Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Berlin Wall - May 1968

This was originally published in the Northland Reader now the Reader Weekly, November 11, 1999.

Last Tuesday, November 9th, was the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Not being much of a TV viewer, I did not get the full thrill of seeing it come down.  But 21 years earlier I did get the full impact of seeing it up close.

In 1968 I transferred to Europe with Sperry Univac and was assigned to work in Basel, Switerland.  Within two weeks of my arrival I went to Berlin for a user conference.  I arrived early the day before the conference began and spent the day sightseeing.

I went through parks, into shops, and up into buildings to look out over a thriving city.  Unlike other cities, there was one place I was blocked from seeing the whole city: The Wall.  Unlike the green parks, the elegant shops, and the modern buildings that invited you in, the wall was grey, shabby, old-looking and uninviting.

The Wall was a combination of grey concrete and the fa├žades of old buildings.  The concrete was topped with barbed wire.  Mounting one of the many observation platforms, one could see more fences and walls, with tank traps and other impediments between them.  There were light towers and watch towers in both directions.  It was a gross caricature of a high-security prison.  On some streets the wall joined the fronts of a series of apartment buildings.  But there were no apartments behind the fronts whose doors and windows had been filled with concrete.  Every so often there would be a cross with flowers and ribbons; the cross marked the spot where somebody had been killed crossing over the Wall.

My wanderings took me to a large park that had a sign pointing to the Brandenburg Gate.  Over a half mile from the gate was a little gate house.  An unarmed guard indicated that we should follow the walkway that went way around the barricades on the road leading to the Brandenburg Gate.

Halfway to the Gate and on the other side of the broad street there was the Monument to the Soviet Soldier.  Two Russian soldiers marched stiff-legged back and forth.  Two others did some repair on the paving.  The only thing separating us was a normal crowd-control barricade on my side of the street.

About three-quarters of the way to the Gate, I encountered the first armed West Germans that I had seen.  Two policemen with machine pistols were chatting in the street.  They didn't even look at me when I took their pictures.  Behind them and on the other side of the street was the Reichstag, an imposing building with almost no activity around it.  And right behind it was The Wall.

In the middle of the street, a few yards before The Wall, was a block house with the main floor about a half-story above the ground.  It had large windows in front, and a balcony.  On the balcony stood an American soldier looking over The Wall with a pair of binoculars.  The Wall made a great semicircle around the Brandenburg Gate.  In that semicircle stood a number of East German soldiers looking back over the wall, some with binoculars.

I was free to walk in front of the block house to either side of the semicircle.  Inside the semicircle it was barren except for grass between some of the cement blocks and the soldiers.  Outside the semicircle on the "west" side of The Wall there were numerous small trees and many propaganda signs directed to the east.  Among them were a quote from Bertold Brecht and a count of the number who died trying to cross The Wall.

Back at my hotel I met three people from one of our Swiss customers.  They said they were going to go to Checkpoint Charlie (one of the few openings in the wall); they invited me along.  We hopped in a taxi and went to what appeared to be a normal European mixed residential/business district.  That is, stores below and offices and apartments in the one to three stories above.

However, right in the middle of the street was a white frame bungalow.  It was the office of the American soldiers who monitored that section of The Wall.  And beyond it was The Wall.  Nobody paid any attention to us as we walked towards The Wall.  I don't remember how it looked as it crossed from one side of the street to the other.  I just focused on the little overlapping opening that we walked through.

On the other side we were met by an armed East German soldier who handed each of us a numbered ticket off a roll of tickets.  He directed us to a wooden building on the right side of the street.  Inside we had to write out a customs declaration, and give up our passports and the numbered ticket.  When we did this we were given another numbered ticket and directed to the next wooden building.

In the second building our passports were called out by number, in German, no name.  We turned in our second ticket and were given our passports back with a third numbered ticket.  Each ticket was a different color.  We were then directed to a third building.

As we walked between buildings we saw a car parked in front of the wooden building on the other side.  Several soldiers were around it and one soldier was on his knees looking under the car with a mirror on a stick and wheels.  We didn't watch long enough to know if the car was allowed to pass or not.

In the third building we turned in our ticket and ten West German Marks (about $2.50 at the time) in exchange for ten East German marks (almost worthless).  I put my East German ten-mark bill into my passport.  We were given a fourth ticket and allowed to go outside.  We were met by a soldier who took our tickets and allowed us to proceed down Friedrichstrasse.

What a difference met our eyes.  When we got out of the taxi, we were in a neighborhood that has been normal in European cities for a couple of centuries.  Not elegant but well-kept.  In front of us on the other side every other building was just as it had been at the end of World War II.  A few partial walls and a pile of rubble.

Every now and then there were some buildings undamaged or restored.  One of them was the Berlin Comic Opera which displayed playbills for coming performances.

We continued on to Unter Den Linden, before World War II one of the most fashionable streets in Berlin.  Now it had some rather plain looking shops with nothing much in their windows.  We continued on to the Brandenburg Gate but we were not allowed to get as close to The Wall as I had from the other side.  We were stopped by a line of crowd control barricades.  Nothing more was needed because there were plenty of soldiers around The Wall.

We returned to Friedrichstrasse down the other side of Unter Den Linden.  At the intersection we found a popular restaurant, at least among East German soldiers.  They seemed to be about one-third of the customers.  We found a table and ordered our food.  When it came it had a medium sized portion of meat with potatoes and vegetables filling almost all the space left on the plate.  I thought the restaurant was trying to show how good life was under Communism.  It was many months before I learned that serving style was typical of ordinary restaurants all over Germany.

We finally finished our meal and paid in West German marks, which pleased the management very much.  When we got outside it was late and dark, and so we took a taxi back to Checkpoint Charlie.

We were met again by a soldier who gave us each a numbered ticket.  We went into the wooden building on the right side of the street leading to The Wall.  We handed our tickets and passports to the sergeant behind the single, long counter.  He opened mine and saw ten East German marks.  One was not permitted to export East German marks.

A long conversation ensued between my Swiss companions and the sergeant.  With not 200 words of German vocabulary yet, I could only turn my head from speaker to speaker.  Finally, the sergeant looked me directly in the eye and asked, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"  I responded without hesitation, "Nein!"  This brought out laughter from everyone.

Just as two officers came in the door, the sergeant pointed to a Red Cross box at the far end of the counter.  The Swiss told me that I should deposit the ten East German marks in the box.  I later dubbed it the "Officers' Coffee Fund".

Now all our passports disappeared through a window to a back room.  After several minutes they were returned to us with yet another numbered ticket.  We left the building and went to another overlapping opening in The Wall.  We handed our tickets to the soldier at that opening, and walked through.  Nobody in the white frame building on the other side paid any attention to us.

It is amazing to think that we walked into freedom by entering a city that was completely surrounded by The Wall.