Life in the Shadow of the Wall: East Berlin, 1961-1966

To mark the 57th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, here are some memories of Gundula Wilhelm, a retired pastor’s wife from Alberta, Canada. Gundula and her family moved to East Berlin in 1952 so that her father, a Lutheran pastor, could serve the zum Vaterhaus parish on Treptow’s Baumschulenweg, just a short stroll to the border dividing the two halves of the city.

Wall - Berlin Aug 13 cover

Berlin August 13, a publication of Federal Republic of Germany’s Ministry for All-German Affairs, here in a revised and expanded version in April 1965 (author’s collection)

“It was wonderful growing up in the Berlin of that time. When we arrived in the city, the border was still open of course, so you could go over on the S-Bahn [commuter train, ed] any time you wished,” remembers Gundula.  “You might be unlucky and get searched, but that never happened to me. We had close relatives over there though, so we were over often. In fact, we were in the West visiting a cousin on August 12, 1961, but came back to the ‘lovely’ East that evening. We woke up the next morning to the sound of tanks passing by our house on their way to the border just up the road. And from that point on, you couldn’t go across, simple as that.” (Interview with author, May 27, 2018)

While we are familiar with these sad stories of the immediate consequences of the Wall’s construction, it was the account of the years that followed shared by Gundula and her husband Friedmut which I found most fascinating as they help bring to life the atmosphere that the couple and their circle of young friends experienced in the aftermath of the Wall.

“I don’t know how my parents stood it!”

“I have to say those first 3 or 4 years after the building of the Wall were a really intense time. We did so many things. Looking back, I don’t know how we managed it. A lot of really deep friendships were formed . . .


zum Vaterhaus parish, Berlin, Treptow centre, taken 2008 (photo: BenKs, Wikicommons)

As it turned out, my father’s parsonage [residence owned by a church in which its pastor and their family live, ed.] became a meeting place for a number of young people. Some of them had lost their apprenticeships in the West when the wall went up, but there were some others as well. And there was a feeling of, ‘We have to do something!’ So we started to meet regularly, maybe once a month, sometime at one person’s house, the next time at another’s. And everyone gave a short presentation on what they did. There were a number of university students, a teacher, someone from the Art College, musicians, engineers, my brother who was an artist blacksmith and some of his colleagues, even a theologian.

And we met regularly, we’d act out a play together. Ibsen. Just for us, you understand. Then we had a Fasching party (German version of Carnival, a boisterous party held just before the beginning of the period of Lent, the church season often marked by reflection, repentance and, often, fasting, ed.) to . My sister was at the Art College and she and some of her friends made invitations and decorated the parsonage. I don’t know how my parents stood it! It was a big deal, dozens of people. But it only happened twice, because then my brother was arrested.

Through his apprenticeship my brother had met a lot of students from West Berlin. At the time, West Berliners couldn’t come East, but West German citizens could. So there was a steady stream of them coming over for a look. My brother had a particular talent for attracting girls . . .


Friedmut and Gundula Wilhelm, May 27, 2018 (photo: author).

At any rate, this scene lasted for about two years and we did lots of things. There was an exhibition of works by a teacher of Russian who painted. He wanted to display his works. They were huge and politically problematic, modernist and that sort of thing. And to think my parents decided to let him exhibit in the parsonage! And people came to have a look. (In the 80s, when Lutheran churches became hubs for opposition activity, many hosted artistic activities and exhibitions by artists unable to work within official channels, but I was surprised to hear of such activity during this period, ed.)

Then early one morning, when the exhibit was still on, the doorbell rang as my brother was about to leave for work. It was the police and when we opened the door, they arrested him. Three other friends of his were taken that same day. We later learned that he was accused of providing assistance to people who wanted to flee the country.

I remember that while they were searching the house, they came across the paintings and one of them offered to do us a favour and make the paintings disappear. My father refused saying, ‘They made their way in here and they’ll make their own way out again.’

My brother sat in investigative custody for 11 months and then sentenced to 4 years. He did his time, returned home for a time and had a job, but then he was then ‘bought out’ of the GDR by the Federal Republic for hard currency.” (Interview with author, May 27, 2018)


1 comment
  1. Rich P said:

    Another interesting slice. Thanks again!

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