Berlin diary entry 6

Tuesday 24th May 2005 – Not sure where

Monday was great day. Henning had agreed to come with us to translate. It added a pleasant new ingredient to the mix – the first ever Hawkinsian three-man crew!

We had to travel to Rudow. This was at the end of one of the U Bahn lines. It made such a difference that Henning could lead the way through the bahnhofs. We were getting good with Berlin’s public transport network, but we weren’t familiar with the stations and platforms etc. For example, it is one thing to know that you must change at Alexanderplatz. It is another to be able to move from one platform to another without looking for maps. Henning was able cut down the travel time by a good 15-20 minutes.

We were off to meet Erika Kammer. She was a Berliner who moved from east to west before the Wall was built. The arrangement was to meet her at a bus stop. We had been given instructions and directions but essentially it was go to a particular bus stop and look out for a woman with a dog. It sounded like the most likely of all the arrangements to fail. Off the U-bahn, we jumped on the bus and travelled slowly through the pleasant suburb. We got off at the stop and there stood a woman with a dog, Erika and Nettie.

Erika was a kind and polite woman. To say she was meeting three strangers, she never seemed wary of us – quite the opposite. When we arrived at her house she began to pull away the tarpaulin from something on her driveway. She revealed a customised Trabant. It had been cut out to be a convertible, sprayed gold and powered by three pushbikes bolted on to the rear of the car. This bizarre customisation had been done for a festival parade. The engine had been removed and the whole thing given a party-style makeover.

After a few photographs, she first took us for a stroll (or Spaziergang) around this community of ‘temporary’ houses to where the Wall once stood. The Death Strip (or Todesstreifen) was now a construction site. A new autobahn was being built with lorries coming and going, the drone of heavy plant machinery and enormous piles of sand and gravel.

Erika told us that a stretch of the Wall still stood and asked if we would like to see it. Of course, we went along. As we walked through copses and bits of woodland, Erika told us how the area came to be. At the end of WW2, Berlin had been more or less razed to the ground by Allied bombing. Eventually, as re-construction began, they cleared rubble and broken masonry to three or four sites on the outskirts of the city.

These sites are now overgrown man made hills. As soon as Erika told us this, these unassuming features took on completely new meaning. All of a sudden, random pieces of brick, stone and rubbish (and without wanting to be dramatic) became the rubble of Nazi Germany. We were surrounded by archaeological evidence of the war – we were walking all over it.

After about 15-20 minutes or so, Erika stopped and pointed to a pile of concrete slabs, “Hier ist Der Mauer.” These dumped panels were what remained of the western side of the Wall. She then pointed out that another wall some metres away.

The Berlin Wall was actually two walls. Unless the Wall ran alongside the Spree, or another exception, the border was actually a strip of land – a margin. Not quite a no-mans-land because, unlike the wall currently being built to separate Israel and Palestine, the Berlin Wall was always built within DDR territory.

Going east to west, there was wall number one – as far as I can gather, this was not quite as formidable as the wall facing the west. After this was the Death Strip, with constant patrols, guard dogs, watch towers and bright spotlights. Then there was the second wall, the biggest and most familiar to most of us.

So there we were, on the death strip. Now filled with long grass, scrub and young trees. It was hard to imagine the activity, the seriousness and the intimidation that used to characterise where we stood. We filmed, photographed and chatted for a while before setting off back.

We took our shoes off at her door and walked through to the lounge. Due to very dim light we decided to shoot the interview on the patio.

It has to be pointed out what a great job Henning did with translation. His friendliness helped put everyone at ease. During the interview itself, his diligence, accuracy and the respect he gave to what we were trying to do were fantastic. I don’t think anybody could’ve done a better job – paid or otherwise.

At the end of the interview we packed up, had another slice of Erika’s homemade cake and left – Erika waving us off.

It was now time to make our way to Alexanderplatz for the next interview. We were due at 3.30pm at the PDS headquarters in Karl Liebknecht Haus to meet Ursula. The PDS is a socialist party in Germany and the descendant of the old SED. We’d been told that Ursula was a staunch socialist who was pro DDR.

We were a little late when we eventually found the place, but thankfully not too late. We didn’t have endless amounts of time because Ursula was due to attend a PDS rally/demonstration. I don’t know how true it is, but I’d been told that these regular Monday night demonstrations had roots that went back all the way to the last weeks and months of the DDR.

Before we could start the interview, Ursula wanted to ask some questions about the project and me. She seemed guarded and defensive – but I wasn’t sure why. I can fully understand that someone would want to ask questions and find out what they were agreeing to but I don’t know why the atmosphere was so…well…tense.

There was a lot of background noise throughout the interview. We were in the main office/library of the PDS. Again Henning did a great job but even so the interview was kind of awkward. As I write, I wonder whether Ursula was just uncomfortable being on camera, but at the time, it definitely felt like there was something more to it than that.

At the end of the interview I realised that a person had been sitting listening at a nearby table. She seemed very keen to talk to us and waved a book at me, recommending it as a fascinating and important read. It looked like a serious political text but unfortunately it was in German. I thanked her, apologised and told her I couldn’t speak German.

As we walked to the demonstration, I tried to talk to Ursula. I hoped that my broken German and her broken English might have been enough. Without Henning, it was more or less useless. It was a pity because she seemed to relax with me for the first time.

We could hear some kind of public address system from the other side of Alexanderplatz. An amplified voice boomed across the square but the source wasn’t yet visible from the angle we were approaching. As we got closer I could see two large speakers on a kind of stand. Just underneath a big, bearish man bellowed into a microphone. The speech escalated the longer it went on and the tone of his voice climbed higher and higher. Once finished, and the mic offered to the next speaker, a big smile beamed on his face as the small crowd applauded.

Politicians are not known for their looks. Having said that, western politics is increasingly aware of how it looks. It doesn’t make for great politics, that’s for sure, but I have to describe a little of what the group that congregated at this demo looked like.

They looked like ramshackled bunch. A real shower of misfits cobbled together. I make no comment on them as people or about their political beliefs – but as a demo, it looked like the bottom rung of the ladder.

At one point, the lady who had watched the interview at the nearby table came up to me with a little plastic bag.

“For you,” she said.

I looked inside and saw a brand new copy of the book she had urged me to read earlier. It obviously meant a great deal to her. It was such a touching gesture, but I also knew that even if I started to learn German properly from the minute I return home, it would still take a number of years before I could tackle a heavy political text in German.

We eventually left, waving goodbye to Ursula and the rest of the demonstration. We walked round the corner to the Marx and Engels Forum and on to the Palast der Republik. This building is the former DDR parliament building, now awaiting demolition.

Back in Kreuzberg, we discovered to our horror, yet again, that the Vietnamese shack was closed.