Policeman and Wall Detonator

The life and work of Hans-Joachim Lazai completely changed on August 13, 1961. Although the West Berlin police officer of the Wedding district police squad had the day off that Sunday, he was summoned to duty at the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Schwedter Strasse. There he experienced first-hand the people’s reaction. He saw the barbed wire rolled out and the cobblestones torn up from the street. The police drove up and down Bernauer Strasse and officers had also been positioned along the barricaded street crossings to protect the West Berliners. Over the next few days Hans-Joachim Lazai witnessed residents from the east side of Bernauer Strasse try to escape to the West. He was in his police car when he saw Ida Siekmann take her fatal jump from the window of a border house on Bernauer Strasse. In other cases, people who wanted to escape were offered assistance by the police, like the man dressed as a chimney sweeper, who exited through the door of a border house onto the West Berlin sidewalk.

As the border was built up stronger, the people on the west side began to express their displeasure louder. The Wedding police squad had the task of keeping the people back to avoid escalations at the border. Hans-Joachim Lazai recalls that he would have liked to have turned away and gone in the other direction with the crowd.

Over the next few days the residents on the East Berlin side of Bernauer Strasse were forced out of their homes by members of the East German work brigades. This secret and unexpected operation and the moans and cries of the people being unexpectedly evicted, were imprinted on the West Berlin policeman’s memory. These measures and the ever-expanding fortifications led Hans-Joachim Lazai to want to express his disapproval. He and a few of his colleagues wanted to demonstrate their displeasure to everyone. They sought contact with the student escape assistance group at the Free University in Berlin that was headed by Detlef Girrmann. They had heard about the idea of dynamiting the Wall as a symbolic act against the injustice taking place. Hans-Joachim Lazai had previously served as a riot police officer and had been a part of a special emergency squad that was trained to work with explosives. Thus it made sense to let him join the project. To distract the border guards, a small explosive was set off in the Gleim Tunnel, a few hundred meters away from Bernauer Strasse. The detonation was so loud that all the border guards – as was expected – left their positions and ran in that direction. That made it possible for him to blow a hole through the Wall at Bernauer Strasse without difficulty.

Hans-Joachim Lazai also participated in escape operations. He worked with the Girrmann Group to obtain blank passports in Belgium that were used to facilitate several escapes. He especially wanted to help a friend and his wife get through a tunnel built at the Schönholz cemetery. He actually stood in the tunnel himself and was able to look through a hole above him and see his friend with his girlfriend. He was even able to speak with them. But the operation failed because too many border police and secret police agents were patrolling the grounds of the cemetery. The couple was unable to crouch down and open the entrance to the tunnel without drawing attention to themselves and so they had to leave the cemetery.

A second escape opportunity arose when an unsealed metal door was discovered in the Wall at the freight terminal on Schwedter Strasse, across from Kopenhagener Strasse. Hans-Joachim Lazai was supposed to cut through the rolls of barbed wire with a bolt clipper, making it possible for his friend’s fiancé and two other women to escape. After attaching himself to the patrol car with a rope, he crawled up to the barbed wire. Several uniformed armed police officers from the Wedding police squad were posted on the station grounds who knew about the plan. But when the three women approached the border, members of the East German secret police appeared unexpectedly from building entrances. The women were arrested. Hans-Joachim Lazai remained very quiet on the ground until one of his colleagues drove the patrol car back and brought him to safety.

The escape assistance group headed by Detlef Girrmann and Bodo Köhler planned other explosions a short time later. Hans-Joachim Lazai was supposed to go to an American barrack near Frankfurt and pick up the explosives. But the plans were discovered and Lazai was arrested on the barrack grounds. He was brought to the West German Criminal Investigative Department in Aschaffenburg. When he returned to Berlin he was forced to transfer to the Lower Saxony state police unit for security reasons. He met the woman he would later marry in Osnabrück. He always planned to return to his hometown Berlin as soon as possible, but he had to wait eight years, until June 1970, before he was permitted to do so.

Anna von Arnim

Hans-Joachim Lazai

Hans-Joachim Lazai during a contemporary witness discussion in the Berlin Wall Memorial, photo: Berlin Wall Memorial


Hans-Joachim Lazai speaking about the blast on Bernauer Strasse

Escape assistance through a tunnel in Schönholz

Escape assistance through an unlocked door in the Wall

From an interview on April 8, and June 4, 2002, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)