Tag Archives: The Brandenburg Gate

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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Cry Freedom!

12 Jun

Twenty-five years ago today I hopped onto the U-Bahn in West Berlin with my mom and together we made our way over to the Brandenburg Gate…the Brandenburger Tor.

We were heading to a once-in-a-lifetime event. Though at the time we had no idea how historic it really would be.

We got off the U-Bahn and walked past the Reichstag and found ourselves at the end of an enormous line of people, all clutching small pieces of paper as well as passports in their hands, all subject to searches, checks and scrutiny.

And, by the way, we all had guns trained on us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate.

The Quadriga on the top of the Brandenburg Gate. The East German guards stood right beside her with their guns.

Just a typical day in West Berlin? Not quite.

No, it was a special day – the day when a sitting United States president was to give a speech in this divided city, much as JFK did years previously – though, to be sure, no jelly doughnut references were expected.

And so we started though the twisting line – reminiscent of the winding airport security lines we face today. Someone handed us a small paper West German flag as well as a couple small American ones.

There were three check points, three times when our passports and invitations were inspected by orange and brown-clad German guards. At the first checkpoint I handed over my papers. The guard glanced at my invitation and burst out laughing. I looked at my mom, non-plussed. He looked at my passport and renewed his guffaws. He then poked another guard in the ribs and showed him whatever it was that was so funny. He, too, laughed.

“Gretchen!” They chuckled. “Ha!”

(Read with a German accent – it makes it funnier, “Greatchen”!)

He then passed back my papers and waved me on.

The Brandenburger Tor / Brandenburg Gate. I took this a year and a half ago.

We shuffled past, a little bewildered, clutching our identity and our tiny paper flags.

We approached the second checkpoint nervously. True to form, the guard burst out laughing after about half a second and, once again, showed his pal my papers.

“Greatchen! Das ist eine kinder namen.” (Okay, I admit, that may not be exactly what they said or exactly correct Deutsch. It’s the best I can remember right now!)

The truth began to dawn.

“Chen” is a diminutive in German – so, a newborn child would be named “Greta” and, while young, may indeed be called “Gretchen”…but, by the time they’d reached 17 as I was at the time, they’d be “Greta” – and never, on an official passport, would their name be a child’s name.

It would be like naming an American child “Suzikins” rather than “Suzanne”. Yes, she might be called “Suzikins” for a few years, but not by the time she was 17.

My husband took this shot last February.

We approached the third checkpoint with more confidence.

Yes, you guessed it, he laughed.

“It’s my name, right?” I said.

“Ya, ya,” he said, smiling, as he waved us on. “Greatchen! Ha ha!”

We took our place – standing on the Strasse des 17. Juni – towards the back of the enormous crowd. We eyed the East German guards standing on top of the Brandenburg Gate with their guns. We waved our paper flags, we smiled at small children riding on top of their father’s shoulders.

And then President Ronald Reagan came on to the makeshift stage.

Everyone clapped and cheered and waved those tiny flags and he began to speak.

I don’t remember much of what he said. I do remember the weather was warm and I was tired from standing. I remember antsy children. And those nerve-wracking guns. But then, suddenly, our ears perked up as he said these words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

The cheers were deafening.

Our smiles were huge.

But, in my heart, I thought, “Yeah, like that will happen.”

Boy, was I wrong.

“Cry Freedom” – a statue on Strasse des 17. Juni which still stands. My husband took this shot in February.

Two years later, as a freshman in college, I returned home for Christmas, just over a month after the wall had opened on November 9th, 1989. I went with my parents and my cousin who was visiting for the holiday and together we hammered out our pieces of history, even chatted with an East German guard who peered at us through a hole in The Wall.

History had been made.

Now, 23 years after the wall fell (metaphorically, anyway, it took a few years longer for it to be physically torn down), you call follow the course of the wall all through Berlin – there is a bicycle path all along the route.

It is a poignant reminder that nothing lasts forever.

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