Escape Through the Sewage System and other Underground Activities

Ulrich Pfeifer did not only go through an underground tunnel to escape himself. Until the early 1970s, he was busy building escape tunnels between West and East Berlin. Even today his memories of the successful and failed escapes still preoccupy him.

Ulrich Pfeifer was born in Berlin in 1935. He completed his high school degree (Abitur) in 1953 in Gera. Afterwards he began studying civil engineering at the technical college in Dresden. He began working as a civil engineer in East Berlin in 1960. His mother and sister lived at that time in West Berlin. He was unwilling to accept the situation after the border was sealed on August 13, 1961. On September 8, 1961 he managed to flee to the west of the city through the sewage system at the Gleim tunnel between the districts of Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding. When his girlfriend tried to reach West Berlin the same way, the escape route had already been blocked. She was arrested and sentenced in December 1961 to seven years in prison.

His anger and feelings of helplessness over the situation motivated Ulrich Pfeifer to start helping other people to escape. He helped build the legendary “Tunnel 29” on Bernauer Strasse through which 29 people were able to flee to West Berlin on September 14 and 15, 1962. In August 1962 he had already helped other groups to open a tunnel on Kiefholzstrasse. But that tunnel was betrayed and a number of fugitives were arrested.

Ulrich Pfeifer continued to participate in other tunnel building projects on Bernauer Strasse. One of them was the tunnel running from Bernauer Strasse 79 to Brunnenstrasse 45 that was dug from the fall of 1962 to February 1963. This tunnel was also betrayed by an East Berlin informer and could not be used. The last tunnel project on the intersection of Bernauer Strasse and Brunnenstrasse in 1971 was not successful either. A few days before the escape route was complete, East German border troops began digging across the border strip until they hit tunnel pipes. Ulrich Pfeifer observed the border troop activity from the viewing platform on Brunnenstrasse and was photographed by agents of the East German Ministry for State Security.

In 1972 Ulrich Pfeifer began working as an independent civil engineer in West Berlin.

Maria Nooke

Ulrich Pfeifer

Ulrich Pfeifer, photo: private


Ulrich Pfeifer speaks of his escape through the sewage system

Excerpt from an oral history interview from March 30, 2001, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)