Saturday, 10 March 2012

Travel: Berlin ~ Gandhi at Checkpoint Charlie

I watch life whizzing by through the carriage windows of the U-bahn, the underground mass rapid transit system in Berlin. Kreuzberg with its multi-ethnic population. Turkish stalls hawking doner kebabs. Lebanese snack bars stacked with steaming felafel. A Thai fast food kiosk vending spring rolls and chicken curry with rice.

As the U-bahn darts through tunnel after tunnel, through red-tiled stations, their bricks set in patterns drawn from traditional dwellings, I almost miss my stop at Kochstrasse. Outside the high-roofed station, it seems strangely quiet. The single pedestrian on the cobbled road disappears into a supermarket at the corner.

Whom can I ask for directions at 10 a.m. on a breezy autumn morning, I wonder. Then, a sign on a nondescript building at the corner catches my eye: Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie. The historic point of border-crossings in bifurcated Berlin during the Cold War, rife with stories of families torn apart and innumerable tragedies. Today, it's an unusual museum of modern German history.

As I enter, I take my first steps towards a tryst with destiny, a re-interpretation of Mahatma Gandhi through modern German eyes. I come up a staircase lined with memorabilia from the recent history of Berlin, once a `frontline' town of the Cold War, now considered a `bridge of Europe'. At an open space with railings, I stop dead. For on the wall I spy a large photographic reproduction of Gandhi on the Dandi march! The Mahatma is the icon at the heart of a seminal exhibition: ``From Gandhi to Walesa: No n-violent struggle for human rights.''

Once I shake off my puzzlement, I realise how apt the human bridge is. For wouldn't some of the world's key movements have been still-born without the Gandhian spark that ignited humble men whose deeds propelled them to the status of mega-heroes? Martin Luther King... The Charta 77 movement in Czechoslovakia... The Sakharov and Helsinki groups in the former USSR... Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement in Poland...

Suddenly, I feel proud to be an Indian in Berlin as I continue my journey through the now redefined Checkpoint Charlie.

This border-crossing was once crucial to the history of The Wall in Berlin. After the bifurcation of Germany in 1949 up to late-1960, over 2.5 million people escaped from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the west until, in desperation, East German leader Walter Ulbricht decided to resort to direct action. Armed troopers from the GDR constructed The Wall almost overnight on August 13, 1961.

Watching a documentary film, Ode to Freedom, in the museum's jam-packed Central Hall, I share the tears of strangers around as we trace the suppression and inhumanity of the Berlin Wall. We scan the faces of Berliners as they watched The Wall come up. And we cry like others generations earlier, ``Why didn't you do anything to stop them?'' They respond with faces raw with emotion, ``But what could we do?''

Minutes later, through a heart-rending sequence of photographs, I march my way to freedom with four brave escapes, disguised in self-tailored uniforms in 1963. I touch with reverence a cabriolet that looks more like a flattened sardine can than a car, as I read of two successful getaways in it in 1965 -- because it was low enough to pass under the guard barrier despite shots whizzing past.

Another space, another cue. I watch footage of US President John F. Kennedy making his pledge to freedom on June 26, 1963: Ich bein ein Berliner (I am a Berliner). And I realise it took `only' 26 years for the gates of freedom to swing open on November 9 , 1989. Over the remains of martyrs such as Peter Fechter, who was shot and bled to death mere metres away from Checkpoint Charlie on August 17, 1962, in the 50 minutes it took to rescue him.

He became a symbol of all that The Wall and Checkpoint Charlie stood for -- like the 80 others who paid with their lives for their freedom bids, which drew in response the inhuman command to open fire. Within the walls of this unusual museum is documentation of these men of mettle who dared to claim their birthright of liberty.

I am incredulous at how creative the escapees had been. They even risked their lives to take apart an automatic shooting apparatus! One escape bid depended totally on a motorised kite, while others fled hidden away in a loudspeaker.

This moving saga of contemporary history was originally housed in a three-bedroom flat on Bernauer Strasse, directly opposite East German houses with brick-sealed windows. It was opened to the public on October 16, 1962. The throng of visitors encouraged expansion plans. On June 14, 1963, a detailed exhibition on The Wall came into being at Checkpoint Charlie. The display grew until, on June 22, 1990, the border-crossing was dismantled and soldiers took down the sign: Allied Checkpoint Charlie. That's how the Allied control barrack, lifted off its base by a crane, came to rest at the museum.

I wander past forged passports and identity cards, grandiose objects from the mansions of the ruler-repressors, even transparencies that record the cult of terror. Glancing again at the innocuous barrack, its sentry stool still in position, a rifle aslan t at its foot, thoughts seethe in my brain.

How would I feel if my freedom, that I take so much for granted, was snatched from me overnight? Would I protest? How? By stoning the perpetrators? Or by non-violent means? After that close encounter with Mahatma Gandhi at Checkpoint Charlie, I'm still seeking an answer.

What else to see in Berlin: 
~the Egyptian Museum
~ the Dahiem Museum complex
~ the Pergamon Museum
~ the Altes Museum
~ the restored Potsdamer Platz
~ Alexanderplatz
~ Brandenberg Gate
~ the Sans Souci Palace complex

(Originally in The Hindu Business Line, 2000)

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