Incredible story of Tunnel 29 and the students who went back under Berlin Wall

Joachim Rudolph escaped to West Berlin - but tunnelled back under the Berlin to save 29 others (Picture: BBC)
Joachim Rudolph escaped to West Berlin – but tunnelled back under the Berlin to save 29 others (Picture: BBC)

It’s hard to imagine the courage it took to flea East Germany – a brutal dictatorship that divided Berlin by bricks and barbed wire for decades.

It’s even harder to imagine why anyone who escaped would risk their life by going back in again.

But that’s exactly the choice Joachim Rudolph made after arriving in West Berlin in 1961.

Tunnel 29 is the extraordinary true story of a group of students and refugees who dug a tunnel right under the feet of Berlin Wall border guards to help friends, family and even strangers escape.

It’s also the story of how American TV channel NBC funded it in return for exclusive filming rights.

The forgotten tale has been brought to life on a BBC Radio 4 Podcast to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall today.

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But producer Helen Merriman didn’t set out to make a history podcast.

BBC producer Helena Merriman interviewed survivors of the Tunnel 29 project ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (Picture: BBC)
BBC producer Helena Merriman interviewed survivors of the Tunnel 29 project ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (Picture: BBC)

‘The idea came to me about a year ago’ she told Metro.co.uk

‘I didn’t set out to make a history podcast. It was the context of doing research about Donald Trump and the wall he has proposed, and in the context of that I discovered that there are all these other walls being built right now. One third of countries actually have some kind of wall or barrier.

‘I was interested in looking not so much at the politics,but also just the practical side of things. What happens to a city when you build a wall overnight?

‘The other thing I discovered quite soon, wherever you build a wall, you will have people who will try to escape and find ways round them.

‘I thought this was quite a clever way of looking at the contemporary theme of walls and barriers, but through the lens of an escape story.

‘That’s how I came across Joachim’s story.’

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett/REX (10293030a) West Berliners in the French sector waved to friends and relatives in East Berlin. At Bernauer Strasse they used small ladders, lampposts, and bricks to get a better view across the Berlin Wall. Eventually the East German VOPOS (Peoples Police) tossed tear gas grenades over the border barrier to break up the gathering. Sept. 13, 1961. Historical Collection
West Berliners waved to friends and relatives in East Berlin after the Berlin Wall went up overnight in 1961 (Picture: Rex Features)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett/REX (10293355a) West Berlin policeman stands before the concrete block wall dividing East and West Berlin. Along Bernauer Strasse, East Berlin workmen add blocks to increase height of the barrier. Oct. 11, 1961. Historical Collection
The wall was built to stop people leaving East Germany for a better life in the west (Picture: Rex Features)
(Eingeschr??nkte Rechte f??r bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) Escapes and escape attempts from East Germany 29 people fled to West Berlin through this tunnel - (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Joachim Rudolph and a group of friends built this tunnel right under the Berlin Wall (Picture: ullstein bild)

Tunnel29 is told through the eyes of Joachim Rudolph, an engineer student who crawled through a field in the middle of the night to make it into the West aged 22.

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His success story was a rare one.  People jumped over barbed wire, swam across the River Spree in bathtubs with their babies and threw themselves out of houses at the border in the hope someone would catch them on the other side.

The risks of escaping were huge – yet just months into his new life of freedom, Joachim, now approaching 80, agreed to help two students who came knocking on his door asking for help in building a tunnel back in.

Merriman, who spent over a week  interviewing Joachim for the podcast, said: ‘There are so many times when I said to him, this is just extraordinary what you did. There were so many moments when he could have just said no.

‘Why would someone risk everything to dig back into a dictatorship they have just escaped from?

‘I would say to him, why did you keep on going? And he would say, ‘well, why would I stop?’ He was extremely humble. I don’t get the impression he thinks he did anything significant. ‘

(GERMANY OUT) Germany, Berlin: part of the tunnel 29 from East Berlin (GDR)cellar at Sch??nholzer Strasse 7 to West Berlin Bernauer Strasse 78 (Photo by Lehnartz/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Part of the tunnel 29 from East Berlin (Picture: ullstein bild)
(Eingeschr??nkte Rechte f??r bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) Escapes and escape attempts from East Germany 29 people fled to West Berlin through this tunnel - (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Joachim escaped East Berlin before tunnelling back in to help others (Picutre: ullstein bild)
This picture shows a map of the tunnels stretching from East to West Berlin (Picture: BBC)
This picture shows a map of the escape tunnels stretching from East to West Berlin (Picture: BBC)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by OMER MESSINGER/EPA-EFE/REX (10468545h) A visitor looks at the path of an escape tunnel on a map during an opening ceremony at an escape tunnel in Brunnenstrasse 143 leading from former East to West Berlin, in Berlin, Germany 07 November 2019. Berliner Unterwelten e.V. opens a visitor tunnel that provides an insight into an original escape tunnel on Bernauer Strasse. Since September 2017, around 189 cubic meters (334 tons) of marl soil were excavated to build a tunnel for guests on the tour 'M - Underground into freedom', which leads to an original escape tunnel from 1970/71. Berlin Wall era escape tunnel opened to the public, Germany - 07 Nov 2019
At least 75 escape tunnels were built under the Berlin wall, but few were successful (Picture:Rex Features)

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could listen to Tunnel 29 without realising the significance of Joachim’s bravery.

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He and his friends spent eight hours a day building a tunnel under the so-called ‘death-strip’, where they were so close to East German border guards they could hear them talking.

Their first tunnel flooded, their second one was betrayed by a Stasi (secret police) informant – and yet they still managed to save 29 people from a brutal regime.

‘I think the thing that I took away from it most is just the extraordinary heroism you get from ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations’ Merriman said.

‘There were stories of other tunnelers who did not make it, who were buried by earth, who were discovered by the Stasi (secret police) and shot.

‘The tunnelers knew about these stories – they knew that at any moment it could go wrong and yet they carried on, the bravery of these people was just extraordinary.’

‘This was their lives, they lived through this. All I wanted was that people would understand what it was like for those people, and their heroism, even if they don’t see it that way.’

Eveline Rudolph with daughter (Picture: BBC)
Eveline Rudolph escaped under the tunnel Joachaim built with daughter Annette (Picture: BBC)
Eveline later married Joachim in their new life in the west (Picture: BBC supplied to metro.co.uk)
Eveline later married Joachim in their new life in the west (Picture: BBC)
Wolfdieter Sternheimer was arrested after the first tunnel plot was foiled by secret police. He wanted to save wife Renate who was trapped in East Berlin Picture: BBC
Wolfdieter Sternheimer was arrested after the first tunnel plot was foiled by secret police. He wanted to save wife Renate who was trapped in East Berlin (Picture: BBC)

About 40 people were involved in building the tunnel under the Berlin Wall.

But unlike the other plotters, Joachim had no connection to the East Germans they saved (although he later married one).

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Having spent most of his life where everything down to his toilet breaks were controlled, he struggled to adapt to the freedom in the West.

Tunnel 29 is based on 2,400 Stasi documents and interviews with survivors – but it feels more like a pyscological thriller than a history podcast  – which is exactly what Merriman was going for.

Helena Merriman Berlin Wall podcast has a contemporary resonance with to days political climate Picture: BBC)
Helena Merriman Berlin Wall podcast has a contemporary resonance with to days political climate (Picture: BBC)
Tunnel 29 was released ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9 1989 Picture: The Image Bank
Tunnel 29 was released ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9 1989 (Picture: The Image Bank)
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and divided communist East Germany from the capitalist West (Picture: Getty Images)
Two West German policemen prevent people from approaching as East German Vopos stand on and near a fallen portion of the Berlin Wall 11 November 1989. Two days before, Gunter Schabowski, the East Berlin Communist party boss, declared that starting from midnight, East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border, including the crossing-points through the Wall in Berlin. The Berlin concrete wall was built by the East German government in August 1961 to seal off East Berlin from the part of the city occupied by the three main Western powers to prevent mass illegal immigration to the West. According to the "August 13 Association" which specialises in the history of the Berlin Wall, at least 938 people - 255 in Berlin alone - died, shot by East German border guards, attempting to flee to West Berlin or West Germany. AFP PHOTO GERERAD MALIE (Photo by GERARD MALIE / AFP) (Photo credit should read GERARD MALIE/AFP via Getty Images)
It was heavily guarded for almost 30 years before it came crashing down. But there are still m,any walls around the word aFP

She said: ‘Even when I made it, it didn’t feel like a history story. It feels like it could be an escape story of any wall that’s up today.

It’s a refugee story, so there’s a contemporary resonance of someone living in a country that makes life difficult and finding it hard to make sense of the new place you arrive in.

‘Anyone could be born in a county or city where a wall is suddenly built in front of you. For me that’s a real question, what would you do?’.

All ten episodes of Tunnel 29 are available now on BBC Sounds.

 

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