Berlin: The Happiest Place on Earth
by LINDA NOLTEN
In June 1962, my West German husband to be (he a recent graduate from the Universität München’s Medical School) and I (a recent graduate from Wayne State University- having spent the previous three years in München) traveled by Bundesbahn through East Germany on one of the post WWII established train corridors to West Berlin (then composed of the British, French and American Sectors). We were thoroughly checked entering and leaving East Germany. Our passports were examined and we paid a transit fee.
My fiancé was to begin a research position in the Free University’s Biological Institute across the street from the Art Museum housing the bust of Nefrititi. I (with 22 years of optimism and having experienced good nanny and teaching jobs in Munich) would find work. With all our possessions in four tattered suitcases, we arrived at – was it the Zoologischer Garten station? We found the U-Bahn – or was it a bus – to the Studentendorf on the Potsdamer Chaussee. The Free University was not in session, so we were lucky to find available rooms in a new “modern” students’ facility consisting of several two story “houses” each with perhaps a dozen dorm rooms with common baths and kitchens. There was plenty of space between the many student houses on the lovely sandy soil heath.
My fiancé began his research. I, with a map of Berlin, began looking for work. Having taught German and GED courses to American soldiers stationed in Munich’s US Army “Kasernen”, I headed to McNair Kaserne in West Berlin. I was promised evening teaching positions there and at Andrews (again – German to American soldiers) beginning in August. Continuing my search for more immediate daily work, I came upon – was it in Wilmersdorf – an office building housing offices for Reuters, the New York Times, the BBC, and CBS. In the CBS office, an American twenty something year old welcomed me, said she was wanting to visit her parents in Illinois for six weeks and would I like to sub for her. Her boss, Daniel Schorr, was currently in New York. She thought it would be fine, if I could start in a week. How simple then!
The two CBS German camera men were kind. I was ignorant, a bad typist, and had no idea how to run the teletype machine (if that’s what it was). Once I didn’t reserve the correct hotel room for D.S. He was not pleased. He flew back and forth across the Atlantic. He filmed some news shows in West Berlin and they were sent – I don’t know how – to CBS in New York. That summer Peter Fechter was shot attempting to escape across the Wall. Somehow the camera men got there – certainly without any alert tip from me.
My German to GI teaching adventures began. I enrolled at the Free University planning on a Master’s degree. (It didn’t happen until 6 children later at the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 1988). My fiancé and I explored East and West Berlin every Sunday, walking for miles through beautiful parks and forests, around lakes, and stopping at local pubs and beer gardens for their Sunday specials and a Berliner Weiße. In the evenings we walked our neighborhoods (Zehlendorf, Dahlem, Grünwald). The smell of Berlin’s roses and the songs of nightingales are to this day my companions.
The first Christmas in West Berlin we took bags of oranges and bananas to East Berlin. Having to cross at different locations at the Friedrichsstraße checkpoint, bearing a West German and a U.S. Passport, we also were required to exchange a certain amount of the more valuable West German Marks for the lesser valued East German Marks. We randomly gave the precious fruit to strangers on the East Berlin streets. In this way we got to know and sometimes visited – for Sunday Kaffee and Kuchen – several East Berlin citizens. A single woman, a librarian in the Staatsbibliothek, became our special friend until one Sunday she said we should stop coming. She was fearful the neighbors were becoming suspicious and would soon report her reception of frequent guests from the West.
At the Studentendorf, there were loosely organized American and West German students who helped those attempting to flee across the wall from East Berlin. A typical assignment consisted of an address in East Berlin, a time to be there, a coded message to be delivered. Meaningless to any of us, our words would tell the recipient when and where to be for the escape. Dangerous? Perhaps – but just as the 20 year olds hike the mountain borders of Iraq or Afghanistan today. What do they now and did I then consider?
In the summer of 1963 my brother hitchhiked from his London landing at Heathrow to visit me in West Berlin. On June 26, 1963, we took a bus and joined the crowd at the Schöneberg Rathaus – taking part in the unforgettable joy and excitement of the day when President Kennedy said, “ Ich bin ein Berliner”. What a contrast to the next day visit of Nikita Khrushchev in East Berlin. Part of that crowd and soon wanting to leave, we were cordoned in by the machine gun toting East Berlin VoPo’s (Volkspolizei). They needed a crowd.
My fiancé and I married in Berlin at the Zehlendorf Rathaus in August 1964. We had a small celebration in the Harnack House, at that time an American Officer’s Club, on Wannsee. Our first apartment was in Zehlendorf on the border to East Germany. Nursing my first child at night, I looked out to see – with their German shepherds – the VoPo’s in their long white hooded cloaks (camouflaged against the deep snow) silently patrolling no man’s land at a backyard’s distance from my window. I waved; not one of them ever waved back.
In recent years, having experienced the 2002 death of one child and the 2008 death of my husband, and the other children grown to be successful adults, I now have the time to catch up on all the news I missed while caring for my husband and six children. I am remembering and appreciating all the people whose paths I have crossed. I am studying the centuries of stories, mostly forgotten, having died with those who knew and loved every corner of Berlin as my husband and I did. How I wish to know what has happened to the many of them in the years since then. Berlin 1961 has opened many files in my mind. May the lives of those in my memory store have been as fortunate and happy as mine!