The Hole in the Wall
STEINSTÜCKEN, IN A DIVIDED BERLIN
The guidebook promised us the one place in all of West Berlin where no physical barrier existed between the two Germanys. And here it was. Wide enough to allow railcar passage, this singular gap in the famous Cold War wall lay at the end of a wide Straße in the tiny West Berlin neighborhood of Steinstücken.
A postage stamp of a suburb, Steinstücken occupied less than a square mile. Home to some two hundred residents, the neighborhood was quiet and shady—and totally surreal. Enclosed on all sides by the massive Berlin Wall, it felt as if we’d stumbled upon a secret garden.
A hernia bulge protruding from the taut skin of West Berlin—that’s the only way I can think to describe the way Steinstücken stuck out—and into the post-World War II territory then belonging to Communist East German territory. Jon Crispin’s pro photos, featured here and in his Berlin Notebook, offer a glimpse of how it looked in the winter and also summer of 1986—a year before I visited with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, John. The picture below is looking east toward the opening.
COLD WAR DAYS
John and I were living in Nuremberg at the time, several hours south of Berlin, in the heart of Bavaria, and the heart of the democracy of West Germany. Newly minted college graduates, we were cooling our heels in West Germany as we figured out our next moves and whether they would be alone or together. I was supposed to go back and pursue an on-camera reporting job in some tiny, backwoods television market where John had no reason to be. For his part, John had designs on a finance job in L.A. or San Francisco, big time broadcast markets where I wasn’t meant to go until later in my career.
We’d been in Germany for two months already, working odd jobs and eating canned goulash and cheap sausages, when we decided to tag along with a friend who was visiting relatives in West Berlin.
Tight on funds, we spent hours on foot exploring West Berlin, in what was then the Federal Republic of Germany’s most iconic if not irascible city. Severed from its eastern half following World War II, West Berlin was like no place I’d ever been. Walled in on all sides by Communist East Germany, it had this wild, fortress feel—at once defiant but also slightly debauched. Packed full of punks and politicians, students and suited professionals, West Berlin scrambled everything I thought about cities and also myself. If an improbable city like West Berlin could thrive, I reasoned, then maybe so could an equally improbable couple. By September, we’d be living in New York—together. Ah, but I digress.
A capitalist island floating in a communist-controlled sea, West Berlin was weird and wonderful in a dystopian sort of way. Imagine New York City just as it is—full of blitz and balls and electricity—cut off at the neck above Harlem and then penned in on all sides by a giant wall monitored by enemy soldiers with shoot to kill orders.
That was West Berlin.
WEIRD AND WONDERFUL WEST BERLIN
A post-World War II construct, West Berlin existed because Allied Forces, following Germany’s defeat in 1945, basically willed it so. For readers who may need a refresher, here’s a gross simplification for how it went down. Hitler’s Germany falls. Allied and Soviet forces, anticipating the ideological Capitalist vs. Communist war to follow, agree to divide the country in half along political lines.
By rights, Berlin lay in the east, so should have gone, in toto, to the Soviet Union – except it didn’t. The Allies said, “Hell no,” and stayed. In response, the Soviet-controlled East German government responded by walling in West Berlin on all sides, making it impossible for passage either way except through military checkpoints and/or regulated air- and land-based transit corridors. It was along one of these corridors that John and I, and our friend Adelheid, traveled by car to West Berlin in 1987.
That corridor was grim, folks. Massive, metal fences lined the roadway on both sides, behind which lay miles of tilled, mostly treeless earth. Save for an occasional farm building or tractor, there was nothing to see.
….That was until West Berlin, which rose up out of the barren landscape like a paper city in a pop-up picture book.
To learn more about the transit corridors from a German perspective check out this short essay by Otfried Harbusch for Daimler.
TO THE EDGE OF THE WEST
When John and I visited West Berlin that June, the Americans and Brits were still there but not necessarily wanted, particularly by younger West Germans who resented being occupied by anyone other than maybe a musician.
Weeks before our arrival in the city, David Bowie gave his epic concert at the Berlin Wall, the same one where he called out to the East Germans gathered on the other side, some of whom were beaten and jailed for their transgression of gathering to hear his music.
Broke as we were upon arrival in West Berlin, concerts were out of the question, as were most fine eateries and bars. Even a $30 transit pass to East Berlin, then the capital of the German Democratic Republic, felt hard to swing.
“What do we do when we get there?” I remember John asking. “We can only walk around for so long.”
This was true. We decided visiting Steinstücken, just 30 minutes away on Bus 18, was the next best option. Click this link to ride along in the actual bus we took to Steinstücken.
I have no photos of Steinstücken. Our guidebook advised against taking photos, out of deference to the residents, and because touchy East-West border politics could turn the smallest gesture into a provocation.
But I can picture us—standing on the railway track in Steinstücken, at the furthest edge of the West, facing our goal—the gap in the tall cement Berlin Wall border area left open here for trains. Visible through the opening, the tracks continued, and on either side was a strip of rich brown-black earth. Meticulously cleared, but barren, this was No-Man’s Land. Here, the East German border patrol would spot, apprehend, and sometimes fire on Sperrbrecher—border violators—foreign and East German alike.
Planted in the middle of this so-called “death strip” was a guard tower containing two soldiers who looked about our age. Armed with guns and intense stares, they observed us from their viewing perch, the way one might warily eye bull elephants in a nature park.
Nothing about our Western garb would have looked remotely familiar; not our blue jeans or our tennis shoes (Stan Smiths for John: high-top Reboks for me), let alone the t-shirt John was probably wearing that day (I can’t be sure but there’s a good chance it was the white one with the Red Hot Chili Peppers pictured on the front wearing nothing but tube socks over their privates).
Vulgar young capitalist-fascists on full display, we were the enemy these soldiers had been raised to hate, and to one day defeat. I’d traveled through the Soviet bloc four years earlier so knew the Anti-Western rap against us.
Having met young Communists from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, I also understood that behind their uniforms and stoic expressions, these border guards were young people like us, but living according to a different set of expectations born of different idéologies. As Americans, John and I were able to pick where we went to college and what to study. Military service was optional. Not for the guys in the tower. First they had to serve and only then could they go to university—assuming they had proper permission from the government.
Thinking back, I wonder what it was like for the soldiers to be gawked at by Western tourists day in and day out. Maybe it broke up the tedium of standing “guard” for an insecure authoritarian government that secretly ordered the killing of fleeing citizens like the characters in my recently completed novel, What Birds Know.
Or maybe they liked it—being up in that tower with their guns, guarding their country’s Anti-Fascist Freedom Wall.
John, unable to help himself, took a white-toed step toward the opening and stopped. “What do you think they’d do if I stepped over the line?”
“Let’s not find out,” I said, making eye contact with the soldiers staring down at us, guns at the ready. We were so close I could have yelled out the question and the soldiers could have answered for themselves.
Though I didn’t think the soldiers would shoot John, I was certain there’d be some consequence. “Maybe don’t push it,” I said.
Giving the soldiers a quick salute, John stepped back from the gap, away from the Wall. I remember watching the soldiers watch John as he walked toward me and finding the scene sad, if not slightly ridiculous. We weren’t enemies, the four of us. Strangers, yes. Peers, for sure.
But not enemies.
It took me two decades to get back to Berlin, by then a re-unified city. The Berlin Wall had come down in late 1989. Steinstücken was still there, little changed itself—just a leafy suburb like any other. Except it’s not, at least in my memory. I bet those guards, if I could ever find them, would tell me the same. Places like Steinstücken never leave you. Where’s your Steinstücken?
When Jon Crispin agreed to let me reprint some of these rare, vintage photos from Steinstücken I was elated. A former freelancer for the New York Times, among other notable publications and institutions, Jon’s documentary work has been widely exhibited by museums and art organizations, including the New York State Council on Arts, the New York State Museum, and the San Francisco Exploratorium. See Jon’s documentation of suitcases left behind by patients at the now-shuttered Willard Asylum in Willard, NY or find him on Instagram and on Twitter. To see Jon’s other work visit http://www.joncrispin.com/.