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Czesław Jan Kukuczka (left): born on July 23, 1935, shot on March 29, 1974 at the Friedrichstrasse station border crossing in Berlin-Mitte

Czesław Jan Kukuczka

born on July 23, 1935
shot on March 29, 1974

at the Friedrichstrasse station border crossing in Berlin-Mitte,

died from the bullet wounds the same day

Kukuczka, Czesław Jan

“Mystery surrounding an assassination at the Wall in Berlin,” ran the headline of the “Bild” newspaper on April 2, 1974. Four days earlier, on March 29, 1974, schoolchildren from Bad Hersfeld were on their way back to West Berlin from East Berlin when they became eyewitnesses to the violent shooting at the border crossing in the Friedrichstrasse station. The newspaper article quoted the teenagers, ages 15-17: “It was Friday afternoon between 3:10 and 3:20…a 40 to 45 year old man went through the checkpoint ahead of us. Two women had just been sent back by an officer. The man had passed through unsuspectingly when he was shot in the back from a distance of two meters by a civilian wearing a dark coat and shaded glasses.” [111]

A violent crime in broad daylight on the busiest border crossing between East and West? The Central Registry of the State Judicial Administration in Salzgitter, which was responsible for documenting and gathering evidence of crimes in East Germany, immediately opened a pre-investigation. The local investigative and police departments in the West were consulted – but they were unaware of the incident. West Berlin’s three protecting powers – France, England and the United States – did not have any information about it either. The East German press did not report on it. After the “Bild” article was published, no other reports appeared in the West. Perhaps there were no other eyewitnesses – or perhaps they did not want to come forward.

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the East German state, when violent crimes at the Berlin Wall were being investigated, the Berlin public prosecutor’s office reviewed the case again, probably as a matter of routine and because of the Salzgitter file. But since the East German border troop daily reports from 1974 made no mention of the incident [112]– the reports were now publicly accessible – the case was “laid aside” [113] a second time in May 1996, as there were no further relevant connections to be investigated.

Three and a half years later, the Investigating Agency for Governmental and Party Crimes (ZERV) was conducting a systematic evaluation of all autopsy reports from the medical faculty of Humboldt University’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, in which gunshot wounds were mentioned. A case was found under the date of March 29, 1974 that concerned a Polish citizen, Czesław Jan Kukuczka, who had died from a gunshot wound suffered earlier that day. Following further examinations, the investigators came across the pre-investigation files of the Central Registry of Salzgitter from 1974 and made the connection that the corpse on which the autopsy was performed may have been the unnamed victim of the shooting in question. But why had the 38-year-old Pole been shot at the Friedrichstrasse station on March 29, 1974 – and by whom? Who was Czesław Kukuczka – and what had brought him to divided Berlin? [114]

Czesław Kukuczka was born on July 23, 1935 in Kamienica, in the county of Limanowa, where he attended primary school through the seventh grade. [115] The local newspaper “Gorczańskie Wieści” listed him among the “most active, young, imaginative and committed hot heads.” [116] At the age of 17 he was recruited to work on construction of the Nowa Huta, a socialist workers’ city at the edge of Krakau. But he soon returned to his hometown “and reported that there is nothing to do in N. Huta […], that the workers are worn out by high work expectations and other obligations. He talked other people out of volunteering for this work because it was unbearable there,” according to an anonymous report written by a delegate from Nowa Huta on October 8, 1952. [117]

Czesław Jan Kukuczka, photo from before 1955
Czesław Kukuczka ran into trouble a year later. In October 1953 – now 18 years old – he was sentenced by the Limanowa county court to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for alleged fraud. [118] On the last day of his life he told employees of the Polish operational group in East Berlin that “he was head of a restaurant but the staff’s scheming had led to a deficit […], which is why he was sentenced to six years in prison.” [119] This information could not be verified. After serving his prison sentence, he was released on parole in November 1954. [120] He soon married and the couple had three children. He worked for a time at the Limanowa county repair and building company, then served for several years with the fire department in Jaworzno, Limanowa and Bielsko-Biała. He acquired the sergeant rank of a “junior fire brigade master.” [121]

Why did he not continue to pursue his career with the fire department in 1974? He was probably hoping to earn more money. At least this is the explanation found in a hand-written résumé from autumn 1973. In it Czesław Kukuczka mentioned that following the death of his father, he left the fire department briefly to work “by season [in the private building sector] for much higher pay.” [122] In a conversation with employees of the Polish embassy in Berlin he stated that he wanted to immigrate to the U.S. where he had two aunts. [123] The documents he had on him when he died included an address in Hollywood, Florida. [124]

On Sunday, March 3, 1974, Czesław Kukuczka did not show up for work. He did not excuse his absence nor did he present a notice certifying his inability to work. After six days, the fire department in Bielsko-Biała asked the local military administration to take on the case with the explanation that “we have looked for him several times at his current and former residence, without success.” [125]The citizens’ militia replied on March 26 that Kukuczka was currently at an “unknown location.” [126] Before this, on March 14, the fire department decided to discontinue the employment relationship with immediate effect due to his “wilful departure from the work site.” [127] The fireman had been missing without a trace since March 3. There was no further information about his whereabouts until that Friday, March 29, 1974.

At 12.30 that afternoon, Czesław Kukuczka appeared at the reception of the Polish embassy in East Berlin, which was located on Unter den Linden, not far from the Brandenburg Gate. He announced that he had an important message to deliver and was led to another room of the embassy without going through any further security checks. A short time later, he was addressed by Colonel Maksymilian Karnowski, [128] a member of the Berlin operational group of the Polish Ministry of Interior (MSW), who was accompanied by an employee named Olszewski. Kukuczka demanded that he be allowed to pass the Friedrichstrasse station border crossing to West Berlin by 3 pm, adding that otherwise he would blow up the embassy with a bomb he had on him. An anonymous report that could only have been written by Colonel Karnowski did in fact note that resting on his knees was “a stuffed briefcase with a noose sticking out. He was holding the taut loop tightly in his left hand.” [129] He said that if his demands were not met, he would blow up three other buildings in Berlin along with the embassy, including the Polish Information and Cultural Center on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse. The entire Western world would report on it, Kukuczka claimed, because two other people were involved in the plan: an acquaintance in West Berlin and a contact man in East Berlin. [130] He had made the detonator himself, the 38-year-old explained, having acquired the necessary know-how during his service in the military. The explosives had been smuggled in during a previous illegal trip to East Germany. “Based on his statements, it could be assumed that he really was skilled in pyrotechnics,” Karnowski wrote. [131] According to the report, Kukuczka claimed that his wife was not informed of his escape plans. “When Kukuczka spoke of his family, he became emotional and had tears in his eyes.” [132] Czesław Kukuczka remained suspicious of the secret service employee. He glanced at his watch frequently and refused his offer of coffee. In the end they were able to convince him that in order to fulfil his ultimatum, a special travel permit would have to be issued on his behalf. Colonel Karnowski managed to leave the room by telling Kukuczka that this presence was necessary to issue the travel permit to West Berlin. At 1:10 p.m. the Polish secret service agent telephoned Colonel Willi Damm, head of Department X (“International Contacts”) of the East German Ministry of State Security, abbreviated “Stasi.” Damm immediately informed Deputy Stasi Minister Bruno Beater, who made the decision “to have Kukuczka rendered harmless outside the Polish embassy building if possible.” [133] Within an hour of the phone call with Karnowski, Damm had arrived at the Polish embassy. He was accompanied by two other Stasi officers: Lieutenant Colonel Hans Sabath from the Central Operational Staff – in plain clothes – and Major Sanftenberg of Main Department VI, whose duties included passport inspection and passenger traffic, and whose employees wore the uniform of the border troops. In the office of Colonel Wacław Szarszewski, [134] head of the Polish operational group in East Berlin, Sanftenberg issued a provisional passport document with the required exit visa for West Berlin. The only thing missing was the passport photo. They assured Czesław Kukuczka that the picture could be made in two minutes in the photo booth at the border crossing. A later report from the Stasi and East German attorney general noted that “this helped to reassure the perpetrator.” [135]

While the document was being produced, Karnowski asked discretely whether the East Germans were really planning to let Kukuczka go to West Berlin. Stasi Colonel Damm noted in his report, “Comrade Karnowski was told that their main aim was to prevent the Polish citizen from committing a terrorist act. The immediate goal was to prevent an incident from occurring inside the embassy building.” [136] According to the Stasi man, everything had to be resolved on the territory of East Germany, where the use of arms to “render Kukuczka harmless” may be required. “Comrade Karnowski was visibly relieved to hear this and offered his approval,” Damm noted. [137]

Czesław Kukuczka left the Polish embassy at about 2:40 p.m. – with the travel document, visa and exit permit. On Kukuczka’s request, Colonel Karnowski gave him a few West marks to take with him. Kukuczka then climbed into the car of Stasi Lieutenant Colonel Sabath, who accompanied him the short distance to the Friedrichstrasse station border crossing. The Polish secret service agents stayed behind. According to the report from Colonel Damm, Main Department VI had taken “the necessary preparatory measures at the Friedrichstrasse station,” whatever that may have meant. [138] Sabath accompanied Kukuczka to the departure pavilion, known to Berliners as the “Palace of Tears.” The Pole went through the clearance process – evidently still under observation by the HA VI forces.

It is difficult to reconstruct what then took place at the border crossing. In his report, Damm noted only that at 3 p.m., during the clearance procedure, the “deployed operational forces” were able to successfully “render Kukuczka harmless […] without drawing the attention of other travellers.” [139] Ernest Kucza, the Polish embassy counsellor, who had not witnessed the events personally, later wrote: “In an attempt to overpower him […], it became necessary to employ the use of a gun and K[ukuczka] was injured.” [140]

Despite his severe injuries, Czesław Kukuczka was not taken to the nearest hospital. It is documented in the Stasi “admissions report” that because of the “strong suspicion of terror and illegal border crossing,” he was instead brought to the Stasi prison hospital located several kilometres away at the Stasi remand prison complex in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. [141] Czesław Kukuczka was dead before a judicial arrest warrant could even be issued: He bled to death on the operating table at 6:32 p.m. The bullet into his back had shattered his lung, spleen and liver. [142] The following day, March 30, the Stasi’s technical investigation office analysed the contents of the briefcase with which Kukuczka had threatened to set off a bomb. The case contained all kinds of things, including a hydrant cover, a broken whisky bottle, a shaving brush and razor, a shoe brush and shoe polish, sewing needles and thread – but no explosives. [143]

Until then, the Stasi documents had made no mention of Kukuczka carrying a weapon. Only after the “Bild” newspaper reported on the “attack” at the Friedrichstrasse station on April 2 were his fingerprints taken. [144] A weapon is mentioned for the first time in a report from Stasi Main Department IX dated April 4, 1974 -- six days after the incident occurred. It alleged that Czesław Kukuczka had used a gun to threaten two border security agents, after which he was subsequently shot and killed by one of them. [145] This report also served as the basis for the later report that the East German attorney general sent to the Polish officials. [146] The Stasi specialists did not receive the pistol for investigation until April 5, seven days after the shooting. They conveniently found Kukuczka’s fingerprints on it – and confirmed the functional soundness of the weapon. [147]

The autopsy report from the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Humboldt University was completed on April 3. It contradicts the claim that on March 29, 1974 the deceased “was admitted to a hospital with a stomach bullet wound and died during the operation.” [148] On the basis of fabric flaws on clothing, thread elements inside the wound and other details, the medical examiners came to the unequivocal conclusion that he had been shot in the back. [149] All evidence suggests that after Czesław Kukuczka’s death, the Stasi fabricated the story that he had been in possession of a weapon as a means to justify his murder. After the autopsy, on April 4, the East German attorney general released the body for burial or cremation. [150] On April 5, the registry office of Berlin-Mitte issued both a death certificate [151] and a death entry certificate for social insurance. [152] Both East Germany and the Polish government hoped to avoid drawing attention to the case. Kukuczka’s family had still not been informed of the events. Without consulting the relatives, the decision was made to provide an urn for burial. [153]

East Germany rejected the suggestion from Poland to present Czesław Kukuczka’s death as a “suicide with a gun“ instead of as a shot in the back, [154] “because that could result in a violation of East German law.” [155] The autopsy report and other documents were necessary for the consulate to process the death routinely – and they had already been issued. Evidently Stasi Minister Mielke had also rejected the Polish version of events and thus, the dead man was spared posthumously the lie of a “normal suicide” as the official explanation of his death. In late April/early May, East German officials handed the urn over to Stanisław Supruniuk, the Polish consul, along with the documents needed for the transfer and several personal items found on Czesław Kukuczka. A summary report, [156] a death certificate and death record had already been issued.

For its own purposes, the Polish embassy produced its own edited version of the events of March 29, 1974. It describes Czesław Kukuczkas attempted escape at the Friedrichstrasse station border crossing, but does not mention his visit to the embassy or his bomb threat. [157] This version was intended to “prevent possible undesired effects” and deter others from copying Kukuczka action. Ambassador Dmochowski proposed that the full version of the events be kept in the secret chamber of the Foreign Ministry and be made available to a “narrowly-defined group of people.” [158] Officials in the Warsaw headquarters also felt it was important to avoid causing a stir. A note of May 8 shows that Wojciech Jaskot, head of the consular department of the Foreign Ministry, and deputy foreign minister Stanisław Trepczyński agreed in a telephone conversation that “the matter should be kept secret.” [159] “The family [Kukuczka] should not travel to East Germany,” is handwritten in the margins of another document. [160]

On May 24, 1974, Emilia Kukuczka, the widow, received the urn from a local district attorney’s office, along with a package containing her deceased husband’s personal belongings and death certificate. The next day the parish warden of Kamienica reported that a church funeral had taken place with close family members. In his report to Warsaw the local district attorney expressed with relief that “no events of a demonstrative nature were registered from the family or from local residents.” [161] The MfS leadership was also satisfied. In late May 1974, Lieutenant Colonel Hans Sabath was awarded a combat medal in gold “for service to people and fatherland.” The explanation stated that thanks to his prudent action “a severe border provocation had been prevented and the terrorist was rendered harmless.” [162] A year later, Colonel Wacław Szarszewski, head of the Polish operational group in East Berlin, was granted the Comrade-in-Arms Medal at the highest level: gold. [163]

In December 2005, following three preliminary investigations – one in the mid 1970s, one in the early 1990s, and one in the late 1990s – the Berlin public prosecutor’s office came to the following conclusions: The eyewitness accounts recorded directly following the crime were contradictory; their descriptions were insufficient to identify the perpetrator. Moreover, from where they were standing they could not have seen whether or not the victim in front of them had pulled out a pistol. Identifying the MfS employees involved in the incident would not be difficult. But “given the vague and contradictory statements of the eyewitnesses who were questioned at the time,” it would be impossible “to identify any one of them with certainty as the perpetrator.” [164] Since it could be assumed that the actions of the Stasi were covered up, it would be unlikely that any “document on the true course of events still exists.” It could also be ruled out that a request for judicial assistance from Poland would provide any written documents on the course of events that vary from the Stasi’s version. The conclusion continues: “In light of this, it is no longer possible to clarify the facts.“ [165] Hence the investigation was closed on December 21, 2005. The fatal bullet fired into Czesław Kukuczka’s back went unpunished.

Filip Gańczak/Hans-Hermann Hertle

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