I tiptoe through the night, scared for even my sweat to make the slightest noise as it drips off my face and onto the ground. I am not thinking of anything at the moment but my survival and how my life will be once I am free of the Soviet grip around my wrists. My heart feels like it is breaking through my ribs and protruding out of my chest with every breath I take as I run faster and faster towards the barrier that has incarcerated me over the years.
As I throw myself over the eleven-foot concrete wall with barbed wire at the top, I can hear gunshots all around, and I pray they are not intended for me. I hit the cold, hard ground on the other side, but I am not even close to being safe any time soon. I am in no mans land now. I would be better off asking for someone to shoot me than to make it out of here alive. I have only one chance.
At least that is how I imagined it would have been like if I were in trapped in the tribulations of East Berlin trying to escape into the desired West Berlin between 1961 and 1989. However, it is a gray December day in 2004, and if it weren’t for remains of the Iron Curtain and Checkpoint Charlie, people would not be able to relive that part of history or be reminded of the dictator that destroyed so many lives.
The temperature was eight degrees Celsius as the gloomy sky attempted to cough up snow onto Berlin. Before that moment I had only heard of the Berlin Wall through history books and stories. I would sit and listen to travelers tales told by my courageous father who had walked through Checkpoint Charlie and into East Berlin in seventy-five. He told me how he had to exchange West Berlin money into East Berlin money at Checkpoint Charlie before entering East Berlin. Then going back into West Berlin he had to drop it in a rusty tin can at Check Point Charlie because you were not allowed to keep East Berlin money. He witnessed two tourists getting assaulted by the guards for trying to smuggle East Berlin money into West Berlin.
My only expectations of Berlin came from the adventures of my dad. I expected Checkpoint Charlie to be a barricade miles long with tollbooths that have the arms that swing up and down. Similar to the tollbooths that run across the freeways of really large cities, or at the airports you go through after short-term parking. Once you pass through the chomping arms of the tollbooths I imagined East Berlin to be scattered with desolate buildings and run down streets. But as I approached the once controlling wall and Checkpoint Charlie I realized nothing was as I imagined it at all.
It was like walking down any other street in a big city. A few people who were always pushing their way through the gaps that opened up between the wandering men and women, obviously in more of a hurry than anyone else on the street. Christmas lights clung to the tall buildings that ran down the streets of Berlin. People popped in and out of the busy stores, squeezing their last bit of Christmas shopping in before the Holiday.
Suddenly the bustle of people slowed like a murmur in time as I stood right before the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie which are now surrounded by the commercial buildings of downtown Berlin. My gaze dropped to an engraved brick in the ground that now serves as a commemorative plaque for the Berlin Wall. A chill ran from the tip of my toes all the way to the ends of my hair as I realized how lucky I was to be standing right there in no mans land. I can now speak of the Berlin Wall, not as hearsay from a history book, but as a memory.
No mans land, a memorial now, is where 171 people who attempted to escape into West Berlin were shot, and left to bleed to death like a deer on the side of the road. This area contained walls on either side with mines and stern East Berlin guards to make it almost impossible to escape. As I stood in the middle of no mans land facing East Berlin, I looked over my left and my right shoulders only to see black, wooden crosses a little taller than I am. The crosses looked as if snow had only given them the pleasure of its company and nothing else around them, when really it was just white sand covering the ground. I took a deep breath in as if I was trying to swallow it into my memory, making sure to keep it forever. I am motionless.
Where the median strip of the road would have been, an American soldier’s somber picture was enlarged and hoisted up on a pole staring out towards West Berlin. On the opposite side was a Russian Soldier keeping close watch over East Berlin. Below the soldiers’ pictures was Checkpoint Charlie. Wilted flowers surrounded this one room shack that once controlled the passage of people from East to West Berlin. Now it also stands as a memorial for people who died crossing over into West Berlin.
On either side of me, there were remains of the wall still standing. I got an eerie feeling as I stared at them. My sense of time was completely altered. There I stood at one of the most historical sites imagining what it would have been like to be boxed in by a concrete wall that was suffocating you more and more each day. But when I looked around I was in the middle of one of the largest cities in Germany. It was like time slowed when I was walking through no mans land, but everything else around no mans land and Checkpoint Charlie was full of life. I was in my own little bubble. I walked about a block and returned to the normal noises and the packed sidewalks of what use to be the Soviet controlled East Berlin. My view of Berlin has been altered for the better, with a greater understanding of the saying “seeing is believing.”
Courtney from Study Moose
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