CHECKPOINT – a truthful testimony from the GDR times

Lifestyle, Special

Sometimes I try to walk through Berlin like a foreigner, to turn off my memories and just go with the flow. In those moments I feel my heart bursting with joy. Of course, Berlin is rough, noisy, fast, pavonine, dirty – and at the same time magical, full of life, unpretentious, liberal, sometimes even glamorous. And there has really been a wall running cross this city? How was that possible? Some younger people, newly Berliners or visitors, ask me that question. Visible Signs are rare.

I was 19 when I finally moved to Berlin. With the university-entrance diploma in my pocket I escaped the east German province in 1977. Since the “Workers’ And Peasants’ state planned and regulated everything, all high-school graduates were channeled in fields of study that “the society” needed. The art degree I was longing for was kept from me. But I was not to be “channeled”. So I was up in the air so to speak. That wasn’t planned. Who did not work or studied was considered antisocial and that was a statutory offense. I was drawn into the wide world. But itwas impossibility to leave the country regularly. So whereto?

During my school time I took a lift from my hick town to Berlin almost every weekend. Relief every time I passed the Soviet checkpoint at the city border. Due to the special Four Power Status you were allowed to visit the city but without a work permit you could not just stay. I, for one wanted to see the clubs, the legendary jazz cellars, the galleries and museums, stirring theaters, subculture. I met amazing people. Here I wanted to stay.

Because of the prevailing housing shortage I started asking people on the streets. Finally I found a crazy musician who sublet a room to me. Half a year later I squatted my first flat in the peasants’ district of Friedrichshain. Over there enormous vacancies remained back then. Houses were falling apart. How fortunate. Henceforth I occupied a parlor and kitchen on the 4th floor, including indoor toilet and stove heating. The regular rent was 23 East German mark (!), which I payed honestly. After a year the municipal administration realized that and gave me a rental contract. Now I was officially a Berliner.

Even in the late 70s a lot of opinionated, creative or oppositional people were drawn to the city – distrustfully watched and censored by the government. Today I know the numbers. Every 106th citizen was an unofficial informant of the Ministry for State Security. Even though or maybe even because of that like-minded people found each other. Money and consumption were of little concern. Everything essential was subsidized. You had time enough to spend on what was important to you. Our friends from West Berlin came with a day tripper visa. They had to compulsorily exchange 25 West German Mark 1:1 and had to leave again at midnight. Many times we accompanied them on their way to the “Palace of Tears” at the checkpoint on “Friedrichstrasse” where they re-entered immediately and we all went back to the party together…

It was easy to find a job. There was a lack of manpower everywhere. I went to the UNION-publishing company of the CDU-newspaper (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) – though it was under government control, at least I was given the opportunity to become a compositor. That worked well as a preparation to study graphic design.

The printing plant was situated directly at the wall. Far up front of the frontier zone. After a security check I was given a permit for the plant. It was a shock. Through the barred windows I could see the “death strip” for the very first time. A civilian never got that close. And sideways I saw the American Checkpoint Charlie. From there the diplomats went forth and back in their huge cars – without having their cars checked. I knew that refugees got into West Berlin inside the trunk of diplomat’s cars. Towards the south I saw a wooden stand across the wall. That’s where the tourists from all over the world were standing, looking, some with binoculars, some waving. I felt like a monkey in a zoo. And not even 100m further away the Springer-Building was gleaming where people were doing the same as we did: printing newspapers and deliver them during nightly hours. They were the class enemies however. Completely absurd, all this.

It didn’t matter if I was at home or outside on the streets – I could feel the wall everywhere. To know that I would never be able to cross it was physically painful. Nonetheless, trying to escape was never an option for me. To apply for permission to leave the country officially would mean years of uncertainty. Bullying, the end of your professional career. And your family and friends were taken into “Sippenhaft” (kin liability), too. Alternative: at the age of 65 you were free to travel to “non-socialist countries”…

Every day I had to take the bus from the corner of “Friedrichstrasse” and “Unter den Linden”. Every time I stood there, I thought about how I could get from there to the wall in three different direction: towards the north at “Invalidenstrasse”, towards the west at Brandenburg Gate and towards the south at Checkpoint Charlie. What it looked like behind it, I didn’t know. The city maps of East Berlin were blank beyond the wall. West Berlin virtually didn’t exist.

At “Friedrichstrasse” I often heard the rumbling suburban train (S-Bahn) beneath the ground. They went from west to west beneath the Eastern sector without stopping. On this line, all entrances were bricked. They have long since been opened again and when I take the U6-line now, I still remember that mysterious noise.

Today probably Berlin’s most beautiful square, the Gendarmenmarkt, used to lay in ruins up until the 80s. The German as well as the French Dome were falling apart and Schinkel’s renowned “Schauspielhaus” (theater) had been gutted. It was full of water on the inside while rabbits where hopping around on the outside.

One time I asked my old master in the printing plant how he could stand looking at the wall every single day. He smiled at me indulgently and said in best Berliner slang: “Ach,weeßte, det kiekt sich weg, det seh ick janich mehr” (Well, you know, the more you look at it the less you see it. I don’t even see it anymore). And I still remember that, in that moment, I thought: no, I will never get used to that.

After two years I received the permit to start my art degree and I left Berlin for 6 years.

In the late 80s I came back. It was the final hours of the system. Again and again the state authorities sent dissidents to the West to relieve the pressure at least for a little while. Everything was brittle, worn out: the buildings, the people, the visions. Thousands of people left the country through the Czech and Hungarian embassy. Change was in the air. And it happened. Though long longed for, the implosion of the GDR took many by surprise.  A cold November afternoon 2012 at Checkpoint Charly. Tourist buses, strolling people from all over the world, the shivering actor that plays an American soldier holds the US-flag and smiles valiantly for every photo. A Disney World where some try to find an authentic remnant of the Cold War.

I am meeting my two grown-up children. We go to the old printing plant. The building is still there, right on Zimmerstrasse. I brought some old photographs, taken from the western side. The washed-out lettering of the 50s has long since disappeared under a fresh coat of paint. The windows on the side are bricked, the grille missing. The Clinker brick with a wonderful wall frieze has been completely restored – I wasn’t able to see it form the inside back then. We go inside. Stone floor, a lot of glass, “trendy” offices like everywhere in the city. No sign of the shop floor, the rattling typesetting machines, the interleaved offices as well as the hand-setting room that smelled like printing color. I’m at peace.

We continue walking till we reach the wall panorama. Inside of the 15 meters high circular construct the horror is palpable. You look from the west towards the gigantic fortified border area with tank traps in the flood light. It seems as if I am looking back at myself, back then. I feel tear drops filling my eyes then I take a deep breath and smile. It is over.

On the outside the Berlin night is welcoming us with the same touristic activity. We join in and decide to go to Berlin-Mitte (the city center, formerly part of East-Berlin). There we will eat something delicious. What a wonderful liberty.

 Christine Blümer

Imagens por Christina Blümer


Vivi Gnutzmann

Visual Merchandiser and Window Displayer by choice, Vivi is graduated in Fashion Design, Literature and German. Nowadays she works with Online Marketing, Social Media and as a translator. A handywoman is a way to define her, who is still studying, even though she doesn’t know exactly where that will take her in the future. In her personal blog, writes about bathrooms but wishes to do it more frequently because writing is one of her passions. If she had to pick a soundtrack for her life at this moment would be from Drive’s OST, who recently has replaced “Echo & The Bunnymen”. Is passionate about music, art, german literature, cinema and Berlin, the city she calls home these days.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *