Previous Challenge Entry (Level 1 – Beginner)
Topic: Europe (excluding the United Kingdom) (02/19/09)
TITLE: Checkpoint Charlie
By Nancy Kaye
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It was 1964, during the “Cold War” when people were afraid it might become hot. Some feared nuclear holocaust and essentially gave up or in, as they believed there was no future. There was the “Iron Curtain” and the “Bamboo Curtain” and when I was much younger I remember asking my mother how they used “gorilla’s” to fight the war. Communism had its hold on half the world while we the other half declared itself free.
Such was the setting for a still remembered incident. Three young nurses were adventuring in Europe after working for a year after graduation, saving money, and researching addresses of friends in various countries that any of us might know. The crew on the Norwegian freighter, The Black Swan, had encouraged us to see Berlin. After driving through East Germany, to Berlin on one of the only two routes allowed, we found a hotel.
West Berlin was alive, dynamic, bustling with people and prosperity in spite of its isolation in the middle of Communist East Germany. We decided to go to East Berlin, which was accomplished by crossing the heavily armed border at Checkpoint Charlie. It was one of three checkpoints in the city and hastily erected in Aug of 1961. Here was the Berlin Wall, with its barbed wire, floodlights, traffic barriers, and cleared space on either side, which would make anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there an obvious target. On the West side there were many posters and memorials for people who had attempted to cross. Eventually the Wall would come tumbling down in June of 1990 and during the interim period, 1000 people would have lost their lives attempting to gain freedom.
Upon crossing to East Berlin, there was an immediate sensation of an oppressed people. There was no lively spontaneity, no bustling commercialism, no neon lights. It was dingy, morose, and people were very guarded when we asked for directions or had contact. There were bombed out buildings still wearing their wreckage from the Second World War years before. Neferititi was the most beautiful thing I remember seeing in a museum in East Berlin. I loved her long neck and regal expression.
On our return, we presented our passports and they disappeared behind an official window. In the past we were used to them being stamped and not out of our sight. We looked at one another with questioning eyes. With us in the waiting area was a very elderly couple. The wife had ace bandage wraps all the way up both her legs and they each carried two paper shopping bags. We wondered how it was that they were going to West Germany. No one would give us information. Our passports came out another window and we were all on our way across that “no man’s land” border. There were more passports, paperwork and stamps on the West side and much fuss around the elderly couple. They had a name and address on a very weathered scrap of paper. We asked through a translator if we could take them someplace and we got the directions for the address on the precious scrap. Two of us scrunched together in the back of The White Swan, a VW Beetle, so we could make room for the couple and their bundles. A half-hour later we knocked on the door of the address and a throng of excited people came to the car to greet this couple. There were tears and laughter, and we knew we were witnessing a family reunion. They offered us money for giving them a ride, but we didn’t want money and didn’t take it. When we were invited in for cocoa, we accepted and a nephew who spoke English thanked us profusely. He told the story that his aunt and uncle had been in East Germany since the war and had been unable to come to the West with the wall being built. When they were too old to work they were allowed to move to the West and thus their families had been reunited. The four shopping bags were the extent of their belongings, yet the joy in all of them would have filled many many more. And so, that day at Checkpoint Charlie, impressions, and lessons of freedom were learned in an indelible way and Neferititi still holds her head high.
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