Crossing Checkpoint Charlie – My Story

Monday, November 9, 2009 I was privileged to join four other people who shared their stories about their history with the infamous Berlin Wall.  It was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall.  Many of the students in our audience at Winona State University were still unborn on the day the Wall fell.  For them it was a history lesson; for Lilian Ramos, George Bolon, Chops Hancock and Maria Grunz it was vibrant testimony that few present will ever forget.

My story isn’t nearly as poignant as that of Lilian, who had a dear friend tortured and beaten by the Stasi (East German Intelligence Service).  None of our stories could ever compare to the story of Maria Grunz, who suffered through the occupation and rule of the Nazi’s, the Russians, and the East Germans before she was even eleven years old.  Nevertheless, I promised to share my story with you today and so I shall.

On Sunday, July 25, 1971 my college friends Greg Savage, Les Blanchard and I walked through the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie.  Within a few minutes we bought lunch in a little eatery.  There we were approached by Manfred Tekla, a young resident of East Berlin.  Thin, with scruffy facial hair, he was wearing black pants and a grey shirt with sleeves rolled up.  With my two years of high school German and his limited English we were able to communicate quiet effectively as he served as our unofficial tour guide of East Berlin.  (See Photo I took of Manfred Below)

At the time the United States was involved heavily in the Vietnam War.  Lt. William Calley was being detained for allegedly killing over 500 Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai Massacre.  Charges had not yet been filed against Calley and it looked like he might never be punished.  Meanwhile, black activist Angela Davis was in jail awaiting her trial for murdering a Federal Judge Harold Haley in Marin County California.  Within minutes our young host started hammering me with the “injustice” of the capitalist system in the United States.  After all, Calley was getting away with killing hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, while Davis was probably going to get executed for killing one white judge.  This was proof positive that the United States was a cruel regime where only white lives were valued.  As the Calley and Davis cases played out, Calley was indeed incarcerated by the Army for several years (not nearly enough years) but Davis was acquitted.

As the day with Soviet-brainwashed Manfred continued, he seemed increasingly eager to point out to us every piece of US “dirty laundry” that had been aired by the international press over the past few years.  He was incredibly knowledgeable of even the slightest bit of political scandal or corporate greed present in the United States and he hammered us for hours with these “facts”.  Meanwhile, Tekla seemed oblivious to the fact that a guarded, barb-wired, 16 foot wall kept him from leaving one of the greyest, depressing, demoralizing cities I had ever seen.

As we walked back to Checkpoint Charlie to cross the wall and enter booming and prosperous West Berlin, I had finally taken enough criticism from my communist friend.  I asked Manfred if he had attended any universities in East Germany.  He replied that he had graduated as an art major.  Upon learning this, I said to him “Oh how wonderful for you!  You Europeans are so fortunate!  While we Americans have to fly over the Atlantic Ocean, the Louvre in Paris is only a few hundred kilometers from here. How did you enjoy the paintings and sculpture in the Louvre?”  Of course, he then had to admit that he had been privy only to art work in Warsaw and Moscow.  I asked him why he had not been to the Louvre.  He sullenly admitted that he could not cross the wall.

Then I hammered Manfred with the ultimate fact.  I pulled out my US passport and stuck it in front of his face.  Then I said, “Manfred, in five minutes I’m going to take this passport, walk up to that wall and cross it.  You are not.  If I want to come back here tomorrow, I will.  I will come and leave as I wish; you can’t cross that wall.  I am a free man and you are not.  Now tell me some more bad things about the United States.”

Manfred’s previously machismo shoulders slumped in defeat.  For the first time that afternoon I felt pity for this young, 26 year-old man trapped behind a cruel wall.  For an instant, I even felt somewhat guilty for playing the “passport” card, but he had angered me and I had responded accordingly.

As we left him standing alone, he informed me that his brother worked on an East German merchant marine vessel.  He thought it possible that his brother might be able to get him a job on one of those East German ships, which sometimes traveled to Cuba.  His last words to us were phrased as a question:

Manfred said, “If I am on one of those ships and I jump off between Miami and Havana and am lucky enough to survive and be rescued, would I be able to live in the United States?”

When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, I thought of Manfred, who was 44 years old by the time he witnessed freedom.  Now, at age 64, I hope he has been able to salvage some happiness and joy in the years of freedom that he has been granted.  God bless freedom.  God bless America.

Manfred Our Tour Guide

Manfred Tekla in East Berlin July 1971

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