Friday, 23 September 2011

Berlin mon Amour

In 1973, I was an English-language assistant in Solingen, in north Germany, which was in the industrial state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. That state had more places for English-language assistants than any other in Germany, and was also at that time dirty, unglamorous and polluted. Consequently, almost all of the people who ended up there - me included - had asked to be placed somewhere else.
But Nordrhein-Westfalen actually felt sorry for us, or maybe wanted to encourage people to apply there, so they gave us all a free trip to Berlin in the March of the school year. It almost made Solingen worthwhile.
We drove, in our coach, up to the border crossing at Helmstedt-Marienborn, and were on the motorway corridor to Berlin. I remember flat fields still tilled with horse-drawn ploughs, watchtowers, and bridges slung with huge GDR slogans; then it grew dark and we were roaring into the night, into emptiness, it seemed. We stopped halfway at the sole service station; it felt like a place that existed only as an island in darkness, a no-man's land place, glaringly lit, divorced from any hinterland - which it was, of course. Somewhere along the way an East German police car appeared and waved our coach down, to fine our driver for spending too long in the outside lane. Maybe it had, but we were all very indignant about it, seeing it as harassment, and did a whip-round for the fine.
I remember the transmission tower at the crossing into West Berlin, and more watchtowers. I remember driving into the city and coming into the brightly, tackily-lit Kurfürstendamm, then West Berlin's major shopping street. We stayed in one of the hotels that were just huge apartments, which had once belonged to wealthy people, maybe Jews, and went out onto streets where tourists walked past whores who exposed shivering bare legs to the icy winds that sweep the wide streets of the city in the cold months of the year.
I had no camera, but bought postcards and kept scraps, so I have a few little bits of Ostalgie in the scrapbook I made then, like a sachet of East German sugar. I see from the scrapbook that we went to see Kleist's 'The Prince of Homburg,' and that we went to the Opera, though I can't remember what we saw. We went to the big art gallery, which was in Dahlem at that time, and I saw Nefertiti in the Pergamon Museum in the East.

But it was the sense of history that amazed me; and Berlin is still a city where the leaves of history lie about in the streets like an untidy autumn. It was inconceivable to me then that one day I'd stand in a reunified city and look back at that first visit as another of those leaves of history, any more than I could really conceive of being over fifty. But I found there the visible and obvious relics of the Third Reich, whose traces had been tidied away in the Wirtschaftswundery Federal Republic which had been Germany for me, up till that week. There were bullet marks still on the buildings - actually, they're still not hard to find, but then the buildings were dirty, and, in the East, often ruinous, as if I'd found myself suddenly in 1946. The Lutheran Cathedral in the city centre was open to visitors but you couldn't go into the main part of the building because it was dangerous. Rubble lay all over the floor, as if in the immediate aftermath of a bombing raid. In the West, of course, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church tower stood at the top of the Kurfürstendamm, blackened and ruined by the air-raid I was to describe years later in Saving Rafael. But there had been much rebuilding there. Money was poured into West Berlin.
They took us to the Olympiastadion, with its Fascist brutalism, where Hitler had watched the Games in 1936 - and raged when Jesse Owens beat his own Aryan star - and probably still more because Lutz Long behaved like a sportsman. We were taken to the shed at Plötzensee where the 1944 conspirators were hanged with piano wire, and I felt as if their horror and anguish had stayed in that place, chilling the air.

Then there was the Wall. It ran through Berlin, separating husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and family from each other. I had a Great- Aunt Hedwig and a Great-Uncle Martin, still alive then, who I never knew because they were on the wrong side of that frontier. With its sensors, its floodlights, and its patrolling armed guards, it was deadly. Due to the odd shape of the divided city, the Underground went through Eastern stations where you couldn't get out, and on each one there stood a guard with a big gun, ready to shoot anyone who might penetrate down there and try to jump onto a Western train. There were platforms set up on the Western side for people to climb and wave to their relatives, and of course the tourists used them, especially since their use had declined somewhat since Willi Brandt had negotiated visiting rights with the GDR government - to the scandal of right-wing German politicians. The minute you got up there, a police car or truck would spot you, and you'd feel the armed guards' binoculars trained on you. It felt hideously uncomfortable. It was meant to be so.

I stood looking over the death strip and tried to imagine it away; imagine a city where you could move freely from one part to another. It was a dream hard to believe in then, a dream that could make you cry.

As well as our conducted tour into the East, of course we went there independently, not through the privileged vehicular crossing point of Checkpoint Charlie, but through the pedestrian frontier at Friedrichstrasse station. You got your passport taken away from you, then you sat on hard rows of seats in a huge hall with the number they'd given you instead. I didn't think I'd hear my number called out, and was scared I'd be there forever. At last I was called in, stared at, required to state why I was not wearing glasses as in the photograph - I was wearing contact lenses - and finally released, having exchanged the obligatory six D-marks for Ost-marks. (Eastern Marks)Actually, though less high-tech, it was quite like going through airport security nowadays, but I wasn't used to that kind of thing then.
Mitte (City Centre) was gaunt and bleak in those days. High walls of grimed brick and sandstone; apparently empty streets and the feeling that somebody was watching you. I'm sure they were. In reaction, we started to sing 'On Ilkley Moor Bart'at' and skipping across the Alexanderplatz. Maybe there's some film of that still extant in a Stasi archive. I had the worst meal I've ever had in my life (including school dinners) in the café underneath the Television Tower. The only people you saw were scuttling along in a dreadful hurry, if they weren't queueing outside shops with merchandise scattered sparsely along the shelves. It was hard to find anything to spend our Ost-marks on.
I also went to see my great-uncle Erich and his wife, Tante Else, in their flat in the working-class district of Wedding - a name that has nothing to do with getting married. They gave me coffee and cakes and I saw their tiled stove, which Erich insisted on keeping on in preference to central heating. The tiled stove lives on in the pages of Saving Rafael, but the area stayed in my mind till I wrote Last Train from Kummersdorf - even though in the end I made Effi, my heroine, live in Prenzlauer Berg.
In many ways, it was like the time I first went to demonstrate, at two in the morning, against Cruise Missile convoys coming back into Greenham Common. There was the reality of the Cold War, visible and suddenly undeniable. And also the reality of the war itself, which was the precursor to my young life, and which had carved its traces into my mother and my grandparents (and into my father, but it took longer for that to come home to me). It was a growing-up, a removal of the security blanket.
What strikes me now is the incredible care with which I made the scrapbook. That wasn't at all like me. I was slapdash and casual in those days. It was almost as if my unconscious mind drove me to keep that record, because one day - and even then I knew I was going to be a writer - I would need it.


Scarlett said...

Amazing post, and a trip down memory lane for me, as I lived in Berlin during the 1970s. We had a wonderful time in the relatively safe, sheltered and comfortable British sector, and had reasonably free access to cross to the East. However, I remember being shocked out of my teenage comfort zone by hearing of people swimming the Havel to escape to the West, only to be shot dead in the water by the East German border guards. A few days later, the police pulled a body out of the water near where we lived. It was an uncomfortable awakening to the reality of that divided city. Thank you for this post, Leslie; your description of the rubble and desolation of East Berlin has got me thinking about some writing.

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting indeed, Leslie - what an experience! And a salutary reminder that things can change, and for the better: the Berlin Wall did fall, though no-one could have imagined how that would happen when you were there.

adele said...

Fascinating stuff, Leslie, especially the links to your books. And I love the photo of you in your glamorous youth! Not changed much at all.

Emma Darwin said...

What a wonderful piece! Thank you.

My parents were posted to Bonn before I was born, in 1960 or so, and were there when the wall went up (LeCarré's A Small Town in Germany gives you the idea) and I grew up on some of their stories: I think it was extraordinarily vivid for them, even twenty years later. I do find it strange that my children don't have a line down their mental map, for the Iron Curtain...

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, it is odd, isn't it? One has to explain it to them. Well, not my kids, who can remember the Cold War, and the scary nuclear Deterrent and marching against nukiller weapons, though they can't remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. I can. A girl came up to me in the playground and said: 'We're waiting for our rockets to go to Russia, and then the Russian rockets will go over, and that will be the end of the world.' I became a CND supporter at that moment.

Stroppy Author said...

A lovely post and glimpse of your notebooks, Leslie - thank you. I travelled a lot in Iron Curtain countries, but didn't go to Berlin until after unification. Albania was very like your description of Eastern Berlin, even in the 1980s.

It is indeed odd that our children don't have a distinction between eastern and western Europe.

Miriam Halahmy said...

So forward thinking of you to keep that scrap book so carefully. It was lovely to see the glimpses into your research for your novels and the enormous impression the visit made on you. I felt a bit like that going into the FSU last year. It was another world. Your post made me want to go to Berlin more than ever.

Margarita Morris said...

I visited Berlin in 1987 and remember travelling on the underground to Friedrichstrasse and passing through all the ghost stations. When I was with a West Berlin friend, so when we arrived at Friedrichstrasse we had to go through different checkpoints because she was a West Berliner and I was a foreigner. One of my happiest moments was returning to Berlin in 1991 and being able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate, whereas previously I'd only been able to look at it from the viewing platform in the West.