Three Eyewitness Scenes From Berlin: 1950, 1973, 2013

He mostly liked the Germans he met. "Nobody we met fought Americans. They all fought Russians. That's what they'd tell you. Ha! The Germans were very proud. Very militaristic," he said. "They could be working on a trash truck, they want a uniform. They're smart people, very intelligent, very industrious. You wouldn't think they lost the war with their attitude. They had their chest out, and they never looked back at the bad things that happened. It was quite interesting. I liked the people. I never met people I didn't like at the beginning. I always look at people as good people right off the bat, and then find out later that some of them weren't."

The Berlin Wall began to be built in 1961, long after my grandfather left, but he saw the communists become increasingly restrictive about passing from East to West, even if he knew guys who would sneak to the Eastern sector to buy $20 tailored suits. 

He went to East Berlin just once. 

We went on a bus tour, and the military took you to all the places they wanted to take you. They said, "look at the way they live." It's like watching a technicolor movie and watching black and white. You saw despair. You could tell they were poor. They said, look for fruit. Look for vegetables. They had vegetables, but there was something that was missing. The people looked like -- they weren't happy. They looked sad. They had raggedy clothes. The bombed out buildings were not being repaired or rebuilt. The only thing left was the outside perimeter walls. 

It would be all bricks.

With the Marshall Plan we were giving Germany money to rebuild. There were so many bricks they didn't know what to do with them. They'd go out in the park and they'd make rolling hills of all the extra bricks. You know the railcars that they have in a mine? Women and men working, and they'd be paid by the government. So they were making money to live. And they were also rebuilding. You could see what they were doing. You'd go in the eastern sector, nothing was happening. The buildings that were bombed were still bombed. They were just standing there and nothing was happening. If you went into this neighborhood, nobody cut their lawn, the grass was dying.

There was nothing. You could see the difference.

After two years in Berlin my grandfather got his discharge papers, went back to California, and started a family. A couple decades later, my mother graduated high school and got to go along with a cousin who was traveling around Europe. They spent one day and night in East Berlin during the summer of 1973, traveling there by overnight train and leaving the Communist zone through Checkpoint Charlie. Given the timing and her description, I am fairly certain that her visit coincided with the 10th annual World Festival of Youth and Students.

The thing I remember the most is that we had to take a certain amount of money in. It wasn't very much. But there was nothing to buy. You couldn't find anything. They had no goods. They had nothing to sell. I'd never experienced anything like it. The other thing that was really surprising is that a lot of windows had posters of Angela Davis. She was a professor at Berkeley, a radical.

There were posters of her, celebrating her. 

I remember thinking it was weird how different the people in East Berlin seemed. Subdued. It wasn't so much sad as, this is the way it is and there's nothing I can do about it

Resigned. 

The other thing I remember, everyone in the west was talking about how they were a Communist country and the Communists all hated Americans. But there happened to be a youth fair when we went. There were young people from all over the Communist world. They'd been given these scarves. And they were getting them signed. They desperately wanted the autographs of Americans. Whatever propaganda they'd heard about us didn't matter. We were treated like movie stars. The kids were all really nice, and so excited just to meet us, making over us when they found out that we were Americans. 

It's been so long.

But I remember that there was a parade, and there were American Indians marching in it. I thought, wow, that's so bizarre, how did they end up here? I guess they were saying, well, America didn't do anything for us. I was in East Berlin for one day. We came in on the train and we left through Checkpoint Charlie. 

I never felt unsafe.

Here I am one generation later in a city where it's often hard to tell when you're crossing into what was East Berlin, where an entertainment venue of note is called The White Trash Fast Food Restaurant, and where Germans on the street a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie express disappointment at U.S. surveillance state excesses. I'd love to walk around this city with my mother and grandfather. My marveling would almost certainly pale in comparison to theirs.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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