It was icy cold on Jan. 22 1979, but for five long years Thomas Raufeisen looked back on that day with a warm nostalgia. He was 16 and had just returned from school to discover that his father hadn’t gone to work. “Your grandfather is ill,” his mother explained to him, “We have to go and visit him.”

That afternoon the Raufeisen family left Hannover and headed toward the Baltic Sea, on the other side of Germany. In order to get the permits to go to Usedom – the island in the Baltic Sea where his grandfather lived as a recluse – like millions of other Germans on the wrong side of the wall, they would have to go to Berlin first. But for Thomas, his brother Michael and their parents, the stopover in Berlin would turn out to be the beginning of a tragic nightmare.

After a series of strange circumstances, among which his father's meeting with three men at a petrol station that would procure them an apartment for the night, Thomas went to sleep with a sense of foreboding -- that the following day would turn into a nightmare. And, it did.

Armin Raufeisen called his sons into a room together the next day with a man, who would later prove to be an agent for the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police. “My father,” recalls Thomas, “explained to us that Granddad wasn’t actually sick, that we were fleeing from Hannover because he would have been arrested.

"‘I’m a Stasi agent,’ he told us,” Raufeisen recalled.

A few days earlier an intelligence officer had fled from East Germany with a list of spies infiltrated in West Germany, which included Armin Raufeisen. “He told us that we didn’t have to worry, that we could go home after a week. At that point, however, the Stasi man interrupted him briskly: ‘forget about going back to West Germany and seeing Hannover ever again, you fled from there and they’re looking for you to arrest you. Get used to the idea that you will be staying here, in the East. Forever.”

Thomas, who told his story in his book Der Tag, an dem uns Vater erzählte, dass er ein DDR-Spion sei. Eine deutsche Tragödie (The Day Our Dad Revealed He was Stasi Spy) felt his world collapse around him. “I cried desperately. My brother was 18 and had a girlfriend in Hannover. He began to scream like a madman, running outside, threatening to throw himself under the tram. My mother stopped him.”

The first shock that "destroyed in one stroke the trust and respect I had for my father” was the discovery that the seemingly mild man who showed tepid sympathies for politics and that every morning went to the PreussenElectra factory where he was a geophysicist, was leading a double life. That he was a spy for a secret service that in West Germany evoked only terrifying legends. That he was a fervent communist who in the 1950s stole from his tech company to turn them over to the totalitarian regime of Ulbricht and Honecker.

“He called himself an ambassador of peace. For me, the fact that he was a spy for the Stasi was not adventurous at all. I hated it.”

The second shock was “the theft my life. We knew the sadness of grey Eastern Germany. We had relatives there and we were so happy to be living in the West. My father had also brought us to Italy, to see Mount Vesuvius and the Etna, I really loved my life.”

“You’d have to be stupid to come voluntarily”

After six months, the family to an apartment in the center of Berlin. The first few weeks of school were a nightmare – Thomas didn’t trust anyone. But, more than anything, knowing that his family had come from Western Germany, “the others didn’t trust us, it all just stank of Stasi. I mean, you’d have to be stupid to come voluntarily to East Germany.”

After a few weeks, Thomas’ father realized the mistake he had made, as well as the hell he had inflicted on his family. Michael, who was no longer a minor, was allowed to return back to Hannover. “But the rest of us were forced to stay. My father finally realized that Eastern Germany was a totalitarian regime,” remembers Thomas, not without a trace of bitterness.

Armin Raufeisen began to organize their return to West. In the beginning they tried through legal ways but to no avail. Then, he began to think about escaping. At that time, at the beginning of the 1980s, the Raufeisen family became the pioneers of a route that soon became well known – they sought refuge in the Western German embassy in Hungary and asked for passports to cross the Iron Curtain. The first attempt failed, the Raufeisens returned to Berlin but began soon again to think of new ways to leave the East. 

One day, Armin directly approached an American soldier to offer his services to the CIA. “He knew he was experienced in his field,” said Michael ironically,  “but the American, unfortunately, didn’t seem at all interested.” The family, at that time, were watched day and night by the Stasi, who waited for us to put a foot wrong, which didn’t take long to happen. One day, when they were organizing a new attempt to flee to Hungary, there was a knock on the door. There were Stasi agents with a warrant to arrest the whole family. It was the beginning of a second ordeal, worse than the first and that would cost their father his life. 

“In 1981 we were arrested “for clarification” and taken to Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi prison. I was 18, isolated, I saw my parents four times that year. The officer who questioned me on the first night said that I should speak: “We have all the time in the world.”

My blood froze – I knew I could end up spending my whole life in that prison. After hours of screaming, intimidation, flattery and threats, I confessed that I wanted to leave the country, admitting my ‘guilt’ – if you can call it that.”

Thomas thought that it would end there but, instead, they left him there for a whole year. Then, there was the family trial. He was sentenced to three years, his mother to seven and his father given life imprisonment. Armin Raufeisen died under mysterious circumstances in 1987.

Thomas was expelled from Eastern Germany in 1984. Today, he has no enemies, he says, and has forgiven his father. He despises those who mourn that regime, or worse those “who are willing to give up a shred of their Western freedom for a bit more social security. A criminal thought.”