“…In the gloom there would be a guard: a Kalashnikov slung across his chest. He would watch us go by and, from the carriage, we would all watch him; the eerie platform slipping back into the darkness. As if it had never even existed…”
For some reason the routine intrusion of The Cold War into the everyday lives of ordinary Berliners is often overlooked in favour of high-octane, Hollywood-style, dramatics – dreamed up by people whose closest brushes with the Evil Empire came reading about it in their newspapers moments before getting miffed about their breakfast egg being over-hard. Forget all the James Bond nonsense. In light of the fact that this November sees the 20th-anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction, what follows here is an authentic recollection of how the average citizens of Cold War-torn Berlin encountered a segregation that went beyond The Wall.
For Berliners either side of the divide, the winter of ’85/’86 was bitterly cold, with temperatures falling to minus 20 degrees. In the East all the heating systems were fired with cheap, dirty, brown coal and combined with the weather it created an incredible smog situation. “It stank!” recalls Silke, a student in West Berlin, 1983-1989. “That’s one time I really noticed the East because it literally came over the Wall.”
Originally from the rural Lower Saxony in northwest Germany, Silke said the situation in Berlin shocked her but often not in the ways usually portrayed in predictable novels or lazy stereotypical spy films. Although a monolithic symbol of division, misery and terror, the Wall did not always evoke such feelings by such obvious means. “When I first arrived I didn’t really notice the Wall that much,” admits Silke. “I saw it, but it wasn’t the first thing, y’know? You encountered it in different ways,” she says. And so it was with the U-Bahn metro: an unassuming and ubiquitous aspect of the ordinary modern city. Of course, during the Cold War Berlin was no ordinary city.
Back then the Wall’s impact, like its foundations, ran deep. Literally. The political divisions even permeating below ground to incorporate a metro system spanning all sectors of the splintered city streets above. Metros were conceived to liberate city centres. However, for many years the U-Bahn (and S-Bahn) were fettered by the very city it was meant to set free. Lines that began and ended in the West but had to pass under and beyond the Wall’s boundaries, found their corresponding stations sealed off by the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (or DDR – the East German government). The West even had to pay an annual fee for the privilege of simply passing through.
The offending stations became known as Geisterbahnhöfe – Ghost stations. Places that, for the uninitiated, held quite an impact: “You would be sat in your carriage,” recalls Silke, “passing normal, colourful stations when, suddenly, you crawled past a darkened platform. It felt like there was only one light-bulb on and in the gloom there would be this guard: a Kalashnikov slung across his chest. He’d watch us go by and we would all be watching him from inside our carriage.
“In the background there would be this ancient station, completely untouched possibly since WWII started never mind ended. They would be in great neglect – tiles falling off walls and ancient advertising posters flaking off billboards. Everything was just left to rot, with that lone guard among it all. Eyeballing you. Then everything would quickly slip back into the darkness. Almost as if it never even existed. It was very eerie,” says Silke.
However, Friedrichstraße station, a western-operated stop on the ‘wrong’ side of the Wall, was the permitted transfer point for German West-Berliners (with all necessary documentation of course) to cross into the East. Silke made the journey numerous times, giving way to a staggering revelation. “For the first time I saw how the real city centre was in the East!
“Up until then I hadn’t actually known that and had always sort of thought Berlin was just split down the middle. But all the museums, the Humboldt University, the big cathedrals, the theatres, these beautiful buildings, they were all in the East. Hardly any were in the West by comparison. I was absolutely amazed by its architecture, its grandeur,” says Silke.
But she was equally shocked at how it all looked. “All the facades on the Unter den Linden,” explains Silke, “were still full of bullet holes from the WWII.” Nobody had bothered to renovate anything. All that neglect,” sighed Silke shaking her head, “it was like a time warp.”
For Silke, Friedrichstraße station was a gateway to another, previously unknown and invisited world. It also featured an anomaly in its Western section: the Intershop. Accepting only hard currency (West-Marks) these DDR state-run stores were not subject to Western taxes so sold the usual Western-brand booze, cigarettes, perfume and chocolates at duty-free proces back top West Berliners in a bid to give their own malnurished economy a shot in the arm.
Friedrichstraße station remained a microcosm of Berlin, divided by military checkpoints and with separate platforms for citizens of the opposed regimes. “I remember it being ugly – bleak yellow,” recalls Silke. “We had to wait in long lines to show our passports (they liked to make you wait) and go through a checkpoint. And I know it was used by both East and West Berliners,” says Silke, “but exactly where the others were, I don’t know. I can’t remember now if you could see them or not.” That gap in Silke’s memory, her non-recollection, feels an apt way to evoke those old Ghost Stations.
Indeed, the only references made to the Geisterbahnhöfe (an unofficial term) was that on Western maps they were struck through with, “Bahnhofe, auf denen die Züge nicht haltern,” (‘stations at which the trains do not stop’) written in the key.
But at least they were acknowledged – and, therefore, at least the souls beyond their bunker-like platforms were acknowledged. Mourned even. Ominously, Western stations, lines – people – were omitted from East German underground maps altogether. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ was seemingly the mantra of the dismissive yet torturously suspicious East.
Yet this spectacular lack of documentation or acknowledgement could inspired. Well, it at least inspired Jan Bielawski who began making home made video-diaries of the idiosyncrasies of Berlin’s U-Bahns/S-Bahns – an act of citizen-journalism that seems weirdly before its time given that YouTube (where his footage can be viewed today) was still nearly 30 years away.
A Pole from Warsaw, Jan first visited Berlin as a 19 year-old with his professor father in 1976 but he can still remember where they spent their first night in town, the Hotel Newa on Invalidenstrasse in the East – as dilapidated and idiosyncratic place as East Berlin itself: A portrait of Eric Honecker (the DDR‘s leader 1971-1989) hung in the lobby while the rooms’ televisions were preset to Western stations. From this base, Jan crossed into West Berlin (and out of the iron grip of Communism) everyday on the Friedrichstraße S-Bahn to explore. It was “the perfect ‘detox’ from Communism,” laughs Jan, whose freedom to travel abroad was restricted to “exotic” Berlin by his own (‘lapse’) Soviet state.
In following years Jan , in the West, now totally infatuated with the oddities of Berlin, would stay with a friend in Lankwitz and returned every year until 1988. “The whole situation and setup seemed so totally unique to me,” said Jan. “I was really surprised that any time I mentioned this to anyone, the reaction would be mild surprise. When I wanted to go to East Berlin to investigate, my Lankwitz friend would just wave his hand and say: ‘Yeah, right, like I am going to give my money to Communists!’ - It cost 5 Marks for a West Berliner to cross into East Berlin – payable at the border,” Jan explains.
“Idiotic and humorous” situations, as Jan calls them, were commonplace: The Wollankstrasse S-Bahn station, that sat entirely inside East Berlin, had the Wall routed around it in such a way that it was physically sitting inside West Berlin. “The sign outside the building said something like, ‘this station is inside East Berlin territory,” recalls Jan, “but for all practical purposes this didn’t mean anything besides the odd fact that the West Berlin police therefore could not enter it.”
The Zoologischer Garten station had a similar status. “Although not formally on eastern territory,” continues Jan. “It was, for some reason, considered the property of East Berlin and the police could not enter it either. That was just fine with drug addicts there,” he smiles.
There were also entire streets falling one side of the Wall’s boundary but with the entrance to its buildings on the other side: “Once, on Bouchestrasse,” Jan says , “ I saw a policeman standing at the entrance ask a passer-by to buy him a pack of cigarettes from the machine in the street. The policeman could not step onto that street while in uniform!”
But it was the Geisterbahnhöfe’s combination of the sinister and surreal that really got to Jan. “For example,” he explains, “S-Bahn doors could be opened even at full-speed, a great rush it was, and people would simply open them before the train came to a stop. But this provided a headache for the DDR at the Geisterbahnhöfe, because the combination of a slowly moving S-Bahn (trains always slowed down to pass through the Ghost Stations) and its easily opened doors meant there was a potential escape route,” explains Jan.
Of course, as far as the official party line went, nobody wanted to leave the socialist-utopia of the USSR so these underground chinks in The Wall’s armour had to patched up so as to prevent a slew of rapacious Westerners wanting to get in. Consequently, all eastern S-Bahn stations on the only west-bound S-Bahn line passing under East Berlin (the Frohnau – Lichtenrade) had steel mesh curtains hanging near both edges of the platform. “Those curtains disappeared very quickly after November 1989 (when the Wall came down), let me tell you!” says Jan, with a twinkle in his eyes.