Just imagine if you went to sleep and woke up the morning to find your family and friends were across a thick wall, and you were told you won’t ever see them again. From 1961 till the fall of 1989, Berlin was a city divided. It was a symbol of the cold war, where families never having the chance to say good bye to their love ones were forced to live apart from them.
The City East side representing the Communist area side had a 96 miles of barbed wire in front of a concrete wall the average height was about 12 feet tall. The West side represented the American, British, and French area. You would hear of stories how people would escape from the East side to the West side, some successful, others shot in their attempt for freedom.
While stationed in Germany Back in 1981, I had the opportunity to visit East Berlin. My husband was a Lieutenant in the Army, and I worked as a civilian for the Army Corps of Engineers.
We lived in Frankfurt and decided to go on a shopping tour that the Army offered their families to East Berlin. We were briefed on the train of how to act, show your passports, and cover up any Army insignias. They painted a frightening picture of the atmosphere, but told us of all the great bargains we could find.
After the train stopped in West Berlin, we boarded a bus to take us to Checkpoint Charlie to cross into the communist East side which was where the shopping bargains would be. The main function of Checkpoint Charlie back then, was to register and inform members of the Western Military Forces before entering the East side. In additions to NATO security forces at Checkpoint Charlie, there were also security forces from East Germany and USSR. The East German and Soviet security guards were not allowed to search us.
Back then the East German currency was so devalued to the dollar that you could pick up unbelievable items for a fraction of what it would cost you on the West side of Berlin or any other part of Germany.
I will never forget how eerie it felt as you past East Berliners on the street. They would just stare at you with such cold faces as if they had never seen humans before. There were some shops that had displays
with beautiful items, but those shops would never be open. We were told that they were just there for a showcase to Westerners. The one store that had the big bargains was called Ka De We which is the short for Kaufhaus Des Westins. It was and still is the largest department store in continental Europe.
Twenty four years later, in 2005, my husband and I went back to Berlin to see the changes. We heard so much about how Berlin was the “new Paris”, the jet set city of Europe. And it was so true, for the West side of Berlin. The East side still hasn’t made many advances since the wall came down. They don’t have the beautiful buildings and department stores as does the West. You can still see traces of the wall. Most locals prefer to forget that part of history, but you can’t because it is still everywhere you look, from the Reichstag where Hitler’s headquarters were to the Jewish Museum which is the most compelling memorial of the Holocaust.
The smart thing to do if you want to see the sites of Berlin or shop at the finest department stores that you will ever find is to purchase a two or three day pass for the buses that will take you to all the historical sites all over East and West Berlin.
Get yourself a “Welcome Card” which includes a two or three day fare with discount coupons to the museums, theatre, shopping, and more. You can get it at the Tourist Information Center, ticket counters of the BVG, at many hotels, and other places. This way you can get on and off as many times as you want. You are given a map with the sites and information about them. This is the best value for sightseeing and shopping. And it’s more fun than being with a tour. Just about everyone speaks English and they are friendly.