Where Were You?
Life seems to cleave along certain lines… we remember our lives in reference to certain events.
As in… pre-9/11 and after; before Viet Nam and after; old Berlin and post-war Berlin, divided by places like Checkpoint Charlie and The Wall.
Half the people I know were barely born when the Berlin wall was torn down. The other half seem to belong to the group who fought against the Germans and witnessed its construction.
(Also, watch “The Wall” by Time )
Being from a military family, I am well familiar with war and its stories, its consequences.
With the Berlin Wall, I knew how it was “before” not only from the history books, but also from my West German co-workers telling me about the extra taxes they were assessed (and somewhat resented, but paid willingly) to build parity for the East Germans who were seen as deprived and socially behind due to their years under Soviet domination.
“To the surprise of many West Germans, many East Germans spent their DM 100 “welcome money” buying great quantities of bananas, a highly prized rarity in the East.
For months after the opening of the border, bananas were sold out at supermarkets along the border as East Germans bought whole crates because they did not believe that they would be on sale the next day.
The easterners’ obsession with bananas was famously spoofed by the West German satirical magazine, Titanic, which published a front cover depicting “[East-]Zone Gaby, in Bliss (West Germany): My first banana”.
Gaby is shown holding a large peeled cucumber.”
We also had another source of life inside details… a young girl name Julie, our East German exchange student from Zeuthen, a small suburb town in the forests about 10 minutes southeast of downtown East Berlin.
When Julie came to stay with us while my daughter was in high school, she brought us a piece of the wall that she herself had chipped off.
She told us about her life in East Germany, riding the S-Bahn (surface trains) in East Berlin, in some points riding along the “Dead Zone” as they called it. When we later visited her family at Christmas-time, we could see the Dead Zone from the train and understood the bleak disparity for the East.
“As relations between East and West began to sour with the coming of the Cold War, the Berlin S-Bahn soon became a victim of the hostilities.
Although services continued operating through all occupation sectors, checkpoints were constructed on the borders to East Berlin and on-board “customs checks” were carried out on trains.
From 1958 onward, some S-Bahn trains ran non-stop through the western sectors from stations in East Berlin to stations on outlying sections in East Germany so as to avoid the need for such controls. East German government employees were then forbidden to use the S-Bahn since it travelled through West Berlin.”
“The western sectors of the city were physically cut off from East Germany on August 13, 1961, by what was later called the Berlin Wall, in a well-prepared plan to separate the two halves of the city – and at the same time, to divide the Berlin public transit network into two separate systems.
Stadtbahn services were curtailed from both directions at the Friedrichstraße station. This station was divided into two physically separated areas, one for eastern passengers and one for westerners.”[Credit: "Wikipedia" ]
Under the terms of the 1945 Yalta Agreement, the victorious allies of World War Two divided Germany into four sectors, or zones of occupation: the American, British, French and Soviet zones.
Historian Frederick Taylor noted that “Berlin, sitting inside the Soviet zone – a kind of Trojan horse, if you will, of capitalism as the Soviets and their German communist allies saw it – became this symbol of a Western way of life continuing to exist inside what was increasingly the frozen and repressive Cold War Soviet bloc.”
“By 1952, in fact, there was a fortified border where you could be shot for trying to cross it from East to West. But in Berlin, because of the peculiar status of the city as a military-controlled area, and it continued to be controlled by military law, even after the two German states were set up,” said Taylor.
“There were checkpoints and so on, but people could actually travel pretty easily between East and West Berlin. This meant that East Germans, who were tired of the kind of poor standard of living and the lack of freedom in the communist-ruled East Germany, which by 1951 in fact was poorer than it had been four, three years earlier, not richer, could do so,” he said.
The Berlin Wall was built not to keep people apart, but to keep people in.
When fully built, the wall was about 43 kilometers long where it cut through the center of Berlin and more than 110 kilometers long as it divided West Berlin from East Germany. In addition, there were more than 300 watchtowers, as well as minefields, floodlights and guns that fired automatically.
During the time of disunification, but before the physical Wall was completed, East Germany (the GDR) lost 1 in 5 people in a massive brain drain to the west. Hungary and Czechoslovakia, had relaxed border controls and massive numbers of East Germans fled the oppressive GDR regime.
For years, the German boulevard known as Bernauer Strasse ran through nearly the middle of Berlin, north to south. It was a street of commerce, where families grew up and friends met. Then, quite suddenly in 1961, East German police started doing something very strange. Through the middle of the street, they began methodically laying brick after brick; cinder blocks held together with an abundance of mortar.
This is us visiting Julie and her family at Christmas. They put us up in a hotel nearby and joined us for dinner while letting Julie serve as our tour guide by day.
We did all the sights a tourist usually does. But the big thing for me was putting two halves of Julie together in my mind.
All during her stay she was defiant and angry, she didn’t like America because it wasn’t authentic, no one struggled, the bread had no character.
We were at our wits end most of the year.
But seeing her in her element, what her life was like, living in a walled city, watching others struggle for freedom… well, this visit tore down that wall of confusion for me.
When we walked into this dining room (pictured here) and the musicians played “Hello Dolly”, I knew it wasn’t America that Julie disliked, it was our complacency.
Even at 17 Julie knew more about life than most adults did. She went on to be an artist and a traveller, getting her fill of freedom.
When I look at the celebrations today, I think of Julie now in her mid thirties. Has she become complacent or is she still out there being defiant?
I hope she is still following her dreams wherever she is today.
To her parents Birgitte and Detlef, congratulations on 25 hard-won years on reunified German life!