I was swimming when the wall went up.

My friend who writes so frankly and simply about the days when the wall came down writes here about the days when it went up:

“13th August 1961

It was a Sunday, the sun was out and I was ready to spend it going swimming in one of the many Berlin lakes. Asking for my ticket at the station Of the S- Bahn (Berlin urban railway) to get to Wannsee, I was somehow puzzled when I was asked where I was going exactly. ‘Oh,’ the woman answered, ‘it is just that the other stations are closed down.’

I was still puzzled as I stood in the empty train, empty because it was so early, but I went on  swimming and later in the morning I went back home. I have no recollection how I finally heard  that the borders  had been closed. There were, I believe, many people who just like me did not comprehend what was happening, only gradually.

The previous days and weeks more and more people from the East had crossed the border into West Berlin, most of them using  public transport of tube or S-Bahn. You never used those without  your identity card and I still see  the Vopos walking up and down the trains looking at people, searching bags and taking people off the train who had suitcases or looked ‘suspicious.’

The people who made it to West Berlin had to register as refugees and  unless they had relatives or friends in Berlin they had to stay in refugee camps and then they were flown out to West Germany. There had been photographs of the long queues outside the camps in the papers.

Later I recall talking with my brother about what we would do if West Berlin was invaded and  that is when I heard how to make a Molotov cocktail. I am so glad I never did make one. Our confusion, hatred, feeling of powerlessness and our fear grew and grew.

Several times I went to the Brandenburg Gate and stood among the people shouting – and also silent – in hatred and sadness. The immensity  of these feelings is still with me now. It taught me for the rest of my life how one can be swept away with these.

Life in Berlin was tense. When the American tanks stood right opposite the Russian tanks, their guns pointing at each other, at Checkpoint Charlie World War III seemed imminent.

I cycled to work in those days, all along a street which takes you to the western part of West Berlin  called Heerstrasse which is a continuation of the boulevard starting outside the Brandenburger Gate. It is a tree-lined broad street with wide cycle lanes either side. It was again early, very few people around. Then suddenly I saw a British soldier in complete battle gear, holding his rifle ready to shoot. And two or three trees on another and another and another. I was terrified. There were none of the usual soldier calls to the young girl passing by. For the minutes it took me to reach my destination World War III had started.

I learned soon after that it was an exercise. I will never  forget the terror I felt on that morning.

The Wall grew. Tragic accounts continued be told, so many deaths, so much pain. My old great aunt was alone in East Berlin, we could not even telephone. For me East Berlin and East Germany became an unreachable garden where the ogres ruled –  and beware.

Would I ever see Germany re-united? Would it be in my life time?

I am so grateful that I was there when it happened.”

Irene Empson 9th November 2014.



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