The Dane, the German and the ‘borrowed’ passport
If his attempt to flee East Berlin failed, he risked prison. If it succeeded, he might not see his family again
For a documentary on Tuesday night – The Doppelgänger from East Berlin – two men met for the first time in the hotel that linked them three decades previously. Photograph: iStock
Morten Bank-Mikkelsen’s euphoria at winning the East Berlin dance competition didn’t last long. When the 16-year-old returned to his hotel with the first-prize trophy he found police waiting for him – one holding his red passport.
The previous evening – March 29th, 1988 – as he was dancing up a storm in a hall 500 metres away, the passport he had handed in at check-in had been borrowed by Michael Schneider, an 18-year-old receptionist at the Dane’s hotel.
For Schneider, who had already applied twice to leave East Germany but was refused, working in East Berlin’s leading hotel for international visitors – and flicking through their passports with stamps of exotic places – offered a window to the west.
On the evening of March 29th, 1988, he was flicking through the passports in an idle moment, when he saw the picture of a young man looking back at him.
“I thought, ‘that could be you’. I could just go over the border with this passport.”
Five minutes before his shift ended at 10pm, he returned to the drawer with the passports and wrestled with the consequences of taking it.
If his attempt to flee failed, he risked prison. If it succeeded, he might not see his family again. Either way was torture, but the prospect of a life in East Germany was the greater torment. He pocketed the passport and confided what he’d done to a friend, who wished him luck.
Schneider rushed home and, with his mother in bed and his father out, he packed a bag and rushed out to Friedrichstrasse train station. His main worry: how he could convince the notoriously suspicious border guards that he was a Danish tourist and not a terrified East Berlin teenager?
At 11.40pm he reached the notorious Tränenpalast, the so-called Palace of Tears where Germans – east and west – said goodbye to each other.
Suppressing his tears and fears, he entered the wooden veneer cabin and stared calmly ahead until the border guard’s hand reached for the buzzer.
Pushing the door open, Schneider hurried through customs and a tunnel up on to the platform for the only train to West Berlin. Only when he was sure he was in the other Berlin did he dissolve, as he remembers now, “in a pool of tears and snot”.
He handed himself in to West Berlin police and the passport found its way back to East Berlin where, the next morning, the young Dane was interrogated but also let go.
At 6.30am, six hours after his arrival, Schneider called his mother to tell her briefly: “Don’t be shocked but I’m in West Berlin, I’ll call you when I can.”
Shocked by his impulsive move, she went to the police and, during interrogation, convinced them she knew nothing.
Some 20 months later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the family were reunited. It took a little longer for Schneider to meet the man who, unwittingly, let him out of East Germany.
For a documentary on Tuesday night – The Doppelgänger from East Berlin – the Dane and the German met for the first time in the hotel that linked them three decades previously.
“It must have been terrible, like a near-death experience, to risk everything,” said Morten Bank-Mikkelsen. “I think he is a very special person with lots of courage.”
The German took his visitor to the Tränenpalast, now a museum, and pointed out the cabin where his new life began.
“The sound of that door opening . . . it means freedom,” said Michael Schneider, wiping away tears. “I’m so grateful we have this freedom, and it is not self-evident. We should reflect on that every day.”