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The fascinating city of Berlin is a place I have always wanted to explore. When I was growing up, Berlin was two cities, West Berlin and East Berlin. Learning about living in a separated city, and country, was mesmerizing. Our tour guides were Berliners, one from the West, and two from the East. Learning about the divided city from them was pretty amazing.
It certainly seemed normal when I was a child. West Germany and East Germany were separate nations, made so after the second World War. The city of Berlin itself was split into four quadrants: the French sector, British sector, US sector, and Soviet Union sector. It always seemed weird to me because the city of Berlin was solidly in the new communist country of East Germany. Hearing about the Berlin Wall, defections, escapes, and spy exchanges was part of my childhood, and as I got older and read spy novels, the Soviet Union was always the enemy. The KGB was a name to strike fear into a person’s heart, as ISIS does today. Defections of people seeking asylum in the USA seemed fairly frequent, and they were never turned down.
For boomers and midlifers, Checkpoint Charlie, the Unter den Linden, and the Berlin Wall were all common references when talking about the countries behind the Iron Curtain, those countries governed through the Soviet Union. Seeing these historical sites and trying to imagine living in that colorless and deprived world was more than interesting, it was getting first hand stories from people who actually lived through the the divided city. Hearing stories of living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall was captivating. If one could scale the wall and avoid being shot, one could get to the west, and freedom. The museums had amazing photos of how people tried to get out, and sometimes succeeded: hiding in suitcases, in secret compartments built into cars, and one story about how a West Berlin musician got his girlfriend out of East Berlin in an amplifier! I heard first hand stories of people who saw or heard John F Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Photos of US presidents and Soviet dictators at the wall. One of the guides told us her grandparents were in East Berlin and her parents in West Berlin. She was permitted to visit her grandparents, but the process was long, and she had to go through several checkpoints. Visitors from the West were not permitted to stay overnight in the East, but had to leave by midnight.
Modern Berlin is quite beautiful, especially in the West where they began rebuilding soon after the war ended. Berlin is the capital city of reunified Germany, a city of culture with a growing economy. I don’t think I can say anything about Berlin without mentioning the Holocaust. Every tour I went on mentioned the horror of it, and the need to never forget it. There is still a Jewish Quarter, but only about 7,000 Jews live in Berlin.
Viking River Cruises uses only local guides in each location, and by doing so, they bring the area to life for visitors. Berlin is unique as it has two city centers, two opera houses, two government buildings. The prefabricated apartment buildings from the Soviet Union that were put up in East Berlin are still grim reminders of how the city suffered. They have made them prettier, put in window boxes and balconies, but nothing can hide the starkness of the buildings and the lack of care the city suffered. I want to say thank you again to Viking River Cruises for their amazing hospitality and services! I cannot recommend them highly enough.