A flood of memories of my first encounter with the Berlin Wall and East Germany returned after viewing the movie Bridge of Spies. The Glienicke Bridge marked the site of spy exchanges between East and West. Gary Powers, the U-2 spy-plane pilot from the US had been shot down and captured by the Soviets. The movie recounts the story of his exchange with a Soviet spy and an American student.
My first view of the Wall and East Germany came during a March 1964 visit. Newly arrived in Heidelberg, West Germany to study German, I had some time to travel between semesters and had a family contact from the US. A Protestant minister had been living with his large family in Berlin. I was invited to visit and thus traveled by train some 13 hours each way. I recalled that the Wall had been erected on August 13, 1961, so it was almost new when I saw it.
I opted to travel by day and return by night. When the train reached the border with East Germany, we stopped. East German guards boarded and asked for our passports and visas. They then inquired about what we had with us for customs declarations. This was repeated when we arrived in West Berlin. Each time the train stopped, it was searched underneath and with dogs. This was especially frightening at night when passengers pulled the shades down to cover windows while guards were shining flashlights under the train. Along the route and over railroad crossings through towns, people on the train lowered windows and threw candy, gum and coins to people on the other side of the guard rails. They only did this if there were no police or military officials in sight; otherwise, people stood stone-faced as we passed. As a new arrival and naïve to the politics of the situation, I didn’t realize how stark the difference of life in the East was as contrasted to life in the West. The Germans on the train appeared nervous about traveling in the East.
In the movie, thugs demanded the lawyer’s fancy coat which he gave them. There were a couple border entrances which tourists might take to visit East Berlin. The more common was Checkpoint Charlie which most Americans used. The other was the Friedrichstrasse entrance via the S-Bahn which was the subway operated by the East Germans. We traveled this one. It was considered a more dangerous route since it was no longer maintained by East Germany. Every repair crew they sent to make repairs in the West defected. Subsequently, East Germany no longer attempted to make repairs. My travel companion was the 16 year old son of the Protestant Minister in West Berlin. I was ill-prepared for what met me at the Friedrichstrasse entrance: a room lined with military men holding machine guns, unsmiling and observing us as we handed over passports and visas and stated our purpose for being there. Never before had I experienced such intimidation. My young friend explained we were sightseeing at the Pergamon Museum, world famous for its archaeological holdings.
My first impressions of being in the East included the drabness of the buildings, the lack of the hustle and bustle of the West and few if any vehicles or people. The museum was a short walk from the train station. I had my 35 mm. camera along to take photos when I noticed a monument outside a building like a grave stone. On it was the inscription that this was dedicated to an East German soldier killed by the cruel West German people. What a photo I thought as I took it. Suddenly I saw two soldiers walking out of the building and waving to us. I snapped another photo again thinking this would make a great photo to show back at home.
What a mistake! We were both detained outside the building, passports removed and my camera taken from me. I hastily whispered to my young friend that he should do all the talking for us since he had been there longer. We waited at least 15 minutes in the blowing cold and snow before the soldiers returned. Visions in my head pictured us being held in jail although I asked myself what we could have done. One soldier asked if we were aware that it was against the law to photograph anything military which I had just done by taking the picture of the soldiers. No, I was unaware. My young friend quickly asked him if it were permissible to photograph the monument about the cruel West Germans who had killed an East German soldier. They told him it was permissible. Then my young friend countered that if I took the photo of the monument, their building was in the background and was a military one. They could no longer argue that logic and returned our papers and my camera with the film inside. I breathed a big sigh of relief and dared not speak as we proceeded to the museum and for the next two hours viewed large installations. Some of the guards in the rooms would ask me for cigarettes in English. Fortunately I had none and probably would have been in trouble if I had given them some.
As we left the museum for the walk to the train station, I can honestly say that I practically ran to the West. My young host and I walked some distance outside the Wall in West Berlin where he showed me hastily-erected, handwritten signs with names and dates of those who had been murdered trying to escape from East Berlin. Subsequent reports over the years documented successful escapes in false bottoms of vehicles and a flight to the West in a hot air balloon. A book salesman had a false bottom in a large container of encyclopedias in which he hid persons. He had to hand carry this very heavy weight of books plus human cargo. Daring escapes.
My memories of the Berlin Wall included embedded glass in the cement top, barbed wires in rolls, moats, guard towers with pointed guns and floodlights at night, soldiers with dogs walking the perimeter on both sides. The images remain as stark today. It was good to be able to show our children the Brandenburg Gate which we could walk through and touch now that the Wall has come down.