Berlin - In August 1961, shortly after construction of the Berlin Wall began, 12-year-old Dietrich was spending the remainder of his summer vacation in the West Berlin exclave of Steinstücken where his family owned an old farmhouse. One day he made a surprising discovery on the side of the road: sitting there, camouflaged with branches and twigs, was an American GI holding a machine gun in firing position.

“At that moment, it became clear to me how serious the situation was,” says Dietrich Liefeld today. As a Steinstücken resident, the now-71-year-old experienced the construction of the Berlin Wall and the division of Germany from his front door. He now stands before his home on Bernhard-Beyer-Straße, which leads through the small settlement and recalls that time. “We moved here in the mid-1960s,” he says. “I’ve lived here ever since.”

Steinstücken was one of 10 such exclaves, areas that were officially part of Berlin but located outside of the city limits. The exclaves were created in 1920 with the formation of Greater Berlin, which incorporated a series of independent communities into one megalopolis. At the end of the Second World War, the Allies used the old German administrative borders for orientation during the division of Berlin and Germany into occupied zones. The exclaves all became part of West Berlin, joining either Spandau in the British Sector or Zehlendorf in the American Sector.

Cover: Berliner Verlag; cover photo: Horst von Harbou/Deutsche Kinemathek
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When the Berlin Wall went up, the exclaves were suddenly surrounded by East German territory. Only one of them continued to be permanently inhabited: Steinstücken, 12.67 hectares (31.3 acres) of land - linked to Kohlhasenbrück in West Berlin via a 1.2 kilometre corridor that belonged to the GDR.

The approximately 150 inhabitants of Steinstücken experienced the tension between East and West Germany up close. In October 1951, the East German Interior Ministry tried to annex the settlement. East German police sealed off the area and cut telephone lines to West Berlin. A railway crossing was blocked. The police withdrew four days later following protests by the commander of the US Sector. East Germany introduced checkpoints in 1952 at the junction between Steinstücken and Kohlhasenbrück.

“If we wanted to go home via Kohlhasenbrück from Wannsee, we first had to pass a West Berlin police station at the border of the city,” Liefeld recalls. The police officer just waved them through. “Then came the border to the GDR where we were inspected by the Volkspolizei. There we had to show our IDs and open the trunk.” A narrow paved road led to Steinstücken. “We drove home along this lane,” says Liefeld. “At the entrance to Steinstücken, we were inspected once more. We had to open the trunk again. East German police officers wanted to be certain that we weren’t bringing any escapees from East Germany with us.”

This aerial shot shows Steinstücken surrounded by the Wall and death strip in 1986. From 1961 to 1972, the US military could only reach the exclave by air and built a helipad.
Photo: dpa picture alliance

Many East German citizens escaped via Steinstücken shortly after construction of the Berlin Wall began, because the border was initially less secure here, demarcated only by anti-cavalry obstacles and barbed wire. Steinstücken wasn’t surrounded by a proper wall until 1964. The situation between the two Germanys was extremely explosive. The “Father of the Air Lift”, Lucius D. Clay, was brought back by President John F. Kennedy as a special envoy with the equivalent rank of an ambassador. His job was to advise Kennedy on what was happening in Berlin.

On September 21, 1961, Clay flew to Steinstücken by helicopter, escorted by two more helicopters. From then on, three members of the military police were stationed there. The three military police officers lived at Bernhard-Beyer-Straße 10, across the street from Dietrich Liefeld, where there was also an office belonging to the Zehlendorf administration. The officers were rotated every few days by helicopter. Their supplies were also flown in.

“The first helipad was behind our house in an open area, surrounded by orchards,” says Liefeld. “A helicopter landed there once a week.” It also came when East Germans had fled to Steinstücken - to fly them out. “At Christmas, Santa visited Steinstücken by helicopter and handed out presents to the kids,” Liefeld says.

The first helipad behind his house was improvised. Eventually, a proper landing pad with landing lights was built. The mayor of Berlin, the district mayor of Zehlendorf and the US military commander all relied on helicopters to visit Steinstücken.

About 30 people were registered in our house, but there were also houses where 250 people were registered.

Dietrich Liefeld, Steinstücken resident

Despite the Berlin Wall, he never felt locked in. “After all, we could drive to West Berlin at any time,” Liefeld says. “In the beginning, whenever East German border guards were new, they were always very brusque, but later they usually became friendly.” When the border troops weren’t on duty, they would stick carnations in their gun barrels. “We definitely dropped a pack of cigarettes occasionally when crossing the border,” says Liefeld. “After all, they weren’t allowed to accept gifts.”

At the time, friends and relatives could only travel to Steinstücken if they were registered there with a second home . Only then were they allowed to cross the border. Hence, many more people were registered there than actually lived there. “There were about 30 people registered in our house,” he says. “But there were also houses where 250 people were registered.” It was difficult when workers or delivery vehicles wanted to come to Steinstücken. To do so, they always had to register in advance. “Anyone who wasn’t registered couldn’t come in,” Liefeld says. “You had to do it weeks in advance.”

The 1.2 kilometre-long tarmac lane between Steinstücken and Kohlhasenbrück proved repeatedly problematic. Even though the West Berlin offered to pay for a new road several times, the East Germans only allowed repairs. The Four Power Agreement signed in Berlin on 3 September 1971 brought some relief. The Soviet Union guaranteed unimpeded transit between West Berlin and the Federal Republic of Germany.

Dietrich Liefeld (71) has lived in Steinstücken since the mid-1960s. The first helipad was behind his family home.
Photo: Markus Wächter

Agreement on the West Berlin exclaves (or enclaves, as seen by East Germany) was reached through territorial exchanges. West Berlin exclaves Finkenkrug, Böttcherberg, Große Kuhlake, Nuthewiesen as well as a strip of territory near Eiskeller became part of East Germany. In exchange, West Berlin received a narrow 2.3-hectare (5.7- acre) connection between Kohlhasenbrück and Steinstücken as well as strips of territory in the locality of Frohnau and near Eiskeller. The Senat paid 4 million deutschmarks to East Germany as compensation. The new road between Steinstücken and Kohlhasenbrück opened in 1972. Since then, Steinstücken has been an integrated part of the city.

After the new road was opened, someone who worked for the West Berlin authorities asked if as many people really lived in Steinstücken as were registered there, says Liefeld. “We had to be deregistered.”

Once no longer an exclave, the US removed its troops from Steinstücken. In 1975, Ingrid R. moved with her husband, a police officer, into the building that had housed the Americans. “There was an East German watchtower behind our building,” she says. “They could look into our bedroom.” The Americans left a radio device in the basement, says Ingrid R., now 79. Sometimes her husband used the radio when he needed to.

Country house and movie set - with a tiny Holocaust memorial

“Once, we witnessed the escape of a young man from East Germany,” she says. “He wanted to jump onto a freight train from the tracks behind our house but slid off because the train was covered in ice and hurt himself.” Still, he was able to climb over the barrier. “He ran across our property to the shop on the corner. We found drops of blood in the garden. My husband ran after him and drove him to the police station and then to the hospital.”

Newspapers covered the story. A French millionaire read about the incident and was so moved that he invited the young man to go on a trip around the world. “The young man visited us later and wanted to see the area he had run across,” says Ingrid R. “Then he told us his whole story.” Before Steinstücken became famous as a West Berlin exclave in the middle of East Germany, the town was a backdrop for the 1930 classic movie Die Drei von der Tankstelle (The Filling Station Three) starring Willy Fritsch, Oskar Karlweis and Heinz Rühmann. The three men fall in love with the same woman, played by Lilian Harvey. Part of the film was shot in the house at Bernhard-Beyer-Straße 12 that was designed by the famous architect Erich Mendelsohn.

“You can see our house in the film as well,” says Liefeld, “but only for a few seconds. It’s the scene where the three friends enter the house. You can see our house in the background.” The owner of the house, Jewish doctor Curt Bejach, was stripped of his property under the Nazis. He lost his license to practice medicine and was eventually murdered in Auschwitz. A Stolperstein (a commemorative brass “stumbling block”) was installed in the pavement in front of the house in honour of Bejach.

The climbing frame at the playground brings back memories of the Cold War.
Photo: Markus Wächter

An agreement on the other five areas outside of West Berlin’s city limits was reached in 1988. Under the agreement, West Berlin received access to the exclaves Erlengrund and Fichtewiese through a territorial expansion. East Germany received the exclaves Falkenhagener Wiese, Laßzinswiesen and Wüste Mark in return. Until that time, Wüste Mark was cultivated by a West Berlin farmer who held a special permit and drove his tractor to his field using the transit highway.

For the people of Steinstücken, life wasn’t all bad in the exclave. “We just left everything standing around,” says Liefeld. There were no burglars. That changed in 1972 when the inspections stopped, and the new direct road connection was completed. “Suddenly, a lot of Berliners showed up and wanted to see how we lived,” he says. “We’ve had to lock our doors ever since.” Today, a monument made of two upright rotor blades on the former landing pad commemorates the helicopters that were such an important part of Steinstücken’s history. Right next to it there’s a playground – with a helicopter-shaped climbing frame.