This book takes place in Germany. Specifically, the day is Sunday, August 13, 1961, and we are located in East Berlin. The Berlin Wall has just gone up.
The Berlin Wall divided Berlin into the East and West. People lost their jobs. Easterners could not cross into the west. People were so desperate to go into the west for freedom that they crashed their cars through the Death Strip, which was part of the wall. Other ways people escaped were swimming through canals and digging tunnels under the bridge.
These ways of escaping were life-threatening. So if they chose to escape this way, they'd live free or die. This means that freedom and rights must mean a lot to people.
Would you rather live a life that you don't like, or die?