The fall of the Berlin Wall changed not only the direction of Germans' lives, but the direction of history. To the outside world, it was another remarkable link in the chain of events that ended the Cold War, but to Germans, the impact was akin to what the Kennedy assassination was to Americans alive in 1963: Everyone remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news.
I was invited by VisitBerlin to not only join the celebrations surrounding the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall last week, but to meet some extraordinary Berliners who played a role in the event.
I've been to the city many times, the first when I took a gap year in 1974. On that visit, I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie to spend a day in East Berlin. As has been noted by others, it was like walking from the world in color to the world in black and white. In look and feel, it seemed to exist in a narrow spectrum of midtone gray.
I next returned in February 1990, three months after the collapse of East Germany. The physical wall was still standing, though people were chipping away at it for souvenirs. I rented a hammer and chisel from an entrepreneurial West Berliner and pried off a few chips myself, then walked through Brandenburg Gate, still manned by West and East German soldiers on their respective sides, who passively watched foot traffic moving in both directions. Once through, I boarded a bus to Potsdam and spent the night at Schloss Cecilienhof where, nine weeks after Germany's surrender in 1945, Truman, Stalin and Churchill finalized the details of how Germany was to be administered.
I went back in 2003 to see Tacheles, a large abandoned building in former East Berlin that had been taken over by artists/squatters. It remains in my memory as a place of unbound creativity and excitement.
During those trips and visits to the travel trade show ITB over the years, I've developed a deep bond with the city.
But as I discovered last week, there are still significant gaps in my understanding of Berlin. Some were filled in this trip by witnesses, historians, guides and visits to sites of remembrance, as well as during the emotional ceremony Saturday night commemorating the actual date of the Wall's fall.
Shortly after arrival last Tuesday, I met with Inka Rehahn, a market and media relations manager for VisitBerlin. We had lunch near my hotel in Kreuzberg, the neighborhood where ethnic Turks and bohemians have mixed for decades; it's where David Bowie spent his "Berlin Period." Today it's ground zero for issues around the gentrification of the city, a topic that appeared to be top-of-mind for many of the Berliners I met.
A line of cobblestones in a street indicate where the Berlin Wall stood, with the West German neighborhood Kreuzberg to the left and the East Berlin neighborhood Friedrichshain to the right. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
Rehahn related her experience as a teenager when she heard the news that the Wall had opened. Her first destination in the West was a public library. "I cried the first time I saw all the books and knowledge that had been denied me," she said.
She was a philosophy major at the time and, like many East Berliners, had contact with friends or relatives in West Berlin who were allowed to visit 30 weekends a year. One of her professors gave two reading lists to students: one for books available locally, and one they were to try to source from a connection who might smuggle it in from the West.
I spent the balance of the afternoon with Lauren Van Vuuren of the local tour company Berlin on Bike. We began with a walking tour of Kreuzberg. A historian by training, Van Vuuren guided me not only through a neighborhood that once had part of its perimeter delineated by the Wall, but through its evolution from an edgy center of leftist activists, punks and ethnic Turkish workers. It currently retains significant elements of what had defined its place in contemporary Berlin -- political bookstores, the music club SO36, Turkish shops and restaurants -- alongside bars serving craft beers, restaurants serving rice bowls and the two-year-old luxury hotel, Orania.Berlin, where I was staying.
The "here was" and "here is" narration was fascinating; it's a neighborhood struggling with Berlin's biggest civil issues in microcosm.
The Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Kreuzberg is in some ways emblematic of that neighborhood's activism. It was a hospital, built in the mid-1800s, but in1970, was scheduled for demolition. Artists occupied and squatted in the building, saving it; it has since evolved into an important cultural center. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
We hopped in a cab to see a new tourist attraction I had asked to see: "TimeRide Berlin." It opened this past August promising a virtual reality (VR) look at Cold War East Berlin. It's a quirky attraction, part slick, part work-in-progress.
After a brief orientation, one is introduced, in a short video, to three different East Berlin personalities. Visitors choose one of them to be their "guide" on a VR "bus tour" through pre-liberated East Berlin.
The introductory film is impressively done; the virtual reality portion is a mixed bag, graphically speaking. The VR "ride" moves through a landscape true to the shapes of buildings and street layouts, and it's populated with "types" one might have come across. Important information is imparted. But just two months after it opened, the graphics -- particularly of people -- already look dated. I was told the project took two years to complete, and it reflects an extraordinary amount of work, but I didn't, as I have in other VR experiences, feel transported and immersed in an alternative universe.
My feet-on-the-ground tour of Kreuzberg and visit to the virtual past were a good Day 1 orientation for a jet-lagged traveler. On Day 2, things would get a bit heavier.
Tomorrow: The Q Berlin conference.