I was on my way to Norway to work on the pig farm. It was March, 1983. I had been in Munich for a few days. I went out to the 1972 Olympic site. I recalled how hostages were taken there and it was all played out on TV. I did not understand the politics at the time. I also went by the Dachau concentration camp, which was an impactful experience. So bizarre to see ovens where cremation of humans took place and the documentation of the genocide of a race. I met a man there who was trying to indicate to me where he had lived in the camp. All beyond my imagination. Horrifying what humans can do to each other. You would think our commonality and having 99.9% the same DNA would make such behavior unthinkable. But alas, we are so very flawed.
I made my way to Nuremberg where the famous war crime trials were held and set my eyes on Berlin. You must remember that at that time, East and West Germany were separate countries and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the USA was in full swing. Things were tense. If any of this story sounds like a spy novel, it felt that way at times. Germany has an intense history filled with drama on the world stage. The USA obviously leads the world in military violence, but at the time I was very intrigued by the German mentality. Even after the failure of the NAZIs, I felt the Germans somehow thought they were better, more intelligent and more logical than the rest of us. It was interesting to meet Germans in their 60s that had most likely taken part in the NAZI campaigns. Anyway, I am off track.
I managed to arrange a shared ride with three other people to go from Nuremberg to West Berlin. We each paid a little. Berlin was an island in the middle of East Germany and it was divided into an East and a West. In fact, a wall was constructed around West Berlin in 1961 to prevent citizens of East Germany from fleeing their country. They were essentially prisoners. To get to Berlin, one had to drive down a highly monitored corridor for hours without leaving the road. It waz highly militarized and was a strange sensation. It was almost like we were holding our breath. We were talking a lot until we got on the corridor, then we went pretty quiet. Upon reaching West Berlin, everybody started talking again.
In West Berlin I stayed in a youth hostel. I never liked the youth hostels but the price was right. I decided I had to go to East Berlin. It seemed novel to me but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I learned that you could only go for the day and had to depart by 10 PM, I believe. You had to change 25 German Marks to East German money, but you had to spend it all because East German money was worthless. Ironic because there was almost nothing to buy there. The coins felt almost like plastic.
There was a famous border crossing called, Checkpoint Charlie between West and East Berlin that I would cross. I was placed in a small glassed room and observed by East Germans for about an hour. Very strange. I don’t know if it was a psychological ploy or something else. Eventually I passed through. I need to go check my old passports to see if I got a stamp. Most of the day is a blur. I walked the streets and nobody would talk with me. There was little to do. Lots of military people around. I recall one area that had clocks indicating the time in foreign cities such as Tokyo or New York. It struck me as cruel, because as I would learn almost nobody was allowed out of the country. I went by a bread shop but the cupboards were just about empty. Finally I found a little cafe. I thought I would drink a coffee and then leave. It was really quite boring.
As I sat on a round stool at the coffee bar, a German asked me how I liked the country. This was in German. I remember being surprised and said, “How would I know? No one will speak with me.” He sipped his coffee and told me to wait until he had left and then go out to the street. I did so. Somehow I knew he was a good guy. We met on the sidewalk. He told me to walk with him and act like we knew each other. As we walked, whenever we came near the military police he told me to not speak. Eventually we met a friend of his and we decided to go up the Berlin Television Tower restaurant to have something to eat. The tower rotates 360 degrees every hour. The view included views of the huge white wall, barbed wire, guard towers, and an expanse of land in front of the wall so you would easily be seen if trying to escape. You could also view Brandenburg Strasse in West Berlin. One of the men was an electrician and the other a plumber. They were on a short trip from their rural town. I am sure I have their names in my journal. We were very engaged in our conversation as we were curiosities to each other. I learned that they were proud that everyone had a home, a job and food. I also learned they could not travel. They asked me to translate John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” I did my best. “Imagine There’s no countries…Imagine There’s no heaven…Imagine no possessions…” As I translated they became very emotional as did I.
I felt like I had made two wonderful friends, but we also knew I had to leave the country in a few hours, and we would never see each other again. They walked me towards Checkpoint Charlie in the darkness of night. I was nervous that I might miss the time deadline. What would happen?As I stepped off the curb to cross the last street, I realized that my two friends did not. I came back and they explained they were not allowed to cross the street
As I re-entered West Berlin, the contrast was too much. I left a tightly monitored police state and entered the wild, loud nightlife of West Berlin. It almost seemed offensive knowing my friends were trapped there. The next morning, I got up and went to look at the wall. It was really too much for me to be around the wall knowing what was behind it. I decided to leave and make my way towards Denmark.
Oddly, I found a train that left West Berlin and went through East Germany. While on the train I was woken up by severe East German Police. They looked under the cushions in my seat and pulled out anewspaper and shouted at me. I have no idea what they were thinking but eventually they left me alone. The train went to the border of East Germany on the North Sea. The train actually went on to a boat especially designed for trains. I believe it traveled from Warnemunde to Gedser or vice versa. On the other side we would go back on train tracks and go to Copenhagen.