Monday, November 09, 2009

Captivated at Checkpoint Charlie: The Berlin Wall

It was this painting at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that stopped me in my tracks. This fascinating museum overlooks that most popular of crossing points of the Berlin Wall. Say care to join me for look around?

The painting grabbed me and I dug around for a tissue. (Click to enlarge photo.) It covers most of a wall and I may have stood there for five minutes taking it in. The older lady on lower right tugged at my heartstrings. Let's zoom on in.

Let's call her Frau Browncoat. Surrounded by revelry, champaign flowing freely and folks hugging on loved ones, the moment is bittersweet for our friend. Did she lose a family member to The Wall? Did her husband or brother risk his life to escape with plans to return for the others? I joined her in dabbing and tissue-ing. Oh but of course, she would be using a sensible handkerchief. (Painting credit: "The 9th of November, 1989" by Matthias Koeppel.)

By the time I reached this painting near the end of the tour, my travel companions were long gone back to the hotel. I'd been there maybe two hours, listening to the recorded tour in English, stealing a few photos. Eventually I got to this painting and then the bookstore - and oh, were those folks ever glad to see me and my trusty MasterCard. ;)

This first trip to Berlin was early August, 2005. We had one afternoon and an overnight in the city. Several of us had opted for this 5-day post-lectureship tour through east Germany after a week in Warsaw for the Pan European Lectureship (PEL). And our swing through eastern Germany included an afternoon and overnight in Berlin.

After the museum and a quick tour around town, I knew I could spend a week, maybe a lifetime in Berlin. Having to leave after less than a day was painful ~ I had already developed a fascination with the place. You might ask, what's so interesting about Berlin? Well, let me tell you: Berlin was the hub of Cold War action. It's where the east and west butted heads. Where communism and democracy were separated by inches. It's where people gambled their very lives to get to freedom. And they found a million and one creative ways to do that. Oh and I've got photos! Beyond all that, thanks to 10-plus years of living in Russia, I have a personal interest too: Berlin is where the U.S. and USSR got eyeball to eyeball and neither liked what they saw.

So here we are out on the street, the museum behind us, looking west toward the American Sector. Which, more accurately, would be called the U.S. Sector. But nobody asked for my input. Well alrighty, then. ;)

Here we are, looking the other direction: We're standing in the American sector, looking at Checkpoint Charlie and beyond into East Berlin. The museum is on the left. Say, see any familiar faces here? This was a fun memory. Happened to be my birthday in 2007, my second trip to Berlin, and I said to the German youth there dressed as an American soldier, please help me look young and thin, smart and interesting. . .

Important announcement in English and Russian, then French and German. Oh, but why all these languages? There's a reason, but we need to rewind a bit. . .

As you may recall, at the end of World War II, Germany was divided between Russia - the USSR, actually - and the Allies. And then the city of Berlin was divided as well, as you see on the map above. (Click photo to enlarge.) This was totally nuts. But that was the agreement reached in negotiations that followed the war. West Berlin was rather like an island there in East Germany, surrounded on all sides by Soviet-controlled East Germany. There's another story there, about the Berlin Airlift. I've got some photos of that story too. . .

One not-so-lovely day in 1961, big, brash Nikita Khrushcev announces what's going to be what in Berlin. The question: Why did they build the wall? The wall went up because so many citizens were fleeing from the east side to the west. East Germany was losing its population.

Nowadays in Berlin, here's what you'll find where there was once a wall.

That's it ~ plaques such as this one and smooth pavement. These wall markers snake through the city's center and kids ride their bikes over them every day without blinking an eye. But the markers serve as a reminder of where the wall once stood.

Here and there is a cross-section of the wall. Just for nostalgia's sake. . .

And here's a larger section of the wall.

Let's revisit the map. (Double click to enlarge.) The border there between East and West Berlin was a bit of a squirrel's nest but that was - and still is - the city center. Checkpoint Charlie is there and then a few blocks south is Brandenburg Gate.

And we do know a thing or two about Brandenburg Gate, do we not? That's where U.S. President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet Premier Mikael Gorbochev to tear down this wall, June of 1987. Brandenburg Gate is where U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought he said I am a Berliner in June, 1963. What he really said was I am a jelly doughnut. Ah yes, the joys of meaning one thing and saying something quite different. . . And at a nearby hotel, overlooking Brandenburg Gate, is the hotel balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his infant son to the horror of onlookers below.

Well, thank you for joining me for a quick look at Berlin. Throughout this week, I hope to share some fascinating photos of how folks escaped from East to West Germany. Talk about creativity, excitement and danger wrapped together. Please join me again to visit Berlin, the city at the center of reunification, 20 years ago today.

And how about you, dear blog reader. Been to Berlin? Got a piece of The Wall? Any Cold War stories? Please do share!


Jeanette said...

I passed through Checkpoint Charlie in the fall of 1970. I was a college junior...and so impressionable...excited...and a bit frightened too. I carred a portable cassette tape recorder under my jacket (not easy to do as they were rather large) to record what went on as we passed from freedom into oppression. The contrast between the West and East sides of Berlin shocked and saddened me. Our group was under close scrutiny and tight security during our stay there - several days as I recall. We were pretty sure our hotel rooms were bugged. In public places, like museums, no one was allowed to approach us. When our bus passed back into West Germany - all 50 of us erupted into shouts of joy and relief. I can't remember ever being so glad to be an American.

So, my friend...that was my Cold War experience. I still have the tape (somewhere) as proof. But not sure I have anything that will play it. hahaha.

Eileen said...

My Goodness, Jeanette! I have goosebumps just Reading about your experience! I don't suppose you managed to get a photo of Checkpt Charlie? (guessing maybe photos forbidden?) Yes, I agree likely rooms bugged. Now that's something about others not being allowed to approach your group. Can just imagine the shouts of joy going back to west. 1970 - so has happened since then. A different world. Have you been back to Berlin since? ;)

Jeanette said...

No...haven't been back to Berlin. Would love to take another "semester abroad" to retrace my 1970 steps. I'm sure my impressions would be so different.

I also have a collection of coins from that trip. Now that the euro has replaced so many counties' coins, I guess I have true collectors items.

Logan DeSchepper said...

I do not have any experiences just thought that I'd say I'm doing a project on the Berlin Wall ;)