Curiosity is a highly underrated virtue. Especially in a city like Berlin, where curiosity–along with an observant eye–is frequently rewarded by an unending array of things to discover. Amazing things, beautiful things, tragic things–or oftentimes, a combination of all three.

The memorial plaque at Heidelberger Str. 35.

The memorial plaque outside Heidelberger Str. 35.

On a recent meandering walk through one of my favourite neighbourhoods for just that kind of thing, my curious, roving eyes were rewarded with the discovery of a memorial plaque commemorating some of the most successful Berlin Wall escape tunnels. I’d known that this neighbourhood–where Alt Treptow, the former East, meets the border of Neukölln, the former West–had been haphazardly cleaved in two by the Wall, but I had no idea that the unassuming Heidelberger Straße was the site of many dramatic escapes.

Jercha; Stasi archives.

Jercha; Stasi archives.

The plaque is dedicated to tunnel builder Heinz Jercha, who died in 1962 after being shot by Stasi police who had discovered the escape plot. He managed to crawl back through the tunnel while bleeding from a single gunshot wound but died back on the West side, leaving behind a wife and child. Jercha, 27 when he died, was a former East Berliner who had managed to flee to the West. Together with a friend, he dug at least two tunnels in Heidelberger Straße.

Google later told me that Neukölln had the most escape tunnels in all of Berlin. This map shows exactly where they were located–12 in total. According to the memorial plaque, more than 100 East Berliners were able to escape to the West via these Treptow-to-Neukölln tunnels. The Berliner Unterwelten organization once offered tours of the basement of Heidelberger Str. 35 and the remains of the tunnel, but sadly, it doesn’t seem to do so anymore. For photos of one such tour last year, click here.

Left: Heidelberger Straße in 1961. Right: The entrance to the tunnel where Jercha died. Photos from police archives.

Left: Heidelberger Straße in 1961. Right: The entrance to the tunnel where Jercha died.
Photos from police archives.

It’s a testament to just how richly complex Berlin Wall-era history is that an incredible site like this can go largely unknown. The Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Center (well worth a visit, by the way) is in Prenzlauer Berg on Bernauer Straße, another street that was split down the middle by the Wall and the site of some harrowing escapes, but it could well have been built on Heidelberger Straße. I see the neighbourhood through different eyes now.

Fluchttunnel

The area today: the Wall is gone; the legacy remains.

The area today: the Wall is gone; the legacy remains.