Travels to Berlin (1959), Spain (1960) and Yugoslavia (1961)
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
During my Easter holidays Mr. and Mrs. Peter L., who had recently escaped from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), invited me to come and visit them in West Berlin. Whether they were distant relatives or just friends of the family, I can no longer tell with certainty. But after their escape from the Eastern Zone, as the GDR was called, they had often visited us in Wesel. In those days West Berlin was geographically isolated from West Germany. It was an exclave surrounded by communist East Germany. Also a fence stretching over a thousand kilometers following the inner German border complete with thousands of observation towers prevented the mass migration from the east. Many people died in their attempt to flee from their ‘socialist paradise’.
The rapid train I had taken from Cologne stopped at the border where travelers had to show their passports to cross the Iron Curtain to go from one part of Germany through another part of Germany to Berlin. This was the only stop for the train. After it had been given the green light, it sped through all the major railway stations past many towns as if trying to shield us from the ugly sights of a country that still lay in ruins so many years after the war. At the border station near West Berlin another even more thorough inspection was being made that included the search for fugitives who might have jumped in transit onto the train. Border guards were using specially trained dogs to sniff out any potential escapees clinging to the train’s undercarriages in their desperate attempt to get to freedom. Finally the train was given clearance and allowed to cross into West Berlin. I breathed a sigh of relief, when our train rumbled into the main station, where Peter L. was waiting for me at the platform.
On the very next day Peter took me on a whirlwind sightseeing tour through the divided city that was still interconnected by subway, streetcar and roads. Thus, Berlin was the only remaining escape route for thousands of refugees, until the building of the infamous wall stopped the ever-increasing flow in 1961. Among the sights were the illustrious Brandenburg Gate, which stood right behind the border crossing in East Berlin, and the Soviet War memorial commemorating the 80,000 Russian soldiers who died in April and May 1945 in the Battle of Berlin. Then we went to see the Congress Hall, which on account of its shell-like shape the Berliners irreverently call the Pregnant Oyster. Here Bill Haley and his rock and roll band caused an uproar, when he whipped the mob of young fans into such a frenzy that they demolished their seats normally reserved for more conservative concert goers.
We also looked at the Reichstag building, which was almost completely destroyed during WWII and now was being reconstructed. We were not much impressed by the Stalin Boulevard.
With its new box-like massive apartment buildings, built Soviet style, the structures were completely out of tune with modern architecture, but were designed to serve as a showpiece of the fledgling East German capital. There were so many impressions that at the end of the day I could no longer absorb any more sights. In today’s language I began to suffer from a severe case of information overload.
So I was glad when Peter suggested we should go and find a place to eat. As a former citizen of the GDR he knew that the basic necessities of life, such as food, were heavily subsidized by the socialist state. As it was close to dinnertime, he took me to the great student-dining hall of the Humboldt University in East Berlin. There we feasted with a good appetite on an excellent meal complete with roast beef, fresh veggies, beer and dessert for the extremely low price of two east marks. Considering the depressed value of the currency often trading at less than one tenth of the value of the West German mark, we had our fill for the measly amount of 20 pennies, for about a Canadian nickel. Even though I had learned early to look out for a bargain, it did not feel right to take advantage of a state supported facility that was not based on profit but on service to the people. Later on I found out that the West German government in Bonn heavily subsidized West Berlin to help with housing and food expenses. Even luxury items, such as coffee, cigarettes and liquor were selling so cheaply that even I could buy half a dozen bottles of fruit wine with my pocket-money for as little as six marks. West Berlin had become a showcase for the entire world, a giant billboard of glamour and glitter, the gateway to the ‘Golden West’. Refugees from East Germany found out upon their arrival the harsh realities of life in camps, old army barracks, and other emergency shelters. The reader may wish to read more on this topic in my wife’s blog bieneklopp.com.