53. Weeping

By Peter Fraenkel

A town torn apart! There were, however, a few points where one could look across, although one could not get across. Berliners soon discovered these spots. There were strange scenes there. I saw a young couple in their wedding finery – she all in white – blowing kisses to parents on the other side – parents who would have been prevented from attending the wedding.. In a newspaper I saw a photo of a young mother holding a newborn baby high so that grandparents on the far side could get a first glimpse of the infant.

There was so much going on – my boss agreed that I stay on in Berlin and send daily reports.

Those duels of noise! Huge loudspeakers hastily mounted on trucks were driven right up against the barbed wire. Men with microphones read out brief bulletins of news suppressed in the East.

I followed one of the trucks that first evening, clutching my recording machine. I saw windows on the eastern side thrown open but lights extinguished to prevent listeners being identified. Within minutes the East brought up similar trucks to drown out the West’s newscast with loud martial music. Our driver disappeared briefly and returned with earplugs for our police escort and for me.

We were right up against to the dividing line. To add to the bedlam now fire crackers were thrown over from the East. My driver picked one up and tossed it back. So did our escort policeman. But the next day this had to stop: Some of the Eastern crackers now contained small explosive charges – small but sufficient to blow off a finger or two.

I was recording a running commentary – the explosions made it sound as if I were in a battle zone. The following day came tear gas. My two companions must have had advance warning. Both East and West had their spies in place. The two immediately donned gas masks. I, however, had not been given one. The policeman offered me a wet handkerchief to cover my face but I refused. It would have stopped my running commentary. I continued ….but not for long. My recording ended dramatically “I …can… go on … no longer…” and a choking sound..

They drove me to a little playgrounds open to the sky where I struggled to get my breath back.

“What’s the best antidote for teargas?” I asked.

“Cognac”, replied the driver.

The three of us adjourned to a bar, the driver, our policeman and I. It was only after the third tot that I managed to stop spluttering and weeping. My companions kept up with me, tot for tot, even though their gas masks must have protected them from the worst.

I expected my expenses claims would be queried by the BBC accountants. In those days they were very strict.

But there was never a query. Perhaps the accountants had heard my choked commentary. I was told it would be preserved in the sound archives. It may still there.

[The wall remained up 28 years, 1961 – 1989. 138 were killed trying to get across.]