East Berlin: August, 1989.
Each Friday afternoon for three weeks my temporary employment with the East Berlin Parks Department was rewarded with a crisp 100 Ost Mark note bearing a dour visage of Karl Marx, apparently standard laborer’s wages, as processed by a harried clerk at the pay window who always made damn sure I signed for it.
For whatever reason, the GDR decided to pay “volunteers” like me. Consequently I’ve always included this work experience on job applications back home.
It’s a real eyebrow lifter.
The 1989 trip kicked off in late May when I flew into West Berlin. Three days later came a first glimpse of East Germany with a transit visa, which required immediate forward progress by train straight through East Berlin to Prague in Czechoslovakia for most of June, and then Moscow much of July.
East Bloc adventures paused for a week at the end of July. Having returned to West Berlin from the USSR by rail via Poland, I met my cousin Don, who also was traveling that summer, for catch-up time over copious quantities of Veltins Pils and homemade goulash at Dicke Wirtin on Savignyplatz.
Rested and refueled, I followed the pleasingly cloak-and-dagger instructions I’d been issued by Volunteers for Peace (VFP) and proceeded to a cold-water flat in Kreuzberg, where several of the Western volunteers for the work program were asked to meet.
We prepared a communal meal of pasta and salad, drank a few bottled beers that I’d packed, and chatted about the month to come. The night was spent curled up on the wooden floor, with occasional interruptions as our host tended to her baby.
Bread, jam and tea made a fine breakfast. We rode the subway back to Zoo Station, later to be immortalized in U2’s album Achtung Baby, and switched to the S-Bahn (regional rail) over the Berlin Wall to Friedrichstrasse station, situated in East Berlin but also serving as a West Berlin public transportation transfer stop as well as the primary border control point to East Germany.
Given one’s destination, the simple act of passing from one platform to another in Friedrichstrasse station might require passport, visa and customs checks. Daytrips to East Berlin by tourists based in West Berlin were fairly easy to arrange, and a reliable source of revenue for the GDR, although these visits were restricted to city limits.
Our work/study visas as volunteers were more expansive, allowing us to travel throughout the country, except for classified high security zones.
Western volunteers were gathering at the Unter den Linden headquarters of the sponsoring Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ; the communist youth organization). Eventually we hopped the S-Bahn to the Plänterwald district, where our campsite was located.
Just now, looking at the satellite map, I can see that Plänterwald was less than two miles as the crow flies from Tempelhof Airport (since decommissioned), with flights departing for destinations all around the world.
But there was a minor impediment to the otherwise short bike ride: The Berlin Wall, just to the east of the Plänterwald S-Bahn station, blocking the way to Tempelhof’s gates.
In West Berlin in 1989 there were few remaining overt scars from WWII. Tellingly, in the side streets of East Berlin bullet holes could still be seen amid the crumbling brownish-gray, coal smoke stained stucco of the surviving housing stock.
Some of the modern architecture in the center was impressive and remains so today. The outer suburbs tended to be filled with cheaply constructed, formulaic high rises that represented a well-intentioned and largely successful effort to provide living space to the GDR’s citizens.
No doubt: East Berlin could be surreal.
Kiosks touting “news of the world” stocked only selected newspapers from the East Bloc and Communist parties abroad. Gone were western fashions, garish advertisements, boom boxes and fancy cars. Two-stroke Trabants trundled past.
There were simple pleasures aplenty. In East Berlin you could always find a bench in a quiet place somewhere and engage in earnest contemplation about the meaning of geopolitical life. People largely went about their business.
When visiting Soviet tourists stepped off the bus and beheld East Berlin, they could be seen gawking openly. The GDR’s standard of living was significantly higher than the USSR’s, their fraternal communist ally.
Time itself was a variable concept. One Sunday morning I was strolling down a deserted street when I heard familiar music coming from an opened third-story window. It was Country Joe & the Fish, circa 1968: “One, two, three—what are we fighting for?” The song echoed though the stillness.
However, even now, three decades later, I’m inclined to renew my warning about the “pizza” kiosk at Alexanderplatz, where a slice of white sandwich bread smeared with decidedly non-Hines ketchup, topped with a perfectly square slice of indeterminate processed cheese and a poker chop sized sliver of greasy sausage was plunged into a toaster oven for cursory baking.
Granted, “pizza by the slice” cost only a few cents—and tasted like it.
The western volunteers had been promised a free week of GDR sightseeing at the conclusion of our work time with the FDJ. We were to tour the country outside of East Berlin, stay in temporarily vacant university dorms, eat in minimalist university cafeterias, and meet committed communist university students from different parts of the country.
The reality proved far less comprehensive and considerably more shambolic. It seemed that something was afoot in East Germany, and apparently we had become afterthoughts in its wake.
Our western escorts, practicing leftists from West Germany and Switzerland and experienced practitioners in the myriad possibilities of international peace junkets, weren’t shy in expressing annoyance at the absence of preparations and many unexplained changes in the schedule.
In retrospect, we know the likely reason why. Our domestic tour organizers might well have vanished to West Germany via Hungary, as so many other East Germans were doing in the summer of 1989, precipitating one of several autumn crises that led to the GDR’s imminent collapse.
In the end we were able to travel to Rostock on the Baltic coastline for two rainy nights before reversing field all the way back through East Berlin southward to Dresden, by the Czechoslovak border, to be housed for five largely purposeless days.
Unfortunately Dresden in 1989 merited two days of exploration at the most. It hadn’t always been this way. Before World War II, the city’s history, architecture and regal position astride the Elbe River prompted frequent comparisons with the Prague, the Czechoslovak capital.
Existing guidebooks became moot after the controversial Allied bombings in February, 1945, which killed perhaps 40,000 residents, reduced Dresden’s ornate central district to kindling and charcoal, a veritable nuclear-level firestorm fortuitously survived by Hoosier POW Kurt Vonnegut, who incorporated it into his 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
So it goes. By the way, the novel is still worth reading.
Apart from the Zwinger Palace and Opera House, the GDR didn’t really try to restore Dresden’s grandeur. Only bits and pieces of the pre-war city remained, some of them pockmarked by unrepaired bombing damage, resting uneasily alongside Communist-built, modular high-rise buildings.
Culturally, the city was in a time warp even by the GDR’s standards, geographically situated as one of two areas in East Germany unable to receive West German television transmissions. Recall that in Communist countries, it wasn’t possible to stroll to the neighborhood Engels-Mart and buy a satellite dish.
In recognition of this isolation, people in other parts of the GDR referred to Dresden as “the valley of the clueless.”
If I’d known then what I know now, especially after reading Uwe Tellkamp’s novel The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country, I’d have been much happier being “stranded” in Dresden. We actually had more options for exploration than we knew, alas.
Most irritating to me was the abrupt cancelation of the group’s planned visit to Leipzig. A few of us went to the cavernous Dresden train station and tried to buy tickets to make the journey ourselves, and the officials at the ticket window literally shut it in our faces.
Why? We didn’t know it then, but protests had been mounting in Leipzig, and by autumn they’d become a weekly occurrence. Undoubtedly the East German authorities didn’t want foreigners to go there and get the “wrong” idea.
But our guides spontaneously organized a fantastic Elbe River steamer excursion to Königstein Fortress.
And, my friend and co-worker Jeff P. and I entertained our fellow foreigners one fine evening, especially P., a heavy drinking Finn, with a seminar on “drinking wine spo-dee-o-dee,” which we defined as alternating shots of Cuban dark rum and Bulgarian cabernet. The following day I looked over P.’s shoulder as he wrote a postcard home: “Finnishlanguage Finnishlanguage Finnishlanguage Finnishlanguage spo-dee-o-dee Finnishlanguage.”
There was one particular advantage to being in Dresden. Perhaps analogous to the situation in West Germany, where the beer always seemed better in southerly Bavaria, beer brewed in and near Dresden struck us as the best we’d tried.
(Granted, we never once saw a Köstritzer Schwarzbier during the East German stay, although I looked, having purchased bottles in Budapest in 1987. Presumably the bulk of the brewery’s famous black lager was being exported).
Our hands-down favorite was Radeberger Pilsner, brewed just outside Dresden, and specifically as dispensed at the city’s “rustic” Radeberger Keller, a partially subterranean restaurant located at HO Gaststätte Am Zwinger, an all-in-one gastronomic food court of sorts dating to the 1960s before closing in 1992, the building later to be demolished.
Am Zwinger was the largest such restaurant complex in the GDR; in addition to the Keller, there was a huge coffee shop and cafeteria. It’s a measure of our beer hall inspired tunnel vision that I knew none of this until this article was being written.
We went to the Keller to cool our heels, kill time and drink cheap and tasty lager. The service staffers at Radeberger Keller could be surly and inefficient in the typical fashion of the Bloc, which didn’t institutionally value customer service, but no matter. Traditional beer hall etiquette was honored, and we were allowed to seat ourselves wherever open spaces permitted, with one notable exception.
One dining area in a gallery off to the side was perpetually festooned with “Reserviert” signage, and not coincidentally, usually filled with the privileged demeanors, brown uniforms and dingy dark suits of indigenous politicos and bureaucrats, as well as complementary attire marking their wearers as Soviet advisors and higher ranking military personnel.
In 1989, there were almost 500,000 Soviet troops stationed in East Germany, and a sizeable contingent resided near Dresden, where a local branch office of the KGB maintained a helpful presence, and although there’d have been no way of my knowing it back then, at least one of those KGB officers assigned to Dresden developed as much affection for Radeberger Pilsner as my motley group of Western volunteer workers.
None other than Vladimir Putin, in fact.
When Putin became acting President of Russia on the last day of 1999 and was legally elected to the office a few months later, an English language translation of a slim Putin biography appeared, and a friend stumbled on a copy.
Putin’s first-person testimony about his Dresden KGB tenure (he was on duty when the Berlin Wall fell) included a frank admission that he found Radeberger delightful, so much so that it threatened the viability of his slim, athletic build by distracting him from the necessary fitness routines.
Furthermore, he confessed to frequenting Radeberger’s various area pour houses (like the Keller). Having visited the former Soviet Union on three occasions prior to my stay in Dresden. I can say with perfect candor that Soviet beer was wretched, indeed.
Can’t say as I blame Putin at all for his attachment to Radeberger, a loyalty that most sources verify as having remained constant to the present day.
Putin no longer is a giggling matter, if he ever was, and yet it still astounds me that I was drinking the same beer, possibly at the same beer hall, and perhaps even simultaneously on a particular evening, as the future dictator.
You never know.
There they were, the comfortably seated denizens of Radeberger Keller’s de facto Stammtisch (a regulars-only table), powerbrokers of purportedly monolithic international communism. There we were, scruffy westerners hoovering schnitzel and lager.
All of us, bigwigs and backpackers, remained steadfastly deaf to the depleting sands in the hourglass of the GDR’s life span, both in theory and reality, as destined to disappear in less than a year.
It’s a small world, indeed.