I was a Cold War kid. The Russians were the bad guys in every movie and the nuclear race was yet to be won. When I signed up to go to the former U.S.S.R. in 1986, with a young ambassadors group, I was 14. It was pivotal for me to see that the Russian people were so similar to us, but our governments were so different. We had been distanced by political values although many of the same things were important in our cultures. There was no denying that daily life in a communist country was dramatically different from my life as a teenager in the United States.
Visiting Berlin last week, was equally as altering as my trip to the U.S.S.R. almost 30 years ago.
We decided to stay in former East Berlin, in a hip and upcoming neighborhood called Prezlauer Berg. It was a decision that changed the course of our understanding of life behind the Berlin Wall.
Our landlady and I were the same age. She was born in 1970 behind the wall. She was raised on the same block we were staying on, and showed us pictures of how the neighborhood looked when East and West were two separate countries. She was born with Russian soldiers at their posts and the soundtrack of shots firing and sirens blaring. She said because it was her reality, she never thought anything of it. She describes her childhood as wonderful and safe.
It was hard to get my head around what she said and it was so much like the awareness that knocked me over when I arrived in Moscow so many years ago. The images I had seen growing up about life behind the Berlin Wall were of people scaling the edifice, clothes torn on razor wire, risking everything for freedom.
Upon further conversation, we learned that our landlady’s grandfather was a Nazi general. He lived in a guarded villa on an East Berlin lake and when she or her family needed anything, they called him and he ordered it. While most families had to wait sometimes as long as 15 years for a car or a telephone, hers would arrive the next day.
Her grandfather was insulated by the wall. He was a general at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp during the war and lived out his days on the lake behind the wall. Because of his connection with the Nazis he could make life more comfortable for her family. She told this story without judgement. It was very black and white. It was her reality.
My mind raced as I tried to make sense of my version of these historical events. So many thoughts came into my head . . . Not everyone wanted to escape from Eastern Germany.
The wall was not only a political divider but it protected some Nazi officials. Not only did the wall protect some Nazis, but it meant their families were cared for with more attention. Her stories opened us up to hearing from others.
We spoke to a woman who also had a pleasant childhood right on Bernauer Strasse which was the site of many people dropping from windows to escape. I vividly remember these images on television. When this woman turned 18, one of her friends escaped, freeing up her flat. She moved in and said she was thrilled to have her own place, only to see the wall come down less than a year later.
We left Berlin changed by our conversations with people in this burgeoning city. Although the wall was torn down 25 years ago, it is very recent history and people are still living the story. It is not on a dusty shelf in a library. It is unfolding with a horizon of cranes rebuilding and huffing and puffing this place into the future.
The energy in Berlin is artistic and vulnerable but not tenuous. It is something to feel and experience and it is full of living memoirs that we could not help but experience at every corner. It will take a longtime to process everything we learned from Berlin.
I think the city still has a lot to teach the world about accepting what is and moving forward with the knowledge that, “it is inevitable, of course, that nothing can truly be rubbed away or blotted out, and how the more you try to rub something away the darker it becomes.” ~Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis