WHEN in Berlin, stay in Mitte. Classy yet friendly, this borough has elegant squares, entertainment spots and an exquisite 270-shop mall we couldn’t get enough of.
What’s more, Mitte covers parts of both the former West and East Berlin districts, so cutting through it is the mother of all tourist spots in Germany: the Berlin Wall.
The mere thought of being walled in disturbs the psyche. And after hearing about the elaborate methods the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, used to spy on its own citizens, we deemed our paranoia justified when unusual things started happening in our hotel, the NH Berlin-Mitte.
After Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War 2, the victors France, the United Kingdom, United States and Soviet Union divided Berlin into four sectors—corresponding to the areas they occupied in the rest of the country. Later, when West Germany and East Germany were created after the victors had a falling out, the Soviet sector became East Berlin, while the other sectors formed West Berlin.
Seeking the freedom and prosperity of the capitalist West Germany, more than 2.7 million people fled communist East Germany from 1949-1961, most through the border between East and West Berlin.
To stem the brain drain, East Germany built the wall in 1961. The 155-kilometer wall, fortified with mines and ditches, sealed off East Berlin and the rest of East German territory. The border strip came to be known as the “death strip” for the many people who died trying to breach the wall.
Train stations on the East Berlin side were closed to prevent their use as an escape route to the west, giving rise to ghost stations that trains using the West Berlin network crossed without stopping at. We emerged from one such station, the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn, to a field where the photographs of those who had died trying to escape appear in a gallery at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Street.
Residents tried all means to escape—including digging tunnels under the wall. A tunnel that went from West to East Berlin, Fluchttunnel “Tunnel 57” 1964, was built by a man who sought to get his girlfriend out of East Germany. “Fifty-seven refers to the number of people who escaped through the tunnel,” our guide Johnny said.
The Stasi was legendary in its efforts to root out possible dissenters—using teachers, doctors, drivers, janitors, colleagues, neighbors, and even family members, as informants.
“The Stasi would go into people’s apartments, and leave a microphone behind a light or other fixture in the house,” Johnny said.
With this heightened awareness, my sister and I suddenly realized back in our hotel room that we could hear the noise outside. Our window had been left open. And did I mention that our hotel room didn’t have a door chain and the bathroom door didn’t have a lock?
One afternoon, two quick knocks came. And before we could react, a key turned in our lock and a chambermaid rushed in to check our mini bar like it was perfectly normal to walk in on room guests. Later that night, I was in the shower when a hotel worker again used a master key to burst into our room, this time to ask my sister who she was. I considered whacking her with the shower head if she opened the bathroom door to verify my identity too. She didn’t.
Part of the Bernauer Street memorial is the Chapel of Reconciliation, built on the site of the Protestant Church of the Reconciliation Parish, which the East Germans had blown up in 1985 for being inconveniently located on the death strip.
Other tourist draws like the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie also have links to the wall.
An 18th century monument built by a Prussian king, Brandenburg Gate cemented its place in history when the Berlin Wall came up and the gate was made part of the wall. But to us, Hotel Adlon across Brandenburg Gate was more interesting. This is where pop star Michael Jackson, playing to a crowd, dangled his then nine-month-old son out of a window in 2002.
As for Checkpoint Charlie, just walking distance from our hotel, it was put up by the US army after the Berlin Wall went up. The only gateway through which East Germany allowed foreigners to enter Berlin’s Soviet sector, the crossing point quickly became the venue for many attempted escapes from East Berlin to the American-controlled sector of West Berlin.
Today, it’s a happy place where my sisters and I gave up a few euros to have our photos taken with men dressed as US soldiers.
We had bratwurst sausage for dinner at a stall near the checkpoint. We were able to save money, but not our face, when my sister Rose Marie first inquired, then shouted to us in the distance the price of the sausage, “3.80 euros!” (around P200) to seek our approval before making the purchase.
At 200 meters, the longest section of the Berlin Wall still standing in the city center can be found on Niederkirchnerstraße Street.
The Gestapo and the SS, Nazi Germany’s secret police and feared paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler, respectively, had their headquarters behind this wall. The site of the headquarters now hosts the Topography of Terror memorial and museum on the evils of Nazism.
Its tragic history aside, Berlin today, with its stylish squares, manifold dining and entertainment venues (we watched a performance of the Blue Man Group there), organized transport system and traffic-free roads is a vacationer’s cosmopolitan dream.
1945 World War 2 victors France, US, UK and Soviet Union divide Berlin into 4 sectors
1949 West Germany (US, British and French occupied zones in Germany) and East Germany (Soviet zone) are established. Berlin is divided.
1961 East Germany builds the Berlin Wall.
1961-1989 At least 136 people die at the Wall, most shot by border guards.
1989 The Berlin Wall falls.
1990 Germany is reunified.
Other sights in Berlin
■ Holocaust Memorial - Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
■ Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church - Built by the last German emperor, Wilhelm II.
■ Stasi Museum - Headquarters of the former East Germany’s secret police
■ Charlot-tenburg Palace - Most magnificent home of Berlin’s formal royal family