“What do you think of the Berlin Wall?” a student asked me when my Thursday night history class resumed after our 7:45 break.
“The last time I saw it, it was ugly, gray, and had guard towers,” I said. “No, they’re tearing it down!” he exclaimed. “Who is?” I replied. “The people!” he responded.
That was Nov. 9, 1989, 30 years ago Saturday night. I don’t know how he found out that East Germany’s communist bigwigs had opened the wall.
I was teaching at Paducah Community College, now West Kentucky Community and Technical College. I suspect my student sneaked into our empty faculty lounge and turned on the TV.
When I got home to Mayfield a little before 10, my wife, Melinda, had the TV on. Thousands of joyous East Berliners were streaming into West Berlin. It was a chilly night. But West Berliners were greeting them warmly with hugs, handshakes, kisses, and champagne.
Several people, mostly young, were standing or sitting, legs dangling, on the wall. One guy was whacking away with a pickaxe; another with a hammer and chisel.
East German border guards had orders to shoot to kill anybody who tried to get over the wall. They watched in bewilderment. We did, too, in front of our television, over 4,700 miles distant.
What’s the German word for stone chisel?
In the heady days that followed, hundreds — maybe thousands — of people started chipping away at the wall. Melinda and I wondered if the wall would be gone by the time we got to Berlin in June.
It wasn’t. We knocked off a sack full of broken concrete, which I gave most of to my students in my fall semester classes.
We were spending the summer of 1990 on a study abroad program in Bregenz, Austria. It was through Murray State University, our alma mater, and the Kentucky Institute for International Studies.
Our train rolled into West Berlin’s Zoo Bahnhof in the sunny late afternoon of June 22, a Friday. We had plenty of daylight to work over the wall; the sun didn’t go down until about 9:30.
We checked into our nearby hotel and caught the U-Bahn (subway) for Kochstraße, the stop for Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing place between West and East Berlin. (The East Germans blocked the subway tunnel beyond the stop.)
As we climbed the steps to the street, we could hear the clang of hammers echoing off nearby buildings. Some of the wall-bangers told us the wall was still largely pristine on the East Berlin side, where it was whitewashed.
We decided to head over, but expected the same old hassle of crossing to East Berlin. Melinda went in 1978 when she was on the Bregenz program. We went twice in the 80’s, once on the program and the other time on our own.
The East Berlin guard tower was empty, or seemed to be. We also spied a young, unarmed East German border police officer on the west side of the wall gabbing with a West Berlin cop and some tourists.
Heretofore, it had been verboten to photograph East German police, border guards, or soldiers, or their Soviet comrades-in-arms. But we were in our Berlin, so I pointed my ancient Canon in his direction. He just doffed his hat and shrugged. Snap.
That nearly 30-year-old black-and-white photo is one of my favorites. It was a perfect metaphor for where we were and what we were about to do. The wall was going, East Germany was going. What the hell?
At any rate, over we went, no guards, no customers officers, no passport check, no visa, no nothing. We skipped supper and took turns with our hammer and chisel until close to sundown.
“All of this started with ‘Solidarity,’ you know,” grinned a sweaty, middle-aged Yank happily hammering near us.
The guy was right. What the workers of Poland’s Solidarity union movement started, a group of Polish entrepreneurs was finishing. Our fellow American had rented his tools of destruction from the Poles.
They were open for business in the former Death Strip, a wide, clear field of fire that paralleled the wall. “Ten minutes, five marks,” a tall, lanky Pole in a red track suit grinned and shouted in English. That was the going rate for a hammer and chisel combo. It was about $3.12.
As a sideline to their rent-a-hammer-and-chisel business, the Poles also hawked Soviet military garb, mostly hats. (Over in West Berlin, you could buy all kinds of Soviet and East German military apparel, badges, and medals from street vendors. A guy made me a deal on a Soviet Mig-21 pilot’s g-suit, flying boots, and helmet. “Only $125,” he said. “How would I get it home in my suitcase?” I asked. “That’s your problem,” he laughed. I passed on his offer and settled for some hats, which I mailed home.)
The Poles’ wares included choice chunks of the wall with especially colorful graffiti, plus short sections of formerly electrified barbed wire. “One piece, two marks,” offered a skinny kid with a fistful of the now-harmless steel strands. He didn’t want for customers.
Melinda and I took our cuts at the wall with an Austrian hammer and a West German chisel. The former was borrowed, the latter bought in Munich on the way by train from Bregenz, where we bunked in a spare room at the home of Edward Elgar Polzer and his wife.
Frau Polzer kindly loaned us the family hammer and a wood chisel. I thanked her, knowing the chisel wouldn’t work on concrete.
We spent the night of June 21 in Munich, Germany, and caught the Berlin train the next morning. Melinda had studied German at MSU, but confessed she didn’t know the local lingo for stone chisel. (It’s Steinmeißel.)
We headed for a hardware store, hoping to find a clerk who knew our lingo. “Do you speak English?” I hesitantly and hopefully asked the clerk. “Yes,” she smiled.
“Great. I need a stone chisel but don’t know what you call one in German.” “I don’t either,” she confessed. “I’m English. My husband’s German; this is our shop.”
Back in Bregenz, I returned the hammer and wood chisel to the Polzers, but kept my Steinmeißel. It’s still dinged and dusty from Berlin Wall-wrecking, its one and only job.
“The Germans were always the worst communists.”
When we hoofed it into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, we thought of cold war movies like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Funeral in Berlin. (We also loved the post-cold war film, Bridge of Spies.)
“The Germans were always the worst communists,” Frau Polzer warned us. “They’re Germans – you know, all those rules.”
We knew. It took Melinda and me maybe five minutes to clear Soviet customs and border security at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in 1988. Getting through East Berlin customs and border security required close to half an hour of standing in line, filling out forms, and collecting the required 24-hour visa and passport stamps.
It seemed to take about as long to clear the border on trains between the two Germanys. Munich to West Berlin trains stopped at Probstzella on the East German border. (The station and border control office are now a museum.) A gate in the tall, steel mesh border fence opened to let the train in.
The cream-and-red colored West German electric locomotive was uncoupled and replaced by a red-painted Soviet-made diesel. The switch complete, the gate was shut, and the train was locked. No passengers got on or off until West Berlin.
The Probstzella station was decorated with East German flags and red banners. It and the border fence (like the Berlin wall) was floodlit at night. Armed border guards looked under the train with mirrors while dogs aided their search for would-be escapees. Once the inspection was finished, border officers boarded the train.
Not far over the border, the conductor checked your ticket, the guards inspected your passport, closer than any customs officers in the West. You look straight ahead for a passport photo. “Rechts! Links!” the guards barked, meaning look right, look left.
After stamping your passport and handing you a transit visa, they’d depart, leaving you in peace for the rest of the journey.
At West Berlin, the train passed through another gate, where the guards would decamp. The whole trip was like starring in your own spy movie. (It was doubly cool on our trip from Hamburg through East Germany to West Berlin. Over the border, a pair of camouflaged Soviet-built East German Mig-19s buzzed he train.)
The flags, they were a-changing
We approached Probzstella in the morning of June 21. We left our compartment for the corridor to see if guards were still inspecting trains for would-be escapees. Other riders must have wondered, too; it seemed every window was crowded.
The fence, gate, and guards were gone. The train stopped, but to take on and let off passengers. Some people hopped down, evidently just to stand on the platform, and hopped back on.
At several spots along the rail line, we spied what at first glance seemed the usual East German flags – black, red, and yellow horizontal bars with the national emblem in the middle: a hammer and compass inside a ring of rye sheafs. (The West German flag was identical except it had no West German emblem.) When we looked closer, we saw round holes in the middle of the flags, where the emblem had been cut out.
Auf Wiedersehen, Checkpoint Charlie
Before we crossed to East Berlin in 1990, we met some of the college kids from Bregenz at Checkpoint Charlie. They jumped at my suggestion to get a GI on duty to stamp our passports. “I’m sorry, we just stopped doing that,” a sergeant said. “But if you come back tomorrow, you can watch them take the checkpoint out.”
Melinda and I were all in.
We returned on Saturday, June 22, and joined hundreds — maybe thousands — who gathered to say Auf Wiedersehen to Checkpoint Charlie.
We were too deep in the crowd to get a good look at the dignitaries, who included Secretary of State James A. Baker III and the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. But we were close enough to see a big red crane lift the 20-foot long, white-painted guard shack about 15 feet off the street and gently ease it on to a flatbed truck. Everybody applauded.
(The guard shack is outside a Berlin museum. It was replaced with a smaller, touristy replica that’s a selfie magnet for visitors, especially from stateside.)
“You are leaving the American sector,” a sign advised when you left Checkpoint Charlie for East Berlin. The admonition was in English, French, German, and Russian. Another sign went up on the day the checkpoint went down: Alles ist frei, “All is free.” Back in our part of the crowd, a man cheered and waved a tall pole topped with American and West German flags. Somebody else held up a sign that demanded “Freedom for Ireland.”
As the crowd broke up, a man offered me his East German passport for 20 West German Marks, or about $12.48. I was short on cash, but somebody else bought it.
The East Germans, with the Soviets’ blessing, of course, built the Berlin Wall in 1961 and subsequently strengthened it. The wall was supposed to stop a mass exodus from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, East Germany or their Germany). Our Germany was the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, German Federal Republic in English.
Before the wall — dubbed die Mauer — went up, thousands of East Germans had fled west. Nonetheless, the communists claimed they put up the wall to keep us out. They named it the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or “Anti-fascist Protective Barrier.”
West Berlin mayor — and later West German chancellor — Willy Brandt preferred a different handle. He called it die Schandmauer, “the Wall of Shame.” No matter the name, the wall came to symbolize the most frigid days of the cold war. The holes we and thousands of others knocked in the wall symbolized the thawing.
At Checkpoint Charlie and elsewhere, the wall was made of reinforced concrete. It was about 12 feet tall and topped with smooth, round pipes which made it virtually impossible to climb, if anybody managed to get past the machine-gun armed guards and guard dogs. At least 140 died trying to escape.
Have camera will travel
Checkpoint Charlie was at Friedrichstraße 43-45. On the East Berlin side, the divided street ran into the Unter den Linden, a wide boulevard that bisected the heart of East Berlin, the East German capital. (Bonn was West Germany’s capital.)
You turned left on Unter den Linden for the Soviet embassy, where, amid a bed of crimson roses, a huge, gleaming white bust of Lenin gazed resolutely toward the street through the black iron fence. Just beyond was the Brandenburg Gate and another section of the wall. At a big hammered out hole in the wall, I photographed a guy on the west side while he photographed me photographing him.
You turned right for attractions, including the famous Pergamon Museum, its walls still scarred with bullet and shell holes from the 1945 Battle of Berlin.
I was a man on a mission in Berlin: to get a sackful of the wall and to replicate a National Geographic photo I had seen years before.
The image showed East German soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs, bayonets-fixed, and strutting their stuff at the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism, an East German shrine. A bunch of gobsmacked GIs looked on.
We saw no GIs, just tourists in civilian garb. So I improvised. We got there in time for the changing of the guard. I watched some of them goose-step to a nearby barracks. (Like the Nazis, the East Germans were big on black jack boots, gray-green uniforms, and big helmets.)
I dropped on one knee and waited for their replacements to appear. Here they came – an unsmiling threesome from the Friedrich Engels Guard Regiment.
My Canon was fully manual; I’d be lucky to get one shot, maybe two. Ready, aim – up went their jack-booted right legs in unison. Snap. I got it, but didn’t know it until we were home weeks later.
“Neo-Hippie Cornfield Surfers Rock Worldwide”
Back at Checkpoint Charlie, it was still party time. American kids in college sweatshirts, cutoff shorts, and white Reeboks were perched atop the wall and guzzling cans of beer. Below, the human jackhammers were still chipping way, cheering and high-fiving each other. Since November 9, the graffiti had spread to the East Berlin side. So had the slogans, in German: “schnell, schneller am schnellsten” (fast, faster and fastest) and “MAUERGRÜẞ FÜR WALTER S… 16.6.90 ALLES GUT” (WALL GREETINGS FOR WALTER S…16 JUNE 1990 ALL IS GOOD.”
And English: “Praise the Prince of Peace…” “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Sharon Angel wrote with a black felt tip marker on a patch of unscarred, whitewashed concrete. “Peace be to you and Grace from God,“ Donna Bradley added.
Other musings were metaphysical: “NEO-HIPPIE CORNFIELD SURFERS ROCK WORLD WIDE!” messaged Andrew Michael Kennedy of Kokomo, Ind. He signed off with a 60’s peace symbol. Most wall scrawls were anonymous: “To Emily,” “Hi Mom Dad.” Some were cryptic: “Surely,” “After” and “Heil Butt!” Somebody else quoted the French philosopher Albert Camus: “I SHOULD LIKE TO BE ABLE TO LOVE MY COUNTRY AND STILL LOVE JUSTICE.”
Some Berliners joined in the wall walloping, too. A young man in a blue sports shirt pried loose a golf-ball size piece of concrete. He smiled and handed it to an elderly woman who threw it down. They hugged. She cried. Many others shed tears on both sides of the Berlin Wall.
“In this hour of joy and expectation we must not forget those who despaired at this wall and who lost their lives because of it,” The New York Times quoted from West Berlin city official Ingrid Stahmer’s remarks at the Checkpoint Charlie removal ceremony. “It is here …that so many human tragedies took place. Of course, time heals many wounds, but wounds inflicted on the soul do not lose their scars so quickly.”
Berlin, we hardly knew ye.
“Now we are in a situation where that which belongs together will grow back together,” Chancellor Brandt said on Nov. 10, 1989. We’ve thrice been back to Berlin since 1990, twice with our son, Berry IV, and the last time five years ago.
Most of the wall is gone, except for preserved sections here and there. The Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism is unguarded and been under new management for 29 years this month. After German reunification and the reestablishment of Berlin as the national capital, it became the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship.
“The only European branch of ‘Galeries Lafayette’ outside France, with its international fashion, extensive range of accessories and gourmet food hall, is to be found on [the old East Berlin side of] Friedrichstrasse,” brags a website for shoppers, which boosts Unter den Linden as “the Upper Eastside Berlin shopping complex.”
Yet the big bronze status of Karl Marx (seated) and Friedrich Engels (standing) are still in the old Marx-Engels Forum. That communist-era plaza is another prime spot for selfies. On a 2014 trip to Berlin, I couldn’t resist photographing Jonathan Dunning, one of my students, doing a selfie while pretending to pick Comrade Karl’s bronze schnozz.
Not far from the statuary is the DDR Museum. “Welcome to one of the most interactive museums in the world!” says the museum’s website, which invites visitors to “engage all of your senses to enjoy an immersive experience of everyday life in the former East Germany.”
Americans love the museum. But I suspect a lot of East Germans would rather forget their everyday life pre-Nov. 9, 1989.
I wonder, too, what ex-DDR citizens make of ostalgie, faddish East German kitsch. You can buy tee shirts and hoodies with the DDR emblem. Other tee shirts feature the East German railway and airline logos.
Maybe the most best-known example of ostalgie is Ampelmann, the electric East Berlin pedestrian crossing signals. The go sign was a striding green man with a hat. The stop sign was a red man in a hat, but standing with his legs together and his arms outstretched.
The Ampelmann company sells wide range of Ampelmann products, including clothing, tote bags, candy, tumbler bottles, and lamps featuring the little guy.
We wish we could have made it for the 30th anniversary festivities. “For many people, the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989 was the best day of their lives – the day they regained their freedom through a Peaceful Revolution,” says the Visit Berlin website.
Though I’m half a world away today, my heart’s in Berlin. I’m wearing my black Ampelmann 30th-anniversary-of-the-wall’s-fall tee shirt.
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