Behind the Iron Curtain, Vol. 2: Berlin Wall

Imagine waking up one morning and finding you can’t get to work. In fact, you can’t go anywhere you used to. Cut off from relatives and friends. No escape, unless you’re willing to risk your life.

That’s what happened in Berlin, Germany, when a menacing wall with barbed wire and guard towers went up almost overnight, dividing the city in two.

The wall might have gone up in a hurry, but the foundation had been in the works for years.

Another quick history lesson. Promise.

Flash back to 1945, the end of World War II, when evil instigator Germany surrenders after its war machine is finally taken down. The winners divvy up the spoils. And America finds out the hard way — be careful how you choose your friends.

The part of Germany taken over by the U.S. and its French and British allies becomes West Germany. A democracy. The rest controlled by the other ally, the Soviet Union, ends up as Communist East Germany.

Same deal with Berlin. It’s also sliced into west and east.

Democratic West Germany starts to get its mojo back and rebounds economically; East Germany does not.

Many in East Berlin notice folks on the other city of the city are having a better time of things. Better food, clothes and shelter. So a human wave shifts from East to West Berlin. To stop the exodus, the Communists, with the Soviet Union’s blessing, put up the wall.

They say they’re doing it to protect East Berliners from the evil western capitalists. But in fact, they’re locking the residents in.

I was in Berlin during my Travel Channel days a couple of decades ago (but who’s counting?). Another one of those frenetic trips to see what I could see in a weekend, courtesy Trans World Airlines.

Dad, an Army medic in World War II.

This was my first time in Germany, and I was a bit anxious. Because I was doing something considered verboten by my Jewish relatives who experienced World War II: giving the land of Hitler my tourist dollar. My dad, who served in the war, never bought a German car his entire life.

I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and see where Hitler supposedly bought the farm. And see what this city that had undergone so much upheaval was really like.

One of those times I didn’t have a camera. Didn’t want to call attention to myself. Sat next to a German woman a bit younger than myself  — in her 20s — on a flight from Frankfurt to Berlin. Her English was good, so we talked.

She said her grandfather was in the German Army and he was only following orders. And that Hitler gave the people what they needed at the time: jobs. I remember saying something like, “Do you realize if this were 1940 (instead of 1988), we wouldn’t be sitting next to each other having a friendly chat on a plane?” Spooky.

But in Berlin, which turned out to be beautiful, I encountered a young man wearing a Nazi armband — with a slash through the swastika. That was nice to see.

Then there was the adrenaline rush of being able to cross the wall from West to East Berlin to get a peek as a tourist. Again, no camera. Didn’t dare.

Graphic: Rich Ransley

So here’s an artist rendition. An artist with a sense of humor, I might add. I’m referring to the Haus Der Schokolade shopping bag.

Have to say it wasn’t nearly this glamorous or intriguing. I arrived at the Berlin Wall checkpoint around dinnertime. Wasn’t wearing a trenchcoat. Didn’t own one. A winter jacket with no hood, and no umbrella. So focused, I was trying to ignore the chilling, soaking rain.

The guards didn’t give me a second glance. Only requirement was that I spend a certain amount of money while in East Berlin. I walked over, past the strip  of no man’s land. This side was considerably darker and drab than the Western half of the city.

I found a nondescript coffee house and stopped in for a cuppa to warm myself. It was a respite from the cold, and at that point I must have looked like a drowned rat to the few faceless people in the place. Bought a box of chocolates as a souvenir to spend the requisite amount. Unlike the chic shopping bag in the graphic, the plastic bag I was given to carry them in was so small, I had to force the box inside.

I’d intended to bring the candy back to my folks as a souvenir. Right.

I was more than happy to get back to my budget hotel room in West Berlin and take a nice hot shower. I consumed the chocolates in no time flat. They were too squished to be a suitable gift.  Really, I mean it. So they became dinner.

If you’ve like to find out more about the wall and the Cold War that precipitated it, there are all kinds of tours, if you happen to be in Berlin. The wall came down in 1989, but the haunting remnants tell the whole story.

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