But the more I thought of the trials, the more I wanted to retract my first impulse. “Kids,” I thought. “They're just kids. Dumb ass kids from the country.” Somebody stuck them in a uniform and told them they were keeping their country strong, made them think in a world of low lifes and greed they were doing their families and friends a noble service by shooting at any fool attempting to vault over the wall into West Berlin. What did they know, these Rudis and Horsts and Jürgens and Michaels whose mothers loved them and were proud of what they were doing.
The political events these boys were caught up in suddenly faded into the background, and I began focusing on the fact they were the same age as the students I faced in the classroom every day, the same age I was when I wore a uniform in Berlin, many years ago. “My kids,” I call my students, when they're out of hearing. Boys and girls just out of high school, still looking simultaneously for approval and for ways to get away with murder. Still trying their best to get laid and to learn the ways of the world without looking like they don't already know.
I try to relate to these kids, but it's hard. They make me feel old most of the time, and largely irrelevant. I find them listening to me occasionally, and when they do, I wonder what it is I've said that has piqued their interest. Once in a great while one of them will let me know I've changed their thinking. I love it when that happens, but I know my impact on them is limited, and most of them are simply putting up with me. It's an open secret they are in my class because it's a required course. Any illusions to the contrary disappear at the end of each class as they dash down the stairs to lunch.
I can't imagine them carrying a gun, much less shooting at anybody. We are on the other side of the world from Berlin, and people in Japan don't get rewarded for shooting other people in the name of national security.
It was time for a change. We had just finished one project and the next one I had set up to go suddenly struck me as trivial, so I brought up the issue of the border guards' trial because it was on my mind. “Have you guys been listening to the news lately?” I asked. “Do you know they've just arrested two border guards in Berlin and are trying them for murder?” I had their attention. “One day they are rewarded as national heroes,” I said. “And only a couple weeks later, they're on trial for murder. How does a person handle the sudden and drastic shift in the definition of their identity,” I wondered aloud.
That worked. Personal identity was one of their big issues. Right up there with cars and fashion and surfing and sex. “The government changed under them. One day they were defending the DDR, the East German so-called Democratic Republic under orders from Egon Krenz himself, and Honecker before him, to shoot to kill traitors trying to flee the republic. Then suddenly they were citizens of one of the new states in the formerly West German Bundesrepublik, and people were expecting them to pay for murder. They had shot and killed innocent people exercising their right to choose where they would live.
I didn't know what my kids would have to say. I assumed they'd approach the topic timidly, say they didn't know much about it, and declare it a “difficult” problem. The stock answer to most dilemmas. “Difficult.” Meaning “I don't know how you want me to respond, so I'll find a neutral place.” But I called it wrong this time.
The soldiers were definitely not guilty, they said. One by one, they found the words: Yes, people should be free to leave their country; no, we shouldn't make laws abridging this freedom and the soldiers should not have killed people trying to escape. But they should not be punished for obeying the law, either.
“A law higher than the law of the land?” they asked, looking like even the question was absurd. “What would that be? We are Japanese, so we don't believe in God, so we don't believe in anything bigger than human beings. All laws are made by people. 'The land' is the people. How can you make a distinction? There is nothing higher than the law of the land.”
Thirty years of teaching university kids, thirteen in Japan, and I'm still surprised sometimes at the naïveté of their responses. I finally had the rarest of treasures, I thought, a clear stance from which to begin a debate, a logical explanation, of sorts, but this time I wished they had gone into their customary neutral. No equivocating over stances this time. No recognition that sometimes governments are formed by self-serving minorities. Authority was authority. Disobedience to laws of the state could only spell anarchy, confusion, disorder. And soldiers, especially, had their orders to follow.
I flashed to the anti-Vietnam War protests. San Francisco in the late 60s. The years when the world seemed to be shaking apart. When I shouted at a soldier in the street in San Francisco, “Paid killer!” and a woman standing next to me went into a rage. “My son was killed in that war! And he was no paid killer! He died for his country, you scum!”
I went on to other things. But the story of the Berlin Wall border guards didn't go away. A few days later, the topic appeared in their journals:
I thought about the German soldiers issue. Before I put them either guilty or not, I need to think about the organization. Organization in its original meaning--a group of people. People gather together to do more things, to have more benefits, since there is little we can do as individuals. But once the organization is set, all the people who take part in it have to work for the total benefit of it. Each individual often, more or less, has to put his will aside to pursue its benefit, (even though) sometimes it brings even unhappiness to those concerned.
The organization (in this case) is the army. In the army, the most important thing is to strictly cooperate to accomplish the mission. What each individual thinks is out of the question here, what is needed is humans as machines who completely obey the order. Disobedience is the worst felony.
Killing is a bad thing of course, but if you're a soldier, will you disobey the order and be punished?
I put the journal down and took a break. I was angry, even disgusted. And fascinated. What have I got here, I wondered. Whose voice is this? I thought I knew all the stock responses by now, but I wasn't ready for this one, if that's what it was. After the surprising unanimity in the classroom discussion I wondered how much this guy was speaking for his generation. Or was I just hearing the voice of the well-protected middle class student body at my university? I realized I didn't know them that well. There was such a wall between us and our experiences.
My students would engage in a battle of wits and convictions, but never over anything political. Some would argue over censorship on the Internet, others over whether Nomo would be a baseball hero if he hadn't started playing for Los Angeles, but let it be known that you want to question whether the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, and most will reach for their headphones. Tune this guy out. He's from Elsewhere.
As I read through the journals, one after the other, I sensed my plot to make the 60s ride again wasn't going to work this time either. In the 60s we had at least two certainties, that the world was badly fucked up and that we could change it. But these kids live in another time. The final journal said it all. “We don't know about the war,” I read. “We don't care about the Berlin Wall very much because it is not part of our lives.”
* * * * *
I first went to Berlin in 1960 with my uncle Willi from Hamburg. I didn't like him. I was only twenty, the same age as the kids whose journals I was now reading, and I kept imagining he was going to appear suddenly in his Nazi uniform. He made it easy for me to dislike him. He had won the Olympics in Helsinki for Germany in dressage and had melted down his silver trophies from years of riding contests into a coffee table top. How tacky, I thought. What a jerk.
I never saw him except for that one time. I have no idea whether he's still alive or whether I'd still think he's a jerk. He came into my life overnight, a distant uncle by blood, a brother my mother had never met, the son of her father and his second wife, not my grandmother, and he disappeared just as quickly after I got out of his car on the Autobahn outside Hannover. I think of him now as a kind of tarnished angel, sent by the fates to provide me with my first meeting with Berlin, where he had grown up, a city I had no idea then would become so much a part of my life.
I went back to Berlin a few years later with the U.S. Army. I had enlisted in the Army Security Agency to avoid being drafted, and they had trained me in Russian and sent me to be one among 40,000 people in Berlin who made a living at snooping.
My maternal grandfather's name was all over the place, on one of the leading beers, and somehow it helped me feel like I had a stake in the place. This time I didn't have the entree I had had with my uncle, who had arranged for us to stay at the house of Germany's right-leaning newspaper king, but I had other relatives: another uncle, Otto Schmidt and his friend of many years, Frieda Müller. John Smith and Mary Jones, I called them, taken with the plainness of their names. Onkel Otto had a “Berliner Schnauze,” a way with the Berlin Cockney that made it sparkle and crack like metal on a flintstone. I tried to imitate it, but I couldn't generate the twinkle in my eye I seemed to see whenever Berlinisch was spoken. Unlike my first uncle, whose connections had enabled him to marry somebody with a “von” in front of her name, these were common folk. My love for Berlin really started with Onkel Otto and Tante Frieda.
She loved having somebody around to call them aunt and uncle. “Null Null,” she started calling Otto. The two Os in Onkel Otto she turned into Zero Zero, which was also the universal symbol indicating a public toilet. He enjoyed her teasing and I loved the banter between them. I had other great uncles, and had met them all, but it wasn't until I met this one and the woman with whom he had an “Onkelehe” since both their spouses had died in the war that I felt myself becoming rooted in Germany. Otto died before I got to know him well, but my relationship with Tante Frieda went on for more than twenty years after that. She lived to 94, way past all her friends and family, and died alone. I had been torn repeatedly by the desire to go back and live in Berlin, if for no other reason, so that she would have somebody to spend time with. But I had others in my life by this time in San Francisco and a job in Tokyo, and Berlin was slipping away. I couldn't spread myself any thinner.
Tante Frieda had remained in Berlin all through the war. She had lost her hearing in a bombing raid, and was crippled with arthritis, but she gave the impression of bouncing when she talked. “Give me a minute to get my fingers working, comb the two remaining hairs on my head and turn on the hearing aid, and we'll have a cup of coffee,” she'd say. Just being in her presence made me feel cheerful. Her enthusiasm for everything from fresh apples to my latest news from home made me seek her out whenever I had the chance. Eventually, I was bringing friends around as well, and over time she came to have a number of other Americans who called her Tante Frieda. She loved a good conversation, and jumped at the invitation to tell one of her stories of Berlin in the twenties.
One thing I could not get her to do, however, was talk of the war. Until one day when we stopped for coffee at the top of the KaDeWe, the department store with the in-your-face Cold War name, Kaufhaus des Westens (Department Store of the West), just off the Kurfürstendamm. The Bundestag had decided to push the confrontation with the Russians by holding a session in Berlin and in retaliation the Russians were buzzing the city. At one point, a fighter plane flew directly past the window and we could see the pilot. The noise was deafening. I was sure all the windows were going to shatter, but nobody would leave. There were a lot of old folk in the coffee shop, people you could be sure remembered the airlift a decade earlier. Without a word about what was going on, and as if by prior agreement, people continued their conversations about their lives, their children, shopping bargains, aches and pains, and frustrations at work. I'm not making up the topics. With the need to shout over the din, everybody could listen in on everybody else's conversation. But they sat there, in steely-eyed determination. Let the damn Russians buzz the place. We're not leaving.
“I'm sorry,” said Tante Frieda suddenly, “but I can't stay here any longer.” “What's this?” I thought. Just when I'd pegged her for a trooper! When we got home, she started talking. She'd been a chemist, had been directed to join the Nazi party and had refused and had been forced to work all day and stand watch all night for her stubbornness. After the bomb shelter she was in collapsed around her, she crawled through the dust in the dark, looking for a way into the bomb shelter in the next building when she fell, hurting her spine. Her hearing went soon after. She tried to maintain the view that politics was for other people, that she wanted only to live her own life with her few friends and be left alone. “But sometimes what's going on in the headlines comes and gets you,” she said, “and you find yourself caught up in events you can't control.” When the war ended she had tried again to leave politics to others. But the planes were back and the noise was deafening and the memories wouldn't stay contained. I listened and soaked up the stories, weaving in my heroes Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich, images from Heinrich Zille cartoons and the Threepenny Opera, without regard for historical accuracy.
I couldn't tell my aunt I was having the time of my life. The reality of the army was killing me, but the sense of being surrounded by the communist world just a few feet away was exhilarating, at least at first. Somehow I got hold of a report which suggested that in the event of a Russian attack on Berlin the Americans would write off the units they had there as indefensible. Instead of being frightened, I felt a rush of excitement. It never occurred to me I might be killed. I had no fear of war and the confrontation with the commies made things come alive. It was the best game I'd ever gotten to play in.
For a while. The excitement wore off. I borrowed a friend's car one day to go to dinner and couldn't find my way back to the former SS barracks where I now ate and slept and served my country. For some reason, every street I took ended up running into the wall, and with each wrong turn, I felt smaller and less powerful, in a big city and still caged in. Around that time, I was out for a walk one day near the wall and heard shots from the other side. The wall was crude, makeshift, and served no practical purpose in the downtown city streets. Outside, where I was walking, it was even more obviously hateful, snaking through the middle of nowhere. If I could have seen through the wall, I would have seen that somebody – I think his name was Peter – was bleeding to death, only a few feet away from me. He had made a futile dash for the wall. He never had a chance, and they let him bleed.
I couldn't get the incident out of my mind. Somebody my age had bled to death while I had gotten bored and gone for coffee. He had been killed legally, and was declared guilty, in a later hearing, of the crime of “flight from the Republic.” The guards would be rewarded for doing their job.
I became obsessed with the thought of people running from everything they knew. I had almost done it once, had sat up all night in the main railroad terminal in Rome, trying to decide whether to drop out of school and go to Israel. Friends had done it, and I didn't want to finish out my year at the university in Munich and return to America on schedule. I wanted more. But in the morning, tired and dirty, I realized I didn't have what it takes to embrace the adventure. I would pull up stakes several times later in my life, but I never burned bridges, and I never left a place with people shooting at me. And here was this guy who had thrown it all away. What gave rise to such desperation, I wanted to understand.
My grandfather had told stories about coming back from the war in Russia and finding his family starving, of picking up what they could carry and traveling steerage to the United States in the 1920s to start over as indentured servants to a distant relative. It was in my genes, I thought, to move on, if the going got rough. But this was not the steely determination of economic immigrants. This was a man desperate to get out. I wanted to understand his desperation, wanted to go back and tear the wall down with my bare hands and bring him back to life and make him tell me.
In addition to my aunt and uncle, I had made a good friend in Berlin named Achim. I had met Achim at a meeting of Das Tor (the [Brandenburg] Gate), a German-American friendship organization. Achim and his wife, Margit, had invited my friend Merrill to an American Thanksgiving dinner, and in time, I began tagging along whenever Merrill went to see them.
Achim seemed to have no end of energy, and much of it went into politics. In later years, he became Berlin's representative for the United Nations and listed Dag Hammersjold among his acquaintances. At a New Year's Eve party at Achim's house I found myself having coffee with the British Commandant for Berlin and I got him talking about Albert Speer, the lone prisoner in Spandau Prison, whom he used to go play chess with. Another holdover from the War. How absurd it all was. It was clear by then the Allies, my country in particular, had let a bunch of Nazis go, and had put others to work for them. Others were running modern Germany and, in this case, they were maintaining an entire prison to contain one old enemy they could play chess with. Also absurd was the realization I had afterwards that I was demonstrating there might be something to the theory that no human being is more than five personal links from any other human being. Anybody who knew me was now number five in a straight line to Adolf Hitler. I was number four.
I spent hours at a stretch with Achim, listening to what otherwise would be boring details of German politics, but Achim saw everything in the context of the struggle of Berlin for survival. Our discussions almost always centered around the reality of the divided Germany.
There was a moment once when I thought our friendship might not survive. President Reagan had paid a visit to the Bitburg cemetery where a number of members of the SS were buried. I hated Reagan on principle, and I thought this was a bad mistake and I said so. I was adamant that there should be no suggestion of honoring the members of the SS. Achim and Margit, who were active in maintaining the graves of the war dead, didn't want the ordinary soldiers buried there to be forgotten and they took a philosophical view of the issue. It was a painful moment, one of many which illustrated that I was commonly perceived as a German when talking to Americans, and an American when talking to Germans.
To this perversity of double identities I have added one more after thirteen years in Japan, but I trace the origin of my understanding that double identities are no barrier to friendship to that time in my twenties when I had a friend who had spent his twenties in Hitler's navy.
Years after the army experience, before West Berliners could travel to East Berlin, it was open to me because of my American passport. In 1960, before the Wall went up, I had simply walked through the Brandenburg Gate, used my West German money to go on a shopping spree, and come back with my arms full of Czech records and the complete works of Schiller. This time, there was a sense of the forbidden. The hostility had grown and with it the fascination for “da drüben” (over there).
Achim pumped me for details. “What did it look like? How did they talk to you? What were your impressions?” Later, as things eased up, and Achim could go over too, he took me to East Berlin once to see a boyhood friend and old navy buddy, one of the engineers who had worked on the Aswan Dam. Obviously a man with some standing in the East – he even drove a West German car – he nonetheless lived in a shabby house on an ill-lighted street and worried with his wife about the fact their daughter had a Russian boyfriend. “What will we do if she marries him,” they asked, all the perks of the system suddenly losing their luster as they shared their secret fears with these well-fed border jumpers from their version of “da drüben.” “We are not free to travel, and if she moves away, we'll never see her again.”
Achim and I talked about theater a lot. Theater was politics. My idea of a good time was to watch the attack on Pius XII in Rolf Hochhut's The Deputy, for his complicity with the Nazi regime, and when Achim came up with tickets to Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, in the East, I was very excited. But it was Chekhov, where nothing happens, and I felt cheated. Achim tried to convince me I had to think more subtly, but I couldn't accept that. I had spent more time studying the audience than the stage anyway, and Achim's suggestion that maybe the fact that nothing was happening was the point passed me by. I later read somewhere that Vanya was a criticism of the destruction of the environment, but at the time, I couldn't get into it. I was also concerned at the time over whether we were doing the right thing in turning over what amounted to bribes to the East German border police just so we could get in and go to the theater. People were dying to leave this place, and we were paying for a visa to come in to see Germans do Russian theater.
I was having trouble separating the culture and the politics. How was it Achim could maintain his upbeat enthusiasm for these things, I wanted to know. How come he hadn't been driven mad with all the contradictions, all the absurdities? He had fought for Nazi Germany, watched a navy sink around him, waited helplessly while the Russians shelled his house, and in the end had developed, like my aunt Frieda, a remarkably cheery disposition. Achim and Tante Frieda represented much more than friendship to me; they were sources of information on how to survive. I felt cynical in their presence, wondered how they could go through life and miss the point that it was all meaningless. But their joy in life was too well grounded in experience, and in the end, it was my cynicism which gave way.
They didn't know what they meant to me in those early years, because I couldn't tell them. I was in the Army Security Agency, in a military unit trained to listen to Russian broadcasts and East German phone calls and pass the word on. Children of the Cold War, we were, slapped into uniforms and given dagger insignias to wear. People are being shot in this cold war, we sneered, and we get a bureaucracy so dense it gives us symbolic daggers to wear. It never occurred to us somebody was having a joke at the expense of the U.S. Army. We assumed stupidity without clear evidence to the contrary, and waited for the announcement that from now on we were to wear cloaks to official functions.
It didn't feel like spying. It was uninteresting routine work in an environment which shifted back and forth between deadly dull and cruelly hostile. There was no psychological preparation in the high schools of the 50s for what I was doing. I would have to get up in the dark, ride in a Mercedes bus through the Grunewald before first light, up the Teufelsberg, the mountain that was made out of the rubble of the city, and hide away in a windowless room until dark, trapped under earphones, and listen to Russians counting to ten and back down to one, eight or ten hours at a stretch, without a break. They were keeping the lines open in case of an American invasion, and were instructed to say nothing and just count. It was a kind of Chinese water torture. On top of it all, hanging over us, always, was this thing we called the RF, the “random fuck.” Punishment out of nowhere, usually for no reason that made sense to us.
In the end, I quit, was taken to Frankfurt for a psychological examination, where the shrink with a top secret crypto clearance asked me how old I was when I first masturbated, whether I had ever had or wanted to have sex with my sister, my mother and my father, found me sane and put me back to work spying on the Germans instead.
I had had a friend in the unit who tossed a piece of paper into the trash one day. “I hope that was unclassified trash, soldier,” this voice said behind us. It wasn't. We were doodling as Ivan counted. “…7,8,9,10,10,9,8…” My friend was the only guy in the unit doing as directed and “keeping an exact record of everything said.” He had pages and pages of numbers from one to ten and back. Identical to all the others, the paper he had tossed into the trash was covered with numbers. He missed “classified” and the paper fell into “unclassified,” and my friend was led away. I never saw him again. He was court-martialed, I heard later, and released. Lucky guy, everybody said. He got out in one piece. I might have continued to shrug it off if I hadn't been assigned to a burn detail a couple weeks later. I had sealed up all the trash, watching carefully to be sure the bags were labeled “classified” and “unclassified,” as appropriate, and had wheeled the bags out to the high temperature incinerator, which burned all the trash, leaving no residue. Outside in the incinerating room was one of my barracksmates who was throwing the bags into the fire, one at a time, closing the door a minute after each one to give it time to burn.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What the hell are you doing? All the bags are going into the same fire!”
“We only have one incinerator,” he said.
The next day I took my earphones off and stopped working. I had lost three friends to suicide, had seen another buddy taken out and beaten, had watched a sergeant remove the headphones from another and turn off his radio, against all regulations, and then turn the guy in for turning off the radio himself. But this was too much. I could handle the abuse, it seems, but the absurdity was making me question my sanity.
All this I was dying to share with someone, but the two people outside my army life I might have talked to were Germans, and as much as I hated the American military, I was still living by the rules.
After coming back from Frankfurt and being transferred to the German political section, I got to listen to actual conversations. Ironically, although the army had trained us as “linguists,” as the military referred to anybody who spoke a language other than English, me in Russian, my new friends and colleagues in German, they were having trouble with the Saxon and other East German speech patterns. I could at least fake it, and ended up in charge of the section, solving the army's dilemma over whether to throw another one of us into jail. I ended up taking my job very seriously.
One day, six or eight months into the new regime, I picked up a call between two people I had come to know well. “Come on, Gertraud,” the voice said. “You're not old enough to have a grandchild!” I listened with great intensity. I, too, thought Gertraud couldn't be more than forty, at the very outside. I was only twenty-three, and forty, I thought, was about as old as anybody in this business ever got.
“I'm seventy-two!” she said.
“What?!” I shouted out to my friends to come have a listen. “Do you know how old Gertraud is?! She's seventy-two!” Everybody gathered around. The civilians in charge joined them. “Amazing!” “Unbelievable!” “There goes the love of your life, Alan,” my civilian boss joked. It was no joke. I was devastated. I had fallen in love with this voice. And so, it appeared, had a great many people in the section.
The excitement didn't last. The next day I was called in. The military didn't think it was much of a joke, either, but for different reasons. I had been reported. “I think you need to be careful,” the captain said to me. “You're getting a little too close to the people you are listening to.” I was thunderstruck. I had no idea they were watching me. And no idea what I could have done wrong.
In the end, the more I thought about what had happened, the more I realized the captain had a point. I had come to look forward to going to work. All around me was the military. There was also a profound learning taking place about what it meant to be American, but I wasn't aware of it. All my senses were trained on lying low, not sticking out, not giving the military a chance to have at me. In basic training, I had been put in charge of a platoon of Puerto Rican street fighters, giving them a sense of purpose. They were so astonished at my innocence they rallied round the walking disaster area who needed protection. Now, I was being hounded by black officers trying to get me to reenlist, talking to me about economic opportunity. And all around were the sergeants—we called them grunts, or orangutans—who had a mission to pass on to us their knowledge of how to kill clean when necessary, but needed to leave us alone to do our snooping. The need to bring us down a peg would get the best of them, however, and they would haul us off to clean toilets and some took delight in the power to punish us for any infraction, real or perceived. There were weeks on end with no sunshine. Barracks mates who would cry in their sleep or come back late at night bloody from fights and reeking of booze.
All around me was a world I wanted to run from. When I put the earphones on, the voices talked about parties and family and children and hopes and dreams. They told jokes, wished each other happy birthday, exchanged recipes and in the end mixed work and pleasure in ways I could only dream of. The captain was right. I was in danger of being disaffected. I knew now why there were people who went “the other way” across the wall. Like that night in Rome, I spent a lot of time fighting off the urge to flee. I was young and very unhappy, and I did give some thought, however fleeting, to escaping to where the voices were warm and earnest.
There was a lot riding on my friends. The illusion of American moral superiority was gone. I walked around in a uniform which I would later throw off a troop ship into the Atlantic, a different piece each day, on the voyage back to New York, when I got out of the army. There was a terrible struggle going on inside me, a disillusionment which seemed to overwhelm me at times. The church, the patriotism, the sense of certainty I had grown up with were gone and all I had left was the loyalty to my friends in the army, the other Cold War fighters equally adrift. We were a generation too cynical for Doris Day and Rock Hudson; we didn't find pillow talk sexy or driving Chevys into swimming pools funny, and we were too burned out to be swept up in the Age of Aquarius just beginning. My adult world had reduced itself to these two Berliners, Achim and my Tante Frieda. Except for them, I bought in almost totally to the view we should never trust anyone over 30.
When Tante Frieda died, my last family connection with Germany was severed, and with it, my last emotional attachment to the city of Berlin. I didn't realize what I'd lost, however, until Achim, too, died a few years later, and my intellectual attachment went as well. I mourned their deaths and soon realized part of what I was mourning was my loss of Berlin. I had first gone there at the age of twenty, before the wall was built, had watched it become a universal symbol for shame and injustice. And I watched, transfixed, as my corner of history came to an end in November of 1989 and the images came in live to my living room of the revelers with the champagne bottles and sledge hammers smashing into the wall and going wild. They were having a party without me. I couldn't get there. I wanted to go dance in the streets too, and pour champagne all over myself, and cry in public. But I was on the other side of the world and I had to cry alone.
I did cry. Got sloshed alone at home and invited the tears to flow. I cried because my Tante Frieda didn't live to see it, because Achim didn't live to see it, and I cried because it was happening. I also cried a little, without tears, because the joy was not what I always thought it would be. I didn't have the engagement I once had with the divided city. My Japanese colleagues who knew nothing of my history and saw me only as an American, suggested, over beer and in rare candor, that the world was maybe better off with a divided Germany, and there was no fight in me. It was now as good a beerhall topic as any other. The idea was about that maybe the wall served the interest of the West as much as of the East, and that too, I thought, was an idea worth discussing. All the passions of my twenties, all the conviction that the Wall was evil and that the young bodies that bled at the wall were symbols of a sick perverted regime were now reduced to impotent topics for discussion in the raucous beer hall or the sterile classroom.
When I was five years old, my German grandmother came in to the room where I was playing and grabbed my arm. “Come on,” she said. “We've got to go get your father.” They were pouring out of the factory where he worked when we got there, into the streets to celebrate VE Day. She had been a stewardess on the Hamburg-Amerika Line, had jumped ship in New York and never returned. In 1941 she was discovered, an illegal German alien in wartime, and was tried as a spy. The hysteria passed; they realized they had everybody’s idea of a grandmother, and let her go. But the experience made her more German somehow than she might have been, and she never let me forget that I belonged to the folk who had generated Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. But I was born in America and I has a waspish name and my early years would be spent with kids playing games like Bombs Over Berlin and wondering why my mother didn't want to speak German anymore. Later, I would join my grandmother's church in Torrington, Connecticut, the one which had had its stained glass windows shattered because it was a German church.
I had sought out and gotten to know a number of concentration camp survivors when I was a student in Munich, had listened to them talk about how they had survived by becoming sun worshipers, and envied them their magnificent obsession to tell their stories or chase down the Mengeles and the Eichmanns still at large, all in a struggle to figure out what it meant to be half German. It was in Berlin where I finally put the identity struggle to rest, where I came terms with Germany, discovered love and sex and built a lifelong family which “emigrated” with me to San Francisco – twenty-five of the seventy-two men in my unit in Berlin ended up in San Francisco for some reason. It was in Berlin where I lost my schoolboy belief that Americans were always the good guys, and had replaced it with a faith I could belong to a larger world. And now Berlin had receded in my memory and was gone.
I keep going back. The last time I walked through Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point that once looked like an entrance to the underworld, I stopped for a cappuccino and tried in vain to reconstruct the site as I knew it as a soldier. Potsdamer Platz, the place that Tante Frieda and my grandmother talked about as if it were Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, and that I knew only as a great wasteland where Hitler's bunker used to be, is covered with cranes. Berlin is building again.
But except for an occasional visit to see Achim's family, I have no place in Berlin to go anymore, except as a tourist. I climb the steps of the Reichstag, buy insignias from Russian military uniforms and rocks officially certified as pieces of the wall. The sense of loss floods over me at times, and I ache for a time gone by.
* * * * *
“We don't know about the war. We don't care about the Berlin Wall very much because it is not part of our lives.” The war. The wall. All thrown in together. The war to which they refer ended in 1945, when I was five; the wall went up in 1961 soon after my 21st birthday. All those years in between, I was growing up. Years that are now being collapsed in my kids' view of history. All “before our time.”
“Which war were you in,” one of my students asked me recently, “Vietnam or Korea?”
Misinterpreting my hesitation, as I was trying to figure out whether to laugh or cry at the thought of having fought in Korea, he added, trying to cover his tracks,
“It wasn't the Second World War, was it?”
November 13, 1999