Saturday, April 14, 2012

Around the World: Berlin

April 14, 1992

Finding information at the little "i" at the train station in Berlin is a joke.  When I ask the lady at the desk for a map of the city, she hands me a subway map and says, "Alexander Platz."  Maybe people only come here to see one thing.  Hopefully it's the same thing I've come to see.

The wall.

The subway map doesn't help much, other than to tell me I've walked too far in the wrong direction.  I find another tourist information booth where I am handed yet another subway map.  When I show the clerk my subway map and explain that I want a street map, she hands it to me laughing and mutters, "Stupid tourist."

Friendly bunch, they are here in Berlin.

At a nearby park, I stop for a snack and to feed the sparrows, who incidentally, are much friendlier than the people, before walking the rest of the way to Checkpoint Charlie.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to prevent Eastern Bloc citizens from defecting into West Germany and onto other Western European countries.  On November 9, 1989, the GDR announced that East Germans could visit West Berlin and West Germany.  Thousands of East Germans gathered at German checkpoints demanding to cross into the West.  Border guards were instructed to stamp East German passports with a mark that would deny them entry back into East Germany.  When the East German authorities would not accept responsibility for orders to use lethal force, the border guards opened the gates.  East Germans poured through the gates and were greeted by West Germans carrying flowers and champagne in celebration.  West and East Berliners climbed onto the wall rejoicing in their new freedom. 

Souvenir hunters chipped and chiseled away at the wall, and in the weeks that followed, several people brought sledgehammers to dismantle sections that created several unofficial crossing points.  Crowds cheered on bulldozers that removed large sections of the wall to reunite roads that had been separated since it's construction.

The physical dismantling of the wall continued until last year, leaving only a few small sections and watchtowers standing as memorials.  Checkpoint Charlie, once the most visible crossing point between West and East Berlin is now a museum that documents the wall's history.  There is a distinct difference in architecture from east to west.  Standing on Friedrichstra├če facing East Berlin, the buildings are practical, basic, unadorned structures.  Looking toward West Berlin, the buildings are artistic, decorated with ornate details and statues.

Architectural differences between East (L) & West (R) Berlin

Poster prints of the artwork and graffiti that covered the wall are for sale.  I buy one of a hand breaking through the wall offering a white rose to a hand bound in chains.

I follow the scarred ground where the wall used to stand on my way back to the train station.  Perhaps this is what makes the people so irritable, scars of a terribly disturbing past that have yet to heal.

Wall graffiti

The train to Aachen is attached to another long line of army green cars.  I discover this as the orange cars pass me, still standing on the platform as the train pulls out of the station.  When I inquire about another train at the reservations window, the clerk tells me I cannot make reservations here.  Fortunately, the train returns to the station and I have a chance to board.

After walking through two full cars, I finally find a couchette with an empty seat, quite possibly the last available seat on this train.

• ¤ •

"What happened in Berlin last week was a combination of the fall of the Bastille and a New Year's Eve blowout, of revolution and celebration. At the stroke of midnight on Nov. 9, a date that not only Germans would remember, thousands who had gathered on both sides of the Wall let out a roar and started going through it, as well as up and over. West Berliners pulled East Berliners to the top of the barrier along which in years past many an East German had been shot while trying to escape; at times the Wall almost disappeared beneath waves of humanity. They tooted trumpets and danced on the top. They brought out hammers and chisels and whacked away at the hated symbol of imprisonment, knocking loose chunks of concrete and waving them triumphantly before television cameras. They spilled out into the streets of West Berlin for a champagne-spraying, horn-honking bash that continued well past dawn, into the following day and then another dawn. As the daily BZ would headline: BERLIN IS BERLIN AGAIN."

Photo courtesy of PBS, November 10, 1989

 ~Freedom! The Berlin Wall by Time columnist George J. Church
Monday, November 20, 1989

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