Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 10.10.14
Just Outside Washington


Back to Berlin, and beyond

[EDITOR'S NOTE: I was on this trip with Frank in 1950 as a member of the championship 6-man football team. Our Dads were serving in US Air Force units supporting the famous Airlift that helped keep Berliners alive after the Russians tried to seal off the city. We trained into Berlin from Wiesbaden (some 600 kilometers away) in cars guarded by tommy-gun carrying Russian soldiers once we entered the East Zone.]

I was last in Berlin in December 1950 as an American military dependent high school senior from Wiesbaden to play football. It was one of those grey north German days with snow showers and a little over a year after the end of the Berlin Airlift. This past September I came as a tourist on a glorious fall day with blue sky and bright sunshine.

Kathy and I arrived at Berlin's Tegel airport at 8:30 am Berlin time (1:30 pm EDT). We waited for our bags at the carrousel with what appeared to be the United Nations, all speaking different languages, together.

The costuming was similar to what we see every day -- jeans, shorts, tee shirts, running shoes few suits, and, as usual, women dressed better than men. We were overdressed.

Outside, we were met by the Viking tour representative in a red tee shirt holding a placard and were led to a minibus. We waited at the outdoor taxi area for other Viking tourists. Gizillions of taxis zipping in and out; either Mercedes or Toyotas, and all painted cream. The cab drivers all appeared to be from the Middle East, just like Washington. And many more smokers.

After rounding up several stray tour members, we were off to our hotel. The half-hour ride from Tegel Airport to the Hilton Berlin was in hustling morning traffic; everyone appeared to be late for work. The ride was past the castle gardens of Charlottenberg and along the River Spree. The river and its canals and lakes are used for shipping as well as parks and recreation.

We were told later by a tour guide that the name of the city stems from an old word for swamp and not the bear shown on the City's official flag. I was surprised at how large the city is -- 3.5 million people, with construction everywhere.

Our route took us through the Tiergarten. It was amazing to see this huge park of green trees in the center of Berlin; in 1950 it had been stripped bare, the trees that had survived the war had been cut for firewood. We turned right in front of the Brandenberg Gate/Brandenburger Tor, which had formed part of the border between East and West Berlin. The Gate was completely reconstructed with a replica Quadriga on the top.

I had last seen it when refurbishing was underway; enclosed in scaffolding and cloth to keep the elements away and a sign reading 'Ami Go Home' on its western face.

After the Gate we turned left and then right past the Holocaust Memorial; about 5 acres of concrete blocks. I am not sure how to conceptualize the 6 million Jews and the 5 million other people killed, nor the anti-Semitic and ethnic animosity throughout Europe that made it possible. For me, 2,711 grey concrete blocks is not it. The Hilton Berlin was just a few blocks away.

We were greeted in the hotel by our Viking tour manager, Boyjan. He and most of the Viking staff were from Eastern Europe: Croatia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania. This was the case for most of the people who helped us throughout Berlin. They all spoke English as well as German and we had no trouble being understood. However, we had to pay attention to be sure we understood their replies. I had re-learned a little German in preparation for the trip but it was not really called upon, beyond an occasional Gutten Morgan or Danke.

After checking in we were on our own. So, we made a short walking tour of the area; this was former East Berlin, so I had not been in this area. Our hotel was located across from the Gendarmenmarkt, the most beautiful square in Berlin, with a concert hall, the German Cathedral, and the French Church. The French Church is a testimony to the Huguenot influx during the 30 years' war. These all looked like they had in 1800; all the war damage repaired.

All the major historic buildings had been or were being rebuilt. In eastern Berlin the rebuilding had been slower than in the west but was going gang busters now. The rebuilds use modern techniques with facades of the original design. Regular building had been replaced with modern construction such as our hotel.

We walked north to Unter den Linden, Berlin's main street, which was a massive construction project for a new U-Bahn (subway). Blue pipes were everywhere, which we found out were to pump our groundwater so solid foundations could be built -- remember, Berlin means swamp. We walked the street, none the less, past the Russian Embassy (BIG) to the Brandenburg Gate.

Berlin is a busy city with people hurrying everywhere; on foot, on bicycles, in cars and using the transit systems, which are everywhere. We stopped for lunch at the Adlon Hotel, located a block from the Brandenberg Gate. It was the hotel in the past, hosting the famous, and is featured in many Berlin novels. Mostly destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 1995, it has a five-star rating. Lunch met our five star expectations (I had Berlin curry wurst and Kathy a Panini) with wine. All very old world. At the Adlon, the patrons seemed mostly German and the dress was more upscale and the staff seemed German as well. They all spoke flawless English and anticipated which language was needed.

The Viking tour did not start for two days. We had opted for an extension to see the city. On our second morning, Viking offered a city tour by bus, which we took. Our guide, Liese, was a native of West Berlin and offered insight into the changes in the city since reunification in 1990 as well as a narrative about the buildings and other sites we passed.

Some in the East feel that they are second class citizens with lower wages and less opportunity than in the West. They feel the West runs things even though Angela Merkel is an Easterner. The move of the German government to Berlin has resulted in a massive new building complex to house it, all very modern.

The Reichstag was rebuilt in 1999 with a very modern replacement dome and is home to the German Parliament. Our tour stopped at the Tiergarten in front of the Brandenburg Gate and a block from the Reichstag. We had walk-around time. Kathy and I walked to the Russian War Memorial, one of the first things constructed after the war.

It is no longer guarded by a Russian soldier with a tommy gun as it was in 1950.

It serves as the grave for about 7000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the battle for Berlin. There are two other Soviet war memorials in Berlin.

Our friends, Anne and Ron, arrived and after a rest and refresh we all went to dinner at Ristorante Malatesta -- Italian, in keeping with Ron's heritage, owned, operated and staffed by Italians. Berlin now is a cosmopolitan city, and the EU allows for relatively free movement of people throughout. One more day of great fall weather for sightseeing, a trip to KeDeWe (the famous department store to get Kathy a new suitcase), a river cruise and a U-Bahn ride. The next morning we left Berlin to begin the Viking cruise up the Elbe River to Prague.

Next Episode: The Cruise Ship Journey Continues