BERLIN — Erika Schallert fled East Berlin on August 15, 1961, with nothing but the clothes she was wearing and her half-finished wedding dress, determined that nothing was going to stop her getting married — not even the Berlin Wall.

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Two days before, East German border guards in the dead of night set up the first barbed-wire version of the Wall that would become a 3.6-meter-high concrete barrier dividing Berlin for nearly 30 years.

The frontier between East and West Germany, from the Baltic to Bavaria, had been sealed for a decade but Berlin was still open due to its special status under the occupying powers: the United States, France, the U.K. and the Soviet Union.

The wall fell on November 9, 1989, but only after at least 136 people were killed trying to get to the West. Most were shot by East German border guards. About 5,000 made it.

It has since been converted into one of the planet's most fascinating bicycle paths. The "Berliner Mauerweg" (Berlin Wall Trail) follows the wall's 100-mile route and the accompanying "death strip" that encircled West Berlin during the dark decades of the Cold War.

In 1961, Schallert was 22 and living with her parents in the east, but studying in the west where her fiance, Herbert, lived.

She had crossed the border almost every day for 13 years, and been stopped by border guards only a handful of times, so she ignored her fiance's warnings that a crackdown on the accelerating exodus of people into the West was inevitable.

Sitting in her large apartment half a century later, she recalled how her father told her on the morning of August 13 that transport links had been severed.

"At that moment, I knew what had happened. Before then I had always banished that thought," she said.

Leafing through the black-and-white pictures in her wedding photo album, Schallert recalled how she was set only on getting out and to her fiance.

Lying to a border guard
On the day of her escape, the petite woman put on the black dress she planned to wear for her civil wedding and wrapped up the cloth out of which her church wedding dress was to be tailored.

She made for a friend's apartment close to Bernauer Strasse, which was in the West but whose buildings on one side were in the East, accessible only from the Eastern side.

Just four days later the street would be the scene of the Wall's first casualty when a man fell to his death trying to climb down to the pavement from an apartment.

Schallert lied to the border guard who was standing in front of the apartment, saying she was visiting a tailor to have her wedding dress made.

Several hours later she was joined by four of her friend's acquaintances, who had been allowed to cross from the West.

When they left the apartment as a group, three of the four went over to distract the guards outside the building while Schallert and the other woman quietly and confidently walked across the street and to freedom.

"It felt like I was walking 200 meters (yards), but it was maybe the width of a building only," Schallert said. "The woman walked behind me and just kept saying: 'Stay calm'. And then I was in West Berlin."

Schallert, who had nightmares for years afterward, says she blocked out any thought her escape could fail, which would have landed her in prison if not worse.

In total, more than 75,000 people were imprisoned for trying to leave East Germany.

"It was clear to me that it could've gone wrong but I suppressed that thought. ... I just functioned," Schallert said.

She was married on September 4 as scheduled, with just a handful of guests and in her dress and heels, and soon took over a job in a photo lab from a friend who left for West Germany.

"They were just happy they had someone to work at all as thousands of people who lived in East Berlin and worked in West Berlin ... were suddenly gone," while others left the city altogether, she added.

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More than 20 years after the Wall has come down, Schallert and her husband still live in West Berlin.

Schallert said that to this day, she has no interest in living in the former East Berlin, even though it bears no resemblance to the drab, gray city of that Communist era. "It's still the East," she said.

'You can't eradicate history'
The Berlin Wall Trail was built in part so that the grim reality of the barrier would always be remembered.

"Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it," said Michael Cramer, a Greens party leader who ignored the widespread criticism and spent a lonely decade pushing to get bicycle path built.

In the euphoria that followed the despised Wall's collapse, most of it was quickly destroyed and early proposals to preserve at least a few pieces for posterity or turn the "death strip" into a bicycle trail were dismissed as madness.

"Everyone wanted the Wall gone as soon as possible and they called some of us in the Greens who wanted to preserve parts of it crazy," Cramer told Reuters. "Unfortunately, there was a certain Prussian thoroughness in demolishing it all."

The city council finally got behind his project in 2001, agreeing it made sense for a city with financial woes to develop its top tourist attraction. The trail is now used daily by tens of thousands of people.

"It took 10 years but it was worth it," said Cramer, 62, a physical education and music teacher in West Berlin for two decades before switching to politics and now a member of the European parliament.

"There was a realization that you can't eradicate history. They realized it wasn't just tourists asking 'Where's the Wall?' but people in Berlin too," he added.

Cramer was a 12-year-old boy when the Berlin Wall was built and remembered being terrified by the possibility the tensions around the construction would lead to another World War.

"I cried when I read the Wall was being built," he said. "I always thought we'd never have a war like my father and uncles went through. But suddenly a war loomed. I've never forgot that feeling and the Wall fascinated me from that moment on."

"The first time I rode along the Wall after it opened, I was able to cross back and forth from east to west and was amazed to think just a few months before I'd have been shot to death for trying to do that," he added. "It was an incredible experience."

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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