The 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall (part 1)

At Brandenburg Gate– I was psyched for the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall

I know, I know..the city-wide celebration for the Fall of the Berlin Wall was months ago. However, I have been über busy at work and with life. I’ve had several friends tell me they enjoy my blogging, and I should do more. I don’t really have much that I feel compelled to blog about, thus the lapse of four years since my last post!  Maybe when I become famous…one can dream. Anyway, one thing I do feel compelled to write about is Berlin. It is why I  actually wrote a book with my best friend from high school about that famous and infamous city.

Berlin stole my heart when my family was stationed there with the Army back in the early 80s. To that end, I think I should give a bit of a back story for those who do not know me, because it will point out the significance of the 25th Anniversary event to me in particular and to all my Berlin Brat Alumni friends in general.

A Short History Lesson

After the war, on 5 June 1945, in Berlin, the supreme commanders of the four occupying powers signed a common Declaration Regarding the Defeat of Germany (aka the Berlin Declaration of 1945), which formally abolished any German governance over the nation. US forces then began moving in to Berlin to fulfill their part of the agreement, worked out between the US, Britain and the Soviet Union. It called for the division of Germany into three zones of occupation. Thanks to French leader Charles De Gaulle, the French were able to pry their way into sharing a seat among the victors of WWII. But the Soviets would only agree if the French ‘part’ was taken from the parts that belonged to the British and the US.

Ultimately, because no one trusted the Soviets, the Allied Powers agreed to also divide Berlin, the former capital of Germany in like manner– three (later four) parts. This was because Berlin lay well within the  Soviet half  of Germany. The agreement was that each of the Four Powers would occupy their portion of Berlin and that an inter-allied governing authority would rule in Berlin (the Kommandatura). This was  made up of the four commandants, one from each of the Four Powers. Each would serve on a rotating basis as chief commandant.*

So, where do the Berlin Brats, my alumni come in? When the US started moving in to occupy West Berlin, it was devastated beyond recognition. The people were starving and  there were dead bodies under the rubble and in the U-bahn tunnels (Hitler ordered it be flooded, committing mass murder of his own people). These bodies contaminated the water supply and there was no electricity. Despite this, the US military troops were able to assist the Germans in cleaning up and rebuilding. It was a long, arduous task, but only a year later in the summer of 1946,  military dependents began arriving in the city accompanying their soldier fathers. Here is a picture taken of some of the youngest Brats, newly arrived in Berlin almost exactly a year later. Among the first dependents were of course, teen Brats. One of the handful of teens stationed in Berlin with his father, was Donald Mathes (class of 1946), the first official graduate of Berlin American High School– and thus, our oldest alumnus. Donald’s video interview  is transcribed as the first story in our book Cold War Memories: A Retrospective on Living in Berlin. Here’s an excerpt of his video interview:

The Wall Goes Up

Those who care about such things, realize that the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 (August 13th to be exact). What many don’t realize is that American citizens lived in Berlin within the confines of the Wall. But even fewer realize that American citizens had been living in Berlin almost as soon as the war ended. Thus, the US Army had to make provisions for housing, schooling and caring for the children of US servicemen and women beginning in 1946. So, even though many people think of the Berlin Wall as a symbol of the Cold War, the Cold War had already begun almost 14 years before (most historians agree it was around 1947, with the Truman Doctrine being indicative of the tensions created by Soviet dominance and the desire for containment). The Berlin Airlift (1948-1949) further solidified the Cold War standoff, with the USSR essentially attempting to starve out the Germans of West Berlin, in retaliation for the Western Powers’ introduction of the Deutsche Mark. Thanks to Operation Vittles, the blockade failed and the Soviets lifted their blockade of rail, road and waterways. All of these events were witnessed by, and survived by military dependents, living in West Berlin–deep in the heart of Communist East Germany.

Berlin American High School

Berlin American High School is now Wilma Rudolph Oberschule

Berlin American High School is now Wilma Rudolph Oberschule

My high school alma mater, Berlin American High School (BAHS), was created for the high school dependents of military, diplomatic, civil service and Pan Am employees. Some foreign nationals’ dependents also attended (but had to pay). Before dear old BAHS though, was the  Thomas A. Roberts School (TAR), created by the Department of Defense. It opened its doors in October of 1946. TAR taught elementary through high school students. Eventually, the need for a separate high school became apparent, and BAHS was opened August 1965. Ultimately, BAHS served the needs of its international students for 29 years, with its last graduating class being the class of 1994. This is when the US military cased the colors and pulled out of a reunified Germany. Really, BAHS was never much to look at, a no-frills, austere intreior and exterior. But our fond memories of our times there paint it as a legendary place of dreams.

This plaque on the front of the school used to say Berlin American High School, placed there when it was dedicated.

This plaque on the front of the school used to say Berlin American High School, placed there when it was dedicated.

Mural of MLK in front parking area of Wilma Rudolph Oberschule

Mural of MLK in front parking area of Wilma Rudolph Oberschule

DSC_0305

Mural of Wilma Rudolph, front driveway of former Berlin American High School (November 2014)

High School Reunion

I graduated from Berlin American High School in 1983, since then, I’ve been back four times. This was my second time coming back for our high school’s reunion. Obviously, we cannot have our reunions in Berlin on a regular basis, but we do have very regular reunions. Thanks to our alumni association, Berlin Brats, we have a reunion every three years. Since everyone lives all over the US (and the world!), we rotate our reunion sites by region. So, in 2009 it was on the West Coast, then in 2012 it was in a city on the East Coast. Therefore, it should have been in the middle of the country in 2015, but in 2009 we saw via social media that Berlin was having a huge 20th anniversary party to commemorate the Fall of the Wall. We realized we wanted to go back to Berlin for the 25th Anniversary celebration (we had  only had one reunion in Berlin before, in 2006). So, the city-wide celebration led us to shift our reunion date to 2014.

Brats gathered on the front stairwell at BAHS

 

In 2010, my best friend from high school, Trisha A. Lindsey, and I decided we had to chronicle our school experiences and thereby a 49 year piece of  our adopted city’s history. So, we collected stories via our website, email (bratsoverseas@yahoo.com), snail mail, reunions, and various Brat sites on Facebook. Our goal was to have the book published in time for the 25th Anniversary celebrations in the city we all love. It turned out to be a monumental effort, not least of all because of all the crazy things that were going on in our personal lives, but also because people just are too busy to sit down and write out their experiences in 1500 words or less. Ultimately, after four years, Trisha and I were able to compile a tome (even we were shocked) of 510 pages consisting of stories and pictures from 148 brats. We received stories and pictures that spanned the 5 decades of US military dependent presence in Berlin: 1946- 1994. As a history buff, I was blown away by the real life events that regular ordinary American teens witnessed and were a part of.

DSC_0289

Berlin Brats mill about the gym, noting that it remains mostly unchanged from our time.

German students at Wilma Rudolph created an historical montage of divided Berlin.

The Amends

Jan and Thomas Amend, former faculty at BAHS, share their story of the last days of BAHS in our book. They received their book the week before the reunion. After reading it, they decided to fly to Berlin (from Japan) to attend the reunion and meet the authors!! We were so blown away, we had to get a photo with them!

Our reunion was scheduled over the second weekend in November, from November 8th-11th, 2014. We were able to publish our book on October 20th! The six months leading up to that day were grueling, with very long nights of editing and typesetting (because we chose to self-publish). And, it was a very close call, as we wanted our alumni to have time to order the book before they arrived in Berlin, so they could have them for the reunion.

So, we basically felt like superstars for one brief weekend. It was great to feel appreciated for finally doing something we all had been wanting to do for so long: compile the unique third culture life we all experienced as military brats during the Cold War in Berlin.These pictures with brat friends are from several events over the weekend. On Saturday afternoon we signed people’s books and later we had our evening mixer. Trisha and I got to give a brief speech about our new book and announce that we will be writing another one– this time about brats from all over the world!

[So if you’re a military Brat reading this–Send Your Stories and Pictures To Us! at bratsoverseas@yahoo.com see examples on our site: bratsoverseas1.wix.com/bratsoverseas]

Michelle came to Berlin after us, and contributed some great stories of her fond memories in Berlin.

With Kerry Lastra a good friend from our high school days who contributed her memoir of the night of the LaBelle Nightclub bombing in 1986.

With Kerry Lastra a good friend from our high school days who contributed her memoir of the night of the LaBelle Nightclub bombing in 1986.

On Sunday, November 9th, which was the actual 25th Anniversary date, we slept in, because we were exhausted from the past two days’ activities. One of our high school classmates, Michael, came over to spend the day with us.  Michael played basketball with us at BAHS. After high school Michael left Berlin, but returned to live a few years later. Michael has some incredible stories about how his grandmother escaped Ravensbrück . The details of that story will be in the next book!

After hanging out with Michael for a while, we went out to join the city-wide festivities and watch the incredible Balloon Release. I will write more about the city-wide celebration  in my next post.  Then, on Monday morning, our reunion itinerary continued.  We went to our old high school, now Wilma Rudolph Oberschule. We got to meet some of the German students–they were not having regular classes because they had been given the day off to allow them to attend the 25th Anniversary celebration the night before. We were divided into small groups and given a student guide to take us around the school.  After seeing the school, we had a student-teacher panel comprised of some of our favorite teachers, like Mr. Bleum (who contributed to our book) and Mr. Schmoll, and as I recall, a student from each decade. I was chosen to be  on the panel again (I had been on the panel in 2006 at the first reunion held in Berlin).  I also got to present a copy of our book to the school–since it was a collective history of what we American students had experienced in decades past. It turns out, that they really had no idea of what American teens were like, because they gave us a pamphlet of the history of our school and it was mostly incorrect. It was sweet that they tried though. Now they will know what we crazy American teens were really like.

After the panel discussion, we were supposed to all take a picture on the front steps holding our books, but we ran out of time. We had to hurry and load up the buses to get to the Allied Museum (and since there were three double-decker busloads of us, that was no small feat). I will write more about the Allied Museum in a future post as well.

Lastly, in the evening, we had our dinner banquet and dance. The banquet dinner night is always the night we take our class pictures and group picture. Since we didn’t get to take our ‘Brats with books’  picture earlier that day,  we did that as well. Most people didn’t remember to bring their book to the banquet– and being in Berlin, we had no reliable means of reminding everyone. Thus, we ended up having far less people in the photo that night. However, we did realize it is a tome of a book to be lugging around that whole day and then again all evening!

Brats with Books! Before the Saturday night dinner dance. [Peter Stein]

Brats with Books! Several of these Brats’ stories appear in the book!  [Peter Stein]

This post is more about the history of why my brat friends and  I returned to Berlin for the  25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, my next post will tell about the Big Day– the city-wide celebration! So, be sure to follow my blog to get future updates!

*An excellent and very interesting history of US troops in Berlin, from the day the war ended until US military pull out, can be found in the book Outpost Berlin by Henrik Bering

Next Post:

The 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall (pt. 2)

Advertisements