Monday, November 09, 2009

We are all Berliners

Not that it was likely to kill me, but I happen to be one of the last people who crossed the Berlin Wall illegally.

Twenty years ago it was delightful to follow the news about Czechoslovakia opening its borders, and East Germans crossing that way and seeking asylum.  Then when it seemed that political pressure was closing the opportunity, one magical day the people from both sides of Germany stormed the Wall and the guards laid down their rifles.

But the Berlin Wall didn't absolutely disappear overnight.

That fall I was a taking a course on the history of German unification in the nineteenth century.  Took a seminar in Germany since 1945 the following spring.  An opportunity like this doesn't happen twice so I also enrolled in a conversation course to brush up my German and spent a month in the country after graduation.  Reached Berlin in June three days before the authorities dismantled Checkpoint Charlie.

By that time Germany was still two separate countries on paper, but they had already worked out most of the details for reunification.  Germans from either side of the internal border could legally cross anywhere, and European Union members had additional crossing points.  Not everyone was so lucky.

I was visiting the Brandenburg Gate, pictured above, and there was the wall in the way.  Most of it was still standing.  On the other side was Unter den Linden--the famous avenue with the city's best museums.  One of the new checkpoints was right there.  "Reisepass, bitte."  The official waved me away after one glance at my United States passport.

The city was changing so quickly that year that travel guides were obsolete as soon as they were published.  The only thing do to was follow the news and use one's wits.  Berlin was so filled with tourists that I nearly resorted to sleeping on the floor of a convent.  Fortunately my language skills were good enough to use the local Mitwohnzentrale.  Negotiated a short sublet on a comfortable apartment.

So there I was at the Brandenburg Gate, unable to get to the museums.  There was one other thing to see on the western side: a line of crosses.  The citizens of West Berlin had erected informal memorials to each person who had died trying to get across.  Most of the memorial crosses had names and birth dates.  A few only listed the date and time of death.  They were all in chronological order; the very last was dated February 1989.  "If only that person had waited a few more months," I thought.

Right then I decided I was going to break that law while it was still possible.

The question was how to do it.  The subways had resumed operation between the two halves of the city.  So the first plan was to blend into the crowd.  Wearing Nike running shoes, no one would mistake me for an easterner.  But a good accent had gotten me through the Inner German Border on the way to Berlin without absolutely having to undergo a passport check.  "Sind Sie Deutsch oder Ausl√§nderin?"  Tough choice, but an East German border crossing stamp would make a good enough souvenir.  Had told the truth, but the border guard didn't bother to stamp the passport.  So a day later, standing at the Brandenburg Gate, it seemed possible that maybe the Hamburg accent I had learned from my grandmother would bring another opportunity to pass for a German.  In order to look more local I carried a newspaper under one arm.

It was easy to tell when the train got to the Eastern side: the track suddenly got about three times as noisy.  Disembarked to the platform, but then--an amazingly strange sight--every single person pulled out a passport to obtain permission to leave the station.


So this wouldn't be easy.  After several hours of playing musical subways and other subterfuges I gave up and went to Checkpoint Charlie.  The outer guard was smiling broadly and posing for tourists.  The guidebook said to expect about a ten hour wait, but the spot was nearly empty.  Walked up to the counter and paid five marks to The Man for a day's visa.  The System had won.

By then it was nearly sunset so Unter den Linden was out of the question.  The museums had already closed.  Wandered a few blocks past one of the first commercial billboards to appear in a Communist country, and walked over to a patch of Wall.

Back during the Cold War, when they were serious about it, I wouldn't have been able to approach within several meters of the Wall from the eastern side.  Not if I'd expected to survive.  But by June 1990 sharpshooters had quit their jobs and it was possible to walk right up.  If I couldn't cross that wall illegally I could at least help to destroy it.  That hour did more damage to my Swiss Army knife than to the wall, but it broke loose several handfuls of pebbles that made superb presents for friends back home.

Had to quit before twilight ended.

Normally I have a good sense of direction, but this was a strange city and nearly nightfall.  So although I thought I was retracing my steps to Checkpoint Charlie somehow I took a wrong turn.  Wound up staring down a dead end and wondering how I had gotten there.

Technically the Berlin Wall was two walls--an outer segment and an inner segment.  They used to rake several meters of sand in between every day in order to make it easier to track footprints and shoot people.  Above and to the left was a watch tower, but the paint was peeling and it hadn't been manned in months.  In a few places the walls had been broken with gaps in between.  One of the gaps was there.  The sand hadn't been raked in months and wildflowers were growing in it.  Wild rabbits were nibbling on the flowers.

A woman came in from the West Berlin side and walked her dog through that stretch.  Then a man on a bicycle came up from behind me and walked his bicycle across.  They were Germans.  It was legal for them to cross anywhere.


Looked left, looked right, and thought "What are they going to do, shoot me?"

So I escaped from East Berlin.
If you want to honor the memory of the people represented by that line of crosses you can restore the image at the start of this post, the photographer Toni Frissell has donated it to the public domain.  The uncompressed TIFF version is available for download here.

1 comment:

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