As I stared up at the copper-green statue, jotting down my thoughts in a notebook, an elderly man approached me. “The Soviet War Memorial,” he said softly. “When their soldiers fought to take Berlin at the end of the war, tens of thousands were killed in just days. People forget that. Don’t forget that.
Are you a journalist?” “Yes,” I said. “I knew it.”
He continued: “During the airlift, after Stalin closed overland routes to West Berlin, everything the city needed had to be flown in, from bread to fuel. Even newspaper ink. You care more about that than bread. But I’m jumping around, aren’t I?” Thus began my journey with this stooped, greying man, exploring his city.
I was living in Cologne at the time and I had taken the train here for the weekend to get to know the German capital. It was my luck to run into Karl. “After the war ended, Berlin was carved up into four parts,” he went on. “The US, the UK and France shared the West. And the Soviet Union had the East. My family was in the East.” “Mine, too,” I interjected. “My mother is Czech.” “Then you need to know all this,” he replied. “The BBC taught me English. Now I will show you my Berlin.”
Karl turned out to be spry, moving swiftly as he led me about his city that hot August day. We turned towards the Reichstag. “The architecture is deliberate,” he said, as I squinted up at the glass cupola, where the public can walk around the spiralling ramp inside. “People must be above the parliament. No more will German decisions be made in darkness.”
At the Brandenburg Gate, he sounded jubilant. “Look at the traffic. Until 1989, this was in the ‘death strip’.” Against the noisy backdrop, Karl raised his voice: “In the 1950s, nearly two million crossed the border to migrate to the West. All you needed was a pass. But on the night of Aug 12 1961, public transport stopped and everyone on the street was ordered home. East German and Soviet soldiers ringed in West Berlin – first with bodies, then barbed wire, then the Wall. If your family was split, there was nothing you could do. We must never have borders like that again.”
I told him I know all about borders. My mother and her family escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1948, as Soviet influence expanded. Her family arrived in Germany as refugees. “After all we did to Czechoslovakia,” he mused. “History rubs.” I will always remember that line of his. History rubs. “Where now?” he asked me. “Checkpoint Charlie?” I suggested. He dismissed my idea. “That was a crossing point. What’s important is where you could not cross.”
We walked to Potsdamer Platz, also once in the “death strip”. “In the 1930s, this was the busiest intersection in Europe,” he said. “It might take 100 years, but it will be again, I tell you.” Before we parted, he said he wanted to show me one more place “because you’re a writer”. We moseyed towards the river. At Bebelplatz, he stopped at a glass square embedded among the cobbles. “It was here on a rainy night on May 10 1933 where the Nazi book-burning began,” he said solemnly.
Together, we peered down through the pane at the subterranean art installation of empty bookshelves, a reminder of what was lost. “If you burn books,” he said, “you will end up burning people.” Then he pointed across the street. “That’s Humboldt University, where Einstein lectured. Alumni are Marx and Engels. History rubs.” That line again.
Before we parted, I invited Karl for a beer. When the waitress came, he ignored my efforts and paid for both drinks before shaking my hand, wishing me luck in life, and shuffling off. I will never forget his potted history of Berlin, but my greater lesson from Karl was always to be open to spending a day with a stranger. As remote as that sounds right now, it is surely for the kindness of Karls that we go travelling, and why I believe we will travel again.