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The Berlin Wall: A Memoir

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981

Berlin was a divided city when we arrived in 1957. When we left in 1962, Berlin had become two cities side by side with a Wall in the middle.

“This is a city,” shortly after arrival I wrote in my journal, “that has to be taken apart and then put back together again. Berlin is not even one city, it is two cities, each with its separate government, separate currency, separate telephone systems, separate transportation systems. And yet the people who ride the big yellow double decker busses in West Berlin are the same people who ride the old broken down busses of the People’s Own Transportation Company in East Berlin. They share the same language, the same culture, the same church and, until recently, the same history. They have known together Berlin’s greatness when it was the capital of a world empire and they have suffered together the Allied bombing and the destruction and capture of the great city in the final days of Hitler’s War. They are Berliners, all, sharing a common pride in the past and sharing, each in its own way, in the suffering of a divided and unhappy present.”

Postcards of the Brandenburger Gate used to show the mighty monument, under which the Prussian kings had ridden in triumph, restored after the war, its red sandstone columns rising against a blue sky, a red flag flying from its pediment and, in the foreground, a sign reading in German and in English, “Attention! In 70 meters you will be leaving the American sector of Berlin,” Blue uniformed members of the West Berlin police stand on one side, green uniformed and black helmeted members of the People’s Police, or Vopos, on the other side.

After Aug. 13, 1961, the scene at the Brandenburger Gate repeats itself: the same red flag, the same police, but where there was once a broad avenue leading through the Gate there is now a thick wall of cement blocks which separates the one half of the city from the other. And the Wall continues to the north and to the south through the central and populated area, with barbed wire thereafter, so that the whole city of East Berlin has been effectively sealed off from West Berlin. This is the Wall of Shame, as it is called in West Berlin, Krushchev’s “solution” to the “Berlin Problem.” Because he did not dare end, in the final analysis, the Four Power status of Berlin, as he had threatened in November 1958, he allowed the East Germans in August of ‘61 to build a Wall around their part of Berlin. By erecting the Wall the East Germans were able to prevent the mounting flood of refugees from East Germany and at the same time help stabilize the East Germany economy.

When we first arrived, it was an easy matter to roll down the broad East-West boulevard through the Brandenburger Gate to Unter den Linden, Berlin’s former grand thoroughfare. There were few guards at the sector border, and they waved on our Mercury with its occupation army license plates without any hesitation. But as the political pressure increased, so did the number of guards; and as the East Germans were given more and more ostensible authority by the Russians, whose purpose it suited to stay in the background, the manner of the guards became more and more belligerent. Now they stepped forward as if to challenge your entry and, if they thought they could get away with it, they signaled you to halt. Their favorite target was a small Volkswagen driven by two American school teachers newly arrived from the States and not too sure of their rights as members of the occupation forces. They were waved to a halt peremptorily and made to show their passports, although the guards knew and the school teachers knew that this was forbidden. Not to show your passport was one of the ways of keeping the city open. As long as Berlin was occupied by the Four Powers, the East German Vopos had no authority whatsoever to stop an American car and demand to see the passport. Whenever they did, and it was reported to Army headquarters, a protest was immediately sent to the Russians.

I became an actor in this border drama in the fall of 1960 when friends from Washington, a member of President Eisenhower’s staff and his wife, came to visit us in Berlin. We had invited the commanding general, the United States minister, and other officials for lunch at noon. My friend and I decided to spend the morning sightseeing in East Berlin, allowing ourselves enough time to get dressed before our guests arrived. I wanted to show her ruins of the old palaces that had once given Berlin its elegance and the impressive hulk of a ruin that had once been the famed German Cathedral, as well as show her Marx-Engels Square where the castle of the Hohenzollerns for hundreds of years had dominated the city, until the Russians removed it stone by stone. The guards at the Brandenburger Gate, as we drove through, looked for one fleeting moment as if they might signal us to halt, but I thought nothing of it. No matter how often I drove to East Berlin there was always a certain underlying tension: the few people I met walking the streets were not friendly; I would not have wanted to turn to one of those impassive faces for help, and if I did ever ask for directions, they were aways given hurriedly, as if the person asked might get into trouble by answering. And since that day when a beardless boy in uniform signaled me to pull over to the side in Alexander Square, where I was the only car to be seen, and bawled me out in German for driving too slowly, I was never sure what traffic regulation I might unwittingly be breaking. Yet I went regularly to East Berlin, because it represented the old historic Berlin and also, I may as well confess it, because I felt my presence in some obscure way was helping keep the city open.

But East Berlin, interesting as it was, was profoundly depressing: poor, neglected, row on row of bombed buildings that had neither been removed nor restored, and everywhere that gray, that sad anonymous look with which socialism manages to cover over what may once have had charm. So after an hour of sight-seeing, my friend and I drove with a sense of relief west down Unter den Linden, glad to be leaving East Berlin behind. At the Brandenburger Gate the guards did not wave us on, not even grudgingly; instead they waved us to a halt. I pretended not to get the signal, but the young Vopo who stepped out in front of the car forced me to stop. He asked for my passport in German. I acted as if I didn’t understand. He kept repeating “Pass! Pass!” and I kept shaking my head. He signaled me to get out of the car and follow him into the guard house, and as we walked along he looked down at me, shook his head threateningly, saying “No pass! That’s bad, very bad! Did you leave it in the school room?” And he shook his head at the thought of the consequences. But as he was young and blond and the same age as our oldest son back in the States, I felt more sympathy than the fear he was trying to instill. In the guard house I was told to sit down and wait for his superior, a dark-haired young man in his middle twenties. I explained in English, when he came, that I was a member of the occupying forces, as my license plate indicated, and that I did not need to show my pass. He listened carefully, spoke a few words to my blond guard, and motioned me to go. I was accompanied back to the car where my friend still sat, quietly waiting, and we drove through the Brandenburger Gate and back to West Berlin in time to change for lunch.

The end of the story was amusing. When the luncheon guests were told about the incident, it was decided that a protest should be lodged immediately with the Russians and that the political adviser, who also happened to be the host, should drive in an official car to Karlshorst, the Russian headquarters, that afternoon to see his counterpart, Colonel Odintsov. When the blue official car approached the guards at a crossing near Karlshorst, it was halted; the driver was instructed to turn back and approach East Berlin by Friederichstrasse, where Checkpoint Charley is now located; there the car was waved through. Colonel Odintsov received two protests instead of one and assured the American diplomat that the East Germans had exceeded their orders and that such incidents would not be repeated, an assurance that was always given and would continue to be given so long as the Russians chose to honor in word the Four Power agreement.

The transformation of the sector line to a boundary had been a gradual one. In the beginning—or rather at the end, if one is speaking of Nazi Germany—the Russians occupied the whole city by virtue of its capture. Their troops had encircled the city, their artillery had pounded the buildings that the Allied bombing had still left standing, and their fire gutted them; they also took possession of the Reichschancellery and confirmed that Hitler was dead. A colleague who entered Berlin as a member of a U.S. Army liaison group in the early days of its capture described how he had gone under orders to the Reichschancellery to photograph the grave of Hitler and Eva Braun, but how, when he returned on orders the following day barbed wire barred his progress and he had been commanded to leave at once. For purposes of their own the Russians had decided to conceal what evidence they had found, even from their allies. This was the first step, our friend claimed, in the implementation of a policy that shut out the Allies more and more from any cooperation in administering the occupied city. When the armed forces of the Allies arrived and the division of the city into four separate sectors was completed, the Russians set about running their sector according to their own ideas. They shipped everything of value back to Russia (that is when the streetcar tracks were removed), they set up their own Communist city government, they printed their own currency, they replaced private businesses and shops with state-owned ones, and they limited communication with the other three occupied sectors so as to be able to control better their own. Streets that connected the Russian sector with the French or British or Americn sectors were blocked off, not completely as happened later with the Wall, but sufficiently so that only pedestrians could go back and forth. At main throughfares which remained open, guards were stationed to check passports. And the telephone cables between East Berlin and West Berlin were cut.

The Allied machinery that had been set up for the Four Power occupation of Berlin still creaked along, the Kommandatura functioning like an old mill where the waters still turn the huge millstones but where no one brings any wheat to be ground into flour. Or seldom. The French and British and Americans still invited Soviet officers to their receptions but only a chosen few came. In return the Allies and the foreign diplomats were invited to East Berlin to see Russian films. Once— it was in February 1961—we had the pleasure of entertaining in our home for lunch my husband’s counterpart, the Soviet political adviser and his wife, Mrs. Odintsov. I spent the morning in the kitchen preparing the meal the maid was to serve: soup, because it was unthinkable to begin a meal in that cold climate without soup, chicken from our commissary, corn pudding for old time’s sake, and I don’t know what else, except that we surely had apple pie a la mode for dessert. My aim was to show off how well we ate in America but at the same time to avoid capitalist ostentation. I never knew whether I succeeded. Since Mrs. Odintsov, a plain round-faced woman, spoke no English nor French nor German and I no Russian, we contented ourselves with smiling at one another while our husbands talked on various non-political subjects. The luncheon had been set up expressly to facilitate communication between the two political advisers; the situation was becoming increasingly hazardous and every effort was being made by our people to avoid a confrontation. The attempt to better relations missed fire, however, as far as the political advisers were concerned; exactly three weeks after the luncheon, Colonel Odintsov was abruptly transferred to Central Asia and left without paying the customary courtesy calls to colleagues.

Why did he leave? No one knew. Perhaps Moscow disapproved of a Red Army officer lunching alone with his American counterpart. The colonel had asked if he should bring his translator with him, a woman presumed to be a KGB informer but had been dissuaded. “You speak German,” my husband had said, “my wife and I speak German. You can translate for your wife. Why do we need a translator?” Maybe the Russian translator had complained to the KGB? At any rate, at the time the Wall was erected Colonel Odintsov had not been replaced and a major was serving as acting political adviser.

Some weeks after Colonel Odintsov left, the woman translator left too, but in her case there was no mystery about her departure. Her husband was a captain at the Berlin Air Safety Center, probably the only Four Power agency which still functioned on a regular basis. When, at a spring party where vodka and whiskey flowed freely, it was discovered that the captain and the wife of a British sergeant were missing from the fun, a search party with flashlights was organized up and down the dimly lit corridors and through the empty rooms of the Old Ministry of Justice building. They were found in a loving embrace at one end of the building, and as a result the Russian captain and his translator wife and the British sergeant and his plump wife were returned home at once to their respective countries.

We had our own version of the love that laughs at sector borders among our military, but so effectively was the story hushed up that we only learned of the incident while attending a diplomatic luncheon in the French sector. My husband and I were surprised at the Gallic laughter and the rapid fire witticisms that ran from one end of the table to the other at the mention of the name of a certain Russian diplomat. I, who was always taking French lessons at whatever post we served in order to speak the language better, found that I knew more French than I had suspected when the subject was so interesting. By the second course I had pieced together the romance, and by the time dessert was served I not only knew what had happened but I understood for the first time why a military family, neighbors of ours, had suddenly and for no apparent reason, been ordered back to the States before their tour of duty had been completed.

The French added a gaiety to Berlin that the heavy Hohenzollern city lacked. Unfortunately for us, however, their sector was far from ours, and their wives stayed in Berlin as little as possible. “Monotonous,” they called the city, “boring.” As for East Berlin, they labeled it a dead city. “No movement, the streets are empty, it’s like the plague.” We had closer relations with our British colleagues; we played tennis with them at the British Club and drank tea beside the swimming pool, celebrated the queen’s birthday as their guests, and entertained one another often at dinner parties.

I could understand the reluctance of the French to remain in Berlin. “I like Berlin but find it very depressing,” an entry in my journal for 1959 reads. “What is it that makes me so sad? Is it the gray weather and the rubble-dust sun? Or the gray buildings that have been battered beyond recognition? Or the heavy people, who, like the buildings are no longer intact, each with a story of deprivation and loss?” When I told a German-American, whose husband had returned to Berlin as professor at the Free University, that I found the city depressing, she seemed surprised. “But there is so much building being done, so much reconstruction. Don’t you feel that as exciting?” I explained that no matter how many high rise apartments were constructed in the Hansaviertel and no matter how many stone edifices were repaired, there was so much empty space where before the war buildings had stood and so many half-destroyed homes and so many picturesque ruins like the Gedächtnis church, that the overwhelming impression on me was one of desolation and destruction.

She was quiet for a few minutes, then said slowly, “When I returned in early ‘46,1 went to find my home. We lived on the fourth floor of a large apartment house at the corner of Kant Street and Hohenzollern Boulevard, near the center of town. I was the only member of my family who survived the Holocaust; they had sent me to relatives in America in 1938, before Crystal Night. I never saw any of them again. Our apartment was several blocks from the square of Fehrbelliner, you know the square, where there is a subway station. I began at the subway station and tried to find my way home through the rubble. The landmarks had been leveled. I recognized nothing. Every street corner looked the same. It was as if I stood in the midst of a dead desert where there were no foot marks to follow, no sticks to point the way. I returned to the square and, beginning all over again at the subway station, I walked with eyes shut, groping my way in memory, trying to recall the route I had taken so many times home. Down one street, turn right, down another, now left for two streets, then right and I will come to the corner of Kant and Hohenzollern. And so I found it, the heap of rubble that had been my home.”

She shut her eyes again in memory, then looked at me and said quietly, “I think if you had seen Berlin in ‘46 as I, you would not find it a depressing city now.”

No matter how firm the Allied policy, no matter how determined they were to maintain the Four Power status of the beleaguered city in the face of every Soviet threat, it was the Berliners themselves who kept the divided city open. They, both East Berliners and West Berliners, refused to accept the reality of the division. In spite of borders and border guards and increasing harassment, in spite of the miles and miles of barbed wire separating West Berlin from the rest of Germany, in spite of the chicanery of the East Germany authorities and the endless regulations designed to keep them apart, they went back and forth as if they were living in one city, not two. Thousands upon thousands came every day to work in the offices and stores of West Berlin and on their day off they thronged the Kudam, Berlin’s fashionable center, and we stared at them as we sat in the cafes, their clumsy shoes, their broad Russian trousers, the peasant scarves on the heads of the women and the same shapeless Socialist handbag made of cheap plastic that they all carried. We never realized how many came until they stopped coming. When the Wall was built West Berlin shrank like a woolen sock that has been washed in boiling water, suddenly, all over. The hairdresser I had gone to for four years was suddenly unavailable: he’s being “re-educated” in East Berlin, I was told, presumably for a factory job. In the grocery store there was one clerk to wait on the customers instead of three, at the bank there seemed to be more tellers absent than present and the streets around the Free University which usually teemed with earnest young men and women, wearing old-fashioned glasses and carrying old briefcases, all hurrying to class as they came out of the subway station, seemed suddenly empty as if the university had closed down. I had heard that one-fourth of the students at the Free University came on West scholarships from the East, and when I walked through the University after the Wall I believed it.

The traffic from West to East was small but constant. The opera in the white and gold Opera House on Unter den Linden was always well attended from West Berlin, including our military who came in full uniform in order to “show the flag”; and the theaters had their regular patrons. The Maria church, Berlin’s only remaining 13th-century cathedral, was jammed with visitors from the West whenever the old Bishop Dibelius preached, most of them coming by train in small groups, entering the cathedral as unobtrusively as possible and leaving as quickly as possible when the service was ended. And then there were the countless Berliners, like our cleaning woman, who made it a practice to visit their relatives regularly, smuggling “goodies” past the border guards— oranges, real coffee, a Western newspaper.

The numbers of those who could visit East Berlin without fear of being detained by the authorities was not large, however. Those who had moved from the Russian sector after the War and taken up residence in West Berlin so as to escape the Russian occupation did not dare risk returning, even for a day. Still less did those dare cross the sector line from West to East who had fled for one reason or another from East Germany into West Berlin. They must have lived in perpetual fear that they would be taken back, like the father of our maid who, one day when she and her sisters came home unexpectedly from school and rang the doorbell to the apartment, stood in the open door with an ax in his hands. “He was being followed,” she told us. “After the war he was imprisoned for three years and then he was let out. But he heard they were going to arrest him again and so he left. He took my older sister with him and they went to West Berlin. Then he sent for my mother. I remember we went on a trip to somewhere or other, we had to change trains several times, and we got out at the main railroad station in West Berlin. We didn’t know what Mommy meant when she said, “Look over there! You’ll see someone you know” and it was Daddy with my older sister. But he was followed in West Berlin for months, that’s why he had the ax.”

The Berliners who went back and forth across the sector borders were no threat to the authorities. It was the influx into Berlin of ever increasing numbers from East Germany which brought about the Wall. They came on visits to East Berlin and then carefully masking their intentions took the subway or elevated or perhaps walked across the border to West Berlin, carrying their belongings on their backs. Before Khrushchev’s ultimatum to the Allies in November 1957 their number was manageable; those who did not choose to remain in West Berlin were flown to West Germany. But the more Khrushchev threatened to make the Allies leave Berlin, the more East Germans decided the time had come for them to leave East Germany. The more he declared his intention of ending the Four Power occupation of the city, the more they saw their only chance of escape escaping them. And so they came in ever increasing numbers, farmers, teachers, technicians, whole families of them, young boys, elderly couples, all leaving while the leaving was good. Most of the refugees had obtained permission to visit relatives in East Berlin and then, having reached the big city, they slipped into West Berlin. They came in such numbers that camps had to be constructed to receive them and huge transport planes, in a kind of reverse airlift, had to fly their numbers out into West Germany.

By August 1961 the number of refugees from East Germany had reached the number of a thousand a day. And more were coming. It was clear to everyone that something would have to be done, for the East German economy could never bear such a strain. “The situation has become very dangerous,” I wrote in my journal on August 11th. “Grave faces at the MacDougall’s dinner party last night. I sat next to the police president and we talked about the refugee problem all through dinner. “What will the East Germans do?” I asked him. “They’ll shut up East Berlin so tight that not even a mouse will escape” was his answer. But how? No one knew. H. thinks the East Germans will cordon off East Berlin from East Germany so the refugee stream will be cut off at its source. Colonel P. is afraid the Russians themselves will intervene, perhaps move in one of their divisions. I told the police president it reminded me of 1938 in Europe when Hitler so dominated the political scene that we watched him fascinated as a bird by a snake, knowing he was going to strike but not knowing when or where.”

Saturday, August 12th, the children and I began the summer vacation we had been looking forward to for months. Old friends from Unteraegeri in Switzerland had been able to rent for us an apartment in a chalet next door to their home. We would take the French military train out of Berlin, make connections in Baden with an express which would take us to Zurich, and from there we would take a Swiss train to Zug where our friends would meet us. All went according to plan, and after we had unpacked and changed our clothes, we went over to our friend’s home for dinner. It was Sunday, August 13th. As I was sipping an aperitif before dinner, Hans, the 30-year-old son of the family, turned to me solemnly and asked what I thought about Berlin? I waved aside his question. “But I’ve come here to Switzerland to get away from Berlin! You’ve no idea, how wearing it is,” turning to our hostess, “this pattern of crisis that we have in Berlin! We’re always having crises, and this last one with the refugee build-up has been especially hard.” Hans begged my pardon. “I didn’t know. I’ve been listening to the news all day, and I thought with the Wall—perhaps—but I won’t talk about it any more.” “Wall? What Wall?” And the story was out. During the night when we were on the train, the East Germans had stretched barbed wire across all the border crossings and placed armed soldiers there to prevent anyone from leaving East Berlin. The subway and the elevated had been halted. Armored cars rolled into the squares and Russian forces surrounded the city. Our people had first learned of the East Germans’ move at three in the morning. The British, French, and American commandants were meeting, the mayor had made a speech counseling restraint to the West Berliners who were massed at the Wall, and the East Germans were busy strengthening their lines.

When the children and I returned to Berlin a few weeks later, my husband met us at the station and drove us immediately to the Brandenburger Gate. It was unreal. There were soldiers, real live soldiers with guns in their hands, standing in line before the Gate. Over their heads we could see the barbed wire and the tank obstacles that had been erected as a Wall. Crowds of people stood at the Western end of the Gate, not anywhere as many as there had been the Sunday of the Wall, my husband told us, when the square had been full of angry West Berliners and the authorities had been afraid they might storm across the barbed wire and bring out the Russian tanks that encircled the city. We walked up to the soldiers, being careful not to overstep the border line and I saw that they were young and blond and very real. I understood why the Allies had not moved forward from their sectors to take down the barbed wire that had been erected on the far side of the border line. No one wanted war, certainly not the Berliners who kept saying at every crisis previous to the Wall, “Not war! For God’s sake, no war! Not for this city!” And how could war have been avoided so long as soldiers barred the way?


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