Date: Mon, 14 Aug 2006
From: Lee Lady
Subject: Berlin (East)
In the past couple of years, I've landed in Germany at a city other than Berlin and then made my way on the train through a variety of cities (Frankfurt, Munich, Leipzig, Jena, Nuernberg which I never manage to spell correctly) to Berlin. But this year I landed at Berlin TXL.
I looked at the options for getting to my hotel in Frierichshain and decided against dragging my suitcases on the bus, then S-Bahn then tram, and decided to take a taxi. It was a long taxi ride and wound up costing 20 euros, but it was a good tour of the city and reminded me of what I like so much about Berlin.
So nice of you to ask, and at the same time so awkward, since I really don't know the answer that well.
For years I've been telling people that Berlin, by which I mean of course the former Eastern Sector, reminds me of San Francisco. Which it does, in terms of the music scene and art scene and literary scene, plus the sex scene, which, so far, I've only observed from a considerable distance.
But what I was seeing on this very long taxi ride made me think that Berlin today is very much like the US, maybe especially the East Coast, used to be like in the Forties and Fifties. And is perhaps more like certain parts of New York than any other American city.
Yesterday morning, Sunday, I got the bus number 140 from the Ostbahnhof and rode along the site of the notorious wall until the bus finally crossed it (as I know from looking at a map, since the wall itself no longer exists except for a brief stretch near the Ostbahnhof) and went far to the south into Kreuzberg, to the U-Bahn station Kottbusser Tor. And there I found a moderately large bakery/coffee shop which reminded me of the famous Katz Delicatessen in New York. Not that the food was at all similar --- in this bakery, almost everthing offered was some variety of sesame-seed roll. But the general atmosphere of the place and especially the people were very much like what one might find in lower Manhattan. A big selection of ages and genders, and yet these people all looked like exactly what one would find in a working class district of New York or Baltimore. (Footnote: Since writing this, I have learned that Kottbusser Tor is a big center of the Turkish population in Berlin.)
And at the bookshop in the train station I found a very interesting book of photographs by Harald Hauswald (photos) & Lutz Rathenow (text) called Leben in Ost-Berlin vor dem Mauerfall (East Berlin Before the Fall of the Wall). Since it was not that expensive, I bought it, not realizing what a wonderful book it would turn out to be.
What we in American were told about East Berlin before 1989 made it seem like a very repressive, bleak, and somewhat terrifying place. But recently, I've started wondering just what it was really like in those days.
My friend Jacqueline, who bartends at Specs in the North Beach area of San Francisco, grew up in East Germany, but not East Berlin, and left for American at the age of sixteen, a few years after the wall came down.
"I don't understand the process by which all the vacant land in East Germany got converted so quickly after the fall into wall-to-wall shopping centers," I said to her.
"There were certainly no shopping centers before," she told me, "because there was nothing to buy. Oh, you could get what you needed. You could always buy bread, provided you got to the bakery and stood in line early. My family was visiting some friends once and they ran out of toilet paper. I couldn't believe it: running out of toilet paper. Such a cliche! They had to borrow some from the neighbors until the store got in a new supply.
"But it wasn't all bad," she said. "There was a sense of community that was lost when the wall fell."
And now in this wonderful book by Hauswald and Rathenow, published in the West and banned by the East German government at the time, I see more of the story.
Certainly the communist government was repressive, in a way that was much resented by artists and intellectuals. And yet there was much more freedom than what we were led to believe by the American press and government. In the photos of Alexanderplatz one sees very different buildings. but one also sees kids with tattoos and piercings looking very much like one sees in Alexanderplatz today. (There was less tolerance in East Germany outside Berlin.) There was quite a bit of freedom of artistic expression under the communists, as long as the artists and theatre troupes and the like maintained their anonymity rather than trying to establish a name for themselves as they would have in the West.
The author of the text in this book, Rathenow, was author of many banned books. The Berlin authorities discussed the matter of how he could be prosecuted, and yet somehow never got around to it. (The standard approach was to prosecute authors for copyright violation. Since copyrights were owned by the government, anyone who arranged to have a book published even outside the DDR without government permission was guilty of a violation.) He lived in the Eastern Sector as a matter of choice, finding some aspects of it more attractive than what the West had to offer.