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Interview with Leonard Vum Ko Hau (former refugee helper)

I interviewed my friend Leonard Vum Ko Hau who helped people escape communism from East Berlin to West Berlin between 1976 and 1981.

Date of the interview: 4th of january 2006

Leonard Vum Ko Hau = LVKH, Lukas Czarnecki = LC

LC: "Hello Leo!"
LVKH: "Hello Lukas!"
LC: "You had a very interesting and eventful life, but before we will come to the main topic, can you tell us something about your life?"
LVKH: "I come from Burma and I belong to the ethnic Chin (Zo) minority. My father worked as ambassador of Burma and so I grew up in different countries. I left Burma when I was 4 years old. From 1956 to 1959 my father was ambassador to Paris (capital of France). There I attended the elementary school. From 1959 to 1965 my father was ambassador to Jakarta (capital of Indonesia). There I went to the Franciscan Missionary School called "Regina Pacis High School" in Jakarta. From September to December 1965 my father was a member of the Burmese delegation to the UN General Assembly in New York. From 1966 to 1971 my father was ambassador to Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia). I went to a French high school. From 1971 to 1975 my father was ambassador to Prague (capital of the Czech Republic). In 1971 the USA invaded Cambodia and fighting took place and so I could not finish my school-leaving examination and I made it in Prague. In September 1975 my father returned to Burma but I stayed behind in Prague. From 1971 to 1975, I studied macro economics at the University of Economics in Prague. After I obtained my Master of Science degree in Economics, I did practical trainings in different agricultural companies (poultry breeding, fish breeding, hops farming). In 1978 I began to write my doctoral thesis. I could not finish my doctoral thesis, because I was arrested on the 26th of September 1981 at Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin."
LC: "Before we start with the main topic I would like to ask, which languages do you speak."
LVKH: "My mother tongue is Chin (Zo) besides that I speak English, German, Czech, French and Indonesian."
LC: "6 languages is a lot! Now we can start with the main topic! When did you start helping people escape over the border to West Berlin?"
LVKH: ""The first time was in summer 1976 to West Berlin and the last time on the 26th of September 1981."
LC: "Why did you help people to escape to West Berlin?"
LVKH: "I was a student in Prague and it was an extra income for me."
LC: "How many people did you help to escape to West Berlin?"
LVKH: "Altogether, I managed to help 33 people to escape to West Berlin. 32 of them were citizens of East Germany and one was a citizen of Czechoslovakia."
LC: "How did you get the idea of helping people to escape?"
LVKH: "People asked me if I can bring them to the west, because I had a diplomat passport."
LC: "Could you help people to West Berlin, because you had got a diplomat car?"
LVKH: "No, the diplomat passport was the decisive factor and not the car."
LC: "How and where did you pick up the people and how did the whole action took place?"
LVKH: "We met at different meeting places in East Berlin and the people always had a white plastic bag as a sign of recognition. We also had a code phrase. They asked me 'Are you going to Tierpark?' and my answer was 'Yes!'. Then we went to my car and I hide them in the trunk. Before that I removed the rubber plugs in the trunk so that the people could breathe. Of course I did these actions only at night. I left my car in a dark and quiet car park in East Berlin so that nobody could see the people when they entered the trunk of my car. The rear part of my car was equipped with 2 special shock absorbers. When the people were in the trunk, I pumped up the shock absorbers with an automatic pump which can be activated from the driver's seat panel inside the car. When the special shock absorbers were pumped up, nobody could notice that the rear of the car was heavy. The level of the car for both front and back was regulated. Then I drove to Checkpoint Charlie and I showed my diplomat passport. Usually after 2 to 3 minutes I passed the border and drove to West Berlin. In West Berlin I let the people out of my car in a multi-storey car park. The whole action from meeting the people to the arrival in West Berlin took only 20 to 30 minutes."
LC: "It is exciting like a thriller! Did you always have much fear when you passed Checkpoint Charlie?"
LVKH: "Usually I had not much fear."
LC: "What was different on the 26th of September 1981 when you wanted to pass Checkpoint Charlie?"
LVKH: "On the 26th of September 1981, like always, I gave them my diplomat passport and I had to wait much longer. Instead of raising the barrier they strengthened the barrier with a heavy chain. Then they forced me to drive into a garage at Checkpoint Charlie. With my car I was locked in the garage. Then an officer came and forced me to open my trunk. I opened it and they discovered the people inside. Then I had to close the trunk immediately, but the people had to stay inside the trunk. After about 15 minutes a border guard with camera arrived and he took photos of the people, who lay in the trunk, and he made also photos of me and my car. About half an hour later they brought me to the Stasi remand prison in Hohenschoenhausen."
LC: "Could you not drive fast and crash through Checkpoint Charlie when they unmasked you?"
LVKH: "The border at Checkpoint Charlie was closed and fortified with a very solid iron barrier with lattices. Behind it there were further obstacles so that every car could drive only very slowly. Before the entrance to West Berlin there was another solid iron barrier with lattices. With a normal car it was impossible to crash through these barriers."
LC: "In which moment had you got the suspicion that you have been unmasked?"
LVKH: "I had the suspicion when they fortified the barrier with a heavy chain."
LC: "What did they do with you during the remand?"
LVKH: "I was undressed in the remand and they searched me in every body opening. I had to give them all my private belongings and I got a track suit like every remand prisoner there. Since my arrival I was interrogated nearly every day, except on weekend, about 7 to 8 hours for 4 months. I spent 1 year in the Stasi remand prison."
LC: "When did the trial against you take place? Which sentence did you get?"
LVKH: "My trial was in March 1982 and it took two days. I was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. In September 1982 they brought me to the penal institution Berlin-Rummelsburg."
LC: "This was a very hard punishment. Did you have to do something in the penal institution?"
LVKH: "There was an obligation to work and we had to work in three shifts. We had to assemble electrical relays for the company EAW (Elektro-Apparate-Werk). We got a very low monthly pocket money and we could buy something in the prison shop for example food and tobacco products."
LC: "How did it happen that you were prematurely released?"
LVKH: "After 4 years and 3 months they brought me to the Stasi remand in Chemnitz (at that time Karl-Marx-Stadt). Then after about 3 weeks I was expelled to West Berlin, because the West Germany Government paid a large ransom for my release."
LC: "Before the conclusion I have a few questions. Were you conscious of the risk of being caught?"
LVKH: "At the beginning I thought that, in the case of an arrest, they would deport me after a short time."
LC: "Do you know today how it happened that you were unmasked?"
LVKH: "I assumed that I was betrayed, but I do not know from whom."
LC: "Thank you for the very exciting interview!"

Author and Webmaster: Lukas Czarnecki

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Last Update: 21.01.2006