After our 1990 trip I wrote a long letter. These segments are from Berlin. The pictures are scans from slides, some well faded over the years.
Thursday, June 14, 1990
After lunch we crossed into East Germany. We were supposed to get a visa for East Germany at the border. The guards waved us through without stopping the car, no visa, no passport stamp. In West Berlin, on the Ku’dam, someone is selling a “t” shirt with a picture of Gorby saying “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
Friday, June 15, 1990
We had heard that Allied Checkpoint Charlie was about to be lifted from its foundations on Friedrichstrasse and retired, so we went to see. It was still there. We got the subway on at the Zoo station in West Berlin. Outside the station there was every kind of currency exchange going on, and lots of people getting on trains heading east with boom boxes, cameras, TV’s and one small refrigerator. There are rows of old women on the benches near the station dressed in shawls, a latter day portrait of Ellis Island.
When we got off the subway two blocks from Checkpoint Charlie we heard a constant “tink tink tink.” Approaching what is left of the wall there we see a line of folks hammering away, taking bits of the wall as souvenirs. You can rent a hammer and chisel, 5 marks for 20 minutes. I took pleasure in a few whacks.
I was in Europe the summer of 1961 when the wall went up. In 1964 as a student I stayed in a youth hostel about three blocks from here. Just 11 months ago we stood here looking at a wall that didn’t look like it was going anywhere. Now we are whacking away at the hated thing. Kevin enjoyed it the most, I think. Brian pointed out that this was a kid’s dream; you can be a vandal with full social approval.
At the Checkpoint an East German border guard has his son with him. The boy wears his dad’s hat and waves in all cars with German plates. When a foreign car comes by, dad takes over. Behind them a poster advertising “West” brand cigarettes reads “Test the West.”
From Checkpoint Charlie to the Brandenburg gate we participate in “The Great German Democratic Republic Going Out of Business Sale.” You can buy East German flags, buttons, party membership cards, and medals. Today’s “blue light special” is a full border guard uniform for only 50 marks. There is also a Soviet Army clearance sale; uniforms, medals, patches, caps, gas masks, tank commander’s helmets, all at discount prices. I asked one woman where she got all the stuff she was selling. She said, “They bring it to me.” Apparently most of the Soviet “cold war surplus” comes from Poland, where the Red Army left it. It brought in by Poles seeking hard currency. I suspect the Russians themselves have found a way to meet some of their own hard currency needs. One vendor said he would not deal with Soviet stuff, because there would be a Red Army for another 20 years, (In retrospect, about 18 months) but East Germany wasn’t going to last the year. Brian got a Soviet Air Force officer’s cap and Kevin an East German flag and army officer’s cap. I bought several medals, including an East German “Master of the Morning” award, given to some worker for not being late or absent for one whole year (I figured I deserved it for all the sign on shifts I had done at several radio stations) and a pin that said “to live the socialist life, you must work the socialist way.” I think an English translation might be “we pretend to work, you pretend to pay us.” If I were a costumer for a theater company I would get to Berlin fast.
Pieces of the wall are for sale in every conceivable form. Sections with colored graffiti go for more than uncolored hunks of concrete. Different entrepreneurs have concocted different types of certificates showing the authenticity of the rock. Some have encased pieces of wall in plastic. There are “wall” key chains, pendants and earrings. At this spot on the wall last year we saw some prophetic graffiti reading “They came, they saw, they did a little shopping.”
We walked from Checkpoint Charlie to the Brandenburg Gate along the “death strip” between the two walls. The Potsdamer Platz is open to traffic. There is a small border checkpoint. There is a Roma (Gypsy) encampment in the no man’s zone between the two Germanys near the site of Hitler’s bunker. They are dancing on his grave.
There’s a pedestrian checkpoint for Germans at the Brandenburg gate. The gate, covered with scaffolding, is being refurbished. It was badly charred during the New Year’s Eve fireworks display.
Saturday, June 16, 1990
We crossed at the Friedrichstrasse Rail Station this morning, and are in East Berlin. I exchanged West German Deutsche Marks for East German Ost Marks at the Zoo station.
At the Alexander Platz, the center of Berlin, in the middle of a sterile plaza flanked by “socialist realist” buildings, everything is for sale. Many of the boom boxes we saw getting on the train in the Zoo station at West Berlin got off here with price tags. Everyone is trying to exchange money. On July 2, if the East German Parliament accepts West Germany’s offer of a currency union, each person will be able to exchange up to 2,000 Ost marks on a one to one basis for Deutsche Marks, so those too many Ost marks are trying to dump them and those without any Ost Marks are looking for them. You can get three to one from black marketers who have more Ost Marks than they can cash in on July 2. There is lots of trading going on. People are trying to dump Polish Zloty and Romanian Lei for whatever they can get. Many people in the Alexander Platz are Roma. Under the 4 power agreement East Europeans are allowed into Berlin. Roma are seeking refugee status because of the turmoil in Romania. They believe they are in danger. There is a major debate going on in East Germany about the Gypsies from Romania. Many East Germans want them out but, as one woman said, “10 months ago that could have been us, of course we must take them.” It is ironic that the Gypsies would seek safety in Berlin given the history of the last 50 years.
We went to the top of the TV tower in Alexander Platz for a good view of Berlin, and then continued to walk toward the Brandenburg gate. We passed the Catholic cathedral, which was a bombed out hulk when I was there in 1964. It is restored now, and is across the street from the East German Parliament. Parliament is debating the monetary union, and in front of the cathedral East German students from Humboldt University protesting the union. Under the treaty, the Ost Mark will be eliminated and East Germans will fall under the West German welfare system, which is less developed than the East German. The students will get a stipend of 280 marks a month. They believe they need 500. I talk with students, several of whom have been sitting in at the cathedral for 9 days.
We end our day in East Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. It’s like an outdoor crafts fair. We buy some crepes and gyros sandwiches in pocket bread. The young private entrepreneurs do not take Ost Marks though we are in East Berlin. We cannot cross back to West Berlin here, although Germans can. We walk back to the Friedrichstrasse Train station.
Sunday, June 17, 1990
This is the anniversary of the popular uprising against the Soviets in East Berlin in 1953. It was stopped by Russian tanks.
The East German Parliament has chosen this day to ratify the monetary union treaty. There is a big pro unification demonstration. There is also a counter demonstration led by the student I talked to yesterday. Pensioners and others opposed to the monetary union join him because they believe it will lower their standard of living. I wonder if the black marketers are also protesting.
We went to the Wedding district in the French sector to see a part of the wall I visited in 1964. (This was a former stronghold of the Communists in the 1930s, known as Red Wedding.) Here Bernauer Strasse marks the border. The East Germans bricked up the lower windows of houses on their side of the street. People jumped to freedom, or their death, from upper floor windows. Later the buildings were torn down, and replaced by the double wall with its efficient “death strip” between.
We got off the subway at a station that had been closed until a few weeks ago. You come up to street level in the “death strip” between the two walls. “Tink, tink, tink … tink, tink, tink.”
The memorials to those who jumped to their deaths are still there. Seven streets sealed by the wall are being reopened. The walls have been taken out where the streets are to be reconnected on July 2. The wall was just opened up in this section this week. The watch towers have been pulled down. The East Germans have given up on border checks here. One guard patrols the seven entrances, the border is marked at the openings only by a set of saw horses.
People are walking back and forth just to do it. We cross to the East German neighborhood. The wall is still pretty much intact here. A tour bus pulls up and a group of Germans, men dressed in lederhosen women in traditional costume, get out of the bus, pull out musical instruments, play a song, put down their instruments and start tinking away.
An amazing family enterprise is happening here, wall mining. Along the inside surface of the walls, facing the death strip, the original wall surface is still intact. People did not have access to that wall section until this week. Since colored sections of the wall command higher prices, the kids spray paint the wall with instant graffiti. Their parents stand guard while it dries. When it does all family members take chisels and hammers and strips off the colored surface. The wall miners put the marketable sections into tubs for sorting and sale. The East German Government has committed to take down the entire wall. There is a race to see who will get it first.
Back at Potsdamer Platz Poles have set up a Flea market. It is part of the whole movement of people and cash west, and consumer goods east. Russians cross the Polish border to sell handicrafts, caviar and vodka to the Poles, who transport it along with their own crafts to Berlin, where they sell it for hard western cash. That cash is re-converted into the consumer goods which travel east. A man from Munich wonders what will happen to these people when the unification closes the eastern border.
Bad Soden, West Germany
We leave Berlin. They just wave us out. On the BBC Gorbachev’s foreign policy spokesperson Gennady Gerasimov announces the “Frank Sinatra Doctrine.” Do it your way. All over Germany we can pick up a radio station called Z Rock, which is part of the American Forces Radio Network. The Green Party has called for the removal of all American Troops from West Germany, but the keeping of their radio stations.
Sunday, June 24, 1990
I have spent the last 10 hours transcribing my notes onto computer so you can actually read this letter. There is a Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times.” Friday a big crane lifted Checkpoint Charlie and placed it on a truck to be shipped off to a museum somewhere. Perhaps it will go to Lake Havasu, Arizona to sit next to London Bridge. We, indeed, live in interesting times.