Joachim Rudolph never liked East Germany. He was 5 in 1945, when the Allies divided Germany in two after World War II — the West turned into a capitalist democracy, and his home in the East into a Soviet-ruled authoritarian state. Not long after, his family was rousted from their farm by Soviets, who violently assaulted his sister, mother and grandmother and sent his father to a gulag, never to be heard from again.
When he was 11, Rudolph smuggled coffee through checkpoints between the East and West to make ends meet. Two years later, he joined marchers protesting Soviet rule in an uprising that killed more than 300 before it was squelched by East German snipers and tanks.
Three million East Germans eventually fled to the West, mostly through Berlin. So, on Aug. 12, 1961, East Germany wrapped the city in barbed wire, followed by a concrete wall with guard towers, land mines and flamethrowers.
Many attempts to flee East Germany over, under or through the Berlin Wall failed. The same year the wall went up, Rudolph ran. Outside Berlin he crawled under darkness through a swamp criss-crossed with barbed wire. By morning he was met by an American soldier.
In 1962, with the help of some organizations, Rudolph sent blank West German passports to his mother and sister in East Berlin. After adding their own photographs, Joachim’s relatives were able to successfully cross the border into West Berlin and flee East Germany for good.
Later that year, Rudolph decided to help others by digging an escape tunnel from the East to the West. He found the perfect spot — a factory on Bernauer Strasse, where the front of the abandoned structure lay in West Berlin and the back of the building in the East. The factory’s owner, an East German escapee, helped Rudolph with his plan.
Excavating the hard clay below Bernauer Strasse was slow-going. An eight-hour shift could result in just inches of progress, so Rudolph recruited 20-plus men to help. Working 24 hours a day, the tunnel grew. It was triangular in shape, one meter by one meter in size, shored up by donated wood and just large enough for a human to wiggle through.
When the tunnel was dark, Rudolph strung light bulbs to illuminate it. When oxygen was in short supply, he jerry-rigged stovepipes to deliver fresh air. When the tunnel flooded, he drained 8,000 gallons of water with a borrowed pump.
But Berlin’s wet summer of 1962 eventually made the ground dangerously soft, so Joachim suspended work, fearing collapse. He knew from his network of “Fluchthelfers” (“escape helpers”) there were other abandoned tunnels around the city, so Rudolph found another one to complete. He alerted the network that escape was possible, and on Aug. 7, they made their way through a subterranean passage beneath #9 Puderstrasse.
But a Stasi mole named Siegfried Uhse also was aware of the plan. East German intelligence was notified, so on the day, the Stasi was waiting. More than 40 prospective escapees were arrested and imprisoned.
The Stasi might have caught Rudolph, too, but when he hacked through the living-room floor of #9 Puderstrasse with a hammer and saw, his posse was well-armed with two pistols, a sawed-off shotgun and a machine gun. Not wanting a battle of bullets, the Stasi held fire. And when Rudolph saw them and no escapees, he knew the mission was compromised. Leaping back into his tunnel, he fled to dig another day.
Later that month, he found his original tunnel dry again. Rudolph kept working and finally declared it “complete” on Sept. 13. He chose the next day for his rescue attempt and #7 Schönholzer Strasse as the address where they would surface.
And so, on Sept. 14, Rudolph and his crew worked their way through the tunnel and smashed up through the brick floor. There, he was overjoyed to find 29 East Berliners, aged 8 to 80, waiting for him — and no Stasi officers.
The refugees lowered themselves into the passageway and crawled more than the length of a football field under East Berlin knowing that police aboveground would shoot them on sight. They clambered on skinned knees under falling mud and rising waters until they finally reached the cellar of the factory on Bernauer Strasse, climbing up and out to new lives in the West.
Rudolph waited until all the escapees made it through the tunnel. Within days, the passageway filled with water and completely caved in. But the hole he’d built went on to be remembered as Tunnel 29 — for the 29 souls he’d saved from Soviet oppression.
And Rudolph’s karmic reward for his good deeds? He enjoyed a long, happy marriage with Evi Schmidt, one of the women he led to liberty through Tunnel 29.