Memories of Berlin

Twenty years ago this week, my partner Janet and I were in London on holidays. All the news was about the turmoil in Eastern bloc countries following Gorbachev’s announcement that they would be allowed to choose their own path. Increasing numbers of people from Hungary and Czechoslovakia took him at his word and were sampling the west for the first time. East Germany still looked pretty locked down, but things were changing and the old boss had been given his marching orders.

On November 4, a million or so people in East Germany rallied for freedom and five days later the Krenz Government agreed to open the border. A little misunderstanding led to the spokesman saying this would happen immediately and the NBC took this news to the world, including people living in East Germany, where many went straight to the different crossing points

On November 9, millions of people around the world saw the live television footage of people walking through the checkpoints in the Berlin wall without hindrance for the first time in nearly half a century. We were scheduled to fly to Paris a few days later so changed our plans and made for Berlin. So it seemed did half of Europe for Irish backpackers, French radicals, English weekenders, the young and the old were everywhere.

In Berlin, the first weekend after the wall opened was bitterly cold, well at least we thought it was, as we faced a sharp wind, snow everywhere and slush underfoot without appropriate jackets or shoes. It wasn’t the time however to worry about the weather, too much excitement on the streets for that.

My memory of those times doesn’t quite match what is currently being portrayed. We didn’t see anyone standing on the top of wall with a pick or people pulling down great lumps of wall so the masses could stream out; this might have happened before we arrived, but I suspect it was sometime later. What we did see was masses of people from the east going back and forth through Checkpoint Charlie, nearly all on foot and carrying plastic bags, which were mostly still empty on the return journey.

Along the wall on the west there were hundreds, thousands, of people milling around, talking excitedly in many different languages. People were using whatever they could lay their hands on to chip away at the wall, not in a serious attempt to breach it, but to get a tangible, physical piece of history. We all made new, short-term, friends and one kindly lent us his hammer and chisel. The wall was hard, those East Berliners certainly knew how to make tough concrete, but after some minutes of furious hitting I was able to get a few blue coloured shards of wall, which I still have in a box, somewhere. The activity along the wall in the evenings was the most surreal: the orange glow from the lights diffused by the lightly falling snow and the muffled multi-lingual babble, accompanied by the constant sound of chip, chip, chip. The 360 degree sound-scape had an immense impact on Janet who was a radio producer at the time.

We wanted to see what was happening on the east side, but while the border guards seemed content to let East Berliners go back and forth, they stopped us. I am glad they did, because this meant we had to go through immigration at the Friedrichstrasse Station in East Berlin, a route followed in many cold-war spy movies and novels. Another absurd situation: Uniformed men in small offices with large glass windows asking questions, checking documents and requiring large payments for one day visas, while just down the road history was unfolding and it was clear for all to see that the days of the wall were numbered.

Feeling like George Smiley, or perhaps Maxwell Smart and agent 99, we stepped into East Germany, with a quick look over the shoulder to make sure we weren’t being followed. The streets of East Berlin were almost deserted. We walked past rows of drab buildings, many still bearing the pock-marks of World War 2. They were in stark contrast to the beautiful statues and monuments on public display. In front of the Brandenburg gate with the wall in the background, an Asian television crew, perhaps from North Korea or China, was doing a stand-up report, but no crowds, no excitement, no outside broadcast vans, no dancing in the street, no nothing!

To get into East Berlin we had to purchase a large amount of pretty well worthless East German Marks. There didn’t appear to be any open shops where we could spend the money, maybe the owners had all gone west for the day, but we spied a restaurant/café with lights blazing.

The restaurant, relatively modern, with echoes of an airport lounge of the 1960’s, was almost empty. We were told it was a favoured haunt for Party Official and members of the Government, but none were there that day, perhaps they were too busy avoiding the Stasi or planning for a capitalist future. The meal was unmemorable and the coffee better forgotten.

Back on the West side of the wall, the East Berliners were not all frantically shopping, contrary to what you might hear on the news, as most had no money. But, the shops were absolutely packed, a little like the beginning of the New Year sales with people trashing the shelves, picking up things, comparing prices and looking like stunned mullets. But, no one buying! I did see two people buy something, a tube of toothpaste and a small note pad, but only two.

“West of the Wall” by Toni Fisher was part of the soundtrack of my childhood and then as an adult I saw the wall come down. I must go back someday to see this pivotal twentieth century city whole once again.

2 Comments

  1. I loved your account, Roger.

    Despite living in Switzerland at the time, I only visited Berlin a few years later, when it was already a gigantic construction site.

    Your recollection here filled in some gaps between the frantic news footage and the guns-blazing development of my visit.

  2. Roger

    Came across this account of the opening of the Berlin Wall while browsing your site.

    You’ve written a very interesting account of your experiences.

    Our son Jasper has lived in Berlin for a number of years (though planning soon to return to Australia).

    We were in Berlin in May-June this year and found it be a vibrant artistic city. (I had been there for a day about 10 years ago.) East Berlin with its unspoiled buildings is particularly trendy. Because rents are relatively low, creative people – artists, writers, film makers – tend to congregate in East Berlin.

    I’d like to go back again before too long.

    Thank you for the piece.

    Best wishes

    Andrew

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