Monday, June 23, 2008

My Alphabet: B is for Berlin

After a very long hiatus, I'm finally returning to My Alphabet. I fear I may never get past the letter B! (And how many of us can say those words without hearing this:

But I digress. Today, meine Damen und Herren, we shall discuss Berlin -- or West Berlin, as it was known when I was stationed there 36 years ago.

Onkel Hankie Pants and I got married while I was already under orders to join the Transportation Division, Berlin Brigade, as a Russian interpreter on the "duty train," and after a short honeymoon, he returned to Fort Ord, California, and I went to McGuire AFB in New Jersey, thence to Rhein-Main AFB in Frankfurt, Germany, and from there to Berlin, landing at the now-disused Tempelhof Airport. As soon as I began attending orientation sessions, I started hearing "Berlin is unique." (Sometimes, alas, "very unique.")

From the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War, Berlin was an alert, colorful, claustrophobic, frenetic island of Western-ness in the grey sea of Communist East Germany (henceforth the DDR - Deutsche Demokratische Republik.) The Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, the building of the Wall in 1961, JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, the heartbreaking escape attempts which usually ended badly, and finally the tearing down of the Wall -- Berlin was in the news a lot for those 40+ years. Now it's again the capital of a united Germany, taking its place with all the other European capitals. I wonder if it misses all the extra attention?

To explain my job and the reasons for its existence, here's a nice concise description -- much better than I could come up with. At the time I was there, there were four civilian interpreters (German nationals) and three military ones. The civilians were guaranteed a certain number of trips each month, and the other two Sp/4s and I filled in the gaps. Hence, there were many nights I didn't have to work at all. I had a lot of time to write and read letters! I lived in a barracks near the hospital off Unter den Eichen; most of the other women on my floor were medics (as were the other residents of the building) on split shifts, so there was a certain amount of disagreement about how loud one could play music when coming off shift if others were sleeping....But in general it wasn't bad, I could walk to work and there was a nice little library on the kaserne.

While we were stopped at Marienborn and the train commander and I were displaying the manifests, orders, passports and IDs to the Soviet officer, our MPs were carrying out some unofficial (and probably illegal) duties. They would exchange Ostmarks for uniform items with the Soviet soldiers on duty. The Russian guys were poorly paid in comparison and were only too willing to exchange their winter hats, uniform belts, etc. for money to spend at the Gasthaus. We could change money fairly easily in Berlin. So, the MPs would wrap the money around a cake of the truly horrible soap that was provided on the train, secure it with a rubber band, and toss it to the waiting Soviet on the platform. Back would come a Shapka (Russian fur hat) or a thick leather belt with a hammer-and-sickle buckle. I often wonder what the Soviets' quartermaster thought about all the "lost" or "worn-out" hats and belts. I used to have (actually OHP had) one of the belts, but no longer. Either SonShineIn or one of my nephews got it, I think.

Of course my best memories of Berlin are of the times when Onkel Hankie Pants joined me there, at Christmas and after he was discharged from the Army in June '73. Both times we stayed in Apartments-Hotel on Clayallee in the Dahlem district near the Grunewald. It was across the street from the PX, commissary and other U.S. facilities, but was German owned. We had a large living room, an alcove bed with German featherbed, a bathroom and a small kitchen. Here's the bill for our Christmas stay:
At this time the dollar was worth DM3.2018. We were about to receive a pay increase, retroactive to October, to $369.90 per month (each). It was well worth the cost to spend some time together and be able to have our first Christmas tree and Christmas dinner.

Some of the things I remember from our Christmas and summer in Berlin:

  • visiting Schloss Charlottenburg and the Emperor's famous collection of snuffboxes;
  • seeing Nefertiti;
  • having Kaffee oder Tee at local cafes;
  • going to movies at the Post Theater, one was Kidnapped with Michael Caine and Donald Pleasence;
  • attending the Lutheran American Church in Berlin;
  • seeing the Ku'damm and the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche, eating at "Karoline's Danische Kase Kiste" (Caroline's Danish Cheesebox -- Onkel Hankie Pants thought this was pretty funny), and trying to cure my bronchitis with hot toddies
  • visiting the Tiergarten (Zoo)
  • meeting up with my cousin and his Berlin-born wife and her cousin (a Berlin cop) at the local Kneipe, where there were newspapers on sticks and old men playing cards
  • drinking Berliner-Weisse -- a very pale beer with a shot of raspberry syrup -- don't knock it till you've tried it!
A couple of photos we took there:

Left: The Siegessaule
Right: The Soviet War Memorial

I also recall the painfully short days of winter -- when I would come home in the dark, go to sleep, and when I awoke it would be dark again -- and the very long days of summer, when dawn came about 3:30 am. The mysterious S-Bahn (streetcars) which we weren't allowed to ride on, and the posters reminding us to "Denk an die Bruder in der Zone" (think of those in the Communist Zone).

Ja, naturlich -- Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin.

Viewing and reading suggestions (more welcomed, just post in comments): Cabaret, of course, or its dramatic and short story predecessors, I Am a Camera and Berlin Stories (Christopher Isherwood). Ariana Franklin's mystery, City of Shadows. Leon Uris's historical epic, Armageddon. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John LeCarre, and The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall, are two spy stories set there.

I'm blogging a lot today because day after tomorrow we are heading for the Upper Midwest and my opportunities will be fewer there both for computer access and time, since we have lots of friends and family to see and not very long to do it. I'll try to be less verbose in future (but no promises!)

1 comment:

Auntie Knickers said...

This post got even longer because I inadvertently put in the Marlene Dietrich video twice. Sorry but I can't edit it easily, especially since Blogger still is making me do verification letters (hard ones!) before posting.