Friday, August 12, 2011

The Berlin Wall And Checkpoint Charlie

I had two opportunities to pass through Checkpoint Charlie and visit both East and West Berlin between 1982 and 1987:

The first time I visited Berlin, I traveled by train to be on my own for a few days with one of those days spent in East Berlin.  After answering artful questions by the East German guards at Checkpoint Charlie (My fellow Americans couldn't have cared less what I was doing), I spent the morning wandering around East Berlin just to get myself oriented.

I got lost in some dead-end alley.  There was a bit of lawn and a dull grey wall beyond it with little stamped metal signs on it.  The stamped metal signs were about six inches tall by about nine inches wide with a dark blue enamel background and white lettering.  I am extremely nearsighted and thought that the signs would bear the name of the street -- so I could get myself oriented again.  But there were signs on the lawn not to step on it, and I was a guest in somebody else's house.  So I leaned over the grass to read the signs.  It was the East German side of the Berlin Wall sans graffiti.  I had wandered into a restricted zone.  Then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that two young men in uniforms with rifles were watching me closely.  I backed up carefully and went back the way I came to get myself reoriented elsewhere.

Then I went to an East Berlin bookstore to check out their selection and then wandered around the old university campus.  I thought that I would check out their university library, but I did not even make it up the steps to the door of the library.  Party-faithful students were stationed outside on the steps, and everybody going into the library had to show their university ID to get past them to the door.  They were polite but firm; my student ID from Tuebingen did not pass muster.  That was the first time I had ever been denied access to a library in my life.*

From there I took a lunch break at a restaurant open to foreigners where they wanted my Western currency.  I met two young ladies having lunch on a winter day while they left their babies wrapped up in their prams outside for the fresh air.  They were new mothers and on their state-paid six-month maternity leave.  They were curious about how American mothers juggled work and home, so I told them what I knew from my coworkers' experiences. They were aghast that rich America would deny newborns and mothers adequate maternity leave to get the child off to a good start.

That afternoon, I went to a museum.  The teacher of a class of nine or ten-year-olds (or was it eleven or twelve-year-olds?) caught my ironic look when she was explaining to her pupils that a certain painting was painted in New Time year of WXYZ.  There was no BC:AD::BCE:CE in East Germany.  It was New Time or Old Time.  The teacher never mentioned that the painting illustrated a Bible story from the Old Testament.

That evening I went to a theater known as the old stomping grounds of Bertold Brecht.  They staged a satire by Dario Fo with some very good special effects.  Up in a box (the only time I have ever been in a theater box), I met two young construction workers from Dresden.  They had been detailed to Berlin to rehab some buildings.  According to them, Dresden was even more rundown and shoddy than East Berlin.  They told me one or two East German jokes during the intermission, but I didn't want them to get into any trouble on my account.  I forget what jokes I told them (probably something about the Chicago political patronage machine or Tricky Dick Nixon).

Leaving the theater, I walked to Checkpoint Charlie and made my way back to the hostel in West Berlin.  Nobody bothered me or approached me on the east side of the wall.  I was completely alone on the street in a world city.

The rest of my first stay in Berlin, I went to the zoo, the symphony, and assorted museums in West Berlin.  The train ride back through East Germany was just as dull as the train ride to Berlin.  With embankments along both sides of the railroad tracks, you couldn't see anything anyway.  The East German conductors came through and ordered the window shades pulled down.  So, all the women either read books and magazines or busied themselves with needlework.  Nobody engaged in audible conversation.  Nobody made eye contact.

My second visit to Berlin was sponsored by the exchange student office in Tuebingen for a weekend excursion.  It was a bus tour with other foreign students and a bit more comfortable in a small private hotel.  The tour bus drove past that old university library in East Berlin, and at one point I recognized a square from old news clips of Nazis burning books.  It made me shudder.  At no point did we meet or speak to any East Berliners.

In West Berlin we went to the theater for a production of Zuckmayer's Der Hauptmann von Koepenick one evening.  Another evening we went to a drama about the Warsaw Ghetto.  After the show a curtain bearing portaits of Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl came down to gasps in the audience.  Reagan's trip to the Bitburg cemetery that also contained the graves of SS men was still a raw topic.  The third evening we went to a jazz club in a smoky cellar (To my knowledge there have been no more jazz clubs along 55th Street in Chicago for decades now; Americans have to travel to Berlin to hear the good stuff in smoky cellars for an affordable price.)

But the incident I recall most clearly about the Berlin Wall and all that it signified happened in Tuebingen.  I was working as an "undergraduate scientific aide" -- basically the German version of a work-study student -- in a leukemia and immunogenetics research laboratory.  The lab also did clinical tissue crossmatches for bone marrow transplantation.  We had one patient who had fled East Germany twenty-some years before.  He needed a living-related bone marrow transplant, if possible, but his only sibling still lived in East Germany.  The East German authorities refused to let his sister leave East Germany to come to Tuebingen for the tissue crossmatch, much less the bone marrow transplant if she turned out to be compatible with her brother.  They said that she knew "state secrets".  The woman had worked all her life as a waitress in a cafe.

So much for the German Democratic Republic of Workers and Farmers...

*The second time I was denied access to a university library happened at the medical school library of Northwestern University on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago circa 1990/1.  My employer had sent me to photocopy a scientific article about extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy in a professional journal likely to be in their collection.  Honest fool that I was, I asked the librarian whether I needed to pay a fee.  The bitch stood up and announced in a loud obnoxious voice that she didn't know where all these outsiders from off the street got the idea that they had any business in a private university's medical library.  I was thinking that it had something to do with the tax dollars all of us paid to subsidize that medical school and its library, but I kept my cool.  Instead the librarians at the Library of Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Chicago -- a land grant university -- were very gracious and helpful.

From that day on, I swore to confine my studies -- if I ever could afford to go back to them -- to land grant universities.  It never perplexed me at all that Communist Mikhail Gorbachev and Methodist Margaret Thatcher hit it off so well.

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