Ich Bin Ein Berliner

November 6, 2009 at 1:41 pm (By Amba) (, , )

Due to a trick of German grammar — you don’t use the article when you announce your nationality, profession, or other official identification — this bold rhetorical move by President John F. Kennedy was often mischievously translated as “I am a jelly donut!”  (Sugar-dusted berliners are to Berlin as hamburgers are to Hamburg and frankfurters to Frankfurt.)  OK, he should have said “Ich bin Berliner.”  (Except since he wasn’t literally a Berliner, Wikipedia says his usage was correct, and what’s more, Berliners themselves don’t call jelly donuts berliners.)

But the small endearing error, if it even was, didn’t diminish the symbolic power of the June 1963 statement, or the arc it made with President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” 24 years to the month later.  The Berlin Wall went right through our hearts.  It divided the very heart of a divided world; it was the metaphorical Iron Curtain made literal.  There could have been no more tangible evidence of communism’s breathtaking sense of entitlement to its citizens’ very lives, of the prison it was or the walls and snipers that prison needed.

I saw it on its first birthday, not long after my 16th.  August 13, 1962.

My marvelous high school German teacher, W. Gregor Heggen, led a trip to Germany for his students every summer.  American teen-agers lived with families in three locations — Paderborn, Herr Heggen’s hometown; West Berlin; and Esslingen, in the south, near Stuttgart — as well as in youth hostels, and we were taken to see marvels of historic architecture and art:  Romanesque, Gothic, and Rococo cathedrals, famous altarpieces.  When we arrived in Berlin we had just spent a month of total immersion with families in and around then-bucolic Paderborn, and our German had begun to swim.  As a city kid I immediately recognized Berlin as a great metropolis — it throbbed with that urban intensity — but a schizoid and feverish one, with a tourniquet cutting off its circulation.  The West was a show window of capitalism, pumped almost artificially full of colorful commerce and adventurous architecture. The East — we were led in through Checkpoint Charlie, “Achtung!  Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin!” — was drab and gray and limp.  Tall, ugly buildings that looked like file cabinets for storing working parts (I would later see their clones in Romania) alternated with bomb craters and rubble that had never been repaired since World War II.  The palate doesn’t lie:  a little cart sold ersatz chocolate-coated ice-cream bars that tasted like cardboard.  We were given fistfuls of propaganda leaflets about how the evil capitalists were the heirs of the Nazis.

The Wall was the sobering shock of my young life.  My letters home (I still have two from Berlin, if I didn’t somehow leave them behind after the fire) had been adolescent prattle; their tone suddenly changed.  We got as close as we could to the Brandenburg Gate, where wooden viewing stands peered over the rather low grey barrier into a no-man’s-land of barbed wire coils scanned by snipers.  On the first anniversary, we went to a section where whole rows of houses had been conscripted into the barrier, their windows bricked up.  Wreaths lay on the sidewalk at the feet of metal crosses marking where people had jumped to their deaths rather than lose their freedom, their families and friends.

Obviously, I had no clue that my own destiny would be all about that barrier, what lay on the far side of it, and the lives and loves severed by it.  But it made a stunning and indelible impression.

The sight of the graffiti-infested Wall being dismantled by sledgehammers in a party atmosphere at the end of 1989 was therefore personal to me.  I would have liked to have one of those little pieces of it they were selling as souvenirs.

For those of us whose lives were dominated by that divide, the aftermath of its collapse has been bewildering.  A world that was starkly black-and-white was shattered into a hologram of little yang-yin droplets.  Suddenly good and evil were both everywhere.  That was actually a salutary challenge; far worse was the don’t-look-back amnesia that seemed to fall on the world, rendering the whole seventy-year ordeal irrelevant. I wondered how J felt, seeing the bulldozer that rolled over and crushed his entire childhood world suddenly simply vaporize.  How could a monolith that had had such vast and terrifying power, that destroyed so many lives, just crumble to dust and blow away?

I am beyond embarrassed, I am mortified that President Obama isn’t attending the 20-year commemoration of the Wall’s destruction.  Why?

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