Over time, Fey learned more details about the man and eventually came to the conclusion that U.S. Soldiers, who had no way of knowing his fate after the East Germans took him away that night, thought he had died.
Sarah Griffith, a sophomore at Wiesbaden High School, said she learned a lot at the event.
It was particularly interesting to hear Hamilton's story about not being able to so much as wave to the East German Soldiers, Griffith said.
Justin Jones, a sophomore at Wiesbaden High School, said he also learned a lot at the event, and Fey's story left a big impression on him.
Also, Hamilton's talk about not being able to communicate with the East German Soldiers, particularly struck him, Jones said.
"I think this is overall a great experience," Jones said.