Thursday, July 12, 2012

LUTZ VOGEL Survivor of DDR Injustices

Former East German defector Lutz Vogel’s personal history is a classic story of survival against the bleakest odds in a Divided Germany. As a teenager he was active in youth sports clubs, and showed potential to join one of the country’s prestigious Olympic Teams. Athletes with promise were highly sought after to embellish the DDR’s sports reputation abroad. He did not make the cut. Instead Lutz was recruited into the military, East German equivalent of The Marines.

Raised in modest circumstances this was a viable route as any to status and financial stability for himself and his family. At boot camp Lutz worked hard. He always wanted to perform at his best. He took pride in perfecting his military training and he took pride in his personal conduct. His single-mindedness did not go unnoticed.

Lutz was a soldier never a political person. He was loyal to his commanders and to the oath he had sworn to. He held no ideological priorities and took seriously his duty to serve the nation. He was among an elite contingent of East Bloc military ordered to Poland to fight alongside government forces against striking ship workers. Battling in the streets of Gdansk Lutz proved a formidable soldier. 

Decorated for his Polish service he received a Silver Medal recognizing his bravery and loyalty in containing the uprising. Lutz anticipated at some point he would get a promotion and secure a better pay grade. Back in East Germany talk of his valiant service preceded him. This was at a point when he might have used the good standing to leverage favorable connections. But cultivating political ties were of no interest to Lutz. He’d grown accustomed to the soldiering life; it suited him best. He even found a partner and was planning to marry.

Then the nightmare began.

His lack of political engagement annoyed some officers. One high-ranking lieutenant started ribbing him unmercifully about the fact he showed no interest in joining The Socialist Party, membership he might easily obtain as a war veteran. Lutz good-naturedly tried to clarify his position to put an end to the harassment. Matters only worsened.

The officer thought him a fool and dismissed his arguments with disdain. Lutz tried to ignore the insults but they soon grew increasingly vicious and mean-spirited. The stress grew intolerable and one day Lutz lost it. This highly trained and superbly tuned fighting machine had reached breaking point. He beat the officer severely and was promptly arrested.

He was court marshaled based on perjured testimony and subjected to cruel and inhumane punishment. He was kept in damp isolated cells for years. So low and narrow he could not stand straight but always had to stoop in order to avoid hitting the ceiling--no mean feat for a strapping six footer. He was never allowed out in fair weather but made to stand naked in driving rainstorms. He put up with the treatment until it appeared they had broken him. But Lutz was only planning his escape.

As soon as he was released he began preparing to defect, a journey that would take him through four countries in the mid-1980s--the only way young men could get out of the DDR at the time. He was under constant surveillance. Relying on his military training he not only managed to elude Stasi but on foot and in deepest night slipped through border crossings into Poland then Hungary and finally into Yugoslavia. It took weeks travelling only at night, sleeping days and foraging for food and handouts.

In a forest outside Belgrade he was starving and foolishly ate wild mushrooms. He came down with salmonella poisoning and spent an excruciating week alone near death sleeping on the forest floor. He got well enough to continue travel and managed to reach Italy via Trieste. Immediately given asylum at the nearest West Germany consulate and flown back to Germany, West Germany.

At first West German authorities were suspicious of his motives. He was thoroughly interrogated and then debriefed about his military experience. Just as his communist torturers had feared, he was providing the West German secret service with pertinent details from firsthand experience. As was policy for all East German defectors he was provided with housing, financial support and training opportunities.

Lutz soon learned his parents had been jailed. They were accused of knowing about his planned escape and not reporting to authorities, something Lutz vehemently denied; they knew nothing of his plans he insisted. (After reunification they learned from Stasi files that Lutz's older brother had made claims that gave cause to jail the parents.)

The first few years in the West, Lutz was gung ho, eager to test the limits of democratic society and his physical prowess. Always a fitness buff and martial arts fanatic, he went heavily into fight sports, training in Kung Fu, Karate, et al. He used drugs to enhance performance and got so pumped he entered the world of extreme sports. His career was brief but vivid. He was nearly beaten to death in a cage fight before a roaring crowd. That near death experience was his wake-up call.

He pulled out of the fight business, became a practicing Buddhist, and operated his own martial arts studio for a while. Picking up occasional jobs as stuntman for Germany’s active movie and TV production industry, he was hoping it might lead to professional acting work.

I met Lutz in Berlin when he was hired to perform stunts for a master class on Hong Kong action film-making conducted by Tsui Hark and organized by European Film Academy. I was engaged to document the working workshop seminar. During breaks we often chatted. He appeared to be in his late 40s, early 50s, cliche handsome and in great shape.

Lutz confided he was writing a film treatment based on these events in his life. He was trying to find some way to get it produced. Naturally he hoped to play himself. We lost touch after the master class ended. I often wonder how close he got to making his dream a reality. Sadly his story echoes the fate of so many forced to flee in the bad old days of East German rule!

Jemand weisst?

1 comment:

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