Detainment in East Berlin

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 It was considered a more dangerous route since it was no longer maintained by East Germany.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.



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19 Responses to Detainment in East Berlin

  1. Annika Perry says:

    A fascinating post of a different era that lasted so long. My first entrance to the DDR in the 80s was through the Friedrichstrasse and you are so right about the sense of intimidation. As a group of young students we giggled nervously and this brought out even more guards! There were mirrors everywhere at all angles. You were lucky to keep you film after being stopped – phew lucky that it didn’t go any further.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment. I would love to hear more of your story as well. We know today that most of it was intimidation and fear. The only mirrors I recall were those used by drivers. The next time I was there was during my 90-91 Fulbright Year. What a difference that made. I imagine if I return again, it will be almost “normal.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Powerful…thanks for telling us.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emily says:

    Loved reading that, really great story thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Arno Bode,cologne,Germany says:

    Liebe Mary Ann,mit großem Interesse habe ich deinen Bericht deines Berlin Besuches zur Zeit des Kalten Krieges gelesen.Der Fall der Berliner Mauer,die 1961 errichtet wurde,ist inzwischen schon wieder 25 Jahre her.Die heutige Generation weiß zm teil schon nicht mehr wo die Mauer stand.Das Brandenburger Tor war in der Vergangenheit für uns das Symbol zum Streben nach Wiedervereinigung,nach Freiheit und Weltfrieden.Mit dem Fall der Berliner Mauer glaubten wir auch zeitweilig dem Weltfrie n ein Stück näher gekommen zu sein.Erlebnisse ,wie Du sie hattest hatten wir in vielfältiger Form,da wir zu Berlin ein besonderes Verhältnis hatten und durch viele Besuche mit dem Auto immer durch den Korridor (Ostzone) fahren mußten.Mein Vater war ja Berliner,und Teile der Verwandtschaft lebten bis dahin noch in West-Berlin.Durch die DDR Grenbeamten bin ich unter anderem gezwungen worden mehr als 4 Stunden vor dem Grenzdurchgang zu warten,nur weil ich versehentlich die falschen Fahrzeigpapiere abgegeben hatte.Eine unbestimmte Angst war bei diesen Grenzüberschreitungen immer vorhanden.Einen ganz besonderen Bezug zu Berlin haben wir ,weil mein Großonkel -Wilhelm von Bode-(gebürtig: Arnold Wilhelm Bode)das Konzept von Friedrich III und Kronprinzessin Viktoria ,Museen zu errichten auf der Museumsinsel in Berlin verwirklicht hat.Das vorderste Gebäude auf der Museumsinsel ist das Bode Museum.Nach dem Fall der Mauer wurden alle Museen auf der Museumsinsel restauriert und beherbergen heute erstaunliche Kulturschätze und Sammlungen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for such an informative and thoughtful comment about my blog and your experiences in the former East. Those were difficult times. Especially of interest is the Bode Museum which I will have to look up if I am ever in Germany again. Your comments are much appreciated. For those readers who do not know German, an English translation of Arno Bode’s informative comment follows.


    • English translation of the above:
      Dear Mary Ann, with great interest I have read your report of your visit to Berlin during the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961, is now already 25 years ago. The present generation no longer knows where for the most part where the wall stood. Das Brandenburg Gate was in the past for us the symbol of the pursuit of reunification, for freedom and world peace. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, we believed even temporarily to be closer to world peace. Experiences such as you had, we had in various forms, since we had a special relationship to Berlin and we had to go on many visits by car always through the corridor (east zone. My father was in Berlin, and many of the relatives survived until then in West Berlin. By the DDR border guards, I was forced among others to wait more than 4 hours before the border crossing, just because I had accidentally given the wrong driving papers. A vague fear at these border crossings was always present. We have a special relationship to Berlin, because my great-uncle -Wilhelm of Bode (native: Arnold Wilhelm Bode. They realized the concept which Friedrich III and Crown Princess Victoria had to build museums on the Museum Island. In Berlin, the foreground building on the Museum Island is the Bode Museum. After the fall of the Wall, all museums on the Museum Island were restored and now house amazing cultural treasures and collections.


  5. mharbinger says:

    I loved the read!

    I just finished reading LeCarre’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” – I find stories of Belrin during the Cold War exciting.

    When the Berlin wall fell, my friend and his family camped up against it, chipping off pieces as souvenirs. I got one from him when they returned and I treasured it for years – a piece of history! I lost it when I moved out of the house (my parents probably didn’t know why I was keeping a piece of concrete and threw it out.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What an interesting experience to have and now it has changed for the better. I have a friend with family in Berlin so must visit.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Tom says:

    Excellent recount of your experiences during that time period. From your writing, I can sense there was a lot of tension on both sides. It’s fascinating you saw the wall when it was fairly new and when it finally came down. Keep sharing these good stories!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment. My first view of the Wall and this account came after being in Germany for approximately one month. Imagine how I felt. Many native Germans had similar experiences for the entire time the Wall was up. To say the least, it was a most uncomfortable time standing in the blowing cold and wondering if I would see my camera and film or if I would be jailed.


  8. Arno Bode,cologne,Germany says:

    Dear Mary Ann,

    please allow me to add still some facts about the Berlin Museum Island. Berlin`s Museum Island is a magnificent work of art in its own right, an extraordinary ensemble of five world-renowned musums on an island in the River Spree in the heart of Berlin city. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall something has changed. The Museum Island is now UNESCO World Heritage.The buildings reflect the evolution of modern museum design over more than a century. The five Museums of Berlin´s Museum Island are as follows:

    Pergamon Museum

    The Pergamon Museum is being gradually restored. As a result, the hall contains the massive Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate, the Gate of Miletus and the Museum of Islamic Art.

    Bode Museum

    It houses an extensive collection of sculptures, treasures of the Museum of Byzantine Art, and the Numismatic Collection(coins).

    Neues Museum

    The museum was severely damaged during the war and remained in ruins until 1999. Since reopening in 2009,the museum is home to selected objects from the Egyptian Museum, the Papyrus Collection, and the star attraction at the Neues Museum remains the bust of Nefertiti.

    Alte Nationalgalerie

    The Nationalgalerie stands like a temple with its staircase. The building now houses art from the nineteenth century with works in the Classicist, Romantic, Biedermeier, Impressionist and early modern styles.

    Altes Museum

    The Altes Museum with rotunda, dome and portico was the first public museum in Prussia. After extensive renovations, the building now houses the city`s main collection of ancient art and sculptures and a gold Treasury.

    For those who like to visit museums, Berlin has a lot more museums today, but the Museum Island belongs to the world heritage of culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this informative comment which my blog readers may find of interest. Like Mesa Verde in Colorado, the Museum Island is a World Heritage Site. I have visited a couple times when in Berlin. Cheers and enjoy the weekend.


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