by Bobbie Bergesen
The author traveled abroad with her husband performing the vital role of Foreign Service spouse (see her story on assignment to Portugal in the Fall 2000 issue of American Diplomacy). In this account, we get a glimpse of life in Berlin at the height of the Cold War.-Ed.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… ” Although the familiar quotation sometimes seemed apropos, the time was hardly the mid seventeen-seventies of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. Nor were we in London or revolutionary Paris, but rather in post-World War II Vienna and Berlin. It was the late nineteen-fifties, my husband Alf was a Foreign Service officer with the American embassy in Vienna, and our two and a half year tour in the Austrian capital was about to end. To my surprise, I was nostalgic about leaving. Despite housing shortages, a pregnancy, family illnesses, and all the minor inconveniences of post-World War II living in a badly rundown city I was reluctant to leave. It had post-war problems, but Vienna also had many charms—its glorious music, its entrancing setting, and its wonderfully baroque museums and buildings.
Our departure approaching, I began to look forward to our next post, convinced that it would be Bulgaria. Closed since the earliest days of the Cold War, our embassy in Sofia had recently reopened. Without any firm basis, I was convinced we would head there next. I looked forward to living in an intriguing and unusual place. Despite the communist-run government, perhaps traces of attar of roses still existed. Wasn’t prewar Bulgaria noted for that exoticism?
Our orders arrived and I had guessed wrong. Alf was to go to the U. S. mission in Berlin. “Going to Berlin will be like moving just next door,” I pointed out. “All it means is that we’ll just keep on speaking German.” Alf, however, looked forward eagerly to his new job as economic officer in the mission. I regretted missing a chance, or so I thought, to go to the different and more interesting capital I’d hoped for.
As it turned out, Berlin was both different and interesting. Once I got over being teased and laughed at in the neighborhood shops because of my “South German” (Austrian) accent, I found that although Berlin too was under Allied occupation, the atmosphere in the two German-speaking cities was strikingly different. Immediately after our arrival, for example, we were given a choice of three (three!) houses to live in, and we could move in right away (no months-long wait, as in Vienna). Living in Berlin was almost like being in the country, but with urban amenities. A short drive from our U.S.Army-built house in Dahlem and within the city limits were farms complete with cows, chickens and crops. Little gardens had sprung up in areas flattened by the war. In the summertime, my Dachshund Ulla and I could stroll a few blocks to a field where the owner picked homegrown lettuce and tomatoes for me. Outside the neighborhood store where bought groceries, Ulla would wait patiently, properly leashed to the metal dog-holding rack, and happily wag her tail when customers stopped to pat her and tell her how beautiful she was. Berliners spoke lovingly to strange dogs like Ulla and praised their good qualities, I found, but rarely addressed our children.
The city had an indefatigably defiant spirit. When the famous Grune Woche agricultural fair was held, astonishing numbers of people came from all over Europe to admire the vegetables and flowers. The Soviets were blustering at Berlin’s door, Khrushchev threatened to close off the highway that was the city’s lifeline to the West, and yet the Berliners, unfazed, went about their daily tasks and turned out in force for meaningful traditions such as the annual Green Week.When visitors from the outside world came to see us, they were amazed at the citizens’ sangfroid. Once, an American colonel’s wife stationed in Hanover asked me whether, like other wives she knew, I kept an airline ticket close at hand on top of my dresser in case the Soviets attacked Berlin and we dependents had to be hastily evacuated and flown out.
“No. Why?” I remember answering. “If they attack Berlin, then the balloon will go up for sure for the world and everybody. And I’d rather be the first to go than the last if there’s to be an atomic blast.” She shook her head at such bravado and smiled uncertainly. Although it sounded melodramatic, it was truly how I felt at the time. If we were expendable, then so be it. Hopefully, we were in Berlin for a good cause —the cause of freedom.
Once a month, Alf and I drove over to East Berlin in our own car for a brief, authorized visit. Just as we were—plain civilians, not in military uniform—we drove through the Brandenburg Gate for a few blocks and then drove back again. In essence, the act was simply “to show the flag,” to let the East Germans know that the Western powers were around.
It was not until mid-1961, the year after we left, that the Berlin Wall dividing East and West went up cutting ties of all sorts between the two cities. Our German pediatrician, a former glider pilot, told me he traveled every month—presumably by car, or possibly by subway—to East Berlin to meet with colleagues in order to keep them apprised of the latest western medical advances. My hardworking, cheerful weekly cleaning woman, Frau Kathi, who came over from the East, told me her West Berlin salary was helping put her son through university. Her eyes crinkled with laughter when she told me how she wore old shoes over to West Berlin, bought new ones there, left the used ones behind, and wore the new shoes home. Who was to know?
The Wall clearly must have quickly stopped such individual initiatives.
On balance, I found I preferred Berlin to Vienna. Looking back, I realized the pace of the Viennese—at least those I’d come in contact with—had been too pokey, almost languid; it made me impatient. Why couldn’t the Austrians get on with it, move more quickly, heave around more, accomplish more? Not until I lived in Berlin did I realize that this was like asking the Austrians to be more like Germans as Americans think of them: more disciplined, more Prussian, in short, more Germanic. The laid-back Austrian ways, the Austrians’ schlamperei, their gemütlich charm only made me want to nudge them to action. Austrians were not slovenly; they were far too fastidious for that. But they took their time in getting things organized and accomplished. The older folk especially cast back with longing to the good old pre-World War I days, imperial and royal days. This was the time, in fact, of Emperor Franz Joseph. As if to prove the point, one of Alf’s favorite contacts was a courtly old gentleman who had been chief of protocol under the emperor. Some forty years and two World Wars later, he was back in the same job, dignified as ever although no longer serving an Emperor.
In Berlin, by contrast, there was no looking back. Berliners could not bring themselves to refer to the recent Hitlerian past—those terrible days were finished. Nor could they look back even further, to Germany’s defeat in the First World War. The people could only look to the future. That made for the energy one could feel in the city. They were forward-looking and creative in their approach to life; their dynamic and optimistic attitude was evident in every facet of life in Berlin.
All too soon, our Berlin tour was over. We were to go home to Washington, D.C. Alf was ordered to leave immediately, to fly to The Hague and other European cities on business connected with his upcoming job in the Bureau of European Affairs at the Department of State. But for me, leaving our German outpost promised to be traumatic. By myself, with two children and Ulla, I was going to have to drive our sporty red and black Karmann Ghia model Volkswagen (our daughter called it “Carmen Dear”) out through the Berlin Corridor to the West. From there, after shipping the car to the United States; we would fly home and meet Alf in Washington.After seeing him off, I was left feeling hollow and alone. The Soviets were at their shrillest, threatening to close access to Berlin and put the city under East German authority. Impractical though it seemed, officially, the United States didn’t acknowledge the existence of East Germany as a separate state, even though some of its populace seemed intent on trying to escape to the West.
When I went to check out of Berlin officially, an Army captain briefed me carefully about the procedures to follow when I drove my little family out of town for good. “Now, when you get to the checkpoint,” the officer said, “you have to hand your passport over for inspection. If the arm that comes out of the checkpoint window is wearing a Soviet uniform, you can give it to him. But if the arm is in an East German uniform, you cannot hand him your passport.”
“What do I do then?”
“Just turn around, drive back and report it to the U.S. authority.”
As the day of departure neared, I had nightmares about which uniform the arm that reached out to grasp my passport would wear. What if the East Germans made a test case out of us and prevented us from leaving altogether—perhaps even threw us in jail? We might end up being a cause celebre, but to what end? Who wants it? I thought. I just want out with my family and return to Washington to rejoin Alf.
But out of the blue, help arrived. Shortly before we were to leave, a friend in the U.S. mission, an experienced Foreign Service officer who spoke fluent Russian and German, offered to load his wife and family into their station wagon, escort us out, and drive back to Berlin after he had seen us safely over to the West. “This is no time for a woman and children to make that drive alone,” he said. I protested that it would make an awfully long day for him and his family, but I didn’t decline the generous offer.The day of the drive turned out to be beautiful: it was clear, cloudless and the sun was bright. We had the helpful assistance of our Foreign Service colleague and family if needed. I had our passports in order and ready to hand over. (We all had separate passports. Young though they were, the children had their own in case they ever had to travel separately, due to illness or other unforeseen eventuality.)
And, best of all, I was delighted to see that the arm that reached out of the checkpoint booth for our passports was clothed in a Soviet army uniform. Someone in the booth stamped the passports, gave them back, and we were on our way.
The author was a U.S. Foreign Service spouse until the retirement in 1984 of her husband, Alf E. Bergesen. She has previously published a vignette on their assignment in Portugal in this journal and columns on their time in Haiti. Four years after her husband’s death Bobbie Bergesen remarried, but for writing purposes she continues to use the name on this article.