I had the opportunity to visit East Berlin in the former German Democratic Republic in April of 1989, seven months before the wall came down. It was a high school trip, and being teenagers, we didn’t fully appreciate everything we saw. I regret not paying more attention on the Berlin bus tour we took on that misty morning. We had just traveled through East Germany on a night train from Munich, and were all dead tired. Sadly, I didn’t even take any pictures of the Berlin Wall. Who would have thought that in a few short months it would no longer exist?
That morning at Checkpoint Charlie, the old crossing point between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin, something happened that I will never forget.
On the tour were some kids from Maryland, Iowa, and our group. For some reason, we declared ourselves as the cool ones earlier in the week, and commandeered the back of the bus. My friend, Kelli (probably the “coolest” one of us all) had this 80’s haircut that came to be affectionately known as “the ledge.” It was kind of a modified Mohawk that was short in the back and sides and longer on the top and kind of all ledged out to one side. She had her passport photo taken with this haircut. And when she had her photo taken, she smiled with a wild-eyed grin. It was ridiculous and fantastic.
The East German guards were beyond serious about passport control, as we had discovered on the train the night before when it stopped at the border. They whipped open our train compartment curtain, flicked on the lights and barked, “Reisepass, bitte!” Not even sure they said the “bitte.” Earlier on the trip the Swiss and Austrians were content to just have everyone send their passports to the front of the bus, stamp a few, and let us move on, so this was alarming.
When the East German guards boarded our bus, and proceeded to scrutinize every person’s passport with serious and expressionless intensity, we waited silently and apprehensively at the back of the bus. One of the young guards was tall and blond with steely blue eyes. His gray-green uniform was immaculate. The black brim of his hat was shiny and spotless, and rested firmly upon his forehead. Kelli’s was the last passport he checked. She handed it to him.
He opened it, looked at her face, and then he looked down at her passport. A second passed, and then, for the briefest of moments, we saw the faintest hint of a smile. Because only someone without a soul could look at that picture without smiling, even with all the Soviet evil empire breathing down his neck.
November 9, 1989 was the day when he no longer had to stifle his smile. Wherever he is, I hope he’s smiling today. Ein Prosit, mein Herr!
© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2009