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The Other Berlin

November 16, 1986|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

EAST BERLIN — His name is Karlheim Nobst and he plays piano at East Berlin's fashionable Metropole Hotel. Something by Beethoven would seem appropriate, but Nobst prefers popular melodies that he feels are dearer to the hearts of American guests. While waiters prepare flaming dishes, Nobst offers themes from the movies "Love Story" and "Casablanca" as well as Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

It wasn't exactly what a colleague and I had in mind when we checked into the Metropole, although it brightened an otherwise drab evening in a city that still seems far too dark at night, too gloomy, too melancholy. While East Berlin lays claim to the majority of the divided city's historical monuments, it is West Berlin that keeps up a constant,steady beat, whether 4 o'clock in the afternoon or 4 o'clock in the morning. In the long years since I visited Berlin the first time, the skyline in the Soviet sector has changed, but the gloom remains.

Since that earlier visit, when I rode a bicycle through Communist-controlled Brandenburg Gate, the Wall has risen. In 1959 the streets were deserted as I pedaled past the newly refurbished Communist Party headquarters and dozens of buildings still scarred by a war that seemed barely ended. Khruschev was in power, and posters of the Soviet leader were plastered on buildings throughout East Berlin.

At Treptow park I stopped to photograph Soviet soldiers at the Russian War Memorial and in turn they photographed me, their only emotion being one of curiosity. On this current visit to Berlin the memory remains of a 10-year-old girl playing with a Hula-Hoop while I pedaled by, recrossing the border, beyond deserted and decaying Kaiser Wilhelm Palace and a former shopping center that lay in ruins. It was dusk, and re-entering West Berlin with its bright lights was like leaving a place long dead and discovering new life.

These were desperate days when East Germans desiring freedom crossed into West Berlin by the thousands. On the morning of Aug. 13, 1961, East German troops began building the wall that was to divide Berlin. The masses leaving the East not only threatened the economy but were an embarrassment to East Germany. Barricades were put up. Barbed wire was strung across Potsdamer Platz. Slowly the Wall took shape until today it stretches for more than 100 miles along the frontier that divides East and West Germany, a barricade that Chancellor Helmut Kohl described on the Wall's 25th anniversary as a "monument to inhumanity."

Miles of graffiti smear the West side--sketches and words that read "Ruski go home" and "Russians get out of Poland" and "The wall will fall." Still, even while President Reagan has vowed that the Wall will come down, a second wall has risen behind the first, with guard towers and floodlights in this no-man's-land in between. Now 13 feet high, the original wall makes escape all but impossible. On the West side the curious climb bleachers, eavesdropping on East Berlin and the spot where Hitler died while the city fell.

This gray and desolate sector, slumbering in its gloom, had been the center of the old Berlin that was alive with department stores and boutiques, coffeehouses and cabarets.

Nine crosses rise near the Reichstag in memory of East Germans who died trying to scale the wall. Few attempt the Wall anymore, although last August an East German and his girlfriend and their infant son escaped in a dump truck driven by the man in a daring, barrier-bashing dash through Checkpoint Charlie while East German guards shattered the truck's windshield with gunfire. In earlier days, East Berliners leaped from apartment windows on the East side of the wall into nets on the West. Some landed successfully. Others missed and lost their lives. Others made daring flights in homemade gliders. Freedom seemed always worth the risk.

Checkpoint Charlie, with the Allies on one side and East German guards on the other, continues to express the stark reality of a divided city. On the Allied side, tourists crowd a small museum filled with artifacts relating to the daring tales of men and women who risked their lives to reach the West. There is an Opel automobile with armor plating in which five escaped through Checkpoint Charlie and the suitcase in which a woman was smuggled across the border.

There are the vivid pictures of tunnels dug beneath the Wall, one permitting 29 to escape. In addition, there's the poignant story of Peter Fechter, 18, believed to be the first East German killed while trying to scale the Wall near Checkpoint Charlie. Gunned down by the East Germans, Fechter fell backward on the eastern side of the wall shouting, "Help me! Help me!" Seventy minutes later, East Berlin police carried the dying boy away while West Berliners threw stones, shouting, "Murderers!"

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