“The Commies are guilty of plenty,” a hotel guest complained, “but maybe their worst sin has been imposing their wretched taste on half the planet.” The Hotel Palast in East Berlin sprawled like a copper-skinned reptile sunning on the soiled edge of the Spree.
From its unwashed windows we could gaze out to the sterile spaces of Alexanderplatz and the giant olive on a toothpick – the East Berlin Communications Tower. On the other side, loomed that hideous example of Communist architecture: the Palast der Republic, a bloated monument to bureaucracy that replaced the fifteenth century Hohenzollern palace. The palace, built to last the ages, survived the War, but not the Reds – although they practically had to use an A-bomb to knock it down.
Then there was the infamous Wall that split Berlin in 1961. The concrete monstrosity snaked down a raw space known as the “death strip,” with its trenches and devices to stop East Germans from reaching the West. Starting in 1952, traffic between East and West Germany was controlled, but Berlin remained an escape hatch from the Eastern Bloc. The Wall ended that.
It endured for 28 years.
We hiked across the concrete wasteland of Alexanderplatz to the Tower, past the World Clock on its aluminum-sheathed pedestal, the solar system in a wire cage, as if it had been imprisoned by the Communists. We rode to the top with a pregnant elevator operator who kept trying to close the front of her ill-fitting jacket over a dingy slip. Then, standing at the curved window in the skewered “olive,” we gazed down on the two sides of the concrete wall brutally severing the city. Bare on the East Berlin side, it was splashed with gaudy, irreverent graffiti on the western side.
Strolling through gray, shadowy East Berlin, I ran my fingers over buildings scarred by bullets during World War II. This city made us believe that spies lurked in corners and that intrigue was a way of life. From the moment we passed through Checkpoint Charlie and confessed to the officials in their drab uniforms that we were American, with all it implied, we couldn’t help feeling that we were being watched. Of course, we were – especially by desperate East Berliners eager to trade cash or anything else for American dollars and by officers, often in plain clothes, just as eager to nab them. And us.
The trip through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin was fairly easy. The guard, usually a woman who would’ve been at home in the Roller Derby or a wrestling rink, asked people what they were taking in, especially how much currency of different denominations, but seldom searched anyone or demanded to see the cash.
Leaving East Berlin was different. During the years that the Wall stood, at least 5,000 people tried to escape under or over or through it. Nearly 200 died trying. The idea of entire nations living according to a theory seemed bizarre – yet the world then was filled with such countries. So is the world today: different countries and different theories, perhaps, but maybe just as bizarre.
Today, another wall divides a much larger territory, as Delphine in my new book of the same name learned. It cuts across Palestine and Israel, often slicing through Palestinian orchards, farms, towns, and villages. The Berlin Wall was built slightly inside East Berlin to avoid encroaching on the western part of the city, but the massive Wall cutting through Palestine/Israel is being built entirely on land originally designated as part of Palestine, forcibly shrinking the territory belonging to Palestine and destroying homes, farms, and other property.
Cars, buses, and trucks traveling from East Berlin to West Berlin were rigorously searched – even spaces so small that no one would imagine a human could fit inside. East Germans tried to tunnel under the wall, to fly over it, and even to crash through it with stolen military vehicles. Very occasionally, they succeeded.
The men, women, and children in Palestine need to get to the other side of the massive walls that cut across their lands to work, shop, attend school, get medical care, even to tend their own orchards and farms. Often, however, they’re not allowed to do it and are shot if they try. The Berlin Wall was destroyed in 1990. The Wall in Palestine continues to grow.
“MORTAL DANGER – MILITARY ZONE,” proclaimed a red and yellow sign. “Any Person Who Passes or Damages the Fence ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.”
“I must see more,” Delphine told herself. “I’ve got to understand.” But some part of her feared that no matter how much she wanted to, no matter how much she tried, she’d never understand….
To be continued….
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press. Available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Texas A & M Consortium, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.