30 Years Ago This Week — Berlin.

Thirty years ago, this week my family was in Berlin.  We had been there 10 months earlier and saw a wall that looked permanent.  Three months later we saw it come down on TV.  We went back in June 1990 to see what had happened.  We started the trip in Prague to observe the first free elections there in more than 40 years.  We arrived in Berlin the week the authorities began cutting paths through the wall to reconnect streets that had been barricaded and then walled 29 years earlier.  Here are some notes from my travel diary, with pictures from that summer and from the summer before.

Thursday, June 14, 1990, Berlin, Germany:  After lunch we crossed from Czechoslovakia into West Germany and on into East Germany on our way to Berlin. Technically we still need a visa for East Germany, which we were to get at the border. The guards waved us through without stopping the car, no visa, no passport stamp.

On the way to the “parkhaus” in West Berlin we saw a group of gentlemen in white helmets chasing a group of gentlemen in mohawk haircuts. The riot police were following a small group of young people with a bullhorn wearing EI Salvador “t” shirts and carrying a Sandinista flag. They were haranguing coffee drinkers in sidewalk cafes on the Kurfursterndam (Ku’dam,) protesting the gathering of the International Coffee Association. The German cops run in step, and onlookers chant “Eins Zwei … eins zwei. ”

We are staying at the same “Best Western” near the Ku’dam where we stayed last summer.  It is a lot more expensive.  On the Ku’dam there is an assortment of musicians, magicians and other entertainers. A British R & B band is preforming, trying to promote tourism to Newcastle. Someone is selling a “t” shirt with a picture of Soviet General Secretary Makhail Gorbachev saying “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  West Berlin has become a “summer festival.”

Friday, June 15, 1990, Berlin, Germany:  We had heard that Allied Checkpoint Charlie was about to be lifted from its foundation on Friedrichstrasse and retired, so we took the subway to see if it was still there. It was. We got on the U Bahn at the Zoo station.  There was every kind of currency exchange going on, with lots of people getting on trains in West Berlin heading East with boomboxes, cameras, tv’s and a small refrigerator.  Rows of people line the benches near the Zoo station, dressed in shawls, waiting, for what?  It reminds me of pictures of Ellis Island.

Getting off the subway two blocks from Checkpoint Charlie we hear a constant “tink tink tink.” It sounds like the seven dwarves in Disney’s Snow White working in the mine. As you approach what’s left of the wall there is 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. We all took 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 planned on going anywhere. Now we’re whacking away at the hated thing. Kevin particularly enjoyed it. Brian said this was a kid dream, vandalism with full social approval.

At Charlie 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 cigarette reads “Test the West.”

From Checkpoint Charlie to the Brandenburg gate “The Great German Democratic Republic Going Out of Business Sale” is underway. 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.” Most Soviet “cold war surplus” comes from Poland, where the Red Army left it when they pulled out.  It’s brought in by Poles seeking hard currency. One vendor said he would not deal with Soviet stuff, because there would be a Soviet Union and Red Army for another 20 years, 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 got 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, and a pin that said “to live the socialist life, you must work the socialist way.” I think an English translation would be “we pretend to work; you pretend to pay us.” If I was a theater costumer, I’d go 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. Some have encased pieces of wall in plastic. There are “wall” key chains, pendants and earrings. At this spot on the wall last year the graffiti read “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 manned by the East Germans. They wave through Germans, but require others to cross at Charlie. This formality will be gone when the currency union takes place on July 2. There is a Roma (Gypsy) encampment in the no man’s zone between the two Germanies at the Potsdamer Platz near the site of Hitler’s bunker. They dance on his grave.

There’s a pedestrian checkpoint for Germans at the Brandenburg gate, for German citizens only. The gate, covered with scaffolding, is being refurbished. It was badly charred during the New Year’s Eve fireworks display.

Saturday, June 16, 1990, Berlin, Germany:  We crossed at the Friedrichstrasse Rail Station this morning, and are in East Berlin. I exchanged West German Marks for Ost (East German) Marks at the Zoo station in West Berlin. East Germany no longer requires mandatory currency exchange but we thought we may find East German coin still useful.  It wasn’t but it makes good souvenirs. 

At the Alexander Platz in the middle of a sterile plaza flanked by “socialist realist” architecture everything is for sale.  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. Those with too many Ost Marks are trying to dump them on the market before the currency becomes worthless in two weeks. Up to 2,000 Ost marks will be exchanged on a one to one basis for West German Marks on July 2.  That’s quite a deal so those without any Ost Marks are looking for them. You can get three to one from black marketeers who have more Ost Marks than they can cash in on July 2.  Triple your money in two weeks.  There’s lots of trading going on. People are also trying to dump Polish Zlotis and Romanian Lei for whatever they can get. Eastern Europeans are allowed into East Berlin. Roma, at least, can’t enter the west yet.  They are seeking refugee status because of the turmoil in Romania. They believe they are in danger. One East German student I spoke with feels they are economic refugees and should get no consideration.  He said more than a few disparaging words about Roma. There is a major debate going on in East Germany about the Roma. 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.” There’s irony in Roma seeking safety in Berlin, of all cities, given the history of the last 50 years.

We walked toward the Brandenburg gate past the Catholic cathedral, which was a burned-out hulk when I was here in 1964. It’s restored now, and is across the street from the East German Parliament. Parliament is debating the monetary union, and there is a demonstration by 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 and they believe they need 500. I talk with students in the demonstration, several have been sitting in at the cathedral for 9 days.

We walk further toward the Humboldt campus, and we see a barricade and signs. One is a protest sign, one advertises a dance, and one a block party. We are eating at a sidewalk cafe on Unter den Linden. A Roma woman approaches the cafe asking for money to feed her family. German waiters drive her away.

We end our day in East Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. It is like an outdoor crafts fair. We buy some crepes and gyros sandwiches in pocket bread. The young private entrepreneurs do not consider taking Ost Marks though we are in East Berlin. For the next two weeks it is still the legal currency. We can’t cross back to West Berlin here, although Germans can. We walk back to the Friedrichstrasse Train station.

Sunday, June 17, 1990, Berlin:  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 today to ratify the monetary union treaty. There is a big pro-reunification 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.

We went to the Wedding district in the French sector to see a part of the wall I visited in 1964. This section was the one where the East Germans bricked up the windows of houses and people jumped to freedom, or death, from upper story windows. The buildings have since been torn down, and replaced by the double wall with its efficient “death strip,”

The memorials to those who jumped to their deaths are still here. Seven streets sealed by the wall are being reopened. The walls blocking the street have been taken out just on Friday.  The streets are to be reconnected on July 2.  The watch towers have been pulled down. The East Germans have given up on border checks here. One guard patrols all seven entrances, the border is marked at the openings only by a set of saw horses.  It’s kind of silly, there is a border station a few blocks away on Bernauer Str. (which, being non-German, we couldn’t use) but no one else is using it either.

People are walking back and forth through the new openings, unhindered by formalities, just to do it. We do to, we cross illegally. The wall is still pretty much intact here, except for the openings for the streets. As we are walking along, a tour bus pulls up and a group of Germans dressed in lederhosen or country dresses get out, they are a student band, they play a song pull out hammers and chisels and start tinking away.

An amazing 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 didn’t have access to that wall section until today. Since colored sections of the wall command higher prices, kids are spray painting the wall with instant graffiti and standing guard while it dries. The family takes chisels and hammers and strips off the colored surface, and the wall miners put the marketable sections into plastic laundry baskets 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.

The Polish flea market sits near Potsdamer Platz. It is part of the whole movement of people and cash west, and consumer goods east. Russians cross the Soviet-Polish border and sell handicrafts, caviar and vodka to the Poles.  Poles take it along with their own crafts to East Berlin, where they sell it for hard western cash. Some of that cash goes west and is converted into the consumer goods which travel east on the U Bahn. A man from Munich wonders what will happen to these people when the unification closes the German – Polish border.

At 8:00 PM we are at the Roncalli Circus, set up in a big top in the Tiergarten. They have a polar bear riding a motorcycle. The polar bear is an endangered marine mammal.  I don’t like seeing it in circuses. Actually, I don’t like being in the same tent with one.  Otherwise it was a wonderful circus with a very touching ending. A lone clown piping us out with the Beatles song “Goodnight,” played on the saxophone.  Tomorrow we get in the car and drive West.

Sunday, June 24, 1990, Sitka, AK:  I’ve spent the last 10 hours transcribing my notes into my computer. Friday a big crane lifted Checkpoint Charlie and placed it on a truck to be shipped off to some museum somewhere. (Very soon a replica was back by popular demand.) The West Germans ratified the monetary treaty and Chancellor Kohl says the countries may be unified by December (It happened more quickly, on October 3. In less than 2 years the Soviet Union was gone.  It didn’t last 20 year the wall vender had predicted.)

Those two weeks, in Czechoslovakia and Berlin were memorable but the memory that stands out after 30 years is leaving the circus with Suzi and the boys, with the saxophone playing “Goodnight.”  It was the capstone of a week of history and politics, ending with a moment of fun, joy and family bonding.  Goodnight!

One thought on “30 Years Ago This Week — Berlin.

  1. Great memento both in words and pictures. Lots of memories for me too. I had worked on the East German Wall (US side) Stayed on Bernauer street last September to see the changes.

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