A milestone has passed that triggered a powerful memory for me. The Berlin wall has now been down as long as it was up. The wall was built in 1961 and the wall came down in 1989.
In 1966, the middle of the Cold War, a friend and I drove a car from West Berlin to East Berlin. We were told to avoid the tour buses if we wanted to really see the city. We left our name at Checkpoint Charlie (the American side) with the time we planned to return in case we did not. It should have given us more pause than it did.
The Berlin Wall was 12 feet high, concrete reinforced with bars, to make climbing it almost impossible. Soldiers with machine guns walked on top of the wall about every twenty feet. There was a “death strip” to stop anyone on the East German side from even approaching the wall. Automatic machine guns, attack dogs, and guards with instructions to kill anyone attempting to enter the area.
For us, there were a number of zigzag concrete barriers we needed to weave through to get to the East Berlin side. The military guards seemed angry. They went through everything we had. They looked under the hood of our car, put a stick down our gas tank as another guard ran an inspection mirror under our car. They were not happy we were there.
They gave us a list of rules including that it was illegal to take photographs. I had to leave my camera with them.
The Facade of East Berlin
Once on the East Berlin side, we drove around the streets. The West Berlin streets had been bustling with traffic. In East Berlin, we would see one old truck every block. There were no private cars. It was such a contrast to the congested streets of West Berlin.
Almost everything for blocks was still bombed out buildings from World War II. The rubble had not even been hauled away. A small grocery store was almost empty, and what was there was very drab and sparse. The only new construction we saw was the post office and a small Lenin Square.
When looking from West Berlin toward East Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate, you could see what looked like a number of modern buildings and stores. We went to the area you could see from West Berlin. All the building were a facade. The tile was falling off the exterior. There had never been anything on the interior. It was East Germany’s attempt to look good to the West.
We saw no other westerners all day. We frequently had people come up to us on the street and offer us a lot of money for our jeans because they could not buy them locally. They would be looking over their shoulder as they talked to us. It is very likely we were being followed. As the day evolved we became more and more uncomfortable.
We realized that we had a USA Passport (an enemy to East Germany) and we could travel in and out through the Berlin Wall. Those living there could not. It was a stark contrast to the freedom we take for granted in the USA. There was a huge feeling of relief when we crossed back through Checkpoint Charlie in the evening.
Take Time to See
If I had only looked at the view across the Brandenburg Gate, or taken the bus tour, I would have come away with the perception that East Germany was curating. By taking a little more time and risk, we were able to more clearly see the reality. The same opportunity exists in getting to know others. Engaging more deeply with people allows you to more realistically see if there is a facade, or reality, when you are up close. Fortunately, getting to know people better improves our understanding and appreciation for who they are and what they value.
We have an opportunity to get to know most of our clients well in a short period of time. I can tell you that the experience over that last 30+ years has increased my belief in the goodness of most people. Finding that part is a great blessing. Letting others see a little more of you can also create a higher level of trust and relationship.
See additional photos of the Berlin Wall exhibit at the Newseum.