Day 10- Berlin (Tempelhof)

Day 2 in Berlin- Monday, March 21st, 2011After a good night’s sleep, we had a typical Frühstück, which consisted of eggs, cheese, ham and pasty. We then headed out for some sightseeing and more grocery shopping. We needed enough food for a week.

Typically, Germans will buy their pastries daily; but being American, we sometimes bought enough for two days, then went out again. I am not a morning person, so I don’t want to get up early, run downstairs to the bakery (there is typically a Bäckerei on every block), and get pastries. When my husband visited Berlin with me in 2006, he would get up early like the Germans and get our daily baked goods. He made friends and felt like a German– but he’s a morning person. My sister, daughter and I preferred to sleep instead.


Since my sister rented a car, we spent most of the day driving around the city getting re-oriented and shopping for souvenirs. As a teenager, and even in my prior visits as an adult, I had never driven a car in Berlin.  I’ve always used the mass transit system (especially the u- bahn). Although  I’m a very good map reader, navigating in Berlin was very challenging for me. When I lived here, it  was divided, so my points of reference were off– no Wall! And, although I’m a pretty aggressive driver, Germans are more so, as are the bikers. The bikes drive as if they have no fear of being hit.

At the end of the day we found ourselves–quite by accident– at Berlin’s Tempelhof Flughafen (Tempelhof Airport). Tempelhof Airport is an historic site. It is a behemoth structure which was once one of the 20 largest buildings in the world. Before it became an airfield, the site was a parade ground. In 1908 Orville Wright made several demonstration flights in his Wright Flyer.

One of the many decorative eagles typical
of Reich architecture

Between 1936 and 1941 the National Socialists (Nazis) redesigned the former airport into a structure that was so commanding, it won its designer– Ernst Sagebiel–a listing in the Guinness Book of Records. Sagebiel was also listed for another infamous Nazi structure– the former Air Ministry building. I will discuss more about the Reich Air Ministry bldg in my ‘Day 5 in Berlin’ post (Day 15 of Israel-Germany trip).

As was typical of Reich architecture, Tempelhof was built with the party’s signature eagles, upon an imposing monumental style structure. The roof could accommodate 100,000 people to witness parades and air shows.

Eagle head near front entrance-
was once on top of the building

Though the Nazis began the building, the Americans finished Tempelhof, expanding it between 1959 and 1962. The Nazis had become too distracted with the war to finish their grand project. Instead, they were concentrated on constructing bombers in an abandoned underground railroad tunnel in Tempelhof’s vast catacombs. The roof that the Nazis had planned to use for a large restaurant was instead made into a bowling alley and basketball court by the Americans.

General Lucius Clay was over the high command at the conclusion of WWII and responsible for pulling the city out of the rubble. There is still a commemorative plaque there today (see picture below). Gen. Clay’s name was very important in Berlin. In commemoration of the Allied military strategy to counter the Berlin Blockade, a major thoroughfare was named after him–Clayallee. The execution of the Berlin Airlift proved to the Soviets that the Allies could and would protect their interests in West Berlin, despite its precarious location deep in East German territory. The US HQ building– Clay Headquaters–was postumuously named after him in 1978.

Commemorative plaque-
Gen. Lucius D. Clay

My family flew into Tegel, not Tempelhof when we arrived in Berlin for the first time in 1980. This is because Berlin’s modern new Tegel Airport was opened five years earlier– this was the beginning of the end for Tempelhof.  The deathknell was delivered when Lufthansa, Germany’s signature airline, moved its operations to Tegel in 1996. There are now plans in the works to turn the former Soviet bloc era airport Schönefeld into a mega-airport, thus replacing Tegel in prominence. I had the opportunity to visit Schönefeld in the summer of 2006, when my sister flew into this tiny airport.

Schönefeld is the smallest airport I’ve ever seen. Since this airport was deep within the East German side, and technically not a part of Berlin at all, we had never been allowed to travel to it. Due to the Soviet restrictions on flights among its citizens (and the Four Powers Agreement after the war banning all German carriers’ participation in air flight to Berlin), it only has four ‘terminals,’ with only one concourse. As of May 8th of this year it was supposed to be expanded and become Berlin Brandenburg Airport– the all new international airport for Berlin. However, it is still under construction. For movie buffs–or just plain Hitchcock fans like me– the movie Torn Curtain has scenes that are supposed to take place at Schönefeld. The whole movie is pretty good at giving you the ‘feel’ of living in Cold War East Berlin, although from decade to decade that feeling varied somewhat.

Silver Wings Air Force Club

On the back of Tempelhof (northeast side) is the Club Silver Wings. It was originally the US Air Force Officers Club. The Silver Wings was a very popular night spot, not only for Air Force GI’s but for many of us teens. My best friend and I would go with her older sister (who was 21); she would sweet talk the Air Force guards at the front gate to get her sister and I in. Admittedly, my high school days in Berlin were a bit on the wild side.  Berlin has always been famous for its night life and during the US occupation, the most popular night spots (whether on the military base or off) were those frequented by GI’s and military dependents. Here is an excellent article about this purely American phenomena– the permanent influence of African American GI’s on the musical culture of Berlin.

Taken at dusk– The Silver Wings
I was very surprised to find that, even though Tempelhof was closed in 2008, the Silver Wings is still open! It is now a German run disco nightclub.
La Belle Nightclub Bombing
Speaking of Berlin night clubs, for those who are old enough, you may remember the April 1986 bombing of the LaBelle discotheque in Berlin by the Libyans. This led to the US bombing of Libya a few days later. One of the most popular night clubs during the 80’s was the Talk of the TownThe Talk of the Town was owned by the parents of one of my best friends from high school– his father was an African American and former GI, his mother was a German.**
Being owned by the parents of a classmate meant that it was popular not only with the locals, but with all the American high schoolers as well. LaBelle was not very far from the Talk of the Town. Thus when the news first broke that a celebrated American nightclub in Berlin had been bombed, many of us who had already rotated back to US installations (as my family had) were shocked, dismayed and fearful that it was the Talk of the Town.
It is believed that Gaddafi ordered the hit on the club; finally, in 2008 the Libyan government paid $1.5 billion into a fund to compensate the victims of the LaBelle bombing, as well as three other famous attacks on US citizens during the 80’s.
Zentral Flughafen

Besides the Silver Wings, I have many other fond memories of Tempelhof. Every year my friends and family would attend the TCA Open House , which was like an airshow festival. There were military aircraft and vehicles to explore, lots of food and fun. Also, our high school– Berlin American High School– would hold graduation ceremonies here on occasion.
Typically, each graduating class chose a different historical venue to hold their commencement exercises. My junior year I was part of the concert band (first chair flute– just sayin’), so we played Pomp & Circumstance for the class of 1982–many of my friends were in that graduating class. Most auspiciously, we had the awesome privilege of seeing President Ronald Reagan on June 11, 1982, when he visited our fair city and spoke at Tempelhof. Thanks to my alumni organization, Berlin Brats, we have a copy of the program from that day.

Luftbrücke (Berlin Airlift) monument-
commemorating Operation Vittles
Even though Tempelhof was officially closed in 2008, the debate concerning the fate of Tempelhof rages on among Berliners and many of us former Berliners. Like Houston’s Astrodome, it lies dormant waiting on the powers that be to determine its final destiny. Thankfully, demolition is not an option, as Tempelhof is a protected landmark. More information about Tempelhof’s history can be found here.
**In my book Cold War Memories: A Retrospective on Living in Berlin , there are two personal accounts of what that night was like in for Americans living in Berlin in 1986.
Next blog post: Day 11 Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp