Mid-afternoon is probably the worst time for a flight. Too late in the day to head straight to the airport from the hotel, but early enough that you can’t do anything too ambitious because you constantly have one eye on the time. My Monday morning in Berlin was an example, with my flight due to leave at 15:45. I would have to watch the clock carefully, and ensure that I was at the airport by 2pm.
As it turned out, I actually didn’t keep an eye on the time when I should have, but more of that later…
I decided to stick with the Berlin Wall theme, and headed to Nordbahnhof. This station is on the Berlin S-Bahn’s North-South line, and between 1961 and 1989 was one of the many “ghost stations” on the city’s transport network. The line started in West Berlin, ran through East Berlin for a few miles, then crossed back into West Berlin. All the stations in the East Berlin section were closed, and the entrances sealed. Armed border guards patrolled the dimly-lit platforms – anyone using the train tunnels to escape ran the risk of being shot.
Nordbahnhof is now open once more, and the station concourse has been turned into a mini exhibition on the ghost stations. The walls are lined with panels explaining the situation, and commemorating the people who attempted to use the various railway tunnels to escape (some successfully, some not).
Nordbahnhof is a very appropriate place for such an exhibit, for across the street from the station is the Berlin Wall memorial, where one of the last complete sections of Wall has been retained, although showing signs of decay.
This is one of the few places where the full layout of the Wall and the associated No Man’s Land, as it existed before 1989, can be appreciated. The fearsome concrete structure with the rounded pipe on top was on the West Berlin side. On the East side was a smaller wall. Between the two walls, the Death Strip, covered with sand to make running across it difficult, and fortified with barbed wire and various other traps, with guards ordered to shoot on sight.
Rather cruelly, the eastern wall was relatively easy to scale, but even if an escapee managed to cross the Death Strip, the wall on the west side was almost impossible to climb.
After thirty years without maintenance, the wall looks rather less intimidating now. It once divided a city; now only a single street, Bergstraße, is interrupted. The concrete is crumbling, the steel rusting. The surrounding streets are busy thoroughfares, with cars and trams crossing from east to west and back again unhindered.
The site of the Death Strip now holds exhibits about the Wall, and a commemoration of those who died trying to cross it (140 in total). At the “Window of Remembrance”, each victim has a photo, with their name, birth and death dates shown. Perhaps due to the recent anniversary, each box had a single flower left inside. The full list of fatalities is on the Berlin Wall Memorial website.
I took some time to look at the people, trying to imagine the desperation they must have felt, to risk their lives attempting to cross. Many of them were young, and had no doubt hoped for a better life in the West.
The youngest of all was “Holger H.”, illustrated with a grainy photo of a baby and the caption “1971-1973”. I looked him up later, and discovered that his parents had tried to sneak across the border in the back of a lorry. His mother covered his mouth to stop him crying, and accidentally suffocated him. He was 15 months old.
This potent symbol of the inhumanity of the Wall, and the cruel waste of life, rather got to me at this point. Blinking back tears, I headed back to the station.
Changing from S-Bahn to U-Bahn at Gesundbrunnen, I continued to Heinrich-Heine-Straße station. My next destination was the Baumhaus an der Mauer, a little relic of Cold War Berlin which I had been fascinated by since reading about it on the BBC website last year. Osman Kalin, a Turkish immigrant, spotted a small patch of land next to the Berlin Wall. Although it was on the West Berlin side, it was technically East Berlin territory, so lay abandoned except for the occasional fly-tipper. Osman planted a garden and, later, built a ramshackle house on the land. The Wall has gone, and Osman himself died in 2018, but his treehouse lives on.
Walking from the station to my destination, it was clear that I was off the usual tourist routes. Berlin is a city that is rapidly gentrifying, as new investment continues to pour in, sweeping away much of the bohemian atmosphere that comes with cheap rents and dilipidated buildings.
Gentrification hasn’t quite reached this part of the city yet, though.
A little further on, and I reached the Baumhaus. Seeing it close up, it was clear that “ramshackle” is a bit of an understatement. It has clearly been assembled using whatever bits of wood and other knick-knacks that were available at the time. The gardens (now looked after by his family) still looked neat and tidy, however.
It’s quite delightful that this quirky place has managed to survive so long in a city where developers are fighting to build on any spare piece of land. How long it will last is anyone’s guess.