Saturday, May 3, 2014

Visiting Berlin, August 1966

In summer, 1966, after a couple of months washing dishes, sweeping floors, and selling soft ice cream at Hotel Nordsee Halle in Büsum (Germany), I had most of August to see Europe. [1] Although my funds were modest for the month of travel, I was armed with three key travel weapons: a Eurail Pass that provided unlimited train travel within western Europe for three weeks; a copy of Eugene Fodor’s Europe on $5 a Day; and confidence, perhaps based on naiveté, that I could figure out how to see much of Europe on a small budget in less than a month

Before using the Eurail Pass, which later got me to Amsterdam, Stockholm, Oslo, Brussels, Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Frankfurt, I wanted to visit a city where the Pass would not take me: Berlin. This city drew me because it – as a hot zone of the cold war — had been in the news for most of my life. Only five years earlier, in August 1961, it made world headlines when East Germany, as puppets of the Soviet Union, had constructed a wall around West Berlin to stop East Germans from moving there. 

Having grown up in the shadow of the cold war, surrounded by anti-communist rhetoric and fear-mongering, I wanted a taste of what life in the “communist world” felt like. Also, I wanted to see the Wall to perhaps better understand what it felt to be surrounded by it. In addition, I wanted to explore the city that, less than 25 years earlier, had been the capital of the evil Nazi empire.
Postcard showing Bahnhof Zoo at night
I caught a late afternoon train to Berlin that traveled through East Germany using the transportation corridor that had been negotiated with the Soviet Union. (When the Soviet Union had prohibited Allies from crossing their sector on roads or train tracks in June 1948, the famous Berlin Airlift had supplied the city entirely by air for nearly eleven months.) The train made no stops in East Germany, rushing through the train stations of the cities on the route.

The train arrived at Bahnhof Zoo too late in the night to track down a cheap place to stay in the unfamiliar city.  Scouting the area around the train station, I spotted some trees and shrubs on vacant land not far away. There, I found a refuge from noise, traffic, and light, and I settled on the ground for a few hours of sleep. 

 Early the next morning, I spied a listing in Europe on $5 a Day for cheap student lodging. It was located far from the commercial center of the city, but with a good map I got on the right buses and by noon had settled into a comfortable room in a large building surrounded by park land. The room was cheap, clean, and nicely furnished. Unfortunately, when I left it to see the city, I made a big mistake: I hid some dollars in my suitcase, not wanting to carry them around. They disappeared while I was gone. My tight travel budget shrank further. Could I see Europe on $4.00 a day?

Ku'damm and Kaiser Wilhelm Church, August 1966
(my photo)

Berlin did not disappoint. I was impressed with Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm), a broad avenue that had been the center of entertainment and night life in the Weimar Republic.  Many of the buildings on Ku’damm had been destroyed during the war, but by 1966 they had been replaced, and the busy street was both modern and energetic. 

Among the most interesting sites of Ku’damm was the old Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a bombed-out shell of a building that was kept unrepaired as a reminder of what happened during World War II. It was flanked by new, ultra-modern church buildings that had opened in 1961. One was a very tall round building, the other a much shorter round building. They were known as the Lipstick and powder box buildings.

Two pictures of the Berlin Wall, August 1966 (my photos)
 Of course the most interesting thing about the city was the Wall.  I walked miles along the wall, seeing that in some locations it was only a few feet from tall buildings whose windows and been covered with bars and lumber. I kept an eye on the guards in towers along the East German side of the wall, who were keeping an eye on me. In truth, the existence of the wall was deeply perplexing: what kind of people would build such a thing?  I felt that I had a little better understanding of the seriousness of the differences between East and West.  

I made a day trip into East Berlin through the famous Checkpoint Charlie. In doing so, I had to exchange a specified amount of German marks (a hard currency) to East German marks, which were worthless outside of East Germany. The required conversion gave East Germany a much-needed flow of hard currency.
Check Point Charlie, August 1966 (my photo)

The crossing was not a simple or relaxed procedure. [2] It involved multiple encounters with unsmiling men and was overseen by grim soldiers carrying weapons. I was happy when I finally made it into East Germany, but even happier when I departed.
Brandenburg Gate: View from East Berlin, August 1966 (my photo)
I walked around the heart of East Berlin; starting at the Brandenburg gate, I strolled up Unter den Linden, the city’s most famous boulevard. I had a meal at a cheap cafeteria, and went to see the Pergamon, one of the city’s famous museums. Mostly, as was my want, I walked around different parts of the city to see how people lived. I was amazed that so many buildings damaged in World War II were still unrepaired.
Picture of a propaganda sign in East Germany celebrating the 5th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall. It features a crying fat-cat capitalist (my photo)

East German military guard at a war memorial, August 1966 (my photo)
In addition to the time spent with the wall and in East Berlin, I visited West Berlin’s famous Dahlem Museum, tramped around the 1932 Olympic stadium, and walked around different city parks and neighborhoods. I also visited the zoo by the Bahnhof Zoo. I do not remember who took the picture of me there.

Me and the other elephants the the Berlin Zoo, August 1966

One night, I stopped by the New Eden Saloon (which had been the site a few months earlier of a publicized visit by Linda Bird Johnson).[3] This loud, multi-room Ku’damm cave was a full-fledged 60s joint, with early hippy overtones, decorated with funky art and wild colors on the walls and ceilings. The saloon was inhabited mostly by college-age students drinking beer, scarfing reasonably priced food, and enjoying the music.  

After three days in Berlin, I returned to West Germany and began my frantic trek through Europe. I returned to West Berlin in April 1972, traveling from Vienna by train to attend a conference. By then, Berlin was livelier, richer, and more modern, offering an even greater contrast to the drabness of East Berlin and the shame of a wall needed to keep people prisoners in the Eastern bloc. 

In November 1989, I, like millions of other people, watched television in amazement as the wall was toppled and was stunned when, with unthinkable speed, the two Germanys were reunited.  In the late 1990's, I traveled again to Berlin and was surprised at how quickly most traces of the wall had completely disappeared; it was difficult to find any remains of it. Interestingly, barriers had been put up to protect the few small sections of the wall that was still standing.


[2] The Berlin border crossing was unpleasant in 1966, but I know now that snarling unpleasant border crossings were not unique to East Germany.  I have experienced similarly nasty scrutiny by stone-faced agents when entering and exiting Russia and when entering the United States from Canada through the border at Blaine, WA.   

[3] Update: I originally wrote that I was at the "Old Eden Saloon," but deep in my files I found a brochure that I took with me from the visit. It turns out that I was at the "New Eden Saloon."  The Old Eden Saloon was at Damaschkestrasse 21. The nightclubs owned by Rolf Eden included The Eden Playboy Club, which was at Ku-damm 156. 


  1. Sir,

    I'm putting together an educational work about Checkpoint Charlie in the 60's and the picture you posted in this blog intrigues me. Is it possible to contact me at camthx [at]

    I have a only a few questions and it would be a great help if we could talk about those.

    Kind regards,
    P. Q.

  2. I enjoyed reading this on your blog! I was there (Berlin) in 1964 and took a bus "tour" through east berlin.... such a striking difference in the atmosphere (and the color)

  3. I was in Berlin in August 1966. I'd hitch-hiked from London to see a Berlin girl I'd first met in London, Gitti. I've never forgotten the intensity of the experience.