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   Heiko Burkhardt
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The Wall
by David Koblick

"Wanna buy some Eastmarks?" Slight but obvious accent. I'd been had twice already, once in Bremen the very day I landed and once in Hamburg, so I was wary. "How'd you know I spoke English?"

He shrugged. "Doesn't everybody?"

"Not in Berlin. How come you speak it?"

"I listen to the Armed Forces radio, and sometimes people throw away a copy of the Herald Tribune . . ."

I looked him over. Half a head shorter than me, gray suit, hat, necktie, clean shave, clean shirt, in sharp contrast to most of the scrubby characters loitering around the cavernous Hauptbahnhof. Surely a gyp artist, but I took a chance.

"You must've read my mind. How much?"

He smiled. "Three Ostmarks for one West, or twelve for a dollar."

Ostmarks, Eastmarks—I’d heard the going rate was three-and-a-half, but what the hell, first time in Berlin I’d been spoken to. "Wanna talk over a cup of coffee?"

"You buy, okay?" "Okay." I bought the coffees, and we drank them standing at one of those unfriendly chest-high tables. Starved for English conversation, I tried to think of how to re-start it.

What was I doing in Berlin? Three months earlier travel was furthest from my mind. But then this girl Terry—who’s not part of the story, so I won’t mention her again—sold me her $40 down payment on a freighter trip to Europe, because she'd changed her mind and was going off to Mexico with a new boyfriend.

I'd been in the Navy during the war and seen a lot of the South Pacific and the Philippines, but I'd never been to Europe. I made a quick decision, and paid the balance of the fare, $100. Back then, you could take a freighter across the Atlantic for only $140, can you believe it? I quit my job, withdrew my meagre savings, sold my car, kissed my then girl friend goodbye, and bussed to Norfolk, Virginia, where I boarded the Jugoslavian rustbucket Crna Gora, bound for Bremerhaven, Germany.

I was armed with the bible of the frugal American tourist, Europe on 5 Dollars a Day, and knew a couple of hundred words of high-school German, enough to rent a room, eat, and ask questions, although I didn't always understand the answers. As my German slowly improved, I managed to travel, eat and sleep without getting mugged or arrested. I explored Germany, Austria, and German-speaking Switzerland for almost three months before venturing to travel to Berlin, that Western oasis in the heart of Enemyland. It was 1961; the Cold War was still on.

"I can get better than three for one."

"Depends how much you wanna change, and—uh, you got dollars? Pounds?"

"Twenty dollars, and I want 300 Ostmarks for it. What's your name?"

He hesitated. "Give you 280. You can call me Harry."

The Westmark was four for a dollar, so that figured. Still alert for a scam, I counted and examined the 280 carefully and stashed it away before I pulled the folded twenty out of my shirt pocket, handed it to him, and turned to go. Harry took hold of my sleeve. "What's the hurry? We could talk a little. I can tell you a few things you oughta know." I shook off his hand, but didn't walk away.

"Like what?" We found a bench and sat down.

"Easy to tell that you just got here. If you wanna roam around East Berlin, those Ostmarks won't do you much good."

"Whaddya mean? Why'd you sell ‘em to me, then?"

"Listen, I'll tell you a what a Westerner can buy with that money:"

"Can't I buy everything?" I asked. Harry snorted. "Cigarettes, newspapers and magazines, stamps and postcards, travel souvenirs, tram, bus, and U-Bahn fares, and maybe a cuppa coffee. That's about it."

"But what about meals, movies, a pair of shoes, groceries, a screwdriver? They must have all those things over there!"

"Yeah, they do, but not for you, only for East Berliners. You gotta show an I.D, an Ausweis, every time you pay with Ostmarks. Sure, they'll take your Westmarks for anything they're not short of, but no groceries, clothes, tools, stuff like that. And you gotta pay one-for-one. The Communists like to make everybody think an Ostmark equals a Westmark, but everybody knows that's a lie." Without missing a beat, he went on, "What's your name, anyway? I told you mine."

"Dean." That wasn't my name, but his probably wasn't Harry, either. He said he hung around the Hauptbahnhof a lot; I could find him there if I needed any more Ostmarks, which he doubted. I left, and set out to explore the whole city.

There was lots to learn, and lots to see. The saturation-bombing in the closing war years was still evident, but while Berlin-West was pretty much rebuilt, East Berlin, the former Russian Sector and now the Capital of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, had many block-square expanses of rubble. Uniforms of all four of the former occupying forces could be seen occasionally, but strangely, although there was a demarcation line between East and West Berlin, crossing it seemed to present no difficulty. There was no Checkpoint Charlie, not yet.

In fact, it appeared that anyone from East or West could cross from one side to the other by private car, tram, bus or subway, or just simply walk across. Me, I was seldom asked to show identification, and if I crossed by U-Bahn, never. And I never saw anybody refused entry or exit, nor did I see body or baggage searches. It was as if the division didn’t exist. Most foot traffic was at the Brandenburg Gate, but one could cross anywhere.

My inexpensive hotel, or rather pension, was in a section called Wilmersdorf, near the lower end of the main westside boulevard, Kurfürstendamm. I usually ate breakfast there with an Israeli engineer named Aron—I never knew his last name, and didn't ask—who was in Berlin on some government business he was rather vague about. I told him what Harry had said about Ostmarks and Westmarks, and that I couldn't understand why, crossing being so easy, there wasn't a flood of Germans 'escaping' from East to West Berlin.

"But there is!" Aron said, "About 200,000 last year, and at least half that many so far this year. Mostly Berliners, because it's harder to get into East Berlin from the east than it is to cross over once they get there. But there are still a few East Germans, and even some Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, who are able to slip through."

"What happens to them? Where do they go?"

"Well, most of them are stuck here—they don't have money to get any further, and even if they do, they don't have visas. Still, a few manage to get out. And those who can't get out won't go hungry; West Berlin is loaded with 'refugee' money."

That was true; refugee money and every other kind. The stores were full of consumer goods, and cafés, bars and restaurants were crowded around the clock. Dozens of night clubs advertised entertainment rivaling Broadway or Las Vegas. It seemed as if Western countries, especially the USA, were using West Berlin as a show window in which people of the Communist countries could see the advantages of Capitalism. That took money, and there was obviously lots of it being poured in.

Harry was right about my near-useless Ostmarks, but I noted that apparently- equivalent goods and services cost about the same in marks, East or West, on both sides of the city. 25 marks would buy a pair of shoes, never mind that the East German pair had cardboard insoles. A cup of coffee or a tram ride, 50 pfennigs. A pack of cigarettes, an exorbitant two marks. Just for curiosity I went over to East Berlin almost every day; prosperous West Berlin was beginning to bore me.

One beautiful day in mid-July, as I sat nursing a cup of coffee at a sidewalk café, I saw a lad at the next table who’d just eaten lunch pay for it with what appeared to be Ostmarks, and as he paid he waved an American passport under the waiter's nose. I stopped him as he rose to leave.

"How come you can pay for a meal with Ostmarks?"

He looked at me suspiciously. "Who are you?"

"Only an American tourist. But I can't spend Ostmarks here, and I just wondered how you get away with it."

We talked a little more, and he eased up. He was a student, attending famed Humboldt University and living in East Berlin. He showed me a Resident's visa stamped in his passport, which he presented whenever making restricted purchases. You know, he said, nobody ever reads that visa; they may sometimes glance at it to see if it carries an official DDR stamp, but if I show it before being asked, every clerk and waiter accepts my Ostmarks without question.

Interesting information. I filed it away carefully. When I stepped out on to the street next morning, the sun was shining bright and warm. I took my jacket back to the room, and departed for East Berlin via U-Bahn clad in shirt and shorts.

Berlin spreads out over a wide area, and weather can vary in different parts of the city. When I emerged from the Alexanderplatz U-Bahn station in East Berlin, over five miles from where I'd boarded, it was raining heavily. There was a clothing store near the station, so I puddle-jumped across the street to it, went in and picked up one of those transparent plastic ponchos from a table just inside the door.

But when I went to pay for it, with Ost and then Westmarks, I couldn't show an Ausweis, and without a word the stone-faced saleswoman took it out of my hand, put it back on the table, and walked away. Still dripping wet, I left the store.

Don't get mad, get even. Took me awhile, getting advice and asking scores of questions at a dozen government offices, to figure out how.

First, at an official DDR bank, I legally exchanged 100 West for 100 East, and got a Zettel as evidence that I had done so. Then I spent 93 marks of it to buy a train ticket from East Berlin to Paris. The fare would have been the same if I'd bought the ticket and boarded the train in West Berlin, the sequence being East Berlin Hauptbahnhof, West Berlin Hauptbahnhof, and no more stops till it crossed into West Germany, from where it continued on to Paris. Then I went to the Ministry of External Affairs and got a "Through-travel" visa stamped in my passport, an impressive tax-stamped validation taking up a whole page, which permitted two trips across the German Democratic Republic. I left for Paris, stayed two weeks (but that's another story!), and flew back to Berlin. The date was August 4th, 1961.

Okay, lessee if it works. Over to East Berlin, bought the verdammt rain poncho, a pair of slippers, a comb, a couple of other minor items I didn't need, had dinner . . . I paid for everything with Ostmarks, which had cost me seven US cents apiece. Just as the student did, I flashed the visa page of my passport, and every salesclerk and waiter took the bills without question.

I had to buy more Ostmarks, and I bought them from Harry. I'd developed a sort of provisional friendship with him, even told him the first joke I’d ever tried to translate into German. He went over it with me several times, correcting me until I had the grammar and pronunciation letter-perfect. The English version:

Man goes scuba-diving for the first time, and is so fascinated that he takes it up as a full-time hobby. Buys a wetsuit, airtanks, helmet, snorkel, flippers, lead belt, even a slate with a piece of waterproof chalk, so he can converse underwater with other divers. Underwater, admiring the coral, shells, tropical fish, sees another diver, outfitted with only a pair of swim trunks. A little pissed off, writes on the slate: "I spent 1000 marks for my outfit, you're diving with nothing! How come?

Other guy snatches the slate and chalk out of his hand, and writes: "I'm not a diver, stupid—I'm drowning!"

I still get a lot of mileage out of that one.

I kept my room in West Berlin, but for the next week my days and evenings were spent in East Berlin, visiting museums and the reading rooms of Humboldt University, talking to students, touring those research projects that weren't off limits, and going to plays and movies. I ate lunches and dinners, and ate well, in East Berlin. Harry said, "Seems like you figured out how to spend those Ostmarks."

"I sure did," I said. I didn't explain.

"You ever think how it looks to people from the other side?"

"Whaddya mean?"

"Well, lots of those people don't want to leave—they were born and raised in some neighborhood, say Lichtenberg or Pankow, and that's home to them, no matter how miserable. But a clever guy who wants to make life a little less miserable can do it easy."


"I'll give you a simple example. He buys ten eggs for a Mark, and he carries them over to West Berlin, where he sells them for a Mark. But this Mark he can exchange for three-and-a-half of the other kind. So he goes back to East Berlin, buys thirty-five eggs, and keeps it up till he maybe doubles his weekly income."

My mind reeled. I thought, that's just one man with ten eggs. But imagine hundreds, maybe thousands, of East Berliners with crates of eggs, with produce, hand tools, books, yard goods, antiques, car trunks full of nuts and bolts, anything saleable in the West that they could buy or steal from the stumbling DDR economy. Almost all of those things were of course available in West Berlin, but these could be sold for less, and were easy to dispose of. The western world's financial support of West Berlin's economy was in effect bleeding East Berlin's economy dry. The population drain was serious, but this was even more so. And in my small way I was contributing to the downslide. With no qualms, I confess. I still had a wallet full of Ostmarks; I decided to get rid of them and leave Berlin.

There were dozens of beer-bars and even Nachtlokale, cabarets, in East Berlin, for in this as in other respects East was trying to emulate the free-wheeling West. I remembered a "Cabaret Marigold" I'd passed a couple of times on my East Berlin walking tours; music, laughter and applause could be heard pouring forth from within. I introduced Harry to Aron, and invited the two of them for a Friday evening of fun at the Marigold (I searched for it years later, in vain).

It was a memorable last evening. We all had steak dinners, drank four bottles of wine and ate bowls of Cerises Cognac for dessert, danced with lots of girls to the music of a Hungarian Gypsy orchestra, bought drinks for all the girls we danced with, applauded a magician and a juggling act, and at about three in the morning I called for the check. "Die Rechnung, bitte!"

It came to a little more than 120 Marks. I flashed the visa in my passport, the visa with the pretty DDR tax stamps, tipped the waiter and the Hungarians over-generously, and we staggered out to look for a taxi; the East Berlin U-Bahn had stopped running at midnight. The hostile Volkspolizist at the Brandenburg Gate wouldn't let the taxi through—we had to walk across and find a Westside taxi.

The Marigold bill alone, not counting tips and taxis, had come to 120 Marks, or about $8.55. See—a dollar bought four Westmarks, which bought 14 Ostmarks, and 14 gozinta 120 . . . $8.57! Or about a microscopic two pounds fifteen shillings, for back then sterling was even almightier than the dollar. There have been other unforgettable nights since, but none that inexpensive. I left a note on the Portier's desk to call me at ten, arose, showered, shaved, packed, and took the noon train to Nuremberg, arriving there at eight that evening.

No more than six or seven hours later, in the early dark of the morning of Sunday, August 13th, 1961, East German and Russian soldiers started rolling out barbed wire barriers between East and West Berlin, replacing the wire shortly afterward with the masonry wall which stood there for almost three decades.

Every now and then I smile briefly and may even chuckle, for no reason apparent to those around me. It's because I keep visualizing this scene, a meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Disdaining a gavel, Premier Nikita Khrushchev takes off his shoe, as was his habit, and pounds on the lectern with it to command attention. The delegates fall silent, and Comrade Khrushchev roars:

"The Berlin situation has become intolerable! I heard about that American at the Cabaret Marigold last night, spending his black-market Eastmarks as if they were play money! That's the last straw! It has to stop! BUILD A WALL!"

I wonder if that's the way it was. I wonder, but I'll never know for sure.

Text © 2004 by David Koblick