By Eileen Ogintz
BERLIN, Germany (Day 1) — We could have been shot at.
If we’d taken the same few steps between Aug. 13 1961 and Nov. 9, 1989 we might have been killed for taking those steps.
Today we are staying in a luxury hotel—the 70-room Sofitel that stands near Gendarmenmarkt, the historic square that would have been in east Berlin but today is the heart of modern Berlin, complete with a trendy restaurant. One of Berlin’s popular Christmas Markets is held here on the square.
We had just walked between what had once been called “the death strip,” the area between West Berlin and East Berlin, between the wall and safety of the West, so called by East German security forces who were ordered “to shoot to kill” anyone trying to escape, explained Aaron Birchenough, the knowledgeable Context Travel guide leading us on a “wall walk” where we learned much more Cold War history than we would have gotten on our own.
Context is known for its tours for those who want a deeper dive into where they are visiting—whether history, the art scene, food or culture. And more Millennials are seeking out such experiences, a company spokesman said.
We were joined by my daughter and son in law, Reggie and Dan Foldes, who asked if we could add Berlin to our two-week European itinerary. Avid backpackers, they likely would be more comfortable climbing a mountain than exploring a foreign city but they not only enjoyed themselves and learned a lot but got several suggestions of places to go—bars, restaurants, Sunday festivals and bike routes– from Birchenough, in his mid-thirties, just a few years older than they are.
Today, of course, there are only small areas of what was once a 96-mile wall—23 miles right through residential areas surrounding what was West Berlin during the Cold War. In one spot where we were right on the border, Birchenough explained, people literally jumped to safety with West German police waiting with big nets to cushion their fall; but soon, the wall was moved from just barbed wire to 11.6-foot high concrete walls with 302 watch towers manned by troops, with anti-vehicle trenches in between.
Between 1945-52, some 3.5 million East Germans fled to the West, a “brain drain,” Birchenough said. The Berlin wall, which the Soviets called the “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart,” was the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain that cut off Western Europe from the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Until the wall went up in 1961, it was still possible to work and study in one side and live in the other. After the wall, families were split. Children drowned because they fell in the river—the Bank was in the West, the river in the East. A total 138 people died trying, though officials at the Mauer Checkpoint Charlie Museum have estimated the toll as much higher.
The museum is a great place to see the ways desperate people went to try to escape—hiding in a hollowed-out surfboard or a large sound speaker, ziplining (including a five year old), parachuting, hiding in a car where the engine had been reconfigured.
Today, there are bricks that mark where the wall went. If the writing is right side up, you are standing in the West, our guide said. He points out pave stones that mark tunnels where east Germans escaped, including 57people through what is known as “Tunnel 57,” dug from West Berlin by an engineering student desperate to rescue his girlfriend.
There is a memorial with photos of many of those who died, including those young children. Most were young—in their twenties. There are blown up photographs on the buildings with the year in which they were taken including the famous image of the young East German security officer who escaped, running over the barbed wire just after the first separation was begun. Others showed buildings where upper windows were completely bricked over.
The reality of what happened here seems somehow lost in the kitchiness of Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous border crossing where American soldiers stood guard on one side. Today there are souvenir stands and actors dressed as soldiers willing to pose for a picture for a few Euros. There is a huge portrait of Sgt. Harper, the last American guard here.
Yet people died here trying to escape and there was a 20-armed tank stand off on Oct. 27, 1961 that could have escalated–it all started because the East German guards wouldn’t allow an American diplomat to pass the border, as he was legally permitted to do so. “All of the eyes of the world were here,” said our guide.
Elsewhere along the wall, we stop in the Chapel of Reconciliation, on the site of the old Church of Reconciliation on Bernauer StraBe in the Mitte district of Berlin. The church, which dated from 1894, survived World War II but was within the Soviet sector with most of the parishioners in the West. The wall ran directly in front and blocked access to the border guards. As a result it was destroyed by the East Germans in 1985. In 1999, the round reconciliation chapel was built on the site of the church, using stone, splinters of wood and even glass that came from the rubble of the church embedded in clay. The heavily damaged altar hangs in the same place as in the original church. Outside, a rye field, the symbol of life, has been planted.
At noon, Tuesday-Friday, one of those who died trying to escape is remembered. Reconciliation matters.