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November 10, 2009

“Berlin bleibt doch Berlin”

Roy Meachum

That’s how Marlene Dietrich sang it. “Berlin remains Berlin after all” may be the closest translation I can make in English. I lived there years before the Wall went up; the 20th anniversary of its fall was celebrated around the world yesterday, setting off memories in me.


During the Berlin Airlift, I shared a bedroom on Podbielski Allee, in Dahlam, a neighborhood once so expensive that captains of industry had great houses there before the war. And ambassadors.


The American Forces Network took over the mansion owned by Hitler’s one-time liaison to Havana; it was two blocks away from former Heavyweight Champion Max Schmeling’s modernistic structure where our studios were located. There were about eight GIs assigned to AFN Berlin; we shared rooms, except for the sergeant major. Russ Skinner had been there since the Russians ceremoniously welcomed their allies to share occupation of the German capitol; the Red Army took the glory for “liberating” the city. And the casualties. Buildings shedding their bowels into the sky and streets still blocked by debris were testimonials to how hard the battle was, three years before.


The Germans did not adopt their word for Airlift; the continual stream of mostly American and British propeller-driven planes became for Berliners “Luftbruecke” – to Air Bridge.


Threatened when his Western allies agreed to create a new financial system represented by the Deutsches Mark (DM), Josef Stalin clapped a blockade around Berlin, shutting down highways, railroads, airplanes and the intricate system of canals and rivers that linked the city with Bremen, hundreds of miles away on the North Sea. I flew into Berlin on a C-47, called a “gooney bird” and sometimes worse. We landed at Tempelhof, an airfield surrounded by tall apartment buildings: take-offs were always nervous.


After a brief while I was assigned to a late afternoon record show, which left me completely free to party and sleep late. I listened to the results of the Harry Truman-Thomas Dewey race in a house of assignation: that meant you brought your own date. It was the best kitchen open late, after the others observed the law and shut up. The owner was called Tante Eva (Aunt Eve) and as the English-language broadcast (for her) droned on, she called over to our table for translation how the voting was going.


In that artificially created and maintained Berlin, Tanta Eva’s was joined by hundreds of other illegal establishments plus the numbers of bars and clubs in the vicinity of “Ku’dam” (Kurfuerstendamm Avenue). The British seemed to have a better supply of booze, so they had seemingly endless parties. There was little else to do in that blockaded city. Having paid with the blood of thousands of her children to conquer Hitler’s capitol, Mother Russia kept the best parts of Berlin for herself I discovered on my return visit.


As I told News-Post readers at the time: I went back to Germany for my old outfit’s 50th anniversary. The American Forces Network was founded in London, on the Fourth of July before D-Day, and was a band of generally professionals, treated as such by the Army. Our status was spelled out in an order from Supreme Commander Dwight David Eisenhower. Subsequent generals exerted greater control.


In 1993, I encountered an AFN bound by military writ and documents; disc jockeys – the title had not been invented in earlier time in Berlin – were not allowed to pick their own records; they relied entirely on “play lists” approved by the commanding officer. While my old outfit was shrinking, the city had exploded with growth.


Being told of my earlier time in their city, people I met would inevitably ask what I thought now; they usually meant the new buildings, which totally transformed the cityscape. They were surprised to hear what impressed me was how Berlin had become so green, literally I meant.


During the Airlift winter, the trees and bushes were used for firewood; I once observed several people scrounging for sticks in the middle of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s equivalent of Washington’s Rock Creek Park. The scroungers were near the broken statues of the Siegsallee (Victory Avenue) erected before World War I, to celebrate the real and mythical heroes in German history. There was the crusader King Barbarossa; drowned in a river before he reached the Holy Land, the myth had him sleeping in a mountain waiting for the time Germany needed him. Frederick the Great and Otto von Bismarck were there among the broken but still standing figures.


On my return visit the Tiergarten had been richly restored; I couldn’t find the statues, at all. Furthermore, green bushes and leafy trees abundantly adorned Berlin. I had seen great buildings here and in other countries. The change from the Airlift was remarkable.


The Wall had fallen four years before and, for the first time, I was free to visit the entire city, especially the rich cultural sites kept for the Communist victors. We took a boat ride on the Berlin River, totally forbidden in my earlier time.


Friends showed me what was left of the tall, intimidating confining structure that had separated East from West Germany; there wasn’t much. For the first time I saw the Reichstag, the governmental building that’s burning had enabled Hitler to seize control. It looked empty and deserted. Check Point Charlie stood alone, still preserved as a remembrance of its Cold War importance; that was where the Soviet Union and the Western allies traded spies they caught.


Most of all, I came away from totally “liberated” Berlin four years after the Wall’s fall with the feeling that it was hustling toward normality – whatever that might mean for people who are much more like New Yorkers than they are Frankfurters or people from Dresden. And that may very well be the secret of why their city came through so triumphantly the confusion and hatred that lingered on after World War II.


To live in places with a great numbers of people demands special talents; men and women survive by having as little to do as possible with each other. Not my way, but I can respect it in others. Big cities I can visit but I don’t want to live there, which is why Pushkin and I stroll along North Market Street.


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