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It cruelly divided lives for almost 30 years — a concrete barrier that kept hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens from their loved ones. The Berlin Wall, which was torn down 25 years ago this weekend, caused such unbearable separation that many people risked their lives to cross it.
Among them were teenage sweethearts Regina and Eckhard Albrecht, kept apart by an ideological fault line between communism and democracy.
He was a law student in West Berlin. She lived in Soviet-controlled East Germany. But their young love was not thwarted by the wall, or its callous consequences.
“We are lucky,” said Regina, who married Eckhard after being smuggled through a border patrol hidden under the trunk of a car and who told the couple's story to ITV News. They have now been together for 42 years.
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About 5,000 people attempted to escape over the 96-mile wall between 1961 and 1989; at least 136 of them were killed in the act, researchers believe.
Thousands more embarked on dangerous alternative routes to freedom through neighboring Soviet bloc countries and across the invisible “Iron Curtain” that separated east from west.
Eckhard and Regina met in 1967 at a school reunion for their fathers in East Berlin — an event permitted by the authorities. When Eckhard returned to his home in West Berlin, they began writing to one another — until after one year they realized East Germany’s notorious Stasi spy agency had been intercepting and reading their letters.
“I was arrested one morning and taken to a prison for questioning,” said Regina, now 64. "They wanted to know whether I wanted to flee. I knew if I said ‘yes’ that I would have to go straight to prison because the desire itself to enter West Germany was a crime. When they asked me ‘Do you love this man?’ I said: ‘I am 18 years old, I don’t even know what love is!’ That answer confused them a little.”
The Stasi forced her to promise to break off the relationship and followed her for six months. She met other men for coffee, to throw agents off the scent, but secretly continued to exchange letters with Eckhard with the help of her grandmother.
Eventually, the couple managed to meet in Soviet-controlled Hungary, where East Germans were sometimes given permission to travel. “It was in front of a hotel,” Regina recalled. “He was standing in front of me and I had no words. We went to the hotel. He came, saw and conquered … veni vidi vici,” she laughed.
They agreed to complete their college studies before finding a way to be together. In early 1971, Eckhard paid a man who promised to get Regina under the Berlin Wall through a tunnel. However, the attempt failed after authorities discovered the underground passage.
Later the same year, Regina traveled to Romania where a man agreed to drive her to what was then Yugoslavia and smuggle her across the border to democratic Austria hidden inside a specially modified car.
She was squeezed into the space previously occupied by the fuel tank. “There was petrol [gasoline] all around, it was a terrible smell,” she recalled. “He drove through the border. The trunk was examined. It was right above my ear so we were separated by just a thin layer.”
“I woke on the floor,” she added. “The driver put some moss into my hand and told me, ‘You made it to freedom.’”
"They welcomed me with a glass of champagne"
Three days passed before the news reached Eckhard. “Finally they called from Salzburg. She’s there and I was very happy. I am happy until today.”
At the end of her gruelling bid for freedom, Regina had to fly to West Berlin — a flight that took her back over East Germany — and landed a Tempelhof airport, only a few yards away from the wall that had forced her to make a journey of almost 2,000 miles.
“They welcomed me with a glass of champagne,” she said. “Welcome to West Berlin and the Republic of Germany. That was a great moment for me.”
And was Eckhard worth it? “Of course he was! A lot of people ask me today and wonder whether they would do the same for their husband. I had no other choice. If I wanted him then I had to set off on this journey.”
Eckhard said it was important for Germany’s new generation to appreciate democracy. “You need to work hard for your rights and never take them for granted,” he said. “And we need to be watchful and alert, people tend to forget that.”
He added: “I worry that people focus on small problems like ‘Why is my computer not working’ or 'How do get the best discount for my holiday?’ and they don’t understand the real problems that exist in this world."
Regina and Eckhard Albrecht were interviewed by ITV News journalist Julie Etchingham and a version of this story was originally published by ITV News.