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Germany: After the Wall
updated: Mar 19, 2011, 8:30 AM
It seems like only gestern. . . It was November 10, 1989, and we were halfway through our year of editing stories for the China Daily, China's English-language newspaper. I wondered what Xinhua News Agency (AKA the Government) would allow us to print about the very big news event that the Berlin Wall had been opened, at last.
I rushed to the office that morning and saw: Xinhua had sent a story less than two inches long, with the headline, "East Germany to Ease Travel Restrictions." Funny, pathetic and irritating, but when our work in China was done, we headed for the former East Germany by way of (then) Czechoslovakia.
Entering East Germany, we pulled into a makeshift rest stop to make coffee on our camp stove and wondered about the blocky low buildings about a quarter of a mile away that were visible behind some trees.
A Czech trucker also stopped there, and I asked him about the buildings. He pondered our mutual language problem for a few moments, then shrugged, palms up, and said, "Bad place."
We drove toward the buildings. A small sign at an entrance to the driveway said only "Terezien." We drove in. Signs indicated that it was in fact a "bad place" - one of the prison camps that the Nazis had built.
Terezien was open to visitors, but there was no one there except for a couple of tourists wandering about. We surmised it had just opened to the public.
It was the first of several stops we made at concentration camps, places that are stamped in memory like recurring nightmares. We would never forget the arching wrought-iron sign over a courtyard entrance, ARBEIT MACHT FREI. "Work Makes Free" was the slogan of the various camps. Its grim, ironic pointlessness would echo in our minds, permanently.
So many displays at Terezien stunned us into attention … those signs, a plaster wall dented with bullet holes, the dolls ingeniously crafted from metal utensils, sticks, and bits of cloth, the stark, heart-breaking photos, this being a prison mainly for women and children …
Weak in the knees, we resumed our journey through lovely countryside, now revealed to us as also being the echoing, dark scene of World War II and its horrors.
We drove from the darkness to the light within a few miles; it seemed that the residents of this rural land were psychologically blinking in the sunshine after years of repression. Lunch at a small restaurant in the mountain town of Kipsdorf was fried-steak perfection, way under-priced by the jolly old guy who was experiencing his first capitalism. He showed us his notebook full of thanks and compliments from diners who referred to him as "Comrade."
We spent the night at a fellow's fancy farm farther up the mountain road. Recommended by the restaurateur, he too had no idea what his knotty-pine digs were worth. Late in the day, we were resting in our cabin when we heard, "O Susanna, O don't you cry for me…" sung lustily to piano accompaniment.
Correctly assuming that the pleasant young owner wanted us to join in, we went up the hill to his house where he was pounding the keys while he and his teen-aged daughter sang the American words.
Extremely happy to see us, he insisted we join them, and we sang every old American folk classic he knew. There was good feeling all around. He showed us the tattered songbook, and said, "This is the only book in English I've been permitted to own."
Once again - so many times - we shook our heads in wonder.
Driving through small East Germany towns, we saw tracks of WW II tanks that had rumbled through en route to and from destruction. Buildings were rundown, and there was a general air of weariness. Since then, it's taken 20 years and a lot of money from disgruntled West Germans for the east to regain its well-tended and often classic German look. It's a beautiful country.
Firebombed Dresden was beginning to rebuild, using huge smoke-blackened stones in the midtown area of big official buildings. The project included the small, sad remains of the once-magnificent Frauenkirche (Our Lady's Church). A sign said that on the date we were there, the British were hero-worshipping "Bomber" Harris, who led the raids that wiped out the church and almost everything else. The remains were to stand as an anti-war statement, but rebuilding was eventually begun and completed in 1958.
The English, running low on bombers, had alternated with the U.S.: Brits bombed Dresden all night for two nights, while the Americans bombed all day. The ferocious raids were considered largely revenge, and not a tactically valuable exercise.
Wikipedia: "It was a military bombing by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) between13 February and 15 February 1945 in the Second World War. The Dresden city council in 2010 reported a minimum of 22,700 victims with a maximum total number of fatalities of 25,000.
Our swing through this now quiet country ended cheerfully enough at a huge campground on the island of Rügen, off the northeast shore in the Baltic Sea.
It's swamped with foreigners now, but then it was a quiet, restful place of great seafood and East Germans who couldn't believe they were looking at people from the West. When I signed in at the office, the clerk actually gasped, hand over her mouth, when she saw me print USA. We were very likely the first Americans she'd seen.
As we set up camp, a strolling family looked wide-eyed and confused when they heard us speaking English and saw the big M for Munich on our rental car's license plate. Americans? English? High-falutin' West Germans? We waved and they tentatively waved back.
There was entertainment at a band shell every afternoon. We heard a big guy with a wonderful bass voice singing American favorites that had filtered under and over The Wall: The Kingston Trio seemed to be very popular, and evidently harmless folk songs, like his rendition of "My Bonnie Is Over the Ocean." We heard that on the car radio also, and again, it was "Is" not "Lies." If it came from America, it was great music to their ears.
We spent our last evening in a little biergarten gabbing with three young men, one of whom spoke English about as well as I spoke German. He declared it time to go when the youngest of the trio passed out, snoring, with his forehead on our wooden table. He spoke warmly about how fine it was to have this hands-across-the-sea meeting and how he looked forward to the future. We shook hands all around.
Then he and his pal dragged the third guy to his feet and they sang proudly, serious to the point of being dewy-eyed, "Deutschland, Deutschland, Über Alles."
The Star-Spangled Banner is great music, but it's too hard to sing a cappella, and besides, when they finished, they weaved their way into the darkness.
Auf wiedersehen, Deutschland. It was educational.
Old Berlin buildings are surrounded by new construction.
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Remains of the infamous Berlin Wall are scattered around part of Berlin.
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The gate into East Berlin is now a tourist mock-up.
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