Checkpoint Charlie

The rising sun cast a rosy hue across the morning sky. Golden fingers of sunlight lit up the scene. The just-risen sun shone softly on the city streets, bringing with it a flurry of early-morning activity. I wake up and decide to visit East Berlin.

I arrive with excitement at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between East and West Berlin, also known as Checkpoint C, at Friedrichstraße. The thought of entering Eastern Block makes me very curious and, at the same time, scary. I am aware that this is a lifetime opportunity.

I spot a coffee shop — The Eagle Cafe and decide to have a coffee. A sweet waft of fresh bread and coffee gushes as I enter the restaurant. It is a nicely decorated spacious cafe. The seating arrangement, the loaves of bread, muffins, beverages, and other services are adorable. A few customers are already in the restaurant chatting. They must also be joining the day-long visit to East Berlin. The coffee is hot and delicious, and as I have some time, I go to the viewing point to get a quick glimpse of what I would see in the day. Beyond Checkpoint Charlie, the well-paved roads with massive buildings and trees beyond the Berlin Wall provide an enchanting view. The Berlin Wall is a fortified concrete and wire barrier built by East Germany to keep East Berliners from defecting to the west. Historical records indicate that 2.5 million skilled workers, professionals, and intellectuals fled to West Germany between 1949 and 1961.

I approach the security point as it is time for the tour. Three tough-looking and burly officers are at the gate — cold and without any smile. None of them utters a single word. They work in tandem to make sure we follow the security checks. One officer takes my passport, makes a copy, and returns the stamped copy, keeping the original document. The second officer takes my bag and empties the contents on a table. I carry three paperbacks- The Lust for Life by Irving Stone, The Prize by Irving Wallace and The Amok by Stefan Zweig, in addition to a small notebook and a bottle of water. He returns my bag with the notebook and the water bottle, taking away the other books. The officer asks me to leave behind my camera at the security. A middle-aged woman stops me as I step out of the security gate. She requests me to exchange my West German Marks. She counts and gives me equivalent East German Marks.

Another young lady who spoke perfect English leads us to the waiting bus. I have the company of ten others along with the guide and the driver. The bus is new and sparkingly clean with blue floral curtains. As we settle in our seats, I look out of the window. I find the German officers busy scanning my books with all seriousness. I am sure that I will not get the books back.

Three athletic Germans with different attire jump into the bus and take the seats at the back as the bus starts. They are probably from Staasi- The German Secret Police. The tour guide tells us that we need to follow her instructions and does not expect any non-compliance on tour. She warns us not to stray from her eyesight, and we will face severe consequences if we do not adhere to the rules. We can not talk to any strangers, give or accept gifts during the tour.

The bus enters Stalinallee in thirty minutes. The monumental avenue runs through Friedrichshain and Mitte, a 300-foot large multiple lane street with large buildings built by the Soviet Union. The impressive statue of Joseph Stalin resides in the boulevard.

The next stop is Lenin Monument. We learn from the guide that Soviet Sculptor, Nikolai Tomsky, created this in 1970 to commemorate the birth century of Vladimir Lenin. The halt is for ten minutes, and we get down to go around the monument. Polished concrete steps lead us to the colossal statue on a high pedestal. The guide and the Stasi officers follow while the driver waits on the bus. We get back into the bus precisely after ten minutes. We pass through another landmark — the Oberbaumbrücke, the red brick tower bridge — another symbol of a divided city with several checkpoints on the way. The bus stops at Boxhagener Platz, a big marketplace for visitors with shops selling souvenirs, primarily Russian memorabilia such as fridge magnets, postcards. The guide takes us to a specific shop for us to buy souvenirs. The bus stops for twenty minutes for the first opportunity to spend our East German Marks.

The bus glides along the Rotes Rathaus, the red city hall and Fernsehturm in Alexandraplatz. We cross Nikolavietel, Nikola’s crossroad, named after St Nicholas Church, and the houses give a feel of the eighteenth-century style. The bus stops at DDR Museum for one hour. It is a guided tour, and we go to a specific restaurant afterwards under the observation of the guide and Stasi officers. The contemporary restaurant offers an excellent outside view. The representation of the spread is impressive, and the prices are reasonable. There is unusual quietness in the restaurant, except for the noise of the plates and cutlery.

The next stop is Humboldt University, the world’s preeminent university for the natural sciences during the 19th and early 20th century, located in Unter den Linden boulevard, well known for eminent philosophers, sociologists, artists, lawyers, politicians, mathematicians, scientists. Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Otto von Bismarck studied here. Flowers and shrubs bloom, the lawns green up, and the campus with historic and ancient buildings is gorgeous.

The bus stops briefly at a sanatorium, the last stop where the guide tells us to drop the extra East German Marks we had in a large box outside. We return to Checkpoint Charlie. I take leave of the tour guide and collect my passport and the books.

Epilogue: I again visit Berlin after thirty years. While the complete wall does not exist, the East Berlin strip of the street exists where hundreds of artists have left their brush strokes. Checkpoint Charlie is sitting in the Mauer museum with other artefacts. Lenin monument does not exist, and Lenin’s head is resting in Spandau Citadelle museum with other German monuments. The bronze statue of Stalin does not survive. Stasi is nowhere. The new name for Stalinallee is Karl Marx Allee. However, Humboldt University is standing tall with all its glory and offering about 200 courses.




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