For Veteran’s Day…A Bit Of History And A Tribute

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American GIs look over the hastily put up Wall

My husband joined the Air Force when he was seventeen. After training he was assigned to the Air Force Security Service and posted to Berlin six months after the Wall went up in 1962 (and if I tell you any more I’ll have to kill you). At first he worked at Templehof, the obscenely-scaled airport designed by Albert Speer. The building was wired with high explosives. If, as the saying went at the time, the flag went up, meaning the Soviets had invaded, then they had less than 30 minutes to destroy what needed to be destroyed and get out. They didn’t actually expect to survive. Later he was at the Marienfelde Operations Site at the southern edge of the city. He served his hitch and came back in one piece.

While he was there he had time to wander about West Berlin, sometimes taking photos. He’s given me permission to share some, which I appreciate since it gives me a chance to honor his service to our country. He has an enlargement of the one at the top in his office. I call it “the Life magazine cover shot”.

The wall went up very fast and sloppy at first, which is what you see in the photos, and was later replaced with the taller, permanent one (so the Russians thought at the time) that we brought home pieces of when we were in Berlin two months after reunification in 1990 (we got together in 1983). He got to see all the familiar sights fr0m his time there and I saw them for the first time. Checkpoint Charlie was gone and there was already a United Colors of Benneton store on the corner on the east side. We drove south of the city and David saw Berlin from that direction for the first time. I did a blog post about that trip with photos I took. You can read it here.

But here’s what it was like in 1962 (photos were scanned but were not processed or retouched):

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The Wall cut right across the city
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Tributes for those who died trying to cross to freedom
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Berlin was a divided city. There were American, French and British sectors on the western side. The east was part of the Orwellian-named German Democratic Republic
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View into East Berlin. Bombed out building on the right, unrepaired since the end of WWII
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The Brandenburg Gate

Berlin In December, 1990 (Two Months After Reunification)

Entering Berlin on the east-west autobahn.
Entering Berlin on the autobahn.

A few days ago it was the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like millions of people around the world back then, we were glued to the tv watching something we never thought would happen in our lifetime and then it seemed, in an eyeblink, it was gone, along with the Soviet Union.

I’ll always be kind of sorry that we didn’t whip out the credit card and hop a plane to go and be part of it. But in December of 1990, two months after Unification, we did travel to Germany for a business trip my husband had in Wiesbaden. Afterwards we got a rental car and headed east. That part of the trip is a story for another post, but we simply crossed the old border via a country road into the now-defunct East Germany and drove to Berlin. What follows is an album of photos I took on the day we explored the area around where the Wall had been. I thought it would be good not to just let these photos of an historic time sit in a photo album, but get them out there as one eyewitness record of a moment in time. They were taken with a Nikon N2000 film camera and the 4×6″ prints scanned on an Epson scanner into Photoshop. I only did a minimum of adjustments, preferring to leave them as I took them as much as possible.

Our first stop was the Brandenburg Gate, which was undergoing repairs and restoration.
Our first stop was the Brandenburg Gate, which was undergoing repairs and restoration and was blocked off.
Nearby was a piece of the Wall and a burned-out Trabant car.
Nearby was a piece of the Wall and a burned-out Trabant car. There were many of these scattered around the city and alongside the roads, mostly orange or lime green. A popular joke about this much-hated vehicle was “How do you double the value of a Trabbi? Fill it with gas.”
One of the first things
One of the first things we noticed were the vendors set up all around the Gate. They were selling well, just about everything moveable that had been connected to East Germany….uniforms, currency, official documents, ID papers, medals. And also pieces of the Wall, some big chunks just piled on the ground and some mounted in little plastic souvenir boxes.
The scene around the Brandenburg Gate.
The scene around the Brandenburg Gate.
Vendor
One of the vendors. They all seemed to be from Eastern Europe, speaking languages like Bulgarian, not German.
Pieces of the Wall
Pieces of the Wall in the little plastic display boxes. We have a couple, but they’re packed away somewhere at the moment.
A section of the Wall
A section of the Wall with one of the holes people punched in it with whatever they could find.
The site of Gestapo headquarters.
The site of Gestapo headquarters.
Another view of the site of  Gestapo headquarters, which had been leveled.
Another view of the site of Gestapo headquarters, which had been leveled.
A sign at the site showing the building that had been there. So much evil, pain and terror occurred in that place.
A sign at the site showing the building that had been there. So much evil, pain and terror occurred in that place, but it’s gone forever now.
Colorful Wall section.
Colorful Wall section.
A long stretch of the Wall. Walking along it was a somewhat surreal experience.
A long stretch of the Wall. Walking along it was a somewhat surreal experience.
We sure weren't the first Americans there, not by a long shot.
We sure weren’t the first Americans there, not by a long shot.
Since it was December, someone left a holiday message.
Since it was December, someone left a holiday message.
We talked it over and decided, what the heck,, we'd add our names. All we had was a pen, but we managed.
We talked it over and decided, what the heck,, we’d add our names. All we had was a pen, but we managed.
Me writing on the Wall.
Me writing on the Wall.
Mu husband, David, writing on the Wall.
My husband, David, writing on the Wall.
Street scene
Street scene.
Street scene.
Street scene.
Checkpoint Charlie had been turned into a temporary souvenir shop.
Checkpoint Charlie had been turned into a temporary souvenir shop.
Street scene.
Street scene with the Reichstag in the background.
Impromptu street cafe with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.
Impromptu street cafe with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.
The Reichstag (German parliament building)
The Reichstag (German parliament building)
Corner of the Reichstag showing patched bullet and artilliary shell holes from WW2.
Corner of the Reichstag showing patched bullet and artillary shell holes from WWII.
Memorial between the Reichstag and the river for those who died trying to get to freedom there.
Memorial between the Reichstag and the river for those who died trying to get to freedom over the Wall there.
The Reichstag after the end of the War.
The Reichstag after the end of the War.
The Reichstag during a return trip to Berlin in October, 2004.
The Reichstag during a return trip to Berlin in October, 2004.
I couldn't resist grabbing a quick shot of this beautiful woman in her fur coat and hat. I got a stream of quite angry Russian in return, along the lines of "It's really rude to take photos of people!" (my husband knew enough Russian to translate). Of course in the old Soviet bloc no one was used having their picture taken casually in a public place, so I couldn't blame her for being upset. I apologized and we went on our way. Quickly. But I'm really glad I got the shot. I hope she has lived a good and happy life.
I couldn’t resist grabbing a quick shot of this beautiful woman in her fur coat and hat. I got a stream of quite angry Russian in return, along the lines of “It’s really rude to take photos of people!” (my husband knew enough Russian to translate). Of course in the old Soviet bloc no one was used having their picture taken casually in a public place, so I couldn’t blame her for being upset. I apologized and we went on our way. Quickly. But I’m really glad I got the shot. I hope she has lived a good and happy life.
More street vendors.
More street vendors.
Street vendor with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.
Street vendor with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.
Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate, December 1990 with vendors selling East German military uniforms.
The Brandenburg Gate on a return trip to Berlin in October 2004.
The Brandenburg Gate on our return trip to Berlin in October 2004.
Our piece of the Berlin Wall. It's about 10" wide.
Our piece of the Berlin Wall. It’s about 10″ wide. I had to dig through a few piles to find this colorful piece.

 

 

 

 

Memories of Germany A Year After The Wall Came Down

A few people are posting on Facebook about the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened twenty years ago, so I wrote the following at a Note to post there, but also thought I’d share my memories here of that amazing point in history and our trip to Germany the following year.
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I and my husband, who arrived in Berlin (courtesy of the Air Force) six months after The Wall went up, watched it come down on TV 20 years ago. It was something we never thought we’d see in our lifetime. I’ll always regret that I didn’t hop on a plane and get over there to join the party.

We did visit Germany in December of 2000, three months after unification. We flew into Frankfurt, picked up a rental car and headed towards Berlin. I remember crossing the old border between West and East on a country road and coming to an autobahn Kreutz (intersection “cross”) with abandoned guard towers looming over the road in the half-light of a late winter afternoon. It was snowing and very quiet. We took an exit, drove into a village as night was coming on and suddenly found ourselves in the 17th century. Old, old houses and muddy dirt roads. I half-expected to see a horse-drawn cart amble by. The only gasthouse was closed and had obviously been so for many, many years. So we had to scoot back across “the border” to a “west” German town to find a place to stay.

The next morning we crossed the old border again. There were fence posts, but the wire was gone. Tacked to one of the posts was a campaign poster for Helmut Kohl, who had rammed through reunification, knowing it was the right thing to do. I thought the symbolism was very powerful and neatly summed up the dramatic change which had happened the previous year.

We drove on to Berlin through Erfurt. I have ancestors who came from around there and I wanted to see the medieval Cathedral, which has some statues (of Count Erhard and Countess Uta) that I had been struck by when I had seen them in a costume book. As we walked around the city, we drew some stony-faced looks, especially when people saw my camera. We were probably the first western “tourists” they had seen in a long time, if ever. I remember walking past a building that was completely collapsed on the inside and realized that it had probably been bombed during WWII and had never been repaired or replaced.

We found the Kristkindlemarkt in the main square and bought Nuremburger bratwurst and glugwein for lunch. Someone was doing a brisk business selling small, unassuming Christmas trees. There were no merchant booths like we saw in the west German cities. People seemed cautiously happy.

When we got to Berlin, we went down to the Brandenburger Tor or Brandenburg Gate. It was blocked off, but on either side were rows of tables and blankets laid on the ground. Covering both was the flotsam of the end of a country. For sale were East German military coats and hats, ID books, medals, various other documents, East German currency and pieces of the Wall. We bought one big chunk for ourselves and some smaller ones for gifts. I remember that the sellers weren’t speaking German, but a variety of other Eastern European languages.

We then walked all the way around the nearby Reichstag. The walls on all sides had obviously patched bullet holes from the final battle for Berlin.

It’s no longer there, but we also visited the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and saw all the desperately creative ways that people used to try to get from the East to the West, including a small convertible car whose doors had been filled with concrete to stop bullets. It was a convertible because the plan (which worked) was to duck down with the doors for cover and drive right past the guards and under the horizontal gate bars at the border.

Outside we found that Checkpoint Charlie itself, the gates and guard booths, were already gone. As we drove past where it had been, there, on the right hand corner of the first block, was a United Colors of Benneton store. I’ve always wondered how in the world they were able to negotiate a lease and get a store up and running in three months. It was the only western store we saw on that side. I’ve joked over the years that, yes, we got to the old East Germany ahead of McDonald’s. But not Benneton.

We drove around for awhile and then back to the west side of the city past enormous apartment buildings that were the personification of East “bloc” housing.

We went to Templehof airfield (where my husband worked for part of his tour), the sole remaining example of Nazi meglomaniacal architecture, courtesy Albert Speer. The scale of it, even though it was never finished, is almost obscene. But outside is the Berlin Airlift Memorial, which commemorates one of our country’s finest hours and that of the Allies who also participated.

My husband also did part of his tour at a location south of the city. We drove out that way one afternoon and he saw the Berlin skyline from the south for the first time, looking back across what had been no-man’s-land. The farmer’s fields were covered with sparkling frost and a few burned out lime-green Trabant cars lined the road. These quintessential communist-era cars were the subject of many jokes back then, such as “How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill it with gas.”

Our stay in Berlin at an end, we drove back to Frankfurt via the east-west autobahn that was one of the only ways in and out of Berlin during the Cold War. The East Germans timed travelers. They knew how long it took to get to Berlin and you were asking for serious trouble if you stopped along the way. For us, it was a beautiful drive through the green forests of a Germany that was whole again.