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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Monday, November 25, 2019

30 years ago - Berlin

It is Thursday night, November 9, 1989. Night falls on Hasliberg, Switzerland, where I am a teacher at the École d'Humanité, an international boarding school perched high on a verdant alp above Meiringen, just east of the Lake of Brienz. Barbara, my German co-teacher, tells me she had a call from her parents in Berlin, and the city is "mad with joy." The wall has been breached, the west and east are opening to each other. I am 35 years old, with an adventurous streak as wide as I can reach, and am seized by an ineluctable resolve to witness this historic event.

Barbara agrees to take care of our student "family" over the weekend and cover my Friday morning classes -- very generous of her. I hastily consult the Swiss almanac of trains, a book like a small dictionary kept in the library and fully reliable. A train bound for Luzern and the north leaves Brünig at 6:45 a.m. Given the complicated connections to reach West Berlin, even this early train will not have me in Berlin before nightfall, and to get back to Hasliberg for Sunday evening requires a Saturday night departure from Berlin. The twelve-hour trip each way will give me just twenty-four hours in Berlin. The adventure seems fraught with opportunity for disaster, but I have heard the call and cannot turn away.

First obstacle: the earliest post-bus from Hasliberg on Saturday morning runs later than the train at Brünig Pass. I don't own a car; few people do at the school, and in any case, though I have covered my basic responsibilities thanks to Barbara, my journey isn't exactly sanctioned. I'll have to slip out under cover of darkness, as it were, before the morning wake-up gong, and ride my bike the 9 km of winding mountain road along the flank of Hasliberg to Brünig. I'm confident that forgiveness will be given upon my return, but less sure of the outcome of a conversation with the school director requesting permission.

I wake early, stuff a small bag with my journal and a scarf and a book or two for the train. I don't have to worry about phone chargers or cables -- this is 1989. I don't even own a camera, let alone a portable phone. My journal will be my documentation. I don't want to be bothered by a large pack, so no sleeping bag or other camping gear comes along for this ride. I'll figure it all out in Berlin.

The view from Twing, at Wasserwendi. (Hotel Twing)
As the eastern mountain peaks sharpen against a pinkening sky, I hop on my bike. The wooded slopes and meadows where no cowbells toll in this late season of the year whisper past as I toil up the first long slope to Wasserwendi. There's no time to pause for the extraordinary view -- the lights of Meiringen twinkling 900 feet below in the Aare valley, a ruddy glow now on the peaks of Schwarzhorn and Wildgärst across the valley, the dim grey film of the Lake of Brienz taking shape in the distant widening valley. I race along the downslope to Hohfluh, the road smooth and dry and nearly deserted. Working up a sweat, I sense I'm behind schedule; the hands on my watch seem to have sped up. I pedal harder, racing now along the final winding, dramatic stretch of road -- cliffs above and below, a sheer plunge to the miniature buildings far below in Meiringen -- aware of the emerging possibility that I might miss my train and lose the whole adventure.

As I reach the bridge over the tracks above the station, my fears are confirmed: the rear lights of the last wagon are in motion, pulling away from the station house; the station master on the platform is just turning away to return to the warmth of his office. I take all this in as I glide momentarily, but instinct and some deep reserve of hope -- it's not over till it's over -- drive me on, faster, to the corner; then a swift right turn into the parking area beside the wooden station house, bumping over gravel along the side of the yard toward the train, still visible a hundred yards or so up the track; it has come to a stop with just its rear car sticking out of the canopy of fir trees.

With a running leap, I hurl my bike to the ground and race full tilt after the train: it has paused, I recall from many trips to Luzern, to drop the gear-wheel that engages with the middle cog rail used on the steepest part of the rail line between Brünig and Lungern. I hear the "chunk" of the cog dropping; the forward lurch of the train sends a final shot of desperate power to my limbs and and I half-fly. I'm within reach -- just -- snatch the chrome handle of the rear door and yank, swing a foot onto the iron stair, and stumble into the heat of the wagon. The conductor, already punching tickets, turns in astonishment and along with four or five travelers in the car regards me, I suspect, with a Swiss hint of disapproval at the sudden breach of decorum and protocol. Who cares! I'm on.

Of course there's a surcharge, but my heart sings a victory chorus as the conductor writes my ticket, takes my money, and wishes me " 'ne guete Reise von hier ab." I settle into a seat, sweat running down my face and under my clothes, embarked on the first leg of my 12-hour ride to Berlin.

After a full day of travel and connections across Switzerland and Germany, I arrive at Marienborn (if my memory serves me well) and the train passes through passport control. From this point on, I feel I am in new and alien territory. The rail line crawls along a section of track with high walls on both sides; then the landscape opens, but still, walls and wires mark the border as the train completes its passage across the territory of the DDR (German Democratic Republic) and into West Berlin, suspended deep inside East Germany like a soap bubble at the end of a straw.

By the time I arrive at the Zoologischer Garten station, night has fallen. The air is startlingly cold, far chillier than at Hasliberg. I have no idea where to go, but I follow crowds toward an epicenter of light and noise impossible to miss. Many streets are closed; clumps of revelers stroll and wander down the Kurfürstendamm. I pass the ruins of a church tower, apparently preserved as a monument -- the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, I learn later. It's good to walk after my hours of confinement in the train, though the relief fades; I'm to be on my feet almost non-stop for the next twenty-four hours. I've made mental note of the train I must catch to get back to Switzerland on Sunday: 9:15 pm Saturday at the Zoologischer Garten. Later trains have bad connections: I'd have to overnight somewhere, and arrive late for Monday morning classes. I've already pushed the bounds of what I can justify as an unexcused absence from my job; whatever befalls, I must be on that train.

I wander down unfamiliar streets, largely ignorant of the history of Berlin. I have sketchy knowledge of events at the end of World War II and afterwards; the divisions of the city into quarters controlled by several Allied victors; the building of the Wall in 1961. I've seen the photo of the German soldier leaping across the early fence practically all my life. For my generation, a sinister Iron Curtain lay across Germany and all of Europe, and the demise of this emblematic schism in Berlin is a sign of immense change toward, as one could only hope, a better world.

Zeitgeist -- Photographer unknown

This world seems literally to be blazing to life at Potzdamerplatz, where I find myself in a crowd of thousands packing a wide area along an expanse of brightly painted Wall straddled by young people singing, chanting, waving, at times standing, dancing. No one seems fully confident that no sudden outbreak of violence or repression might erupt, but a state of exuberant joy reigns nonetheless. Hours pass; I wander along the Wall, an endlessly diverse gallery of political and cultural expression, briefly joining various groups, watching street performers gather impromtu audiences around music or puppetry, squeezing into packed cafés for moments of warmth. I glimpse vistas of city boulevards and plazas where traffic provides a semblance of normalcy as a foil to the madcap revelry of the night. I grow hungry, weary, cold. My legs ache; the only relief is to walk, or occasionally sit on a curb or bench. I don't want to miss anything. I've heard that the wall is to be breached at Potzdamerplatz sometime on Saturday, and I return to that locus regularly, checking the progress as drilling commences and a crane is set up. I and others collect shards of concrete near the drill sites as mementos.

Exhausted, I find a restaurant open all night and devour a serving of sausage and "spätzle," nurse a hot drink for as long as I can make it last, and rest my limbs. Sleep tries to conquer me. Finally, outside again and tired beyond caring, I find some cardboard to use as a combination mattress and blanket, and creep into an out-of-the-way spot under some stairs, my head on my bag of books, my wool cap pulled tight over my ears. Shivering, I capture a couple of hours of sleep.

The precise timeline of Saturday escapes me now, and regrettably, I find no details in my journal. I'm sure I had it with me but I must have been too caught up in the activities of the day and night, too cold, too peripatetic, to write anything. And when I returned to Switzerland I was immediately caught up the final weeks of school before Christmas break, and with preparing a talk for students and staff about my journey. By Christmas, my attention had turned to events unfolding in Romania, and while my journal contains good accounts of my journey there at the end of December and my volunteer work with Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) at the Romania-Hungary border and inside Romania, there is only the barest mention of my "trip to Berlin." So I am going strictly by memory here.

I awaken to pale dawn. An icy haze has settled over the city. Yellow street lamps carve little worlds of light from the surrounding penumbra. Pigeons startled upward again and again by night-long mobs seem wearied by the unceasing commotion; resigned to a strange new order, they wander where they can in little gaggles amongst the humans, or settle hastily onto bare limbs of trees edging Potzdamerplatz, their usual realm at this time of day. The city seems not to have slept a wink. Workmen have resumed toil at the Wall, drilling away between concrete panels. It's unclear what will happen when, if or at all.
Everyone enjoying the ride!  Photographer unknown

Sometime in the morning I find myself at the Brandenburg Gate, its ornamental arch visible above the multicolored Wall. Here, as bright wintry light dissolves the haze and a clear day breaks forth, soldiers stand guard atop the Wall and repel the occasional youth striving to mount it. The atmosphere is somewhat tense, and the crowd murmurs, chants slogans, surges one way or the other in currents and streams. I feel I'm inside an epic movie of the Roman Empire or a massive street production of Julius Caesar: Marc Antony should emerge and seize control of the headless monster of the populus, giving shape to the unformed chaos of the uprising. Instead, for no apparent reason but clearly on orders, the soldiers stand down and disappear. Soon revelers have mounted in their place and wave flags and signs and take pictures.

Somewhere during this I learn in a passing conversation that the border to East Germany is officially open, and that one can take the city S-Bahn train to a stop across the border and visit East Berlin. This seems worth attempting. The first step is to get on a train. At an elevated station some blocks away, the first sleek grey train to arrive is packed full. No one gets off as the doors open; riders and would-be riders stare at each other. There isn't an inch of space. The doors close. Another train arrives, equally impregnable. Eventually I am able to press into one and ride a few stops, soaring over a river and arriving at Friedrichstraße Station in the eastern sector.

The Iron Curtain is palpable; a life-time of espionage movies and books have conditioned me to sense a kind of invisible horror hanging over everything. Perhaps everyone felt it, I don't know. I join a line of travelers waiting to have their passports checked by stern-looking East German border agents, but when my turn comes, the tall, impassive agent gives my American passport a close look, scrutinizes my face, stamps it, and hands it back. "Wilkommen in Berlin," he says with a smile. "Darf ich überall laufen?" I ask (May I walk everywhere?) He nods.

I press through a turnstile and emerge on a station platform, looking down at a city street lined with, to my eyes, odd-looking colorless shops with generic names, where people bustle along sidewalks
Schramm family, parents and son, with employee 2nd from left, in 1986
Photo: Harf Zimmermann

Photo: Harf Zimmermann 1986
as on a normal shopping day. Many faces turn and look with some wonderment at the brightly-dressed westerners exiting the station, their Nikons and Sony video cameras, stylish winter wear, and whole demeanor of foreigners visiting a strange new land setting them apart. The euphoric madness of the western side has not yet fully dawned on the east. Perhaps their news coverage has been less breathless than that on the other side, or still answering to the demands of censorship bureaucrats whose instructions haven't been updated. In any case, I feel self-conscious and alien as I reach the street and begin a random exploration of this newly-opened world where East Germans seem to be going about their lives normally, though perhaps they are just as dazed as everyone else.

I buy a sweet roll at a bakery, delighting in its flavors of cinnamon and raisin that recall my beloved pain aux raisins in France. My West German currency is gladly accepted. For no particular reason, I follow the curve of the river Spree past several bridges, then along what seems more like a canal to a small footbridge, across which rises the imposing front of a building marked "Pergamonmuseum." A museum tour might focus my attention beyond the aimlessness that has marked my visit thus far, I think. It's open; I don't recall if it was free or merely dirt cheap; in any case, it strikes me that I am in a city and society that values culture and its accessibility to the masses. Today, I am one of the "visiting proletariat." I enter and look around the museum about which I now remember nothing whatsoever except that first glimpse of its modern exterior facade. I was so tired as to be almost in a walking dream by then.

I continue along the river in the general direction of the iconic tower whose bulbous spire rises above all but the tallest buildings of the neighborhood. I come to a park and large church that strikes me as ugly, the Berlin Cathedral, quite different from the cathedrals I am familiar with from France and West Germany.

The midday sun is moving toward the southwest and already less warming as I wander about on a large, empty square that I remember as Karl Marx Platz. Studying contemporary maps of Berlin, I think this must have been what is now called "Lustgarten," a rather empty-looking ornamental park with a water feature at its center, adjacent to the Berlin Cathedral and the Altes Museum. Again, I am relying on 30-year-old memories of a young man who'd slept only a few hours and was wandering aimlessly around an unfamiliar city. This is how I remember it.

I'm close to the Alexanderplatz spire, but the day is moving on. Anxious to see what is happening at Potzdamerplatz, I turn my steps west. I hope to see that Wall open before I have to head to the station for my return trip back to Hasliberg.

I cross the Spree again on a wide boulevard, Unter den Linden, which strikes a chord in me from my growing knowledge at the time of popular German songs and medieval lyrics, in which linden trees figure importantly. I trudge down this tree-bordered avenue, noting the impressive buildings, though little is left in Berlin of pre-war architecture. Virtually anything with a 19th century look is a reconstruction. My observations and musings give me a growing sense of the distinct culture of East Germany: a country formed in the aftermath of a murderous war and national catastrophe, rising from ashes as a Soviet protectorate and taking initial pride in its socialist workers' paradise. I approach a squat stone building with heavy columns and gaping doors. A plaque announces it as a "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism." Armed soldiers stand honor guard on pedestals on either side of the entrance, in full uniform, and seem to me as massive and immobile as statues.

I recall the border agent's smile and permission to wander at will. I dare to address one of the soldiers, looking up at him and feeling for all the world like a child: "Darf man hinein?" He gives a nearly imperceptible nod, without so much as moving his eyes. I hasten inside, and spend some time circling the "eternal flame" inside its prismatic box, and the plaques commemorating the remains of an unknown soldier and a concentration camp victim. I needed reminding that both east and west, in the aftermath of the war, suffered the consequences and the hideous memories of what fascism had wrought. The carving out of an eastern country under Soviet influence, and of a western enclave within it, were all consequences of the strange ending of the war as armies of various common enemies of Germany converged on Berlin, virtually razing it in a final deadly engagement, and then occupying according to their divergent ideologies and goals.

After a respite in this quiet and virtually unadorned sanctuary, I return to the street, again nearly dead with walking. The Brandenburg Gate I recall being shut off at that time, and I cut back toward the Friedrichstraße station and again wait my chance for a place in a crammed wagon.

Back in the BRD (West Germany), I grab something to eat from a street stand and sit to rest my aching back and legs. Twilight is falling by the time I reach Potzdamerplatz. Where workers had been drilling earlier there is now a 20-foot wide gap roped off and surrounded by TV cameras and media vans. Atop a platform brightly lit for the cameras a somewhat incongruous figure sits at a microphone -- Dan Rather, the famous anchorman for a US news channel. Despite living for years now in a remote boarding school in the Alps with almost no contact to American TV culture, even I recognize him. He seems a bit silly to my eyes, perched under bright lights on this vantage point in the midst of the crowd, with a make-up assistant and coffee thermos at his side. He appears to be making a live report at that moment. His presence adds a note of theater to the proceedings, and what at daybreak had still seemed a purely spontaneous and completely unpredictable situation now bears trappings of a media event and civic celebration. I slowly work my way through the crowd and nearer to the gap.

Somewhere in the night, Berlin, November 1989 - Photographer unknown

Within the next hour or so I watch as the mayors of east and West Berlin shake hands under the unnatural lighting and unflinching gaze of TV cameras, standing in the gap where the Wall stood. Some words are spoken, there is some applause which swells and spreads through the crowd, growing to a roar.

Once the ceremony is over, the cameras move away and through the gap I catch my first full view of the expanse of no-man's land -- the flat open field of death between the two walls. A channel of metal fencing stretches across to the wall on the east side; uniformed soldiers stand along its length and gaze stoically through the wires. The crowd begins to press through the gap into the channel, and no one works very hard to deter them. An open avenue is maintained in the center, but I drift with the tide through the gap and along the the fence a hundred feet or so inside the forbidden zone. As the jocund crowd presses up against the fence, the guarding soldiers loosen up, some even daring to smile and say a few words to the westerners. Anticipation and disbelief reign; no one, it seems, can quite believe what is happening nor guess what is next.
Photo: Getty  - The author is somewhere among the crowd up center, along the fence.

A cacophony rises from further to the east: honking horns, shouts. Through the channel comes a parade of people, bicycles, tiny Trabants, the people's car. Germans are coming through, their faces animated with wonder, joy, disbelief. As they reach the western end of the channel they join a cheering throng that includes me: a pretty clueless American expatriate who has skipped out of work and traveled across half of central Europe to share this moment, and all the other moments of joy and astonishment as a world order gives way to another yet to be created. The police -- I don't know whether they are of the east or west and don't care at this point -- gradually push those few hundred of us who had breached the gap back out along with the transiting eastern citizens, and willy nilly I find myself in their midst, passing through the newly-opened Berlin wall from the east into the bosom of a welcoming crowd of celebrating westerners.

Just at that moment I notice on the ground beneath my feet a camera with a broken strap. I stoop to save it, lifting it up in the air, craning ahead, scanning over the heads of the crowd so its owner might see and claim it. No one does, though I continue to hold it aloft and look for anyone who might be trying to work back through the crowd for something lost or left behind.

Meanwhile, I struggle with a sense of being an imposter: I am among the entering inward surge of easterners, but I know very well I don't belong there. People in the welcoming crowds are popping bottles of champagne, throwing packs of cigarettes and candies and gum, rushing up to grip the hands of deliriously excited families hanging out of the windows of their little cars or walking hand in hand, walking bikes, leading children. Elderly folks lean on the arms of younger; people embrace and weep openly; children stare in shy amazement; dogs bark; whistles blow; horns honk; songs are sung. It is mayhem, unbridled and unreserved. It is the end of an era of oppression and tragedy and everyone is part of it. I have every reason to celebrate along, but given the forward press and irresistible weight of the crowd, it takes a minute for me to reach the edge of the surge and find a spot to enjoy the scene from the sidelines rather than from the midst of the action. I'm a spectator, and the import and profundity of the hour make me despise anything smacking of role-playing.

That is the high point of my trip, the most vividly poignant and memorable of all. Much else has fallen into oblivion, as my narrative betrays, but the privilege of being present at that moment of rebirth, as the broken city healed and a divided people found themselves again one German Volk, is one of the great treasures of my life. It has taken me days to pull together this narrative, checking memories and maps, pondering apparent contradictions in my recollection and gradually straightening out a flow of events that represents my best effort at reconstruction of my part in that weekend of historic change.

I was sorry never to locate the owner of that camera, but there seemed no better alternative to keeping it. My train was leaving in a couple of hours; to locate a police office and turn it in seemed hopelessly complicated and pointless. I had tried, really, to find someone in the crowd who was missing it, but there it was, in my hands. I couldn't tell if there was any film in it and didn't want to open it to find out and risk destroying any photos. Later I rewound the film and had it developed. There was nearly a whole roll of unexposed slide film, and three shots that had been taken from the western side before the wall was breached. I was glad to know it belonged to someone from the affluent west rather than a crossing "Ossie." Those few slides appear above as the unattributed photos illustrating this long-delayed report of my journey to the Berlin Wall in November, 1989. If you recognize those three pictures as your own, feel free to get in touch. I'd love to know who took them and hear your story.

The camera was barely damaged by its fall; I used it for years. Eventually its age and perhaps latent injuries caused its photos to come out always a bit blurry, like old memories; it was also surpassed by a new generation of camera technology. It's gone now, I forget where -- sold "as is" perhaps, or lost again, or or donated to a thrift store. It seems in some ways like an apt metaphor for the history I rode into and then out of again on the 9:15pm train: an imperfect instrument of memory neither stolen nor given, but changing hands and moving on at the meeting place of two worlds which have since melded into one. Memories fade:

"Time like an ever-flowing stream, bears all its sons away, 
they fly forgotten as a dream fades at the opening day."

I spent the last hour of my time in Berlin on a grassy park meadow adjacent to Potzdamerplatz in the company of a group of young people who lit a fire and danced and sang a hit song of the 60's that they, or someone, had rewritten to honor the demise of the Berlin Wall:

Marmor, Stein und Eisen bricht
doch die Mauer steht ewig nicht,
Alles, alles geht vorbei
und wir reisen frei!

My free translation:

Marble, Stone and Iron break
Walls break too, make no mistake,
All things pass and cease to be
and we travel free!


I got back to the École d'Humanité sometime Sunday, November 12. Word of my unauthorized trip to Berlin had been widely commented on, and I was greeted with much joviality by students, friends and colleagues. One or two older teachers, who would perhaps themselves have greatly loved to make such a trip, gave me a cold shoulder. I bore it. I put together a talk on my adventure and shared it with those interested in my view of events. I honored then as now the inner voice that prompted me to that Quest, and to bring back and share what I was granted by both the journey and its gift.

I found my discarded bicycle at Brünig, where someone had leant up against a wall of the station house and it had waited out the hours till my return. Dear Switzerland, it has a certain charm.

Ecole d'Humanité, Hasliberg, CH

Follow my blog for updates for continuation of this narrative a week later, as the Czech Velvet Revolution brought down another socialist government; and a month after that, in a violent but swift uprising, the Romanian people threw off their dictator, Ceausescu. How my Berlin journey brought those events into my life can be read next, as it comes to me.

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