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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Berliner

The third and final installment of the "no shit, I was really there" series of tales about visiting East Berlin in the 1980s, this post would not have been possible if I hadn't found an old pamphlet while cleaning out the mess from Dad's room. This was given to everyone who rode "The Berliner," the British troop train which made daily trips from West Germany to West Berlin (and back) across the blasted landscape of East Germany.

Between 1945 and 1990 the British military train travelled daily through Soviet occupied East Germany to the British sector of West Berlin. All the train doors were locked, an armed guard was on board and the British military and civil servants would take about 4 hours to cover the distance of 145 miles.--

The pamphlet is a quad-fold design, with a map on one side and instructions on the other.

Technically the back of the pamphlet, this is still the first page as it is the one that would be put on display.

This is the reverse side, showing the name and rank of my father (blurred for reasons of privacy) and our dates of travel. From this page the pamphlet unfolds...

... to reveal this bit of history on the right and begin displaying the map (shown below) on the left. There's a fair density of history and geography in these six paragraphs.

Turning the previous page over, the map continues to unfold and this page appears on the right. This is where stuff, as the saying goes, begins to get real. The whole "We are traveling through hostile territory, no fooling" was driven home as armed (yet polite) British soldiers patrolled the train corridors while it was moving.

And here's the map. I have never been on a safari, but I have been on a troop train through terrain where I was told to "watch out on both sides for the guard dogs, barbed wire, minefields and watch towers" and where "tanks and armoured vehicles can sometimes be seen on manoevers".

I'm not sure why the engine was detached and searched twice but the rest of the train was not. If anyone knows, I'd love to be enlightened.

I truly wish I could remember more of the trip. I was ten years old in 1983, and everything seemed larger than life, and yet much of it is blurred.

  • As I mentioned previously, the landscape between Helmstedt and Berlin was a a gray waste as far as the eye could see. I imagine much of the grayness was due to it being late December in Germany, but still I must stress the fact that crossing the border was like was going from Oz to Kansas.  Far off in the distance I could see buildings that looked like they'd been bombed in World War 2 and never repaired. For all I know, that might actually be true. 
  • After all that grayness, being let into West Berlin was such a riot of color and sound and style that it made my eyes sizzle. I understand why West Berliners have such a party attitude; they were living on Entropy's Edge. 
"Berlinermauer" by Noir 
  • Graffitti on the Western side of the Wall was non-stop. I don't think there was a single section that wasn't covered in some way. So far as I know, the police encouraged (or at least tolerated) it, as it was a graphic "FUCK YOU" to totalitarianism. 
"Berlin-Memorial to the Victims of the Wall-1982" by Lyricmac
  • Crossing into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie looked exactly like you'd imagine it did. Guards with mirrors looked under the bus while guards with German Shepherds patrolled around us and guards with assault rifles came aboard and demanded "Papieren, Bitte." 
  • East Berlin, like the rest of the country, was primarily gray. Any colors present were desaturated, like they had been left in the sun for too long and faded. 
  • Yes, the Death Zone on the East side of the wall was as terrible as you think it was. We weren't allowed to take pictures, so these will have to do. 
"East Berlin Death Strip seen from Axel Springer Building 1984" by GeorgeLouis 

"Berlin Wall death strip, 1977" by George Garrigues (GeorgeLouis)

  • This is a really well-done animation of both the Berlin Wall and wall between East and West Germany. Even through the haze of 30 years ago, this feels accurate. 

  • After our visit, we stopped by a museum of of the Wall. The only thing I remember about it were the detailed and amazingly inventive ways people managed to smuggle themselves across to the West. 

And now for a final story:

At some point during our visit to East Berlin -- I think it was after Putin tried to pick up my mom, but I'm not certain -- we stopped at a gift shop that catered specifically to tourists (specifically because East Berliners likely couldn't afford what was being sold there, and probably weren't allowed inside anyway).

There I was, 10 years old and full of energy and bored to death of stodgy old gift shops, so I told my parents I was going out to the parking lot to explore and get some air.  I went outside and, because kids do that sort of thing, I decided to walk behind the building.

When I got to the back of the building - I crap you negative - I saw a semi-trailer parked there, with the rear doors open, and inside was what looked like electronic gear being manned by soldiers in uniform.

Being a good little American, I ran inside and got my father (who was in his full uniform, as required by international treaty), told him he needed to see something, and took him by the hand around the building.

The soldiers there might not have cared if a kid saw them, but one glance at a uniformed member of the United States Army and -- bam! -- they jumped up and closed the doors. I guess my being nosy meant they couldn't have fresh air in their stuffy surveillance trailer.

Of course it was a surveillance trailer. Of course the gift shop was bugged. If anything, the surprise was that they'd be so brazen about it instead of having a spy room in the basement.

That's all I can remember of my visit to East Berlin. It's weird to think that it no longer exists. Sure, eastern Germany exists, but not East Germany. I feel privileged to have visited a country that has passed into history.

Oh, one final bit of funny to wrap this up and bring it full circle to the post that started it all:

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