50 Years Ago Today: An Overnight Atrocity

13 Aug

Our apartment building in Berlin! We were the top two floors, right-hand side.

Imagine waking up one day only to discover that an impenetrable wall had gone up in your city overnight and you lived, not in a vibrant, whole metropolis, but rather in a divided, frightened island of a land; your grandparents, perhaps, were unreachable, your girlfriend separated from you forever because of the arrogance of her nation’s Communist ideology. It was August 13th, 1961: 50 years ago today.

"My" U-Bahn station - Dahlem Dorf. The prettiest station in Berlin!

I called that city home for my last two years of high school. West Berlin, Germany, was an amazing place to live. Since I had grown up on an island, with access only by ferry or private boat or plane, somehow living in the isolation of Berlin wasn’t a big deal to me. My father was a pilot for Pan American Airlines, so we had that life-line to the western world if we needed it, but there was so much to do in Berlin that really, we rarely left. I had never lived in a CITY before and, though I couldn’t speak the language beyond “Wo ist die toiletten?” when we moved there, it didn’t really matter. (Right before we moved to Berlin, the principal of my high school on Orcas Island asked me, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and I wondered why he was asking me if I spoke Dutch.)

A beloved East German "Ampelmann" pedestrian stop light...now to be found all over the reunited city.


I wish I had learned the language better, wish that I had the gift that certain people have of grasping the verb genders, the inflections of a foreign tongue. I learned a little, most of which I’ve now forgotten, though I was able, in an amazing trip last February, to converse with a store keeper in Berlin, both of us smiling, both of us laughing at our mutual struggles – his in English, mine in Deutsch. It was a pleasant experience, despite my terrible accent, and I returned to his shop 3 times because he made it fun.

The Ampelmann says "go"!


It was amazing being back in Berlin, after 21 years of being away. In a normal city, 21 years may or may not reveal much change. In Berlin, even the name was different…the “West” had disappeared…though in metaphorical terms, the “West” had actually taken over the “East”, and it was really the “East” which was gone. Now, the former West Berlin looks much the same: I found my house, my school, the military base where we shopped and hung out (though it is nothing but an abandoned field now). But the “East” part of Berlin…it’s like another war happened and everything had to be torn down and rebuilt to replace the ruined city. And, really, that is what happened. The Cold War was won…and the Communists backed off, leaving Deutschland united, returning Berlin to its glory days as capital of Germany.

Truman Plaza...no longer the bustling base that it was.


I guess you don't have to show your id card at the gate anymore.


"8 o'clock at Oskar"...a good place to meet! The subway station looks much as it did 20 years ago.


My parents were still living in Berlin when the wall came down on November 9, 1989, and I came home for Christmas that year and hammered out my obligatory bits of history from that hideous monstrosity of a wall: 96 miles of repression. They built it ostensibly to “Keep out Western Capitalism” though really it was built to keep IN the eastern people who were moving out in a steady stream of freedom-seekers. The freedom-seekers continued to seek ways out of East Berlin, sending more than 170 people to their deaths…and over 5,000 to freedom…in the 26 years of its existence. The Berlin Wall Museum, located at the former site of Checkpoint Charlie, is an amazing (albeit dusty) conglomeration of artifacts and stories and pictures of the history of the wall, complete with suitcases and empty car engines that were actually used to smuggle people over Die Mauer. My husband and I HAD to eat at a McDonalds which is located directly across from the museum…smack dab in the center of the former barricade against such brazen western ideals. How could we resist?

The former Berlin American High School...now a German oberschule.


Our football field...now, I suppose, a "football" field...ie, soccer!


Because my parents returned stateside less than a year after the wall opened, I had never seen the actual wall be gone. I had never seen Berlin whole…never been able to take an U-Bahn subway ride from the Kufurstendamm (West Berlin’s main shopping street) straight to Alexander Platz (a famous East Berlin square)…had never been able to shop in the amazing Gendarmenmarkt (because it wasn’t amazing then)…or been able, best of all, to walk through the Brandenburger Tor…because it was in no-man’s land, walk-here-and-be-killed-land. I love that now the Embassy to the United States is actually touching the Brandenburg Gate…love that the French Embassy is close by, the British Embassy…all right there, taking their rightful place in history as the protectors of Berlin back in the days when it needed protecting. The Russian Embassy is up the road a little…nearby, but not right there. It too, has a place in Berlin’s history…but a place that might rather be forgotten.

The Brandenburg Gate - now fully accessable!

“Ich bin ein Berliner,” JFK said in his famous speech declaring the stance of the United States in Berlin’s defense. Nevermind the joke that he accidentally called himself a jelly donut, he stood up for freedom…no less than President Regan did many years later when he stood before the Brandenburg Gate and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I was there when he made that speech. My mother and I stood there in the cheering crowd, thinking, “Yeah, right, like that will happen any time soon.” It happened two years later. Freedom has a way of coming to the fore.

I, too, am a Berliner. Even though I was not there for long. I think that we are part of everything that we have ever been. The naughty little children, the rebellious teenagers, the idealistic college students, the clueless new parents, the resigned adults. All of that is in me to this day. And so, on this anniversary of such a terrible oppression, I claim my place as a proud Berliner.

Even though I cannot speak the language.

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10 Responses to “50 Years Ago Today: An Overnight Atrocity”

  1. Roo Moran August 13, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Very well written, Gretchen!! The pictures made me tear up and long for the city that was a magical place for a young girl from Georgia. It took a few years for me to truly grasp the historical aspects of Berlin, the walled city, and I must say, what a learning experience! What an amazing city, what a opportunity of a lifetime! Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 13, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

      You are totally welcome! I couldn’t let this anniversary go by without posting about it! I’m so glad you enjoyed it…and yes, I know what you mean about not fully appreciating it at the time…I guess it takes a little perspective. Come on back to my blog any time!!

  2. Amy Ellis August 13, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    Great pictures! Oskar U-bahn station looks exactly like it did from the outside at least… many a moment spent in conspiratorial conversation on benches there. I look forward to someday being able to go back and see what it’s all become – I got to go back briefly, right before the reunification ceremony but many months after the wall came down. At that time, the city was beginning to turn from joy to weariness with the influx – and I’m sure by now it’s all evened out to be a real place again after the initial shock of reintegration wore off.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 13, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

      Thanks, Amy! Yes, Oskar looks pretty much the same inside as well…except that now you can buy tickets at a tiny machine that are good for a week or whatever…so less need to the little man in the ticket booth! I talked to someone who went back probably around the time you did – she talked about how you could recognize the East Berliners by their clothes and shoes. Now, like you say, everything has evened out. If you didn’t know where the wall was, you’d never know. (Except that there is a bike path along the route and it’s marked off with special cobblestones.) It was AMAZING to see it as ONE city. Fabulous! Oh, and yes, those U-Bahn stations were certainly the site of many a clandestine – or otherwise – conversation!

  3. Rick Trice August 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    Gretchen: Thanks for sharing your memories, and the recent photos, which struck a chord with me. I lived in Berlin with my family from 1962 to 1964. My father was principal of Berlin American High School. I was back in Germany this spring, but not to Berlin. Would like to go back to spend time just in Berlin next time. Thanks again!

    Rick Trice

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 19, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

      Thanks, Rick. I appreciate you giving your thoughts and I’m really glad that you found this interesting. Yes, Berlin is a great place to visit – especially now, to see all the changes there. You were there at an amazing time – when the wall was brand-new! That must have been intense. I kind of like knowing that BAHS is still a school – somehow that’s as things should be! Gretchen

  4. Neeks August 29, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    My sister and her husband spent 8 yrs with the U.S. Army in Germany, they loved it that much. My sister didn’t want to come home. I have always wanted to go. So much history! Thank you for sharing.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 29, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, it was a great place to live. Berlin, especially, is an amazing city. I can’t wait to go back yet again!

  5. quirkywritingcorner December 16, 2016 at 7:32 pm #

    Thank you for following my blog.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Boggled by Berlin « A fine day for an epiphany… - February 14, 2012

    […] That was the 50th anniversary of the wall being built, if you’re interested in checking it out. https://afinedayforanepiphany.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/50-years-ago-today-an-overnight-atrocity/ No, I'm sorry, I don't know who this introspective man is/was. But I loved the birdie on […]

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