Visiting Berlin—Mauermuseum, Checkpoint Charlie & the Berlin Wall

The last time I was in the former DDR was in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall.

The only sign of “modern” life was a solitary, incongruous Baskin Robbins ice-cream truck parked on the side of a bleak street. It was so out of place, I’ll never forget it. There were no designer clothes in shop windows or fancy cars in the streets. Also the border crossings. You were allowed to pass through, but actually doing it was chilling. The empty watch towers, the no-mans land, the multiple gates. Defunct or not, it unnerved me, and I was damn glad to return to the western side.

That was a lifetime ago. Now the cold war is a distant memory, for me anyway, and it was fun (and slightly weird) to hunt for signs that it ever existed.

Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (Mauermuseum)

Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous East-West border crossing in Germany, has its own museum.

Checkpoint Charlie Museum, Berlin


Scout by the original border sign, Checkpoint Charlie Museum, Berlin

The Mauermuseum (Checkpoint Charlie museum) opened in 1962 in a tiny apartment on Bernauer Straße. The street was divided down the  middle; the buildings in the east had been vacated and their windows were bricked up. Through a small window, escape helpers could observe all movements at the border crossing. They helped work out escape plans and welcomed escapees. Thanks to friendly contacts with escape helpers they were given hot-air balloons, escape cars, chairlifts, and even a small submarine. The museum also has one of the automatic spring guns that once lined the wall, firing at anything that moved.

These days the museum is much larger, and seems to need a dose of Ritalin. Everything connected with the wall is there, from the important (escape accounts, eyewitness accounts, and chronologies of the construction of the wall, which became more permanent over time) to the trivial (endless children’s artwork, 30 years of random press clippings, etc.). Imagine a Berlin Wall episode of “Hoarders.” When Scout first walked in, she slumped down in a corner muttering to herself, “This is too messy.” And she was right. This museum needs a museum tough-minded curator to purge and organize everything.

The escape-related items were spectacular. We saw tiny cars with false trunks. Suitcases with false sides (a guy put them next to each other on the train, and then had his East German girlfriend climb in and hide until the train reached the west.) A homemade hot-air balloon that two families of four (with no flight or aeronautical-engineering experience) built and successfully used to escape. Tunnel photographs. Photos of people plunging out of buildings, hoping to land alive in the West. False documents.

People were amazingly inventive. And brave. Nearly 200 people died trying to reach freedom in the West. But really, what other choice did they have.

A reconstruction of Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin. These days visitors can pose for a souvenir photo with the “guard,” and then pop across the street to buy a burger at McDonald’s.

Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall)

Most of the Wall is gone now, but once in a while a remnant hits you in the face when you aren’t expecting it. The largest remaining section is the East Side Gallery is a 1.3km-long stretch of the wall near the center of Berlin. Panels have been painted by artists from all over the world.

Berlin Wall

East Side Gallery, Berlin. Berlin Wall mural showing Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker. The mural was painted over by authorities, but later repainted by the artist.

The 160-km “Berlin Mauerweg,” a cobblestone walking and bike path that marks the Wall’s footprint.

We loved following the Mauerweg, which traces the former border-fortification route and has 30 different stations that describe Berlin’s division, the construction of the Wall, daily life in the divided city, and how the Wall eventually fell.

I wish we could have seen more, but our Berlin stay was severely impacted by our own personal cold war (parents vs. tired 10-year-old). Getting into town from the campground was a logistical nightmare involving a looooong bike ride, a subway trip, a transfer, another subway trip, and then some walking. Plus it was really hot.

It’s difficult to explore cities that are far from our campground. It takes so long to get into town that Scout’s exhausted before we even start. I think eventually we’ll figure out a solution, but for now we saw what we could and then negotiated a Realpolitik compromise with the kid — lunch at a fancy cafe. Good enough. 🙂

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RV Camping in Berlin: We’re camped at Hettler and Lange, which takes dogs, but has really expensive & not-so-great wifi

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Slater June 13, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Awesome photos! Going to live vicariously through you guys, while we toil away here in Vancouver. 🙂

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2 Renee June 15, 2011 at 7:59 am

Thanks so much, Chris. Glad to have you along. 🙂

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3 joannbc June 15, 2011 at 7:03 am

Wow, awesome write up and photos. Loving it! 🙂

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4 Renee June 15, 2011 at 7:38 am

Thanks! Am already getting backed up on photo processing though.

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5 Mirella June 17, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Hello darlings and Happy Birthday Renee!

Love the new blog – I too feel like I am there with you, and love the photos – you are talented.

I hear from Mark your German is excellent 🙂

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6 Renee June 28, 2011 at 7:11 am

Mirella! Thanks on all counts. The German has certainly come in handy but Good Lord it’s rusty. Now that we’re about to leave the country, I feel I owe a blanket apology to Germans everywhere.

We miss you.

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