In July 1965, I went on an exchange visit to West Berlin, as it then was. My job while there was to tend the gardens and paths of Glienicker Park, a place of weekend relaxation for Berliners in the South-West of the City – in an area known as Wannsee. The infamous Wannsee Conference sealed the fate of European Jewry, as it was there that the ‘Final Solution’ was outlined – and the timetables drawn up – via which six million people were to be exterminated.
I was invited to go by an organisation known as Christlichjudischezusammenarbeit – Christians and Jews working together – and some sixty or so of us from France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and Holland lived together for six weeks in a Zeltlager – tent camp – in the woodlands of the Park. Each day after work, in the early evening, there was a brief lecture on the subject of German resistance to the Nazis, Ostpolitik, German culture and so forth. By 8 pm, we were free to do what we liked. What we usually liked was to go into Berlin centre and frequent the myriad beat clubs and beatnik bars that flourished there at the time. What I mainly wanted to do was find a German bird and get laid.
As it happens, I didn’t succeed. But they do say youth is wasted on the young, and there is every likelihood that this experience was largely wasted on me. Or rather, I simply didn’t grasp the historical importance of what I was witnessing.
To one side of Glienicker Park ran the River Havel, the watery border between West Berlin and East Germany (then the DDR) and across which sat Glienicker Bridge – the location for Richard Burton coming in from the Cold in the famous spy-film, and also the real-life spot where various spy-swaps were effected between East and West.
Every night after dark, dozens of Ostis tried to swim the river in a bid for freedom. Like footie fans watching a minor league game, we would occasionally sit at the top of escarpments and watch the East Germans spraying bullets at the escapees – as if the entertainment might have been specially laid on for us.
On other evenings, we sampled the Berlin Underground system (the U-Bahn) and on one occasion wound up on the wrong side of the Wall. I was terrified by this event, but Del – a cockney in our midst who seemed to have no trouble getting off with German birds – charmed the Vopos (Volkspolizei) who duly put us back on the return train. Afterwards I remember we visited a fast-food joint near the Berlin Zoo Station called the Mikosch. There we feasted on bockwurst and chips before paying for a late-night tram Fahrkart back to Wannsee.
Twice we entered East Berlin officially via the legendary Checkpoint Charlie, where the Ostis made us exchange Bundesrepublik Marks 1:1 with Ostmarks….even though the official exchange rate was nearer to 1:5. The tawdry and downbeat nature of the Eastern Sector was a bucket of cold and muddy water. The shops were poorly stocked, and the bars sold gnats-piss masquerading as beer. We got various DDR citizens to talk to us, but not while Vopos or other worrying presences were there. Maybe many things were lost on me back then, but this was a life-changing experience. Going up to University the following year, I felt somehow more worldly than the weekend Maoists busily proclaiming how life could be infinitely wonderful in the Socialist Utopia that was to come. In a word, East Berlin was seedy.
In the last week of the six I was there, we taken to see the small Schloss where the Wannsee plan for the Jews was finally agreed. The place had an oddly antiseptic feel, but at the same time displayed a great deal of wood panelling and other impressive furniture. The view out of the large windows onto the Havel river was stunning. I imagined it there in 1942, confident bourgeois Berliners bathing on the shores and eating their Apfelkuchen as senior Nazis made plans for railway excursions to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The idea was beyond chilling.
The night before our departure, contraband supplies of schnapps and Schultheiss beer were smuggled into the camp. It wasn’t the first time I had been drunk and disorderly, but it was the first time I’d been drunk and incapable. A Swiss bloke found me at one point in the evening face down in a puddle in the Glienicker woods. He said, “I turned you over so that you could breathe”. Earlier, we had thought a skinny-dipping splash about in the Havel might be fun, but within minutes we were bathed in yellow searchlights being wielded by the Goons on the DDR side. Warning shots were fired. It was all such a laugh. It makes one wonder how any of us survive to middle age.
It was a hot, clear summer. The German girls were blonde and tanned and appallingly unavailable. It was forty-seven years ago. It was another life.