“Life is a Cabaret Old Chum?”
This photo was taken by me at the Berlin Wall on the free side of occupied Berlin in 1983. It eerily evokes the 1972 Liza/Fosse film ‘Cabaret’ asking “Life is a Cabaret Old Chum?”. It was scrawled by Y.A.T. – Young Actor’s Theatre. There many Y.A.T’s in the USA, so I don’t know which branch wrote this, but it struck me so. I wanted to photograph as much of the graffiti on the free side as I could. Sadly the photos are all on film and I have no idea where they are. This one I had framed and remains on my wall in my office.
The memory of this photo I will not forget – at this section of the wall there was a low railing in front of the wall (on the free side), only about 2 feet tall. So I stepped over it, as many had obviously done to graffiti the wall. Directly on the ‘other side’ in East Berlin was a gun tower. As soon as I stepped over the railing to get a close-up photograph of this graffiti, the windows of the gun tower flew open, a machine gun was pointed at me and the East German solder yelled at me “Zurück!” to get back – on my free side!
When you have a machine gun pointed at you, no matter whether you are on the free or occupied side, you do as they say and I retreated.
I was terribly curious to see what was on the other side, like a child too short to see what’s on the other side of the neighbor’s fence. My family was visiting our relatives in Hamburg, and refused to come with me to West Berlin, since they did not want to see a city divided and warned me not to go to East Berlin since we had had relatives detained at the border – so I defiantly went on my own and crossed the border.
I was the only English speaking tourist on an all German speaking bus. When we got to Check Point Charlie, I seemed to fascinate the East German guards and they detained me. They took the film out of my camera, my extra rolls of film, my pen, my newspaper and anything to eat. After being asked a barrage of nonsensical questions I was allowed to rejoin (the now) disgruntled group. Our West German tour guide was told to get off the bus and an East German guide took over. As we crossed over the border it was literally like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz going from color to black and white. It automatically was bleak and gray. None of the buildings had been sufficiently repaired, many columns were still riddled with bullet holes. Buildings had rust on them everywhere, cement was crumbling, hardly any cars on the road, just rickety bicycles. Why there were even tours, and why the communists would want you to see this bleak existence is beyond me. But, as in a car accident on the road, we stop and look. I stopped, looked and stared.
Then I saw what was said to only be a rumor – people standing in long lines for a single orange. One orange. Photos were forbidden. It was a scene out of every war movie you have ever seen. Heads hung low, shivering, they waited for what was so abundant just a mile away. When we crossed back over to West Berlin, I saw East German soldiers carrying huge sacks of oranges back to the East side for the privileged few.
I am glad to this day I went, guns and all. It is a part of my German heritage. My great aunt was an opera singer, her sister a pianist in the Berlin State Opera, then located ‘in the east’. Did I dare tell them it was still riddled with bullet holes in 1983? I said nothing. The day the news broke of the fall of the wall, the euphoria and endless tears were an emotional outburst from my parents who had been through two world wars in that beautiful city.
I have two Berlins in my head. One is of a glorious flourishing opulent city of the roaring 1920’s and 1930’s recounted to me by my parents, the other is of a demolished smoldering heap, remnants of which I had now seen for myself. I am a proud American citizen, equally proud of his German ancestry. Let us always cherish our freedom. . . after all ladies und gentlemen, life IS just a cabaret! . . . isn’t it?
One of the gun towers
(Translation) “Russian – Go piss on yourself!”