When the Wall Came Tumbling DownLord of Ridley on November 14, 2009
Category: Europe, Later Travels 1950-
With the current attention to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’ve been recalling my experiences with that excrescence. My family and I happened to be in Germany when the Wall first went up. We were all with my brother-in-law, Hermann, in a Jägerhaus restaurant up in the woods above the Rhein near Bonn, waiting for lunch, with the radio news babbling along, when Hermann suddenly lifted his head, listened, and said “Mein Gott!” Obviously much affected, he explained that the authorities had just closed off the Eastern part of Germany. The actual building of the wall proceeded from that point. It didn’t mean much to me at that moment, but it wasn’t long before the import began to be felt.
My first visit to Berlin was when my wife and I were making our Pan Am round-the-world trip from Miami. We’d been in India for10 days, chiefly in Madras with daughter Julia and her family, had then flown from Bombay to Berlin to spend a couple of days there before flying on to London. While in Berlin we took the carefully-controlled tourist bus trip through the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie to see what was permitted for tourists. When we were there again, this time with Chris, our grandson, in our Vanagon, we three did the same bus trip into East Berlin.
We were staying in a campground in the West sector, somewhat out in the countryside near the suburb of Spandau. In fact it was into the latter town that we drove to get some camping supplies and food. We parked the Van on a street near the shopping area, and I looked up at the street name to make sure how to find the car again, and was stunned to read Ruhlebenerstraße. “My God,” I thought, “so this is where Ruhleben is!” I’d known for many years that my former organ teacher in England, Sir Percy C. Hull, had been caught in Germany at the beginning of WW I, and interned as a prisoner of war in somewhere called Ruhleben. I’d become used to seeing a pocket watch always lying on the shelf to the right of the organ console in Hereford Cathedral. On the back of the watch was engraved “Souvenir of Ruhleben 1917”, and we’d been told that this engraving was the sort of thing the WW I prisoners of war did to keep occupied. But I never had any idea of where in Germany this had been. Now, suddenly, I knew; and I thought “Oh, I must tell P.C.” Then, as we walked away, I recalled that it was far too late. Sir Percy was already dead.
The campground turned out to be right along a section of the Wall. My wife, in conversation in the laundry with another camper from, I think, Scandinavia, discovered that this lady’s campsite backed right onto the Wall. She invited us to go and peek through a hole someone had worked through the concrete, and we all trooped along to do this. The view was incredible: a wide, bare swath of land with a tarmac single lane running through it, and, in the far distance, the beginning of the forest trees again. No buildings, no people, no sign of humanity. Really oppressive! The East side of the wall, as far as the eye could reach in each direction, was illuminated at night with blazing lights, clearly seen from our peaceful, rural side. Occasionally, in the night, one heard a gunshot, and dogs barking.
My next experience of Berlin was when, now alone, I was driving back south from explorations in Norway, where I’d made a point of crossing the Arctic Circle. (On a later expedition I drove all the way to the North Cape and the Russian border near Murmansk, but we’ll leave that for a later telling).
Coming back from Norway via Sweden and Denmark, I decided to see the former German Democratic Republic now that it was free for the looking. I drove from Hamburg on what had been the northern Transit Route. This was the road we’d used on the previous trip, after picking up our new Vanagon at the VW factory in Hannover. I was now retracing our steps into the recently opened city. At the border were the same forbidding buildings we’d had to negotiate when in the Vanagon, but now deserted. No Vopos with Kalashnikovs on their shoulders. No tight-lipped uniformed officials. Absolute desertion: even the Wechselstube (Currency Exchange) had a padlock on the door. I drove through slowly, and with some trepidation, and on into Berlin, where I discovered I was driving in and out of the West and East with no problem whatsoever—except the rush hour traffic. I was looking for the Tourist Office, but couldn’t seem to find it, so I headed south out of the city for Wannsee, a suburb where I thought I might find a Zimmer Frei, a B & B. On the way I passed border buildings, also deserted, bearing a faded sign: YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR. Wannsee, you may recall, was where Hitler and his cronies came up with “The Final Solution.”
I saw no Zimmer Frei signs—though they’re a dime a dozen when you don’t need them—but I did see the Campingplatz sign pointing to Dreilinden, along a shady, wooded lane winding alongside a river. I followed this and came to the camp. “Alles bezetzt,” said the reception. “I just need a little space to park the car,” I said, “and I’ll sleep in that.” “Okay,” said he; “drive around, find a spot, and give me 5 marks for use of the shower.”
I drove, and finally, on the far end of this wooded area, found a little space where I could squeeze in the car. I noted that just beyond this was a large cordon sanitaire very much like the one we’d been next to near Spandau. It was, indeed, again the Wall, but with a huge difference: no wall! Just the remaining rubble, with a few drooping, rusting light standards, and weeds growing through the tarmac car track. In conversation with the Swedish family in the trailer next to me, I learned that this had been indeed that same Berlin Wall. They pointed with pride to the hunks of wall concrete they were using to chock the wheels of their trailer. From that spot, of course, is where I picked up the bit of wall that, I’m delighted to learn, my daughter has displayed. I’d been lamenting today that I must have lost it.
(I’ve always marveled that I should have camped in Berlin only twice, and each time should have been next to different sections of the hated Wall!)
After parking the car, I walked to the camp restaurant for a beer and a meal. A heavily-populated section of the large room had a TV displaying the German Soccer Team in the process of defeating the English team on their way to an ultimate championship. The cheering was deafening. I left before the conclusion, but several days later, in Merzenich, I watched, on the TV news, the winning German team being welcomed in Frankfurt airport on their triumphant return to Germany. I almost felt I’d been a part of it.
Next day I drove the southern former Transit Route on my way to Bavaria, passing the spot at which the Vopos had fined us for driving on the left. This had come about when we’d been driving the Vanagon near Halle. The 4-lane Autobahn’s right lane was severely degraded and bumpy, and my wife had suggested that I might use the much smoother passing lane for our new car. There was practically no other traffic, so I did this, keeping a wary eye on my mirror so I could get out of the way for a faster vehicle, but there were none. Rounding a slight bend I noticed, far ahead, a car sitting on the right shoulder facing my way. In a country so strict about its rules, I thought this suspicious, so I drifted over to the right lane. Too late: the car was a police car, and one of the two officers was out in my lane waving me over with a little striped staff, the official symbol of the traffic police.
I pulled over and parked, and the officer marched over and said: “In den Deutschen Demokratischen Republik…you must drive on the Right. You were driving on the Left. The fine for this is twenty-five marks.” We paid, in West German currency, which is what they liked. And while he was writing up the papers we noted his fellow-officer pulling over other drivers doing as we’d done–but only those with West German or tourist license plates such as we had. Probably the East German drivers were keeping to the right lane as decreed by authority. We learned also that this “Drive on the Right” edict applied even when entering traffic would be held up. The Left lane was for Passing Only! Think how wealthy they could get if they enforced this in Texas!
When we were there with the Vanagon we had to stick rigidly to the prescribed exit route. We couldn’t detour to any towns for which we’d not obtained a visa. But on my second trip, with Germany again united, I was able to leave the route to pay a quick visit to Halle, the city in which the composer Handel was born. I parked the car next to a church in which the young Handel had played the organ, and actually heard the present instrument being played, though the church was locked. I went on to Leipzig, and visited Bach’s Johanneskirche, then whizzed through Dresden (twice, after getting lost), then stopped at a wonderful forest resort hotel where the room and breakfast were only 15 marks (and I wasn’t sure whether they’d said fünfzehn or fünfzig, fifteen or fifty). It was not quite yet the holiday season, and the hotels were all almost empty.
Then on through Prague, where I crossed the Moldau River 3 times because I couldn’t read the road signs; they were in Czech. I eventually decided on a road that should lead me to Bavaria, but after a few miles became convinced that this was wrong, and I should have taken the next exit off the bypass. Hoping to cut across country instead of backtracking into the city, I saw two men waiting at a bus stop. I asked, in German, for directions. One began to tell me, but the other interrupted and said that was wrong. He tried to give me different directions, and then they got into a heated argument between themselves, and I was totally ignored. I decided I wanted no part of this, thanked them, and made a u-turn. Finally stumbling on the correct route, I eventually got to Regensburg, my intended destination, where I camped on the bank of the not-so-blue Danube.
On my way from there towards Cologne and Merzenich, where I was to visit family members of my late wife, I stopped in to see the cathedral at Ulm, which boasts the tallest spire in Germany. There I stumbled into a rehearsal of Mendelssohn’s “Paulus,” which they’d be performing that evening. I bought a ticket, called Merzenich to say I’d be a day later, got a hotel room for the night, and attended a wonderful performance of the oratorio I’d never heard except in snippets. What wonderful memories!
Prof. Lindsay Lafford, Lord of Ridley