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A Swearing Guide, A Yogurt Mishap, and A Nuclear Warhead Bunker (A Berlin Trip Report)

The Swearing Guide

I know a guide in Berlin who is a pretty interesting fellow. Robert grew up in East Berlin as the son of a fairly high-ranking East German bureaucrat and was 15 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. He spent a year of high school in the US; he earned a PhD in German history; his dissertation explored prostitution in concentration camps. He and a collaborator recently created an exhibition entitled Objects from the Concentration Camps, which pairs large black and white photos of objects from the camps with text that describes the objects; the exhibition is working its way around the world (and is coming to the US next year). Robert is married to a woman of Kurdish heritage who is a member of Germany’s Parliament.

So, I wasn’t sure what to make of his “Oh ****!” exclamation as we stood in the middle of a forest during a full-day tour of former military sites north of Berlin. The day seemed to be going well enough. We had visited the entrance to an old joint Soviet/East German military base that still had oh-so-wonderful Communist era art/propaganda that had greeted those who entered the base. Then, we had visited the site of an old Nazi model farm near Ravensbrück, complete with farmhouse with an idealistic Nazi quote engraved in wood that ran the length of the house; there was still a hole in the wood where the swastika had been cut out in an attempt to make the quote not-so-Nazi.

The next stop was an old Soviet military base at Neuthymen. There, we found the launch pads for mobile, truck-mounted short- to intermediate-range rockets equipped with nuclear warheads. We wandered all over the dilapidated, overgrown facility – exploring underground bunkers that are now used as bat habitats, a base theater with Linden trees growing up through its entrance (and a mid 1990’s issue of Pravda lying on the floor of its upper level), the mess hall, living quarters, a cheap Russian-made guard tower, etc.

As we traveled between the different places that morning, our driver Jurgen shared his story of growing up in the DDR (East Germany). It was a fascinating tale that included him requesting and receiving permission to leave the DDR; there were far too many intricate details to include here. He now lives in the former East Berlin once again… on a very East-Berlin-sounding road… Allee der Kosmonauten.

With all the above under our belt, we headed to the force de resistance for the tour. At Dannenwald, the Nazis had built a large network of bunkers in the forest for storage of ammunition. The Soviets found the site to be quite useful for this purpose and had stored ammunition there, too. A road of pre-fabricated porous concrete typical of Soviet military facilities leads to the site. Interestingly, a new, large metal arm/gate had been placed across the entrance to the road on the day we arrived. Robert groaned. “It looks like we’ll have to walk.”

So… we walked. About 20 minutes into the walk we passed a big pile of broken concrete, old rebar, and other debris. “Every time I come to places like this, they are demolishing something.” We hung a right to head to the bunkers. After a few minutes, Robert looked a little perplexed. “They should be right here.” Then the exclamation.

The pile of debris we had passed? It was made up of the former entrances to the bunkers, which had been demolished and replaced with dirt/sand. The railroad track that aided in carrying munitions from bunker to bunker? Gone. “It was here last fall when I visited. Really.” We wandered around to see if we could find a single remaining bunker. No luck. They were all destroyed… only ventilation pipes sticking out of the top of each former bunker hinted that the mounds had a prior purpose.

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Robert felt terrible. But no big deal. We just moved on to an alternate interesting site – the abandoned Flugplatz Oranienburg, which was the location of an aircraft factory used to make bombers during World War II. Not surprisingly, it was bombed during WWII but the hangar used to prepare the planes for flight somehow survived. The airfield was used by the Soviets into the 1990s, and the hangar was later used for raves after the Soviets left. Now, though, the hangar and its collapsing roof are totally abandoned. For an aviation fan like me, this was a great place to visit!

The Reason for the Trip

My day with Robert was part of a short visit to Berlin for the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I was in the city for 5 nights. My Charlottenburg B&B owner told me she felt like the celebration was more for international tourists than for Berliners. “We lived it. It’s history. We don’t think about it much anymore.” I shared this observation with Robert, to get the thoughts of a former East Berliner. He thought for a moment and said he agreed (but also noted that he had been surprised by how moved he was when watching video of a 1989 protest at Alexanderplatz a few nights previously). I feel like I did hear A LOT more English in Berlin than I usually do – especially at sites/events related to the fall of the Wall.

There certainly was a lot happening in the city. There were sites around the city where videos related to the Fall of the Wall played on buildings each evening; these sites also had large outdoor exhibitions regarding the history of the event. At the outdoor exhibition at Breitschiedplatz in the former West Berlin, I got to read frequent Germany forum contributor MarkK’s remembrance of the event as a West German teen. A large ceremony was held at Brandenburg Gate with German and foreign dignitaries. I actually decided to skip the event in favor of visiting Gethsemane Church, a meeting and communication center for those leading the “peaceful revolution.” I had read much about the events leading up to the fall of the Wall in the past, but not so much about the aftermath. The biggest thing I learned was that the people who led the reform movement that resulted in the fall of the Wall had very little voice in what later happened to East Germany. The West German political parties recruited and endorsed candidates in East Germany and ultimately became the power players controlling the future of the East. An interesting history, indeed!

There were many other things happening around the city. There were film screenings, lectures, and special exhibits. I popped into Museum Pankow for a black and white photo exhibit about life in East Germany. It painted a depressing picture. At the end of the exhibit, there was a wall where visitors posted their responses to the exhibit; there were notes that were clearly from former East Germans. One criticized the exhibit for showing black and white photos, noting that life in the DDR was full of color, not black and white. One said that life in the DDR was different than current life, not better or worse. Another said that things were much better during DDR times than current times. The responses to the exhibit were as interesting as the exhibit itself. And they were in German. So… another thanks to forum member Fred for encouraging me to continue to work on my German; knowing the language really does enhance the experience!

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The Yogurt Mishap

I love the place I stay in Berlin. Mittendrin is a B&B in a flat in a building built around 1905 in the former West Berlin near Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The lovely owner Sabine creates a spectacular breakfast every morning that is served at a large table that promotes conviviality. Weekends are extra special… Sabine pulls out classy tablecloths and often makes something a little extra special for breakfast.

I always eat yogurt topped with Muesli and fresh fruit as part of my breakfast there. Sabine serves the yogurt in individual pre-packaged cups. I pull the top off and scoop the yogurt into a bowl. On Saturday morning, I pulled the top off and noticed the yogurt separated easily from the side of the cup. Sweet! No need for a spoon today to empty the yogurt from the cup. So… I tried to dump the yogurt in my bowl. Nothing. A couple of good firm shakes. Nothing. I started to turn the cup back upright to see what’s up… and the yogurt dumped out all over the classy tablecloth. Sabine quickly started scooping yogurt off the tablecloth but said everything was okay.

The following day (Sunday), there was no special weekend tablecloth. Instead, there was a heavy-duty, almost industrial tablecloth. Of course, I bit and mentioned the… uhhhh… character of the tablecloth. Sabine, chuckling, said it was the tablecloth she uses when she has children staying at the B&B. It’s indestructible. “Kids can spill all sorts of things on it, and it holds up great.” I chuckled, too… and took extra care not to spill anything.

Happily, there were no hard feelings. Sabine gave me a gift certificate for two free nights in 2020 at the end of my stay… a reward for being a “regular” guest over the last 4 years (40 nights!).

The Nuclear Warhead Bunker

I spent my last day in Berlin with Robert. The destination this time was a bunker at Stolzenhain, south of Berlin, that had been used for storing Soviet nuclear warheads that were to be turned over to the East Germans in the event of nuclear war so that East Germany could “engage” (i.e., blow up) West Germany. There were actually two bunkers there, but the private owner of the site (cleared of radiation contamination by the German government, by the way) had told Robert that the second bunker was under water.

The owner was to meet us at the site at 2 pm after he completed a morning of hunting. We were there at 2 pm; the owner was not. Robert made several attempts to reach the owner and was finally able to do so. He let us know where the hidden key to the gate was, and we headed through gate #1, then through gate #2 to enter the former military base, then through gate #3 that gave us access to the road that we walked down to reach the two bunkers. We wandered around the outside of the non-flooded bunker checking out the truck docks where the warheads were delivered (and removed) and then entered the bunker, which was extremely cool. We saw work areas, a tank engine that served as a back-up generator, bunks for sleeping, a toilet, and four large rooms where the warheads were stored – 80 warheads in all.
The late German owner arrived while we were exploring the bunker. Robert and the owner exchanged some German that was hard for me to follow, but Robert was excited. He turned to me and said, “Do you want to see the other bunker?” I said, “Sure!” It turns out the second bunker was never flooded with water; that was just an excuse to get rid of Robert when he had visited twice in the past. The owner gave us a ride over to the other bunker, and we entered. It was amazing and much better preserved than the first bunker. The owner shared much of his knowledge regarding the history of the site. It was a grand experience.

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The Conclusion

Berlin remains my favorite city. While this trip was history heavy, there are so many things to see in and around the city – art, music, museums, parks, architecture, community, food, subcultures, and much more. The people are great, too… it seems like everyone over 30 and many under that age have life stories far more interesting than mine. As an aside, I am happy to report that this visit did not include any walks down the wrong street where German syren calls (an oxymoron if ever there was one) were heard.

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I loved reading your very historically rich 30th anniversary experience. I was a bit concerned that the “Oh s**t” exclamation had been uttered while seeing an unexploded ordinance! I’m relieved that this didn’t happen to you in all of your poking around.

For our 30th experience we stayed deep in the heart of the outer East German area near The Brocken where we saw many concrete tank paths and 1km wide swaths through the Harz that people were now using for hiking trails. I hope you get the chance to venture out into some of these cities about two hours southwest of Berlin in your future travels.

Wonderful trip report, Dave.

EDIT: Here is some more information about the “Grünes Band” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Green_Belt

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Hi Dave! What a great report. Loved it. I especially enjoyed your thanking FRED (who posts here regularly) for encouraging to increase your German knowledge. And let me tell you, as one who knows, that Fred's German is really, really good. Also, Fred has many wonderful suggestions for small towns to visit in "Real Germany", after we get tired of the tourist sights.

I enjoyed your reports of "piles of debris." That's real history, isn't it. Look for those to be cleaned up pretty quickly. Glad you met a guy like Robert.

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I was in Berlin in the 1980s as a college student. I had a conversation to this effect with some young men we met in Athens who were visiting from Berlin. I told them about being in Berlin before the wall fell and it was clear that it was ancient history.

I have never forgotten the train ride through what was then East Germany and the guards who came around and checked everyone’s passport. It was rather disconcerting for a 21 year old.

So I found it quite interesting to read to read your account.

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Mona -- The Harz Mountains and environs are definitely on my list of places to visit. I had outlined a 3-week Harz Mountains - Weimar - Saxon Switzerland - Görlitz trip for Fall 2019 but scrapped it in favor of 3 weeks in Slovenia. I'm curious where you stayed during your visit.

Shelley -- Hi! Glad you enjoyed the report. Fred is great. We happened to be in Berlin at the same time once, met for lunch, and then visited the Invalidenfriedhof (cemetery). It was an educational day!

BethFL -- I have heard multiple people who traveled into East German (or just drove near the border) comment on how intimidating the East German border guards were. All business -- very serious.

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@Dave I’ll copy a reply I gave to a question about revisiting places Wray posted in the fall.

We are again on a nostalgia trip. On our first trip to Europe in 1982 we started at a conference in Milan but then headed straight to Germany to visit a friend in the north (Bielefeld) and do a second talk at the technical university in Berlin passing through East Germany. We stopped for two nights in Goslar before heading across the border for the East.
Over the years we have been back over this route many times (8-9) seeing the changes, and being nearby for 6 months in 1990 right after The Wall came down.
We have done 3 week home exchanges, in first Quedlinburg in 2012 and today in Wernigerode. At the end of our exchange we will go to Berlin, again, to visit friends and check on one of our favorite cities. We will share a 30th Einheitstag party with all of them on October 3 at one of their homes. We were in Bielefeld for the first Einheitstag celebration.
I’d say go for all of the nostalgia you can. This particular sequence of adventures always leaves me satisfied but very nostalgic at the same time.
I’d say go for it sooner rather than later.

I know I still have more places to explore in this region and for our next trip to Germany we’d like to be further South and East in Thüringen and Sachsen. We spent a day a long time ago in Dresden on the way to Prague and I want to visit Görlitz and towns nearby.

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@ Dave...Thanks for the enlightening report. Glad to know that your knowledge of German paid off. The key is to amass a huge passive vocabulary in German so that you'll have it handy for reading, ( and writing too), not just speaking. As I say in tackling a foreign language, one cannot over learn.

If you want to see more "piles of debris" history in Berlin, I would also suggest Berlin-Krampnitz, where the Panzer Schule was located. It's located somewhere between Grunewald and Potsdam. The Soviets took over the site in 1945 where it conveniently served their purposes.