Monday, November 10, 2014
Twenty-five years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell, or rather, was torn down chunk by chunk by Germans from both East and West Berlin.
For those of you whose notions of history prior to the year 2000 might be sketchy, the Wall was a barrier created in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as the pro-Communist East Germany, essentially to block massive defections and immigration from the East to the West. The Wall was not a pretty thing. It stretched 90 miles and was almost 12 feet tall, festooned with guard towers and anti-vehicle trenches. Those trying to flee from East to West were shot at and some 200 were left to die in what was known as the death strip on the East German side.
Forty years ago, my then wife, Barbara, and I went to East Berlin to attend the Communist Youth Festival being held there. We were neither communists nor, strictly speaking, youths. Barbara was a foreign editor for the Washington Post, and I was an in-house free-lance writer. She was sent there to report for the paper, and I tagged along thinking there would certainly be something to write about regarding East Germany and the young folks living there.
We both went through Checkpoint Charlie, the best known Wall crossing point between West and East Germany. On the West Berlin side, Checkpoint Charlie was little more than a wooden shed (later replaced by a metal one now displayed at the Allied museum in West Berlin) manned by American soldiers who gave your passport a peremptory look, then waved you on. The East Berlin side was something else. Barbara and I were sequestered in separate small interrogation rooms and asked interminable questions by what I remember as bored middle-aged East German military personnel in soiled and rumpled uniforms. What I most clearly recall about that particular event was that the East Germans had a manila file folder containing each and every story I had ever written for the Post and other publications. I was, in other words, a recognized Western rabble-rouser (I had written about bikers, hippies, drug dealers and such) and this made me feel strangely proud.
Barbara spoke German fluently; I didn’t. We were warned not to interview anyone not vetted by the East Germans and given a list of events we would be allowed to attend. We were not to speak with anyone in the streets, and ordered to turn down any offers to buy our Western goods. The latter order I promptly ignored by trading a pair of my Levy jeans for a kid’s red Communist beret.
A few thousand Communist boys and girls from a host of countries were in attendance, and what was to be a jamboree and celebration of young Communism was actually strangely depressing. There were quite a few choral groups singing songs of Socialist struggle and redemption. I vaguely recollect dancers as well. The most exciting moment, though, came during a symposium on Communist advances in Latin America when a bearded Argentinian contingent reacted strongly to something said by an equally hirsute Cuban contingent. The former assaulted the stage and set upon the latter. A melee ensued; fists flew and expletives filled the air. Barbara and I immediately realized that no good could come from this encounter, particularly for Western reporters who might have witnessed the fracas. We fled through a side door and later heard both groups had been taken into custody and some members sent home in shame.
We spent four days in East Berlin and overdosed on cabbage prepared every conceivable way, none of which was actually edible. I also remember dumplings the consistency of ten-pin bowling balls and yellowish coffee so thin is was transparent.
When it was time to leave, the East German border guard confiscated my red beret and gave us instead little paper flags commemorating the event.
Barbara stayed a while longer in Germany and I flew back to the States. I wrote a story about the festival but found no interest in East Berlin, Communist youths or 50 ways to prepare cabbage.
The little paper flags vanished years ago, but recently while roaming through eBay I found a red beret for sale purportedly by a former Communist Youth. I was sorely tempted to buy it but didn’t. If the owner was truly a Communist youth, he wouldn’t have been asking $200 for it and might instead have been willing to accept a well-used pair of jeans.