I have a very funny story about Checkpoint Charlie. My father was born and raised in Berlin, and left in 1939. He moved to the U.S and became involved in highly secretive defense industry that sometimes crossed into CIA. I recorded albums in Berlin from 1987 – 2002 and used to maintain an apartment on a small street that was until the Berlin wall came down a deadend street. I often went to Hannover, where I was working with some other bands, and therefore had to travel back and forth by car, and would enter Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie.
I would always be harassed, and they would question me intensely, claim that I was really a German and threaten me with arrest. Going through the crossing would often take me between 4 to 8 hours before they finally stopped and admitted that my father was from Braun Strasse in the Schoenberg and that they I was not an East German citizen and was traveling legally under an American passport.
The very last day Checkpoint Charlie was being used, the wall had fallen already, I went through, and a female East German Border Guard started the usual hassle me routine. She was about three minutes into her spiel when her partner, came over, and said in German “Trudy, what the f*** are you doing, we are unemployed in four hours and our country doesn’t exist. You should be looking for a job not hassling this guy!” Then he turned around to me, and with a smile asked me if I wanted to see why they were hassling me all the time. He invited me behind his desk and showed me my father’s Stassi file and my own! It was amazing all the stuff they had – they had every record I ever produced (with one mistake – they claimed I worked on one album I hadn’t done!) and the most interesting thing was it showed me some answers to my father’s activities that I had never known about!
You have read my account of crossing Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin back in 1971. Well, I have several friends who had similar experiences, and one whose trip was much worse. Here is her story:
It was a cold and dark October. We were quite naive but had read that the Soviets seized cameras so we decided not to bring any.
We went through Check Point Charlie. It was very intimidating. People were pulled out of line at random. Some were searched; some led away. We did not know why. (The females were strip-searched) A fellow behind us kept making nasty remarks about the East Germans. He was from Yugoslavia and they had the most freedom at that time. I was worried the East German officials would think we were with him.
A very nasty looking matron was pulling women aside. I remember her X-raying a hairbrush. They were suspicious of everyone.
We had to “exchange money.” There was a minimum. I recall the coins were so light that I wondered what they were made of. We were informed of a curfew and would have to return to the west. (No curfew when I went, though 24 hours was the limit before American soldiers would come looking for you).
The east was a stark contrast from the west. The first thing I noticed was that there weren’t any people on the streets. It was as if everyone was carried off. (The few people on the streets were old or homeless). Police were present in what looked to be phone booths but they were heated cubicles.
We saw stores but there was little in them. (Not the case when I went, just nothing you would want to buy). There were propaganda posters showing families looking into the camera and smiling on their group vacations.
The Soviet police were ubiquitous along with the East Germans. We wanted to go into a museum of sorts but were put off by all the Russians who were not looking very welcoming.
We soon found out that the money we exchanged was worthless. (Not true for me, we bought food and beer). No one would take it. They wanted “western money.” (A few people on the street wanted to buy/exchange west German marks). We were turned away at a restaurant. Later, we learned from a French friend that one discretely slips western currency to the head waiter and one could be seated. (We had the pretty hippie gal with us, so no problem!!) We did not know this.
We walked around dismal buildings. It was very grey. (Very Soviet in appearance). No people were evident. We found a cafeteria. It was a working class place. We went in and were allowed to purchase a disgusting meal with horrid beer. (I thought the beer was okay).
It was odd because we noticed we were the only people talking. It was dead silent. This is because every fourth person was employed by the Stasi as a spy. No one talked in public. (Remember this is where Putin worked for the KGB).
We had more money than we could spend. Curfew was approaching. We caught the U-Baun back to the border. The only person riding it was a policeman.
During this time the East Germans were broadcasting 24/7 across The Wall. Constant propaganda flowed and there were lights sweeping the area.
It was a scene right out of a spy movie. We walked down a long path with high concrete walls. Lights and guards were on top of the walls watching us. It was eerie.
When we went to cross, we were asked what we did. Well, not much. We were asked if we had any money. We did. You couldn’t spend it. Then things became difficult.
We were told we couldn’t cross back with the money. B-man told the official to “keep it.” The official accused us of trying to bribe him. This was serious. The curfew was approaching and being caught in the east was a very bad idea.
I intervened and asked the man what he suggested we do with the money. He wasn’t going to take it, we couldn’t have it and curfew was approaching. There had to be a way out of this mess.
He told me I could “buy coffee.” I replied I couldn’t possibly drink that much coffee. I asked for another suggestion. It was 23:30 and we had to be over the border by midnight.
I want to stress that the Stasi and the East Berlin police were quite intimidating….
He told me I could open a bank account. A bank account? At that hour? Sure enough, there was a bank open near Checkpoint Charlie. I went and opened by East German bank account and returned with the receipt. The guard eyed us, studied the paper and finally let us go….walking down another long lane of concrete, guards and bright lights.
(I had no such problem, we bought beer for the few Germans that we saw, just before Checkpoint Charlie on the Soviet side).
Later, we learned that one leaves the money for someone to find. It’s all a game. You “pay” to get over to the east. No one wants the money. I wish we’d left it on the street for some poor soul to find. (I spent all of mine).
I am glad we crossed as it can not be done today. Berlin was a lively city, full of spies and intrigue and the west was open 24/7. (West Berlin was fun, lots of night clubs for young people, interesting places to hang out and meet people).
Gerry: For me, the experience was much different, traveling with two other Americans, both hippies. She was quite attractive, her boyfriend quite unkept, me somewhere in the middle. We did attract attention most everywhere, mostly because she was so pretty. We did not have any problems. But there was not much to do or see. We actually knew that from taking the guided bus tour a few days before. But we wanted to see East Berlin on our own!
We drove their hippie van to a place where a wooden lookout tower was built. We could see over the wall into East Berlin. We saw an pen field, probably full of land mines. A few machine gun nets were visible. Every minute, on the minute, a motorcycle drove by along the wall, with a shooter riding on the back of the moto. I know I have photos somewhere in my archives. When I find them, you will get to see what I saw.
Another friend was born in Berlin. The wall tore apart her family. She will never forget the grief, and the contrast between the east and west. I also met a lady in Montana who was in Berlin at about the same time as me. We might have even seen each other at a Berlin nightclub. The club had phones on the table, to ask a girl to dance, without having to walk across the floor!
It is also important to remember that the Berlin Wall was built to keep people IN, not to keep Berliners and other Germans, OUT! I cannot even imagine living there, even though I visited twice. But it is still a very sobering experience. It made me feel fortunate to be an American, to be free to go where I want. Until that freedom is taken away, most people would not even think about that.
It remains one of the best, most interesting, and adventurous things I have ever experienced. I would not trade it for a month on the Orient Express, or a hole in one at Pebble Beach!!!
PS: Thank you to my friend, “D” and “R” who shared the bulk of their stories with me.