City’s alumni Volker Heinz (Law, 1988) joined the University in the late 80s, leaving Germany to pursue a law qualification in the UK, unperturbed by the fact that to pass a Law degree you must have an excellent understanding of the English language, Volker rose to the challenge and excelled. Volker has recalled his time in the UK with fond memories, having made life long friends with a few of his peers. After getting called to the bar, Volker remained in the UK for work for a few years before returning to Germany in light of its unification.
In 1965 Berlin, Volker met someone who helped people escape East-Berlin by digging tunnels under the Berlin Wall. Without hesitation, he offered his help and was eventually recruited to the operation. His autobiographical book The Price of Freedom details the events that led Volker help some sixty people escape East-Berlin and earned him the Federal Cross for Merit. Volker’s book is published in both German and English, the purchase list for the latter is available at the end of this blog.
Can you tell me a little about your education?
My father was an international engineer and was eager for me to follow in his footsteps. He had understood that English was the language of the future so, in 1962 when I was 18, he decided to send me to the UK to gain some practical experience from one of the largest engineering companies at the time, Babcock & Wilcox. He had managed to get this opportunity for me through his connections in the company.
I first went to Glasgow, Scotland where the company had one of its factories. It was my first trip to Great Britain and I loved it. I had never met so many different people from different corners of the world. It opened my eyes to a different world outside of what I had known.
After three months I moved on to Birmingham for a month and from there for another two months to London to finish gaining experience in the company’s headquarters.
After returning to Germany I studied mechanical engineering for a year but then decided that engineering was not something I was very keen on, so I decided to study Law instead. I worked as a Solicitor and Notary Public in Germany, having completed law school there. From my travels to England, however, I had become very interested in the English Legal System as it was so different from Germany’s.
In 1986 I decided to pursue a law qualification in the UK so I joined City University in autumn 1987. I had considered my English passable after the 6 months I had spent in the UK in my youth. Although having been warned that the language skills required for practising Law in Great Britain as a barrister are considerable, I chose to become a barrister since I had considerable litigation experience in Germany. I was called to the bar in November of 1989 after which I joined an American law firm in London for a few years.
What happened after you graduated?
I very much enjoyed my time working in London but decided, in view of Germany’s unification, to return to Germany in 1992, before eventually moving to Australia, following my wife, an Australian violinist.
I wasn’t entirely keen on the idea as I wasn’t sure what a German solicitor could do in Australia. Nevertheless, shortly after we moved to Germany I started to look into what type of work I’d be able to find in the island country. Originally I was told that with my German qualifications I’d have to go through the entire studying process so as to be admitted to practice law in Australia. All in all, it would’ve taken me 6 years before I could practice.
I did, however, discover that when you are a UK barrister or solicitor you will be able to start working immediately. While I was preparing my move to Australia, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Australia had recently removed the UK privilege. In order to avoid further examinations, I decided to stay in Berlin, while at the same time servicing English clients.
Tell me about your time in City.
I loved my time studying at the university. I had thought before that my language skills were enough to get by quite easily but as it happened it was very difficult. I was fine with conversational English but when it came to legal terms and professional talk it was certainly hard work.
I met a lot of people in City. There are four people who became close friends of mine and with whom I am still to this day in regular contact. For thirty years now we and our families have met regularly to catch up on each other’s lives. Especially our children very much enjoyed visiting each other, mainly in Berlin, London and the Oxfordshire countryside.
What gave you the motivation to have your story published on paper?
In 2011, 50 years after the Berlin Wall was built, there was a remembrance event to commemorate the time when Berlin was split into two. I was invited to the event by someone who knew of my involvement with helping to smuggle people from East Berlin to the West in the mid-1960s. At the event, I was asked to tell my story and I did. Without me being aware of it, the organiser of the event suggested to the office of the German Federal President that I receive an award for my actions. A few months after the remembrance event I received the Federal Cross of Merit for my courage and involvement in helping some 60 people get out of East Berlin.
My four children, being very proud of me, insisted that I write my story down. I hadn’t had much of a reason to speak of the events that occurred many decades ago, mainly because as long as Communist Russia controlled East Germany you simply couldn’t talk about these things without pulling unwanted attention to yourself.
After the wall fell, however, I at first didn’t have access to many of the East- and West German Government files that held info on my activities. It was only some 7 or 8 years ago that I was able to purchase a book, prepared by government-appointed historians, that showed many documents connected with my activities as an escape helper.
The events in the book The Price of Freedom – Courage in the Shadow of the Berlin Wall took place when I was a law student in Berlin. I happened to meet someone who had dug tunnels under the wall from East Berlin to the West. At first he, understandably, denied any involvement, but I managed to squeeze the truth out of him. I was very impressed with the work and courage of these people so offered them my help. 6 months went by before I was contacted by a person who was also involved with the famous tunnel 57. He asked me to help with smuggling East Berlin citizens to the West. The time of tunnels had come to an end quickly: the Communists had developed seismographic technological devices that essentially heard us digging before we had finished the tunnel. Other methods were using large American limousines, falsifying passports or trying to break through barriers with lorries.
We realised that to move people unnoticed, we needed someone who could continuously move between the East and the West of Berlin without going through checks. We tried to contact allied soldiers but that didn’t work out. Finally, we found a diplomat from Syria who agreed to help us. With his assistance we managed to get some 60 people out from East Berlin – I, among others, and the diplomat were eventually caught and arrested.
I was extensively questioned, then sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Around a year later the West German government swapped me for two soviet spies and a whole lot of money – I was free again. The diplomat had managed to escape to West-Germany but was later sentenced to death in absentia by his home court in Damascus.
What has been the most rewarding experience for you while writing down your story?
A lot of people contacted me after I published the book in German and it became more widely known what happened to me in the 60s. People didn’t understand why I hadn’t talked bout this before. They saw me as a hero
But for me, this wasn’t about receiving praise and awards – I did it for humanitarian reasons, following my deeply held belief that people in serious need of help ought to be helped by those who can provide it. These people entrusted me with their lives, with their liberty.
Many of the letters I received I found very moving. The most special of them was from one of “my” refugees who had tried for fifty years to establish my identity.
Did you experience any significant difficulties when writing?
When discussions for a book started, I told the publisher that I am a very busy man and needed some support.
They understood that I couldn’t possibly just take 6 months away from my professional responsibilities to start writing the story, so they sent a lady who over a number of days recorded my answers to her questions. The recording was then transcribed into a raw text. Once I saw the transcript, I organised it into chapters and turned it into a proper narrative, assisted by one of the publisher’s editors. She re-checked and edited everything I had already written. She also gave me a lot of advice that turned my script into a captivating story.
For the English version, I paid a translator. The final touches were applied by my wife and myself.
Volker, what advice would you give to others who are looking to help like you did?
When it comes to escaping dreadful conditions, the world is not that different now – there are still people trying to find safety and generally a better life in Europe, away from their war-torn countries.
What is different, however, is that in my day, when illegal intra-German migration happened and people moved from East Berlin to the West, they immediately had rights, unlike now where people are considered asylum seekers and have to apply to be allowed to stay.
I have enormous respect for those who help refugees and have absolutely no understanding for those who make money out the blight of others, by charging the refugees a fortune for a promise – often broken – of guiding them into another country. People’s health and security should be everybody’s main priority.
We need, more than ever, people with truly humanitarian ideals, not profiteers of people trafficking.
Purchase the book below –