Tag Archives: East Berlin

Chiseling Down the Wall – My Berlin Wall Memories

4 Nov

The first time I saw the Berlin Wall was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. We had just moved to West Berlin because my Dad, who had been laid off from Pan American World Airways for 14 years, had unexpectedly been recalled…and sent to Berlin.

I remember when we got the news that we’d be moving. We’d known the assignment was to come through that day, so I’d made Mom promise to leave a message for me at school telling me where we’d be moving to. To my surprise, in the middle of algebra class, my teacher handed me a note. It read simply, “Berlin”.

Suddenly the world opened up for me. Visions of bratwurst, dirndls and Cold War spy movies filled my mind.

Clearly, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

By the time we’d moved into our apartment in the Dahlem district of Berlin, registered me for school in the US Department of Defense-run Berlin American High School, and learned to avert my eyes when walking through city parks where there were clothing-optional volleyball games in progress, I felt like I’d aged about a million years from that day in algebra class. West Berlin was not what I had expected.

It was better.

With the exception, of course, that every aspect of life was controlled by The Wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

Living in the city, going about my daily life, I didn’t give the wall much thought. But whenever a sports team or, in my case, the Drama Fest team, had to go to another West German city for a competition, we had to climb aboard the Duty Train (the nightly military train that took soldiers and their families across East Germany in the dark) with the window shades pulled, so that no Westerners could see the glory that was the DDR, the Deutsches Democratic Republic of Germany.

It was impossible for civilians to ride this train, except in the case of students like myself, so I’d come with an armload of special papers while my military-dependent friends could pretty much just hop onboard. The Duty Train was really the only way out of the city apart from flying. There were day passes available to military dependents to enter East Berlin, and as civilians we could enter the East through Checkpoint Charlie, but there were many rules and curfews required if you did so.

One of the rules was that you weren’t allowed to take any paper money – East Marks – back into West Germany. My uncle (when he and my aunt visited us one Christmas and we all went into the East) chose to be stubborn rather than spending his leftover marks. He opened an East German bank account with his ten marks…the equivalent of less than five dollars. I suppose the account still exists, though it’s more likely that the bank itself dissolved with the fall of the wall.

The gate that December.  Note the Soviet flag still flying.

The gate that December. Note the Soviet flag still flying.

Another rule about crossing into East Berlin was that civilians couldn’t drive their cars. This meant that whenever we wanted to go there – which was only twice for me – we were required to walk through Checkpoint Charlie and be scrutinized by the East German guards.

This wasn’t too big of a deal, but it took awhile, depending on whether the guards felt like opening the window or not, and on how long the lines were. Both times I visited they glanced at my passport and waved me through. Both times my mother, however, was scrutinized. She must have looked like she’d be easily intimidated. She would stand there, trying to look cross and aloof, but probably the shaking of her hand as she handed over her passport gave her away. I actually wanted to be scrutinized. I thought it would be fun. But no, they picked on Mom instead.

I disliked visiting the East. Oh, it was interesting seeing Alexander Platz and visiting the Russian-run department store, but it was a gloomy place, a gray place. The above-ground subway, the S-Bahn, gave a shrill whistle at every stop which always gave me a headache, and seeing the windows of the houses that faced the wall literally boarded up and seeing the guards with their guns patrolling no-man’s land and their guard towers and their utter disdain for us westerners was a little off-putting.

Of course, never far from one’s mind when visiting East Berlin, was the fact that you could leave…and every single person you saw around you could not. Well, they could go into the rest of East Germany, but they certainly couldn’t go into the west.

(By the way, if you ever get to Berlin today, the Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum (Mauermuseum) is a must-see. It tells the story – and often preserves the means – of the many escapes and escape attempts that were made in the 27-year existence of the wall. There is little more humbling in life than to realize how you’ve taken your freedom for granted.)

I remember one time going to a fair and riding a Ferris Wheel that was set up right alongside the wall. Every time we reached the apex of the wheel ride we could see over the wall and into the streets and lives of the East Germans on the other side. I felt like a bird must feel. Only birds have the right to fly anywhere they choose. Even they had more freedom than the East Germans.

A hole in the wall...with the "Pope's Revenge" in the background.

A hole in the wall…with the “Pope’s Revenge” in the background.

I visited the wall several times while in my two years in Berlin. Usually we’d take the U-Bahn, the underground, to the Reichstag (now the Bundestag) and get out there, walking the short way to the Brandenburg Gate. My mother and I did that when President Reagan came to speak at the wall, in the spring of 1987. We had signed up for tickets, which we clutched, along with our passports and civilian ID cards, as we joined the line which snaked back and forth for row upon row.

There were three checkpoints along the way, all manned by West German guards. I handed my pile of documents to the first. He glanced down, prepared to wave me forward, then gave a snort. A snort which could only be called a laugh.

He looked up at me. “Gretchen?” He asked.

I nodded, confused.

Then, with another laugh, he handed me my papers and waved me on.

I shuffled forward, uncertain and a little perplexed.

At the next checkpoint, it happened again.

Papers handed over, name read, guard guffawed. Only this time he called over his friends to add a little humor to their day as well. “Gretchen!” he said, lending his German pronunciation to my name. “Ya, ha ha!” his friends agreed.

As I approached the third and final checkpoint, Mom and I prepared ourselves for the laugh fest.

I handed my documents over and, sure enough, the guard smiled and chuckled.

“It’s my name, right?” I asked. “Mein namen?”

“Ya,” the guard replied. “Das ist ein kinder namen.”*

A name for children.

Fine. Whatever. Give me my passport, please.

And then, after taking our place in the standing crowd and seeing East German guards staring down at us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate with rifles slung over their shoulders, the president appeared. When I looked back up, the soldiers were gone.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” President Reagan said. And I laughed a little, inside, at the absurdity of the thought.

Turns out I was the who was absurd. And I’m so glad.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

I was in college back in the States on November 9, 1989 – 25 years ago this month – so I wasn’t there when the wall actually opened up, but I went back several weeks later for Christmas. My parents and my cousin Eleanor (who was visiting for Christmas) and I took the U-Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate, bringing a hammer and chisel with us to claim our small piece of history. The crowds had thinned greatly from the initial days after the opening of the wall, but there were several people there, chiseling and hammering and swigging from bottles of wine.

We approached a large hole in the wall and gazed through into the former No-Man’s Land, the place of such loathing and horror in the past. An East German guard, still patrolling but unarmed, walked up on his side of the wall and smiled at us. He was still wearing his uniform, complete with Russian-style fur hat with the ear flaps folded up.

In broken German, Eleanor struck up a conversation with him and he replied amiably, smiling all the while. We were making friends with a man who, only weeks ago, would have had orders to shoot us.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

I went back to Berlin a few years ago, walked through the Brandenburg Gate, saw the renamed Reichstag and the US Embassy abutting the Gate itself, stayed in a Hilton hotel in the former East Berlin. Such decadence in the city that had been so dreary!

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012.  The US Embassy is the building to the left.

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012. The US Embassy is the building to the left.

Every moment of my time there was surreal. It was beyond fantastic to see the city I had come to love as it was meant to be. A unified whole.

PS – I know that reunification wasn’t all easy, what with broken Trabants on the autobahn and sales of pornography skyrocketing (blue jeans and bananas rounded out the top three most-bought items by the East Germans). But still, reunification brought about the ultimate end of World War II (the end of the Allied Occupation in the city) and the end of Germany’s split personality, so to speak. And while it might not have been easy, it was, in the end, Sehr Gut.

*My apologies if my German is incorrect!

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Boggled by Berlin

14 Feb

No, this isn’t exactly a Valentine’s Day post…but the fact remains that I love Berlin, so maybe it counts after all…

"My" U-Bahn station. Pretty much unchanged...unlike me and the city around it!

They say that you can never go back. That once you’ve left a place, you won’t return as the same person you were when you left. Well, conversely, Berlin itself is not the same place it was when I moved away, three days after my high school graduation, in June 1988, and I just have to say that I’m very glad! I’m not the same, either, and that, too, is a good thing.

Okay, if you look too closely, you'll see how tasteless this is. This is the waiting bench at Dahlem Dorf U-Bahn station. Yes...this is quintessential Berlin.

Our apartment building in Berlin. We were the top right-hand apartment (each one was two floors/half of each floor, for a total of 4 in the building).

I returned briefly a few times before my parents moved away in 1990, including being home for Christmas in 1989, one month after The Wall was opened – but I hadn’t been back since The Wall was actually gone, since reunification, since being married, being a mom, being, well, grown up. It had been over two decades since I’d been in this city, and it was, truly, not the same place that I had left.

My street!

My street - cobblestones and all. Looks pretty much exactly the same!!

I think the first thing that struck me when we arrived in Berlin was that our hotel was on THE EAST SIDE of the now non-existent wall! It was just so amazing to me – I mean, last time I’d been here, I couldn’t even GO to this part of the city (well, I could, but not without a lot of hoopla and scrutiny and a passport). Now, we could even ride the U-Bahn (subway) there whereas before the western U-Bahn line would not cross over into the East. It was like magic had occurred – like a marriage had taken place and the The Two had miraculously Become One.

Our hotel, in - the former - east!

Across the street from our hotel - and the view we had every morning while we ate breakfast. The Deutscher Dom.

The Brandenburger Tor / Brandenburg Gate.

My husband took this shot last week. (All the other shots - except the night ones and Bebelplatz - are from a year ago.)

The Quadriga on the top of the Brandenburg Gate. I'd never seen it from the Eastern side before! There's a story about how she was kidnapped by Napoleon in 1806 and taken to Paris. She was returned a few years later. Imagine kidnapping such an enormous thing! And back in the day before cranes!

And, of course, the most magic thing of all: the open Brandenburger Tor – the Brandenburg Gate. I could walk under it now! And, low and behold, the US Embassy actually TOUCHES the gate (with the French and British embassies close at hand – the three allied countries which oversaw West Berlin). Last time I’d been that close to the Gate, I was watching President Ronald Reagan give his famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech with my mother. We had to go through three checkpoints just to get there – in which I was laughed at by the German guards at each one because of my name on the invitation – “Gretchen” is a child’s name in Germany, and “Greta” would be the adult form. (“Chen” is a diminutive.) By the time I got to the third checkpoint and the guards chuckled yet again, I said, “It’s my name, right?” “Ya, ya!”

This statue is titled, "Cry Freedom" and I remember it from the days when it was almost a plea - today it's more of a cry of victory.

As we stood and listened to Reagan’s speech, there were East German guards standing ON the Gate with honking huge guns in hand. I remember thinking that Reagan was an optimist, that was for sure. And now, all these years later…I was walking beneath the actual Brandenburg Gate!! I touched the pillars and just stood there a while, letting it all soak in.

I couldn’t stop marveling about it all. To hear about something is one thing, but to see it and touch it is quite another.

There are a couple places in the city today where huge chunks of the wall are still in place as a memorial. The instant I saw the wall, and drew close to its shadow, I grew cross, grumpy, and withdrawn. That’s how going to the East used to make me feel. It was all so wrong for any country to imprison their people – and all in the guise of keeping them safe. Even, of course, to the extent of killing them if they tried to escape. It just made me angry. So, seeing that wall still standing – even though I could obviously go around it now – just made all those emotions come roaring back. I felt like a sullen teenager again.

Definitely NOT what used to be in Eastern Berlin.

That being said, when we saw, directly across from the former Checkpoint Charlie boarder crossing, that there is a DECADENT WESTERN McDonalds, we just had to eat there. How could we not?!! Last time I’d been at that exact place my passport had been scrutinized by bored German guards and I’d left with a tremendous headache from the horrid whistle on the Eastern U-Bahn. This time, by contrast, I headed East to go “home”. Yes indeed, the world has changed since I was a teenager, and here, at least, it’s a good thing.

The Bundestag...aka, the former Reichstag. This was a museum back in my day. Now it's the very real seat of parliament for Germany.

Everything was gray in East Berlin back then. Gray and depressing and repressed. Now, that exact same piece of land is fantastic – not because commerce and Westernism is so perfect…but because freedom itself gives joy. I am so happy for the people of Germany.

Imagine coming back to a place after more than two decades – a place you loved, a place you understood – and finding it entirely different – not just larger, but fundamentally a different place. I knew what it felt like to live in Berlin – it felt like a benevolent trap – not because I felt trapped, per sey, but because you had this constant knowledge, in the back of your heart, that you could not leave this city. Not without a lot of fuss and bother. You could not jump in your car and drive away. You could not escape – the entire city was surrounded by a communist country and you were NOT welcome there. But now you’ve come back, and the FEEL of the city has changed – the mind-set of the people has changed. It is not the enclosed, shut-off place that it was. It is no longer a trap. Imagine how different – how fantastic – that feels! The city you love no longer has a tourniquet that cut into its very heart. The people of Berlin understand what freedom feels like. As if the air itself is different.

It’s as if the city you love has grown up – that there had been a locked room which no one was ever allowed to see except in gray-tinged glimpses, kept hidden by some cross adult, which now has been opened for everyone to see. Does that make sense? It was as if Berlin and I had both grown up together.

The United States embassy abuts the gate.

The French embassy is across the street from the U.S. one...and down a wee bit.

The British Embassy - just around the corner from the U.S. one.

The Russian embassy - a block or two further up the Unter Den Linden - I'm sure in the same place it was back in my day, though I never walked around there to find out. Each of the embassies have an armed guard in front of them.

I remember riding on a Ferris Wheel one time. It was placed as close to the Brandenburg Gate as it was allowed to be. The wheel stopped when I was at the very top, and I could see into East Berlin, see the tower guards with their guns and orders from on high, see the no man’s land that kept the Easterners away from the wall (they could not walk up to it as you could on the western side), see Unter Den Linden – that famous street, cut off and feeble, compared to its former glory. A sparrow flew past me and kept on flying east, over the wall, over the guards, over the city. I marveled at his freedom to enter the locked room.

Now, more than two decades later, we all have wings to explore this amazing city.

The gate by night.

Berlin is, truly, an incredible place. (It is the only German city without a curfew! Gotta keep those cabarets going!) There are tremendous museums, fabulous stores, and friendly people. And, of course, the history everywhere you go. It fits its new role as an undivided capital perfectly.

Okay, it's impossible to do this justice. This is in Bebelplatz. Know what that means? I'll tell you in a minute. First, let me describe it. This is a window, below which is a all-white room, with white bookshelves on all four walls, floor to ceiling. The shelves are bare. Remember Belelplatz now? It's where Hitler had a magnificent bonfire to burn books. And this window and the room below is the memorial to that wickedness. It will blow your mind.

P.S. – It’s been very hard to write with any degree of perfection about Berlin. It’s all so close to my heart and there is so much to say that it’s hard to say anything concisely! I hope this rambling post isn’t too annoying to read! Oh, and also, I posted about Berlin on August 13th of last year. 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 his feather!

A Clod-Hopper Goes to the Ballet

27 Dec

We went to The Nutcracker Ballet last night. My two daughters, my two nieces, one of my sisters and I. We left the boys behind. One can only force so much merriment on men this time of year.

It’s been years since I’ve been to the ballet. College, probably. (Which, loathe though I am to admit it, ended 20 years ago this spring.) The Nutcracker is probably the last ballet I saw, in fact, though it might have been Swan Lake. I did cultured stuff in college. I like to think that I still do, though I’m not sure if attending “Spamalot” counts as culture. (Well, it’s culture, all right, but not, perhaps, the refined part of it. It was fun, though!)

I attended the opera back then, too. My aunt sang in the opera chorus of the Eugene Opera, and my mom and I would drive over from Bend, OR, (I lived there in tenth grade) whenever she had a performance. La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Carmen, she was in them all. It was a great season! She always got me posters, too, with which I decorated my room in Berlin, months later. Lovely reminders of home.

I suppose that all nutcrackers come from Germany...but this one came directly from East Berlin circa 1987.


But I digress – as usual.

Going to The Nutcracker was terribly fun. We dressed up. We put on airs (well, I did anyway) and we relaxed into the artistic atmosphere. And now, of course, my daughters are prancing around the house, taking turns being Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Lucy boogied big-time right after the intermission and then fell asleep three minutes later in my arms. Pretty sweet.

I love the rocking horse guy. I saw a smaller identical version of him in February when I was back in Berlin but instead of getting him I got the wee one in the front. He'd be a good guy to have on your side in a fight.


I was in The Nutcracker twice when I was small. It was an interesting production; a strange conglomeration of local ballet students and kids who could not dance but who wanted to act. No, I was not one of the dancers. (See my posts about my dancing horrors this past summer.) I was one of the supporting cast. The second year I was the mouse mother, Dame Mouserick, by name. I think the director gave me that title to compensate for the fact that I was not given the same role I’d been given the first year. Whether the role was denied me because I’d been so bad at it the first year, I do not know. I prefer to think that it was just a case of a better person coming along, rather than desperately moving me to a different part.

Who was I that first year?

The Mouse King!

Seriously.

My first nutcracker. Mom gave him to me when I was the Mouse King. He's still my favorite...even if less sophisticated than his shelf-buddies. He does pretty quick work with a walnut. Yum!


I have no idea why I was chosen to be the Mouse King, other than the fact that I was bold and willing and not nearly as embarrassed to wear tights as the boys of the cast would have been, given as I was used to such garments. I don’t remember being embarrassed to be playing the part of a boy. I must have embraced my inner Mary Martin (who played Peter Pan) and given it all I could. I think I also was a Chinese “dancer” (read “clod-hopper”), though how I pulled that off, I truly do not know, given as I am neither Chinese nor, as previously mentioned with painful clarity, a dancer.

I dearly wish that we had those performances on video, but way back in the dark ages circa 1980, we didn’t have such things. How I would love to be able to watch myself wielding my sword, lurching across the stage – and how my kids would love it, too!

If you’re ever in Seattle and have a yen for the Nutcracker, I highly recommend it. It was a wonderful performance and features sets and costumes designed by Maurice Sendak of “Where the Wild Things Are” fame.

A great time was had by all…plus, it was a wonderful way to escape from the rain…

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