My Brother was Shot at the Border

Jürgen Litfin’s family lived in East Berlin in the Weissensee district, but his brother Günter had found a job working as a tailor in West Berlin.

Litfin Family 1942 He spent the weekends with his parents and brother on the east side of the city – including the weekend when the Wall was erected. The 13th of August 1961 was a Sunday. The Litfin brothers woke up a little later than usual because they had been at their brother-in-law’s housewarming party in Wedding on the west side of the city the night before and it had been past midnight when they returned to Prenzlauer Allee with the S-Bahn via Schönhauser Allee. They didn’t notice the police or other armed officers standing at the border station. No one disturbed them on the ride home. The next morning after ten o’ clock, Jürgen Litfin heard the news. He woke his brother up and said, “Berlin is sealed off. All the checkpoints are gone and everything is closed off.” They both thought it would probably last just a few days and then the border would reopen again just as it had on June 17, 1953. They couldn’t imagine that the Allies would agree to let the sector border be sealed off. But over the next few days it became clear that the border fortifications were continuing. Jürgen Litfin’s brother Günter was cut off from his place of work and began to look for a way to flee. The two brothers rode by bike to the border and looked for a spot where Günter Litfin could get through the barriers. But barbed wire was everywhere and walls were already being erected.

On August 24, 1961, eleven days after the border had been closed, Günter Litfin finally attempted to swim to West Berlin through the Osthafen, a harbor near the Charité hospital. Members of the transport police saw him and fired at him. Günter Litfin was the first person to be shot and killed at the border while trying to escape. His brother heard from a colleague at work the next morning that someone had been shot and killed at the border. “As long as it wasn’t my brother. He didn’t come home last night,” he responded spontaneously. On the evening of August 25, Jürgen Litfin was arrested by the East German secret police and interrogated until three in the morning. They didn’t let him go until much later. He learned of his brother’s death when he got home.

In 1962, when a compulsory military service was established in East Germany, Jürgen Litfin was among the first group to be called up for examination. But he had a clear position on serving in the NVA and said: “You can’t really expect me to take up a weapon after you killed my brother.” He was spared being drafted into the military.

Jürgen Litfin was not prepared to subordinate himself unconditionally to the East German communist system. But he felt escaping to the West was too risky. In 1976 he applied for an exit visa on the basis of the policy to unite families: When his mother retired, she had moved to West Berlin to live with his other brother. His second application to leave was also rejected and the authorities put pressure on Jürgen Litfin. This is why, despite the difficulties, he tried to build a house for his family and set up an apartment for his daughter. In 1980, when he bought furniture from someone who was applying to leave East Germany, he was arrested for allegedly assisting an escape. After being held in Stasi pre-trial detention in Berlin-Pankow for three months, he was sentenced to ten months in prison. His wife was given a one-year probation sentence. In September 1981 Jürgen Litfin’s release from prison was bought by the Federal Republic of Germany. His wife was also allowed to leave East Germany in December 1981 after serving out her probation sentence.

Today Jürgen Litfin runs a memorial site for his brother Günther in one of the last existing border watchtowers. The memorial is located at the Spandauer Schifffahrts Canal between the Invaliden Cemetery and the Bundeswehr Hospital -- not far from the Humboldt Harbor where his brother was killed while trying to escape.

Anna von Arnim

Photo credits: Litfin family, 1942, privately owned

Jürgen Litfin 2010

Jürgen Litfin, 2010, photo: privately owned


Speaking about August 13, 1961 and his brother’s death

From an interview on January 8, 2001, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)


Hertle, Hans-Hermann/Nooke, Maria et al.: The Victims at the Border. A biographical Handbook, Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam and Stiftung Berliner Mauer (eds.), 1. edition, Berlin 2010