Via the East to the West

The East Germans’ Journey to Freedom, Prague

By Knihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Oldřich Krutský

A crowd of refugees in front of the Lobkowicz Palace on Vlašská St. (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

In autumn 1989, Prague was flooded with citizens from the German Democratic Republic. For them, the Czechoslovak capital was to be a transfer station on the journey to freedom, to the western part of their country, whose division was symbolised by the Berlin Wall. One of the main reasons for the sudden growth in the number of refugees was the fear that the GDR would close its borders with Czechoslovakia, the only country East German citizens could enter without a visa, ahead of 40th anniversary celebrations of its foundation.

Chattering crowds full of expectations (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

The doors to the West German Embassy open (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

From the start of August, dozens of GDR citizens were to be found at the West German Embassy in Prague. Their number was growing. And it kept growing. On 23 August, the Foreign Ministry closed the embassy due to overcrowding. For several weeks, around 4,000 people lived in its garden and adjacent streets in makeshift conditions.

Hungaria by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

A woman drinking coffee (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Deliverance from this bleak situation came on 30 September, when, after several rounds of talks with representatives of the GDR, the USSR and Czechoslovakia, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the West German foreign minister, delivered his legendary "balcony speech”: “Dear fellow Germans, we have come to you to tell you that today, your departure…” The rest was drowned out by cheering. The path to the West was free.

Doubts about the future (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

The German Red Cross rushed to help (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

This historic moment spelled the symbolic start of peaceful revolutions in the states of Central and Eastern Europe. For the GDR it ushered in the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, while for Czechoslovakia it became an important impetus towards overthrowing its communist regime with the Velvet Revolution.

Checks by the Czechoslovak National Security Corps (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Among those fleeing are families with small children (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“I photographed the refugees around the last week before their departure. By then there were really a lot of them, in dismal conditions, especially for families with children that remained outside on the street. The weather was miserable – it was close to freezing at night.“

Oldřich Krutský, photographer

Camera lenses capture an historic moment (1989-06) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

One suitcase is enough (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“At that time I was working as a taxi driver so I could stop by there any time. I didn’t stick around too long, so as not to arouse suspicion. I drove through the whole street quickly and took a few photos."

Oldřich Krutský, photographer

Uncertainty and chaos (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

People laid their heads wherever they could (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“I like documentary photography, but I was aware that I could never be a reporter. On top of that, I lack the ability to get sufficiently close to people and at the same time not harm them."

Oldřich Krutský, photographer

Everybody tries to keep themselves occupied (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Among the refugees suspicions of Stasi informers abounded (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“Therefore I didn’t much want to photograph people in a situation like that. One felt embarrassed in front of them. What’s more, I was aware that they were likely to see me as a secret police officer, from one side or the other. There definitely were some there. But it was simply an event that needed to be documented.”

Oldřich Krutský, photographer

How much longer? (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Something hot to eat in what was a rainy September that year (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

A shared feast (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“The exodus continued, here and there panic seized the incoming Germans that the Czechs had put a stop to their departure ... that there were machine guns on the rooftops ... that the Stasi were roaming the streets of Prague along with the StB, dragging off Germans and Czechs ... that the StB was foment-ing hatred among the Czech people against the traitors to communism the same way the Gestapo had fomented hatred among the German people against the vermin of the Reich ...”

Jáchym Topol, novel City Sister Silver, 1994

Field conditions (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

From an Embassy window (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“The Germans, stretching through the streets and across the square, and the Czechs, observing them from windows and balconies, surrounding them down on the sidewalks, silently watching the flight from communism with nowhere to go themselves because this was their only country ... all of them well aware that the whole thing could still be stopped, aware of the force that could cut them off from one another, from that silent contact ...”

Jáchym Topol, novel City Sister Silver, 1994

A view of Vlašská St. (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Revolutionary material (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“When the Germans filled the streets they dragged, slow and sluggish, crews of long-haired boys and girls, holding hands, sometimes, like me and She-Dog, only going somewhere else ... old ladies with purses, parents with little children clutching teddy bears and dolls ... but when the crowd thinned out into smaller groups, alarming reports caught up to them from behind, from all over the city, maybe it was strange vibrations from the Prague train stations, from their homes back there in Dresden, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Gera, Zwickau, from bor-der towns and villages ... where they were hastily packing their last things, jewelry ... food and clothing, and for the last time nervously examining their passports and taking flight, fleeing Big Brother, who seemed to have nodded off for a spell, probably after downing a large bloody nightcap as they picked off another, shot him dead, left him lying there ... by the Wall ... Die Unbekannten.”

Jáchym Topol, novel City Sister Silver, 1994

Victory (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Cooling passions (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

East German luggage heads West (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“But the Monster could awake at any time, refreshed and ready, to dole out punishment ... here and there reports spread that it was over, that they were too late, that they were going in vain, into a trap ... and the clusters of Germans began to move faster, some even sprinting the last hundred, twenty, ten meters, and then it was triumph, a game ...”

Jáchym Topol, novel City Sister Silver, 1994

Crowds of Prague citizens came to express sympathy (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Could it be true? (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Boarding a longed-for bus (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“Forgotten toys lay strewn about the street, a teddy bear with its head twisted off and rubber duckies flung out of the bolshevik pond of the gee-dee-ar onto the cobblestones of Prague, lost in the rush and confusion, no doubt since replaced by that silky-haired slut Barbie ... I saw a skillet and a schoolbag, the square was full of cars, a Trabant with a comforter on the roof lay on its side ...”

Jáchym Topol, novel City Sister Silver, 1994

Unadulterated joy (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Showing off their visas (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

“Leaving behind in the streets of Malá Strana their heavy bags and suitcases, blankets they'd huddled in at night when the embassy was too full, inflatable pillows, propane-butane tanks, all the things they wouldn't need in the West of their dreams ...”

Jáchym Topol, novel City Sister Silver, 1994

Goodbyes (1989-09) by Oldřich KrutskýKnihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

Credits: Story

Photographer: Oldřich Krutský
Curators: Marianna Placáková, Eva Csémyová

© Vaclav Havel Library 2014

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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