A room with a view
by Ger Tillekens / The Netherlands
The photo at the left was made by Heiko Burkhardt on July 21, 1998 and then published on this site. When I saw it for the first time, noticing the chapel at the right, I immediately recognized both the location and the building, clearly visible at the West side behind this remaining part of the Wall.
Yes, this must be the Lazarus Kranken- und Diakonissenhaus, situated at the Bernauerstrasse 115-118 – the hospital where I worked for some weeks, twenty-five years before, during the summer of 1973.
With my brother Jos, I had joined a group of fellow Dutch students willing to combine the job of looking after the patients with a visit to the city.
At that time, however, we did not have the chance to look at the building from the East side. Nowadays you can walk right to it from the East side to see that the place has been extended with a geriatric home and a spacious, modern-looking entrance at the left side of the building, to be precise at the corner of the Gartenstraße.
(It is the second time the hospital was renovated, as the original building was largely destroyed during World War II and rebuilt afterwards.) At the time of our stay in the mid-1970s the hospital itself, though looking rather shallow, seemed as quiet and peaceful as it is now.
But right in front of it – you only had to walk out of the front garden to see it right before your eyes – there was the Wall.
I shared a room with my brother on the upper floors of the building – what you can call a room with a view. On
Burkhardt's picture you can see its window, giving sight on the Wall. Looking outside, I could see the Wall from above. That way the Wall proved to be not just a stone wall but a real barricade, filled with concrete road blocks, rolls of barbed wire and “Todesstreifen,” the sand stripes between the walls.
At night the spotlights went on and we observed the Vopo's making their rounds. At first, it gave us the feeling of being in a city under siege, the Berlin Syndrom. Soon, however, we got used to it. It seemed just a surrealistic play, performed on a large stage for a very small audience.
Until, one night, we were awakened by the snarling sound of machine guns ... and suddenly it all became very real.
The next morning we learned that a man had tried to climb the Wall, but was shot while crossing the sand stripes and had been left there, bleeding to dead. It caused a real uproar with people gathering from all around to look at the place where it had happened.
It made a deep impression on me and I still have a vivid memory of a Berliner, standing on one of the wooden watch towers near the Wall, his arms spread wide in a dramatic gesture, shouting “Schiess denn!” (Come on, shoot!) to the guards on the other side. In the next days life slowly went back to normal,
though it would take hours to cross the Wall at one of the check points. By the way, the photo shows some of our party at one of those check points, just after visiting East Berlin. The one at the right is my brother Jos and I'm the one at the left of the picture.
Of course we did many other things, diverting our attention from the Wall. Indeed there was much to see and to do in 1970s Berlin. But, the Wall thought me a good lesson about the impact of border lines – symbolic or actual ones – on the way people think and behave.
By being so nearby, the Wall almost always made its presence felt, even when we were visiting one of the pubs near the hospital. Talking to the Berlin folk there, the Wall inevitably crept into each and every conversation, as people told and retold their memories of its construction.
Within the pessimism about what had happened, though, there was always some sort of hopeful believe, mixed with anger, seeping through, that in time the Wall would and should have to fall – though few people really thought they would live to see it happen.
November 14, 2002
Ger Tillekens is one of the editors of soundscapes.info an online journal on the history and social
significance of media culture.
Text and photographs 2-5 (c) Ger Tillekens
Photograph 1 (c) Heiko Burkhardt