Towards the End of 1957

Nineteen-fifty-seven was a mixed year. We were in the middle of the cold war and it was hotting up. The Soviet Union was sending one satellite after the other up into orbit. One satellite even had a dog, Laika, on board. That is how they celebrated their forty year existence by scaring the shit out of the West. It looked like the West had lost the Space race.

In February Uta’s maternal Grandma, Olga , passed away in an East-Berlin hospital. Uta had visited her on the night before and took some pineapple pieces to her  Grandma enjoyed them very much. Not bad as your last meal on earth.

In August of that year our daughter Gaby was born. Despite our happiness having her our life did not look that rosy. For me the year started with having a new job, but I still managed to finish the year without one. At least I had a new job lined up for the beginning of 1958, but not in Berlin.

Towards the end of 1957 we were going to lose our rented room at the flat of Uta’s Aunt Ilse. The aunt was moving to West-Germany, as her husband was to be stationed as a Navel Air Pilot with the new German Navy.

At the end of the year I had an argument with the manager at my job and was consequently sacked. So, we were looking for accommodation and a job. With a baby we had little prospects of finding accommodation in Berlin. We decided to move to Düsseldorf where Uta’s Dad lived. He had offered us a room and job prospects were better there too. I found a job and I was to start on the 2nd of January.

Just before Christmas ’57 we packed our few things, mostly books and stuff for the baby, bought a train ticket and left our beloved Berlin for a better future.

In those days it was not really a simple matter to move from West-Berlin to West-Germany. We had to travel by over-night train through another country, East-Germany or the German Democratic Republic, the workers paradise. On the way we had to pass through two checkpoints. One from Berlin to the GDR and then again from the GDR to West-Germany.

There weren’t many trains each day and we were lucky to get on the night train. It stopped at Zoo Station, the main station in West-Berlin, to pick us up. The train was run by the East-Germans. We had booked seats in a compartment which we shared with an East-German couple. As it turned out.

Our luggage and the pram was booked in and was secure in the luggage van at the end of the train. We carried only what we needed over night, for us and the baby, and that was plenty. Gaby was never the quiet baby. She wanted our attention all the time and was interested in what was going on around her. She was right awake and clung to her Mum as we settled into the compartment. There wasn’t much light. After a while we actually saw that the other couple were young too, but had no children with them. As it turned out they were on a family visit to West-Germany for which they had special permission to leave the country.

In December the sun sets around 4.0o pm and our train journey would be in the dark of night, all the way to Düsseldorf. The curtains were drawn and we did not see anything outside. The train moved slowly through the Western suburbs of Berlin. The first stop was at Wannsee, still in West-Berlin, and from there we would cross the first border. Slowly the train crawled through no-man’s-land. In East-Germany the train stopped again and the border control of the People’s Police joined the train. Outside dogs were barking and all the clichés you have heard about and seen on TV were reality here. Heavy boots went along the corridors and we were reminded of World War II. Voices were heard barking commands.

The door of our compartment flew open and two stern looking policemen were throwing glances at us and demanded our Ids. We, as West-Berliners, were not much of concern to them, but the two East-Germans were. They had to show their travel permits and their Ids. Where are you going? Why are you going? Open your suitcases and on it went.

When they inspected the content of their suitcases they found some food: Salami, Speck and other goodies from the farms of the GDR.
“Don’t you know it is ‘verboten‘ to take saleable food items out of the GDR?” they asked.
“It is all for personal consumption,’ the woman answered, “and by the way, we are not allowed to take anything from the starving people of the BDR. They said so on our state radio the other day.”

The policemen heard the sarcasm but the woman was right, it had been on the news. The police could not say anything any more. They took note of the Ids of the people and left our compartment and even wished us all a pleasant journey.

Our train was a so called “Inter-zonal-train” and belonged to the GDR, but it run according to an agreement of the four occupying powers who still administered Germany. In the adjacent compartment a shop was set up from which snacks, cigarettes and drinks were sold. West-Berliners had to pay the same amount with Deutsche Mark (West) as East-Germans paid in Deutsche Mark(East). This would be a nice little earner for the GDR as the exchange rate on the ‘free market’ was about 4:1. Meaning one received 4 East-Mark for 1 West-Mark. The actual prices in East and West were very similar and you can see from that, that West-Berliners could make a killing if they got away with paying in East Mark!

The most famous example is the beer-bottle exchange. The price for beer and the bottle deposit in the East was less then even the bottle deposit one was able to get in the West and then exchanged 4:1 for East Mark. You had more money in your pocket than the original bottle costs in the first place. That means after you bought the first bottle you had free beer for ever.

But on the train a different “law” applied. A bottle of beer cost one Mark . When ordering a bottle we had to show our ID card. There wasn’t any deposit. The other young man liked his beer as much as I did and we came quickly to an agreement.

I invited him to free beer. I gave him 1 Mark (West) and he bought four bottles of beer with his money; showing his ID. I got two bottles for the price of one and he got his two bottles free, as he could later exchange the West-Mark into 4 East-Mark and therefore getting his money back. Of course he could also use the money for shopping in the West, buying goods that were unobtainable in the East. This way he could even make more money selling those goods in the East on the Black Market. All this were consequences of our divided country.

 

The train did not pick up much speed. It was an old steam train and the noise from the hard working steam engine was our constant companion. At least it was warm in the compartment. Uta had made a bed for Gaby on the seat and she finally fell asleep, giving us a bit of a rest. A blanket was hanging down from the luggage rack and protected her from any incoming light. We were all talking and joking and consuming the half-price beer, in my case, and the free beer in the other man’s case. The deal was not that outrageous as he took a big risk. What he did was against the currency laws in the GDR and could have earned him a stint in jail.
Around midnight we approached Marienborn, the East-German border town. The train staff announced that all people with luggage in the parcels van should, when the train stopped at the border, come to the van and show their luggage tickets. Any luggage that could not be checked off with a passenger on the train would be taken off and confiscated.
When the train came to a halt on an open field I had to climb off the train and walk a long way to the end of the train in about 30 cm of snow. I stumbled along on the uneven ground, in the dark, beside the railway track. It was bitter cold and a long queue of people was waiting at the van to be processed. We all swore and thought it was outrageous. And indeed it was. When we finally reached the open door of the parcels van the guard of the train gave the luggage ticket a cursory glance. Nothing else – no checking off – nothing. We could go back all the way to our carriage. It was sheer chicanery.
The obnoxious People’s Police left the train and the train proceeded at a snail’s pace through the no-man’s land till it came to a halt at the West-German border town of Helmstedt. We felt free again and celebrated with another bottle of beer.
We all got tired and were even able to sleep a few winks. I have forgotten where the East-German couple got off the train or whether indeed they stayed on after we got off at Düsseldorf . We caught the tram to Derendorf, a suburb of Düsseldorf, to a cheery welcome from my father-in-law. It was the first time he saw his first grandchild. Later, during the afternoon I went back to the station to collect our luggage.

It was just a couple of days before Christmas. We did not do much Christmas shopping in that year. On Christmas Eve Uta’s dad put up the Christmas tree. He did it in the afternoon as is the tradition in Germany. The tree itself was waiting on the balcony for its few glorious days.

In late afternoon we dressed up and took Gaby to her very first Christmas Eve. As we walked across the hall to the living room we noticed that the light from the tree shone through the glass in the door and formed a star like pattern. We took it as a good omen and walked into the living room. Gaby’s eyes lit up when she saw the candles on the Christmas tree.
We hoped for a new and better future for us.

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The Buddy Bears Berlin

When you are in Berlin and wander the streets don’t be surprised when you see a Buddy Bear in various disguises.

They are so friendly and that people feel they must give them a hug. You can find them all over Berlin and if you are lucky enough you can even find one in your own national dress.

When we were there we encountered a few and took some pictures and here they are:

DSCN3630

This is of course the upside-down bear welcoming all people from Down-under.

This one is in front of the town hall Schoeneberg

This one is in front of the town hall Schoeneberg

Represnting the Tiwerpark Friedrichsfelde

Representing the Tierpark Friedrichsfelde and waiting for you at the Hauptbahnhof

Plain and simple, "Welcome to Berlin"

Plain and simple, “Welcome to Berlin”

The Olympic Bear

The Olympic Bear

The Berlin Story right in front of their shop Uner den Linden

The Berlin Story Bear right in front of their shop Unter den Linden

Here is me with Him and  the goodies from the shop

Here is me with Him and the goodies from the shop

Uta with "Berta" at the Forum Steglitz

Uta with “Berta” at the Forum Steglitz

There are many, many more all over Berlin and I wish you good hunting when you are next time in Berlin. You can buy them too in a handy size for a not so handy price of 54 Euros.

A Chance Meeting

The 9:27am Intercity Express from Central to Kiama was due to depart.

At the last moment a young Corporal from the Australian Army jumped on the train. The carriage door closed shut behind him, almost catching his gear.

Saved again,” he thought. He walked up a couple of steps to the upper level of the carriage, threw his pack on a single seat and slumped down with a sigh on the other single seat. The “Oscar” train moved out of the platform.

At first he sat with the back to the front of the train but after a moment of deliberation, he got up, turned the back of the seat around and  sat down, facing the front of the carriage.

Across the aisle was an old couple sitting on a three seater bench and as the old man looked up to him the soldier said with a smile, “Force of habit. One can’t be too careful.”

You think you are in a war zone?” the old man asked.

Can’t shake the habit – must look where I’m going,” the soldier answered.

Good habit to have as a soldier,” the old man said and went back to the book he was reading. The train was picking up speed as it was heading through the southern suburbs to Hurstville.

A hot day was forecast and the morning heat made the soldier sweat from the combined effect of the heat and carrying his heavy pack. He hoped the air-conditioned train would cool him down soon. But the old women didn’t like the air-conditioning and cuddled up to her husband searching for warmth. She had put an extra jumper on. She shut her eyes and was soon asleep. Her husband kept reading his book.

Soon after Sutherland the train travelled through open, bush like country. The soil was poor and only small shrubs could be seen.

Good place for the Taliban to hide,” the soldier was thinking. But he dismissed the thought and was thinking of his parents’ place down at Bombo where he had grown up. Bombo has a beautiful beach at a bay opposite the town of Kiama. The beach was often visited by dolphins. He fondly remembered how he had been surfing with the dolphins side by side. That seemed to have been in another life time, Those were the days.

After Waterfall the train line is snaking through the now more forest like bush. It is part of the National Park with tall trees and other thick vegetation. Sometimes, and when one looked hard enough, one could see Rock Wallabies. But today was not the day.

As the soldier looked across through the opposite window he noticed the old man seemed to be somehow distressed., grabbing his forehead and then getting a handkerchief out of his pocket with which he wiped his nose and eyes.

Are you okay, Old-timer?” he asked the old man.

I’m getting a bit emotional reading this book,” he said and turned the cover of the book to the soldier forgetting it was printed in German. The soldier looked and squinted a bit as he was not able to read what he saw. But he could make out an air plane and bombs falling on a city.

It must be a good read if it grabs you that much.”

No. no,” The old man said, “it is a collection of stories by eyewitnesses and reminds me of a time, nearly seventy years ago, when I was a child in Berlin during the war and had similar experiences.”

What, World War II?”

Yes, it was a bad time for us civilians too. But, I was not afraid then, even so it was sometimes horrific. But reading the accounts in this book brings it all back with a whammy. I’m more afraid now realising what happened to us then.”

It is like flash backs, isn’t it? Some of my mates get that after some action.”

You have been to Afghanistan?” the old man asked.

Yes, I’m just back from Uruzgan Province. It is bitter cold up there now. But during the heat of summer the bloody Taliban add to our discomfort. – Sorry, the Poms gave you a hard time during the war.”

Not only the Poms, Australians too were manning those Lancasters, for Bomber Command. During the night the RAF came and during the day the Americans bombed the hell out of us. I can still hear the drone of the bombers, B 17, high up in the sky.”

The train was approaching Otford now, a settlement in a beautiful valley. On one side horses were grazing peacefully. The slopes of the valley were covered with tall Eucalyptus trees.

Its good to come home to such a green environment after the dry desert of Afghanistan,” said the soldier and waved his hand towards the green scenery that passed by the train window. After a couple of tunnels the vista opened towards the sea and a waterfall tumbled, after the  recent rain, under them from the escarpment to their right. After another bend they could see the small beach at Stanwell Park.

Look, Soldier.” the old German said and his wife woke up to have a look too.

This is absolutely beautiful and we both enjoyed this view every time we passed here during the last sixty years or so.”

Stanwell Park Beach

Stanwell Park Beach

Sixty years? You are a fair dinkum Aussies then! I’m only twenty eight and not much happened to me yet. Except that the Taliban have taken some pot shots at me.”

I’m happy you survived, and Germans are not shooting at Australians any more. In fact they are in Afghanistan too.”

My Granddad was on Crete during the war, fighting the Germans.”

And my Dad was there too, probably fighting your Pop.”

There you are,” the soldier said and they were both laughing.

After Thirroul the train picked up speed and was fast approaching Wollongong.

The old couple prepared to get off there. When the train stopped the soldier jumped up and gave the old man his hand.

It was nice to have met you, Mate,” he said

Thanks soldier, look after yourself.”

When he and his wife were on the platform he said to her: “A nice young man and a good soldier. Australia can be proud to have people like him.”