Ill-equipped militias, tolerated holidays, stumbling stones, worthless marks, halfhearted arabesques, boxy little Trabants, game-playing guards, symbolic demarcations, Yahrzeit candles & the testicles of the West.
I visited the city for the first time when I was nineteen. The Berlin Wall was six years old, made of cinder blocks stacked less than ten feet high, a temporary solution. When the pandemic ends, I will return. Berlin is a place to think about what has changed in the world and in me.
Recent history attracted me. World War II blended with the Cold War in Berlin; one became the other. Khrushchev called Berlin “the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”
I finished reading William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I used it to create a tour of Nazi Berlin, walking most places. At the charred Reichstag building, I imagined the fire that helped cement Hitler’s dictatorship. He accused Communists of burning it. I recalled the photo of two Russian soldiers waving the Soviet flag from the Reichstag’s top, symbolizing the fall of Berlin, the end of the war against Nazi Germany. In the remains of the 1936 Olympic Stadium, I remembered film footage of Jesse Owens upstaging the Nazis by winning four gold medals. I walked to Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing between East and West Berlin. American military police officers and East Berlin border guards inspected papers and vehicles. East and West Germany became sovereign states in 1949. Berlin remained occupied by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France.
I thought of my father. In combat against the Germans in World War II, he hated them, wanted me to hate them. Dad died seven years earlier, at forty-two. I was twelve. I was free to hate the Germans or not.
If I agreed to serve three years instead of two, the US Army promised to teach me German. Half the German teachers at the military language school were former POWs. They had stories to show they were never Nazis, just patriots.
Herr Toll was a Berliner, older than the other teachers. The Nazis conscripted him into the Volkssturm, a militia of ill-equipped old men and boys. Herr Toll said he was lucky to survive the Russian assault on Berlin in 1945.
The guard pointed to a sign in English taped to his desktop, held up two plastic sandwich bags with banknotes and coins.
Halfway through the German course, Herr Toll took me aside to ask if I spoke Yiddish. He was a director in the Berlin theater scene in the 1920s. He spoke Yiddish with Jewish colleagues and wanted to use it again.
I wondered what happened to his Jewish colleagues. I told him my parents and grandparents spoke Yiddish, but I did not.
He lowered his head, dropped his shoulders, turned away.
M y wife, Fran, and I were two American tourists walking through Checkpoint Charlie on a winter evening at the Cold War’s height. A border guard scrutinized our passports as we sat in his drafty shack. He was stocky with a broad square face, close-cropped hair and a blank, unreadable expression. He wore a gray-green tunic with buttoned breast pockets that fit snugly. The tips of his shiny black boots extended from under his desk. It was a World War II German army uniform without the swastikas.
The guard saw mostly American military identification cards and diplomatic passports in the cold months. American tourist passports he saw in the warm months. We looked suspicious.
Our ordinary passports disappeared into a little slot in the wall behind the border guard. He asked us questions in German; I pretended not to understand. The guard spoke limited English. No one with better English appeared to question us.
Half the German teachers at the military language school were former POWs. They had stories to show they were never Nazis, just patriots.
We stuck to our story about attending the ballet. My halfhearted arabesque cracked the guard’s frozen face with a grin. We were meeting a West German friend who had to drive through the checkpoint at Heinrich-Heine-Strasse. We would join him on the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie.
Border guards often played games with Western tourists, on orders from above, looking for bribes or just for amusement.
One guard took your passport. Another came along, asked for your papers. You told the second guard that another guard had them. The second guard checked, told you he could not find them. The American MPs interceded, a pack of cigarettes changed hands, the missing passports appeared.
Fran’s passport came through the slot in the wall behind the guard, but not mine. I crossed my fingers and hoped the MPs would step in. After an eternity, my passport appeared. The guard pointed to a sign in English taped to his desktop, held up two plastic sandwich bags with banknotes and coins. Western visitors must exchange West German marks for East German marks and pay a temporary visa fee in West German marks. Each plastic bag held twenty-five East marks.
West German currency was among the strongest; East marks were worthless outside East Germany. West German marks bought Western goods in designated shops inside East Germany. These shops accepted only West German money and other Western currency. The border guards got Western currency for themselves and their superiors to spend at these designated shops.
Dietrich was waiting in his BMW. Two years earlier, we’d hosted him as a graduate student in America. Dietrich now worked in West Berlin.
Each of the Western books could earn you a year in prison. This bookcase was a life sentence.
He asked if the border guard believed the ballet story. We shrugged. Dietrich looked in the rearview mirror to see if anyone had followed. Satisfied there was no tail, he went to Scharnhorststrasse and parked his BMW on the street among boxy little Trabants. The top speed of the smoke-belching Trabis was 60 mph. They were the most common personal vehicle in East Germany. Side by side, Dietrich’s muscular 5 Series BMW against the spare Trabis told of East and West Germany’s different material cultures.
We climbed the stairs in a gray housing block, knocked on the door. Wolfgang and Doerte greeted us. He was in his thirties, she in her twenties. The small apartment’s striking feature was wooden shelving filled with books in German and English. Book covers gave the room its color. Each of the Western books could earn you a year in prison. This bookcase was a life sentence.
The secret police left Wolfgang and Doerte alone because they worked for the Lutheran Bishop of East Berlin. The Communists did not suppress the Lutheran Church in East Germany, fearing a popular uprising. Easter and Christmas remained official holidays in Communist East Germany.
Two books by Henry Kissinger caught my eye. I’d brought them to West Berlin three days earlier. Dietrich explained that Wolfgang’s elderly mother crossed to West Berlin whenever she wished. The East German government did not restrict travel to the West by its elderly; they encouraged them to stay in the West to become a financial burden over there. Dietrich met Wolfgang’s mother in West Berlin. He gave her the contraband publications, which she carried back to East Berlin. The border guards never searched her. She’d smuggled the Kissinger books into East Berlin yesterday.
The Communist regime disintegrated, but the Communist bureaucrats did not disappear.
The five of us had tea with cake, followed by colorless schnapps. We talked for two hours about Kissinger. He was preparing to step down as the American secretary of state when Gerald Ford made way for Jimmy Carter.
As Kissinger had suggested twenty years earlier, our hosts asked if Americans thought they could win a nuclear war limited to Europe. We assured our hosts that such an action threatened too many Americans. It could not happen. Still, we did not believe that.
We said goodbye, gave our hosts half of the East marks we had exchanged at the border, drove to the east side of Checkpoint Charlie.
The border guard who’d quizzed us earlier was on duty. He asked if we enjoyed the ballet. We nodded.
We started toward the American side. “Halt!” said the guard, rising from his chair. My heart raced.
The guard held up a plastic sandwich bag filled with East marks. He wanted us to return any unused East money we had exchanged earlier that evening. Visitors could not take money from East Germany, even as a souvenir.
We handed him our plastic bags with the East marks we had not given to Wolfgang and Doerte, apologized in English. We trotted to the American side, showed the MPs our passports, scrambled into Dietrich’s BMW.
Anti-Communist protests had grown two years earlier. The failing Communist regime opened the Berlin Wall, and the government collapsed days later.
The Communist regime disintegrated, but the Communist bureaucrats did not disappear. The way to do business in former East Germany was to partner with a former government functionary. Michael, a West German architect we hosted during his graduate-student days in America, opened an office with Klaus, an East German city planner. Klaus knew whose approvals he needed. The mayor’s wife wanted a BMW. If she got her BMW, Klaus got the permissions.
We passed an evening with Klaus at his dacha, a weekend house on the shore of a lake an hour’s drive from downtown Berlin. Klaus called his lakefront retreat a “bungalow.” He had lost his taste for Russian words, not Russian vodka.
Thus fortified, Klaus mixed English with German. During the war, he learned English from schoolbooks, sheltering in the subway from Berlin’s Anglo-American bombing. I imagined this little boy studying the language of those who destroyed his city. Bombs whistled, the subway tunnel shook, concrete dust floated in the air, lights dimmed. Klaus read English.
On the outskirts of Berlin, buildings were dirty, decrepit and needed three coats of paint. We saw an abandoned Russian airfield and barracks with large pits into which the Russians dumped vehicle parts. I smelled gasoline. The valves on the back of an empty tanker truck dripped fuel. The Russians drove the tanker over the field with the valves open, a farewell present.
He had lost his taste for Russian words, not Russian vodka.
Fran and I wanted to walk through the Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic demarcation point between East and West. Michael insisted we stop first in Potsdam to visit Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s summer palace. The royal buildings needed extensive repair. The East Germans touched up only gold elements, hoping the shiny objects distracted tourists from the neglected buildings and grounds. To keep—not to, say, restore—one of Europe’s largest royal palace complexes was not a Marxist priority. Sanssouci impressed Russian soldiers wandering the grounds. They wore light-olive tunics, dark-olive pants, thick-soled boots, high-peak visor hats with the distinctive red band. The Russians gaped at the remains of imperialist decadence. They captured what they saw with simple cameras to show the folks back home.
Traffic got heavier near the Brandenburg Gate. We parked, walked to Pariser Platz, the grand square connecting the Brandenburg Gate with Unter den Linden. Lined with historic buildings, Unter den Linden runs through the heart of East Berlin. Souvenir-hunters had chopped the Berlin Wall into chunks of concrete, carried it away. When I first saw it, twenty-five years earlier, I could not imagine this sinister barrier disappearing in my lifetime. I assumed the wall must stand indefinitely, like the Communist regime that had erected it. Tourists filled Pariser Platz. Street vendors sold insignia, medals, hats looted from military depots. Rumor had it you could buy firearms, even a tank if you wanted one.
A fat lady with gray hair tucked under a straw boater with a red hatband, wearing a red dress with white polka dots, cranked a street organ. A man wearing the same straw boater stood by her, cranking a similar instrument.
Other street musicians strummed, blew, sawed away, accumulating money in their open instrument cases. Jugglers and acrobats performed. Currywurst scented the air.
This place of solemn ceremony for Prussian royalty, Napoleon, Hitler, the World War II Allies, the postwar Communist regimes, was now a carnival.
W e sat in the restaurant beneath the French Church in Berlin in what used to be the Russian occupation zone, a twenty-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate.
Fran and I traveled with three American friends. One of them suggested dinner with his cousin and his cousin’s wife, who had retired to Berlin.
It was early for dinner in Europe at the height of summer. Cousin Ralph and his wife, Hildur, were in their eighties, liked to eat before sunset and make their way home by daylight. It was a fine summer evening in the old capital of a new Germany.
Ralph was not a native Berliner, but Hildur thought of herself as one. Ralph spoke fluent German, Hildur fluent English. They’d retired to Berlin for its world-class theaters, museums, restaurants, urban landscapes and excitement to rival New York, London and Paris.
Bombs whistled, the subway tunnel shook, concrete dust floated in the air, lights dimmed. Klaus read English.
Hildur spent her childhood in Berlin. She was the youngest child of General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, the last commander-in-chief of the German Army before Hitler came to power. General von Hammerstein was an outspoken critic of the Nazis; he plotted to overthrow Hitler. The general avoided arrest, only to die from cancer in Berlin in 1943. Postwar Germany needed its anti-Nazi heroes. General von Hammerstein was one of them.
Hildur was a bona fide anti-Nazi. Besides her father, two of her older sisters spied on Nazi Germany for Soviet Russia. One of her brothers took part in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. She took pride in her family’s anti-Nazi reputation.
It was the sixtieth anniversary of the war’s end in Europe. Families revised their histories. Everyone in France had a relative in the resistance; no one in Germany had a relative in the Nazi Party.
We surprised the restaurant staff because of the early hour. This left ample time for Ralph to tell us his life story. He was an ordained Lutheran minister in a family of missionaries, whose pastoral work took him to Cold War Berlin to minister on both sides of the wall. In 1964, Ralph met the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Berlin. “Marty,” Ralph called him.
The Russians drove the tanker over the field with the valves open, a farewell present.
Dr. King was in West Berlin, Mayor Willy Brandt’s guest, to speak at a ceremony marking President Kennedy’s assassination. The day after he arrived, the border guards shot a young man trying to escape to the West, but only wounded him. An American soldier patrolling the west side of the wall pulled the man to safety. Dr. King went to the spot where the shooting occurred to pray for peace. That day, he made a scheduled speech to twenty thousand people in West Berlin.
Dr. King wanted to deliver his message of peace in East Berlin. Prominent East Berlin pastors invited him to speak. But the American government feared a propaganda opportunity for the Russians; they said no, confiscated Dr. King’s passport, detained his interpreter.
That day, Ralph sat in a car with Dr. King on the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie. The border guards recognized Dr. King, but would not let him pass without identification. Everyone in Germany on both sides of the border carried a personal identity card. Germans detested anonymity. Ralph asked Dr. King for anything with his name on it. Dr. King looked in his wallet, pulled out his American Express card. An officer examined it, returned the card. He had them exchange West marks for East marks and waved them through.
Sunset over Berlin’s dark roof tiles on a mild October day tinted the scattered clouds yellow.
Fran and I rented a fifth-floor apartment that looked across the mid-rise roofs of Mitte, a trendy district in the heart of Berlin. I placed a Yahrzeit candle on a table before a large picture window to honor my father’s memory. He’d died on that date fifty-eight years earlier. I knew Jews lit Yahrzeit candles in Berlin—more than before the Berlin Wall fell, fewer than before the Nazis came to power.
Prewar Berlin was home to 160,000 Jews, the most assimilated Jews in Europe. Berlin’s Jewish Museum traced the centuries it took for German Jews to fit in. The Nazis forced them into exile or murdered them in twelve years. So much for assimilation.
Mitte is home to museums, churches and cathedrals, government buildings, the oldest of Berlin’s universities, and somber memorials to the Berlin Wall. An artist installed a thousand brass-capped cobblestones in Mitte’s sidewalks. Each one is a four-inch square inscribed with the names of people who once lived in the adjacent buildings. These “stumbling stones” show where and when the Nazis murdered them.
Other street musicians strummed, blew, sawed away, accumulating money in their open instrument cases.
There is a touristy Checkpoint Charlie, with actors dressed as American military police officers from the Cold War era. They reminded me of me. One of them posed with tourists. He wore a dark-green uniform with a black-and-white MP brassard on his arm. It was the uniform I stuffed into my duffel bag fifty years before and left to mildew in the cellar.
The sun sank lower toward the Berlin Wall memorial park. I’d visited the memorials with Dietrich two days before. Dietrich and I wandered through the green space between the rusted steel columns embedded in the ground to show where the wall once stood. Dietrich told me he’d visited Wolfgang before he died from cancer ten years earlier.
He thought Wolfgang and Doerte had difficulty adjusting to life in reunified Berlin. If you define your life by resistance, what do you do with your life when the opposition disappears?
The sun continued its descent over the rooftops of Mitte. The scattered clouds blazed orange. Berlin felt like New York—cafés, fusion restaurants offering organic and ethnic foods, the underground, Uber, people speaking dozens of languages and speaking English with various accents. It was greener, less crowded, cleaner. Also, it is only a long day’s drive from Russia and the Russian army. Chicago is only a long day’s drive from New York.
The sun dropped below the rooflines, turned the scattered clouds an otherworldly red streaked with purple, fashioned an altar behind the Yahrzeit candle. I struck a match. The smell reminded me of the cigarettes that killed my father early in life. I touched the lighted match to the wick; it hissed and flickered. I felt close to my father. I said a brief prayer for his soul and asked him to forgive me for forgiving the Germans.
Rob Silverman’s writing appeared most recently in the Michigan Quarterly Review, O-Dark-Thirty and Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. He earned a PhD in history from Harvard, where he was also a teaching fellow. When not traveling, he divides his time between the Florida Keys and New England. Visit him at robsilverman.us. This essay was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Claudio Schwarz