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Berlin Wall

On August 13, 1961, 55 years today, East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. At least 138 individuals died at the Wall during its more than 28 years of existence, most of them East Germans seeking to flee “real existing socialism”. Approximately half of these deaths occurred in the first five years after the Wall’s construction in the period before the GDR was able to refine the fortifications to a point where escape became virtually impossible.

While the construction of the Wall turned the flood of East German citizens fleeing West via Berlin to a trickle, in the early years of the barrier, many desperate individuals tried to escape from East to West across what was in places still a semi-porous border. At times these escape attempts escalated into open confrontations between East German border guards and West Berlin police, sometimes accompanied by an exchange of gunfire. One result of this was that the atmosphere in the newly divided city was highly charged. This was most certainly the case on Sunday, May 27, 1962.

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Last year I used the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to tell my personal “Wall fall” story. There are many that are more exciting, but few that provide that all important “view from Saskatchewan” perspective.

Pseudo-panorama of the death strip at Potsdamer Platz (photo: author).

Pseudo-panorama of the death strip at Potsdamer Platz. Graffiti in underlined in black reads “Germany is more than the Federal Republic of Germany” (photo: author).

This year I’d like to share my memories of my first encounter with the Wall in the spring of 1985 and reflect on the reality that this structure imposed on the divided Berlin for the 28 years of its existence. Read More

This post completes a series of entries on the life of Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a physician from the eastern German city of Schwedt. It is based on an autobiography written by Dr. Goldberg (Vom Prügelkind zur Ärztin/From Whipping Boy to Doctor) and a number of email exchanges I’ve had with her over the past year. I’ve chosen to present this biography in considerable detail as it illustrates a number of aspects of East German life very well.

For the first part of her biography, click here. You’ll find the second part here.

When last heard from Johanna, she had just graduated from medical school at Jena’s Friedrich Schiller University . . .

Working Life – Things Aren’t So Bad (Berka)
Central Clinic in Bad Berka where Johanna G. pursued her specialist training from 1961-1969 (photo: Tnemsoni, Wikicommons)

Central Clinic in Bad Berka where Johanna G. pursued her specialist training from 1961-1969 (photo: Tnemsoni, Wikicommons)

After her husband’s academic plans were derailed by his recurring TB, he decided to complete an apprenticeship program as a caregiver at a clinic in Bad Berka which specialized in treating severe TB cases. In order to be with her husband, Johanna decided to apply to complete training as a lung specialist at this same clinic. Once accepted here, Goldberg quickly distinguished herself and was invited by the Senior Doctor to complete a PhD qualification under his supervision. During the nine years the couple spent in Bad Berka, Goldberg completed both her specialists’ training and her PhD studies. And were that not enough, she also managed to bring into the world the couple’s first child, a son.

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The Shuffle Demons emerged on the Canadian music scene in the mid-1980s and immediately made a name for themselves as a sax-focused jazz quintet whose high energy performances married hard bop rap with fun. The group is best known for its track “Spadina Bus” and a video for the song, a paean to a bus route in their hometown of Toronto, turned a lot of heads and helped establish the band as a fixture on the Canadian jazz scene.

Between 1985 and 1997, the band toured Europe a remarkable fifteen times and during the early years, they busked their way across the continent, picking up the occasional gig on the way. During 1985, the band traveled to the island of West Berlin to try their luck on the streets there and then decided to head eastwards and see what the side of the city behind the wall had to offer. I saw an interview with the band after this trip in which they made mention of their adventures in East Berlin and was reminded of this after encountering the band at a music festival here in Toronto recently. Interest piqued, I contacted the band through their website and was thrilled when one of the band’s founders, Richard Underhill, agreed to meet with me to reminisce about their East Berlin experience.

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Happy Wall Fall everyone! On this day 24 years ago, the Berlin Wall was breached after East German authorities buckled to the pressure caused by a wave of emigration and let their citizens travel West upon demand. Anyone old enough to have been aware of the event seems to have a story about where they were when the Wall fell and here is mine . . .

The Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse in summer 1990 (photo: author).

The Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse in summer 1990; in the distance the lighting masts of Friedrich Jahn Sportpark, homeground of the Dynamo Berlin Football Club (photo: author).

Soup, Sandwich with Some History on the Side

On November 9th, 1989, I was a twenty-one year old record store employee pursuing German language studies part-time at the University of Saskatchewan. That same year I’d spent three months in Germany immersing myself in a language course in West Berlin and then travelling around the Federal Republic for a few weeks. As the situation in the GDR came to a head that fall, I followed events through reports on PBS’ McNeil Lehrer Newshour which typically featured clandestinely shot footage of street protests, demonstrations and/or arrests being carried out by People’s Police officers. These grainy videos were all bathed in the distinctive orange and yellow glow cast by the East German street lights, an effect that has imposed itself on most of my memories of that tumultuous time.

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I’m going to start this post marking the 52nd anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961 (what do you get a Wall that has ceased to exist?!) by referring to Lloyd Cole, one of my favourite signers.  The lead single off his latest record (the very fine Standards) is a tune called ‘Period Piece’ which is written from the point of view of the Berlin Wall. In it Cole sings, “It was my austere demeanour defined the age”. Anyone who experienced the Wall while in Berlin will know that Lloyd is not exaggerating: the Wall served to make manifest the tensions of the Cold War in way that nothing else ever did. Something for which we can be grateful.

For those of you in need of a tutorial on this event, a clip below from the Discovery Channel gives a decent overview of the Wall’s construction, even if it does, bizarrely, date the event as August 20th?!

Wall Chasing in Winnipeg

Perhaps it’s the Wall’s era-defining quality that explains my motivation for spending part of my recent western Canadian vacation tracking down one of its many pieces which have been strewn around the globe in the past 20+ years. Read More

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