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Prisoner number…………. (Part II)
To understand, a little, the situation in 1966 in West and East Germany, one has to recall that things in the West (Berlin and Germany) are forging ahead. Billions, Trillions, and if they exist, Dillions are being pumped into the economy. This is the outmost post of “freedom” or “capitalism” – the place where it bangs head-on into “communism” or “socialism”
As such, this place has to publicize the advantages, not only of the one, but also the other. Since the Eastern zones and Block, simply didn’t have the money, they concentrated their efforts on Berlin, as the Capital city of the DDR (Deutsches Demokratisches Republik), whereas the Western powers were able to show off everywhere!
Berlin, east and west, was therefore the playground of every system, and we were the ones who profited!
Although strictly very difficult to pass from the West to the East of the city, we did, at ease. You ever seen a border guard, paid a pittance, who could refuse cigarettes or alcohols, and if he was Russian, a bottle of Scotch worked wonders. If he was East German, the same things, but we had to throw in a kilo of coffee and some chocolate. These were things which cost us nothing, or almost, and he (the border guard) knew that we were squaddies going on a night out, unlikely to miss the midnight curfew, or if we did, clever enough to stay at the girls house until the following day, and pass back over the border in an official manner. We weren’t likely to climb the wall, or help someone else to do so, and although he may have suspected that the one or other of us were “direct or indirect” informers and collectors of information for the West, he knew also that some of us were “direct or indirect” informers for the East, and this was our preferred method of contact. There were some of us who worked for both sides, and occasionally forgot which side we were currently informing on!
Such was the Berlin of the epoch, a sort of Vienna 20 years later, and a place where the stakes were much higher.
East Berlin, as I have said, was the showpiece for the Eastern citizens, and it was sad to see them, all dressed in their Sunday best, but still looking like tramps, in groups, accompanied by men and women of the Stasi (state police) who wouldn’t let them go one step off the official track. We, in civilian clothing as well, didn’t look out of place, and I personally, with my full beard (which I was allowed to wear as the result of an accident with an Army vehicle), had little problem blending into the population of East Berlin, and was capable of joining in the mild mocking by East Berliners of their own country men, up for the day from the country. The routine was always the same for these people, the “Russian War Museum and Memorial” – “The House of the People” (the parliament building) – The Alexanderplatz, finishing with a meal in the East Berlin Television tower’s revolving restaurant. I recall one occasion when we (I and my wife) turned up to waste a day in East Berlin, and paying as we did with West currency, we were priority clients for this restaurant, which was actually very good, very cheap (for us) and we always took our time. On this particular occasion, we were the only ones in the whole enormous restaurant, and we did wonder why. They did try to tell us that we only had the right to stay and eat and drink, for ONE complete turn of the revolving tower-restaurant, but I arrogantly told them they should have told us that before we ordered, and I had no intention of hurrying, and s-d their revolving restaurant. When we were finished, and descended the stairs to the cloakroom, we were astonished to see the lobby crowded with people. All East German citizens, booked in as groups, but who didn’t have the right to enter the Restaurant, until we, the West Germans had left! Frankly we both felt quite ashamed – me in particular! The U-bahn (or underground) passed right through East Berlin, from West Berlin to West Berlin, with one stop only in Eastern territory, the Friedrichstrasse, where one could descend, to enter the control zone, and pass into East Berlin, or simply go upstairs in the underground station, where there was an “Intershop”, a sort of supermarket Eastern German style, but full of Russian and German and Western goodies, at spot prices, but you had to pay in western currency, DMarks, SFrancs, $US, GBSterling etc. This was a way of winning foreign currency, and strictly speaking it was illegal to jump off the train, go up and buy your Caviar, Alcohols, Tobacco etc, come back down and take the next underground train back into the West, but thousands did exactly that every day, and thousands were caught each day by the civilian dressed Western tax police. The East Germans didn’t care, they had the currency they wanted! East Germans were not allowed in these shops, unless they had the necessary currency, and since the official rate was 1 east d-mark for 1 west d-mark, and even that they were only allowed if they had an official holiday pass for the West, one rarely saw them. In West Berlin, the money changers paid upwards of 3 east for 1 west, so we could go to East Germany on an extremely cheap day outing.
The only thing was that you had to accept what was on the daily menu – not only in the Restaurants, but also on the markets, or in the normal shops. A mandatory 20 east-marks had to be changed, per day and person, at the official rate, at the border, and it was quite difficult sometimes to get rid of them, because you were not allowed to take anything (notes or coins) out of the country.
The system was such, that on one particular day, the only meat available (in restaurants or shops) for example, would be a sort of fatty chicken, or an unusable undefinable red coloured stuff they called beef, and you could comb the city – you wouldn’t find anything else! On the market, fruit and vegetables were available the selection of fruits very limited, but one was always astounded at the size of the fruit and vegetables, they were tiny, a result of non-availability of fertilizers. The only really good thing I found on the market, were the cooking pans and pots. They were all old-style, made in enameled metal, which cracked and had to be thrown away if one wasn’t careful, but if one took care, and treated them correctly, they were the best non-stick pans ever made. Just NEVER use a brillo pad! I bought at least 20 of the shallow, small, frying pans of this type, which were the best omelette pans I’d ever had, used permanently in the big kitchen, over in the West part of this divided city.
It was difficult to get rid of your money as well, because of the prices in the bars and Restaurants. Half a liter of wonderful beer cost just 25 pfennigs ( ¼ of an east-mark), a bottle of wine in a Restaurant (normally from another Eastern block country like Bulgaria,Yugoslavia etc) around 1 mark 50, the meal itself between 2,50 and 4,50 – depending on whether it was edible or not! Don’t forget, for 2 people, you had 40 east marks to get rid of!
They did have one thing which was really amusing. They insisted that coats, hats, umbrellas, and in summer even jackets, be given up at the obligatory cloakroom. The standard practice was to be nasty about it, suggesting that manners in the West left a lot to be desired, and did we sit down to eat, at home, dressed up with coats and hats draped over the chairs, or even still being worn?
We tried, like so many others, to point out that in our Western homes, it was one hell of a sight warmer than in their Eastern Restaurants, to no avail. The reason was, of course, simple – they somehow or other arranged the bill so that we ended up ALWAYS paying the cloakroom attendant enormous amounts in east-marks (to get rid of them) or paying the cloakroom attendant in West-marks, which was even better. This cloakroom income was divided between all the staff!! The security people from the Stasi, could also take their time to look through the pockets and the shopping bags/hand bags/ etc., whilst we western “innocents” ate our inedible (mainly) stuff, and swilled it down with the wonderful beer or “Bulls Blood” red wine from Bulgaria, quite a delectable wine for the circumstances.
Such was life over there, at the time, but even after the fall of the wall and of the DDR, there were many who wished to have it back. The West is too stressfull, and it is true. Officially, in the DDR, there NEVER, in the History of the country, was ONE un-employed person. Hundreds of thousands didn’t work, but since there was no unemployment benefit or system, they were given job-titles somewhere, given the minimum wage, and told to stay at home! This they did, some of them from 1946 up to the end in 1990!
That there were problems, they knew and accepted. If you wanted a Trabant (a small car with a 2time motor, sounded like a lawnmower, and ran on oil/petrol mix) the waiting list was something like 4 years! If you wanted spare parts (and you always did, from about 3 days after you got the new car, onwards) the official waiting time was 5 years! A Wartburg, which was a 4 cylinder luxury model, was only available to higher placed Army or Government officials, spare parts were in abundance (because they never broke down, or the driver just took another one from the Govt/Army pool), petrol came from the Army depots, generally free!
Never, ever, in any other country, have I seen so many people in Uniforms. All hurrying to get to work, or to get home or whatever. Uniforms everywhere!
In fact, looking back, one can say that there was no difference at all between the Eastern (communist) states, and the Western (capitalist) states. They were, and are, all as corrupt as each other. If you go East, and don’t stop going East, you’ll end up in the West!
In fact – the Easterners were more Westernly than the Westerners! Work that one out!
************************* End of Part II ********************************
In Part III and final, you can read about prison life in West Berlin, social life in the West part, and my departure party which is still talked about in some circles!
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