Berlin, the day The Wall came down: My Letter from Germany.

As mentioned, I am republishing a letter I wrote about The Berlin Wall coming down, twenty years ago. I may annotate it in one or two places, but –it pretty much explains itself.
Back then, I used to send out an End-of-Year letter to all my Stone Street Press customers. I hope you enjoy it.
This year, after attending
the Frankfurt Book Fair (-my
first time) I travelled on to
Berlin for a short visit with
my friends Skuta & Simona.
From the
train I saw a gunturret watchtower on
the former border being pulled down. A
group of ebullient DDR girls on the
train sang, of all things, “These
little town bloos…New York, New
York…I want to be a part of it.” A
young lawyer told me he was on his way
to the former DDR to serve a writ:
“They won’t have seen one before: let’s
see what they make of it.” In Berlin,
at Checkpoint Charlie, what was left of
the DDR, it seemed, was on sale as
souvenirs: pieces of the Wall, fur
hats, boots, and Marxist textbooks. In
the cold, a sad-looking man from East
Berlin, wearing a thin jacket and
muffler, is selling DDR military and
Stasi medals off a rickety card table.
“Lots of medals*,” I say to him. He
catches my wry edge and raises his eyes
to heaven: “Oh, indeed,” he exclaims
wearily, “Lots of medals!”[]
Long lines for food, but lots
of medals. I buy some of his mementoes:
one badge reads “Meine Heimat
(homeland), DDR!”
Up the street, just inside East
Berlin, some carpenters were fixing up
a new store: “Benetton,” they told me,
“United Colors.” Across the way, inside
a huge near-empty Soviet Center of
Science & Culture, an enormous, fierce,
marble Lenin rises out of a marble
floor, fist raised in a burning
revolutionary ecstacy. Behind him a grand
double staircase, decked with plants,
gives the whole a feeling of an altar.
Loud noises, oddly familiar, come from
upstairs; curious, I climb the stairs.
There, in a corner of this marble
Soviet Holy of Holies, I see the
scoreboard for the great ideological
struggle of our century. Some kids sit
hunched into big armchairs. The noise
is coming from a TV set: Saturday
morning cartoons! Bugs Bunny & Daffy
Duck have, it seems, shut out Vladimir
Ilyich & Karl –game,set, and match.
At the main street, Unter den Linden,
I turn east and walk to Marx Engels
Platz, past magnificent museums
crumbling at the edges. I go into a
small temple-like building, to find it
is a memorial to Fascism’s (but not
Stalin’s) victims. Nearby a Maxim
Gorki theater poster for “Mein Kampf”
shows a spectral Hitler, with hollow
speedfreaked eyes.
I turn back west, towards the
Brandenburg Gate. I pass an art gallery
opening. Here the body language is
familiar: clusters of modish people sip
wine, chat intensely, ignore the art.
Dusk has fallen. Ahead, the
Gate, brightly lit, has the
air of a stage set in mid-
rehearsal. People mill about,
walking back and forth through the
Gate, like players still unsure of
their movements and their lines. An old
Berliner in a family group points out
places he hasn’t seen for 30 years, to
grand-children who have never seen
them. And all the while, under the
arches, a young man entices a sweet,
bitter-sad tune out of a mandolin and
releases it into the night air.
In New York I had looked forward
with great intellectual curiosity to
coming to Berlin, but was unprepared
for the swirl of emotions that now
swept over me and all but submerged me
as I walked through the Gate towards
the Reichstag, with all the historical
resonances of the last sixty years,
accentuated by the sadness of the
mandolin, ringing in my ears.
Never have I seen a city that is
such a powerful memorial to itself, to
grandeur and folly (and the close
connection between the two) as is
Berlin. In my own lifetime, it had been
a cauldron of radical passion and rabid
paranoia, which had spilled disaster on
the world. It was in turn, razed to a
rubble, raised from the dead, riven in
two. And now reunited.
Now it was changing all over again,
but, to what? My heimat-less friend in
the cold at Checkpoint Charlie has just
had his country bought out from under-
neath his feet, and though he may hope
for better days ahead, he must be
feeling apprehensive about his chances.
1. *My friend with the medals: “Viele
medallen”–even with my limited German
I was glad to be able to catch the
tone that I wanted.

2. Part of the unreality of the time
was being able to wander in unchecked
at any building –such as the Science
& Culture Building with the Lenin statue.
3. When I got back to Skuta & Simona’s
flat later, I introduced them to Black
Velvet –a cocktail of Guinness and
Champagne– and we toasted the
new Berlin and books and Small Presses,
and “Littera Scripta manet”.
(Another good book friend Ken M. just
told me that Black Velvet was Bismarck’s
favorite drink. So –it wasn’t only the
That night we were All Berliners.
4. A sign seen at the
Frankfurt Book Fair: “Long after the price
is forgotten, the value remains.”
[A sentiment that hopefully still
holds true –well, more or less–
when my own new book,
“The Piano” comes out. Soon —
December, 2009.]
5. I have mentioned my friend
Skuta Helgason before. Some 15
years later, Skuta –long a
New Yorker– produced the
FAIR here –titled RUST–
about 4-5 years ago
now. Profuse in my praise
of an old friend’s lovely book,
I blogged about it here.

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