Border guards examine my purse

And other reasons East Germany was not a good place

History is cyclical, and eras go in and out of fashion, like bell-bottom pants. I sometimes wonder if some future generations, perhaps my daughter’s, will come to believe that communist East Germany was a wonderful place.

It wasn’t. Everything was tinny and thin and dusty. Beer was very cheap, but flat and thin. The newspapers were tiny, on rough paper, and the pictures in them were posed and awkward, with flash-generated shadows behind every smiling head. Shops had a lot of empty shelves, and the goods on offer were all odd and shabby products from other “socialist” lands.

Some of the old West Berlin subways still ran beneath East Berlin's pavement, and there were armed soldiers on duty to make sure that citizens didn't somehow find their way underground and fling themselves on to the speeding trains to escape.


East German currency, or "Ostmarks." You couldn't buy much with it. The American soldiers stationed in West Berlin spent it all on shoddy souvenirs.

The Berlin Wall was an odd thing, put up in the middle of the night, ostensibly to stop East Germans from escaping to the West with their socialist-paid educations, “like thieves in the night,” as the party declared. It was constructed through the heart of a living city, sometimes right down the middle of a street. Tram tracks ran up to it and stopped. In some places, you could see half a sidewalk.

The East Germans called it the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.” It was actually two walls, with gun towers and a grassy no-man’s land in between. The no-man’s land was full of rabbits.


Apart from a few intrepid souls who built airplanes out of sewing machines or strapped themselves to the underside of trucks, there was no getting out of East Germany for the people who lived there.

But getting in, from the Western side, was easy. It required the exchange of 30 West German marks into 30 East German ones, which were in practice worth a lot less. And you had to submit to a search by the border guards.

On the hood of a Trabant in East Berlin Mitte, 1987.

The guards wore cheap vinyl riding boots and uncomfortable polyester outfits, in an murky shade of dark green for winter and a tepid shade of light green for summer. Along with the fact they were also stuck in East Germany, this kept them in a less-than-amiable mood. They spent their days examining cameras and other items they were sure they would never own.

The thoroughness of the search depended on the flow of traffic, time of day, mood of the guard and many other factors. Sometimes you were just waved through. Other times they really took you apart. One time I came back towards Berlin right before the midnight deadline for a day visa, and the guard found a selection of coloured condoms in my purse. Was ist das? he said angrily, holding them up.

He was young and seemed very lonely, spending Saturday night at the border crossing.


Although I went to East Berlin on a regular basis, it was hard to make friends with people there. They faced extra monitoring by the security services for having contact with Westerners, and the things I liked to talk about – travel, music, fashion – were off limits to them. The relationships were always off-balance.

One afternoon, when walking through the vacant streets of the Mitte district, I saw a dumpster full of what looked like interesting old-fashioned items. Being dressed in black anyway, I jumped in to examine some of them. Inside, I met a young photographer called Robert Paris.

Robert blond, handsome, talented - someone eventually made a movie about his work- and he introduced me to a small community of artists in East Berlin. They all had huge flats right in the middle of downtown, places they'd found abandoned and simply moved into, hooking up a pirate power supply. Robert's had nine rooms.

In the graffiti building when revisiting Berlin, 2003.

He also showed me a wreck of a building covered in graffiti, inside and out, where dozens of artists lived and worked and apparently peed in the corner. It had been bombed in the war and never repaired, so it was missing large parts of its back walls, a particular drawback in the Berlin winters. Oddly enough, it seems to have established itself as an institution, as it was one of the few places I found recogzinable when I went back 17 years later.

But it was hard to relax around Robert, who had so much potential and was so limited by the accident of being born in East Germany. He hadn't even been able to visit the city that matched his name. I always felt like an overpriviledged jerk around him.


I met other East Berliners through my journalistic work, like a man whose name I have since forgotten who had been assigned to be the first rabbi in East Berlin since the war.

He was a pleasant elderly gentleman, a holocaust survivor, who had a hard time persuading the small congregation to trust him. Many had lived through two regimes highly hostile to Jews, and they refused to do things like leave the door to the temple open during services. They hadn't asked for a rabbi, and didn't seem to think they needed one.

Other than that, he liked Germany, as did a Russian Jew I met at one point in East Berlin. He'd been allowed to emigrate from Russia to Isreal, but found Germany more to his taste. I said that seemed ironic.

"Not really," he said. "In Russia, all the best people, all the intellecuals, were Jewish. In Israel, everybody was Jewish - the cops were Jewish, the hookers were Jewish, everybody."

"I like it better when there's just a few of us."


Next: Escape from Berlin.

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